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Why is gun control such a tricky issue? This smart metaphor sums it up.

Right now, we live in a country where it's estimated there may be more guns than people.

Why is gun control such a tricky issue? This smart metaphor sums it up.

The southeast Asian nation of Indonesia doesn’t just stretch across some 17,000 islands. It also straddles multiple tectonic plates.

Indonesia is home to more active volcanoes than any other country in the world — around 130 of them, in fact. Since 1900, nearly 20,000 people have been killed by volcanos in the area around Indonesia.


Mount Tambora in Indonesia. Image via Jialiang Gao/Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists working for the United Nations have also predicted a 30% likelihood that the coming century will see yet another volcanic explosion in Indonesia, probably on the scale of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, one of the most powerful eruptions in recorded history, which was responsible for the deaths of up to an estimated 100,000 Indonesians.

But despite these dangers, the slopes of many of Indonesia’s volcanoes are far from empty.

Mount Dieng regularly vents lethal gases into the air; 149 people in a single village were killed because of those gases in 1979. Today, half a million people still live in high-risk areas around the volcano. Communities of potato farmers have steadily expanded up the slopes, getting ever closer to Mount Dieng’s highest-danger zones every year.

And nearly a million people live in the highest-danger zone areas of Mount Merapi, too, directly in the crosshairs of regular lava flows, mudslides, and other disasters.

Mount Merapi in Indonesia. Image by Brigitte Werner/Pixabay.

Only eight years after 69 people were killed by a volcanic dome collapse in 1994, 93% of residents told visiting scientists they did not fear being "personally affected" by such events. Even when the government issued warnings of imminent threats or tried to force farmers to evacuate during ongoing volcanic episodes, many villagers simply refused to leave the volcano.

This risky behavior might seem mind-boggling from the perspective of Americans, most of whom who don’t live or work near volcanoes that regularly spew lava.

But consider this: Experts estimate that in Indonesia, there are about one million guns in civilian hands (legally or otherwise), which translates into a rate of about .5 firearms per 100 Indonesians.

In the United States, estimates of civilian gun ownership vary, from 270 million civilians by one estimate to 310 million or more by another. Because gun data like that isn't officially gathered, it's really hard to put an exact number on it. But it's pretty clear we're just about at a rate of one gun for each individual American, well above the half a gun per 100 Indonesians.

So, it turns out, our behavior is quite risky, too.

Academics, politicians, and everyday Americans endlessly debate the links between gun ownership and specific kinds of gun violence – and even over what "counts" as "gun violence."

But if you flex your imagination and adopt the perspective of an outside observer, the relationship between Americans and their guns might look just as outlandish as that between Indonesian farmers and explosive the volcanoes on which they live.

In any given year, more than 30,000 Americans will have their lives ended by a bullet. Yet nearly 40% of Americans in 2013 reported that they or someone else in their household owns a gun. Plus, U.S. gun sales have hit record highs over the past decade, and they show no sign of slowing down. In a way, many Americans are living on a proverbial volcano.

Welcome to America. Image via Marcin Wichary/Wikimedia Commons.

"What are these people thinking?" a foreign questioner might ask. "Don’t Americans get that guns are risky?"

The answer to this question is complicated. When it comes to evaluating human choices in the real world, there is no single, universal yardstick for weighing "risk."

Humans aren’t coolly rational decisionmakers; our emotions and biases shape how we view the world. An impressive body of research suggests that humans have baked-in cognitive biases that don't help us when we're evaluating scenarios and weighing potential dangers. We often make misguided decisions because of those biases.

"Guns are objects invested with meanings, shaped by social norms and cultural attitudes."

Because of this, "risk" isn’t a given, objective quantity in the same way that odds are in a coin toss. Risk involves a perception; it's a subjective judgment on which we all have biases. Risk, to many people, feels relative and abstract. When Americans debate gun ownership solely in terms of risk, we’re often not really talking about risk at all or even numerical data. We’re actually fighting over what we think guns mean ideologically.

And that’s why the answer to this question of risk is also simple.

If risk is in the eye of the beholder, then different people will make different judgments about risks and danger. Their assessments will depend on where they come from, particularly in terms of race, gender, class, and geography.

Just like the potato farmers, most American gun owners are very acutely conscious of questions involving risk. In fact, gun ownership is usually all about weighing concerns about safety and danger, only according to many different calculi.

Let’s talk for a second about cognitive biases and risk perceptions.

In purely statistical terms, driving a car is immensely more dangerous than being a passenger in a plane.

This is actually more risky than flying in a plane, according to data. But which experience feels more scary? Photo via Jace Turner/Pixabay.

But, irrationally, most people are still more afraid of planes than cars. Why? Research shows us that people are more scared of being the object of circumstances beyond their power than they are afraid of risks they feel like they can control.

Turning to motivations for gun ownership, we see the cars-versus-planes bias again, particularly when it comes to fears about being defenseless against crime. 20 years ago, only a quarter of polled gun owners named "self-defense" as the primary reason for owning a gun. As of 2014, nearly half of polled gun owners cited protection as their primary motivation for buying a gun in the first place.

That crime rates have dropped sharply since the 1990s while the market for guns has only grown suggests that the perception of crime as a threat matters more than anything else when someone buys a gun.

We see this complicated question of risk and guns very clearly in the admittedly terrifying idea of home invasion, too.

Although only 7% of burglaries involve physical harm to a home’s occupants, having your private space violated by intruders, with you and ones you love left at their mercy, is rightly the stuff of nightmares.

Statistics can feel like bloodless abstractions compared to the viscerally horrifying image of the people you love, helpless and terrorized. Against the fear of abject helplessness, the decision to own a gun "just in case" gains attractiveness.

Let’s not forget that the media bears a degree of complicity here as well.

People prefer to consume information that fits their biases, and that information further cements those biases. Bad news captures our attention more than otherwise unremarkable stories. We also overvalue bad news and assume that it signals negative trends.

"The perception of crime as a threat matters more than anything else when someone buys a gun."

The morning newspaper doesn’t tell the story of everyone who went to work safely and then came home last night to have a quiet dinner with their family. Instead, a high-casualty mass shooting at an office or a horrific late-night home invasion will make headlines and fuel gun purchases. What’s more, of the 30,000-plus Americans who will be shot to death in any given year, a full two-thirds of those shots will be self-inflicted. But suicides are rarely reported while murders may receive extensive coverage.

For all of these reasons and more, people are likely to overestimate the likelihood of being the victim of a murder while neglecting the other risks associated with having a gun in the home.

As deadlocked fights over gun control suggest, debating data really won't get us anywhere.

Gun control isn't about the numbers; it's about feelings and perceived risks, and that is that. Guns are objects invested with meanings shaped by social norms and cultural attitudes.

Image screenshot via RidleyReport/YouTube.

It can be easy to project your own experiences and expectations onto those whose ways of life are different from your own, but race, class, and gender intersect with experiences of risk and vulnerability and make these kinds of issues much more complicated.

Back to the volcano-dwelling potato farmers of Indonesia. What can they teach us?

Researchers studying risk perception have become kind of obsessed with these people, and they’ve discovered a variety of explanations for the farmers’ risk attitudes and decisions: religion, cultural beliefs, education, views of governmental authority figures, and more.

Terraces in Indonesia. Photo via Globe-trotter/Wikimedia Commons.

But researchers have also noted a consistent theme in their interviews with the farmers: Most of these farmers are conscious of the risks they face, but they take them anyway.

Some of the farmers say they have no other choice: Dying in a toxic gas leak is only a possible risk, but the grim outcome of being unable to harvest their crops and feed their families feels like a certain risk. Their choice to live on a volcano may seem irrational from the outside, but — when put in terms like these — the decision seems to make all the sense in the world.

Indonesia isn’t America. Guns aren’t volcanos. And the decision to own a weapon is different in many ways from reckoning with ecological risks.

But something holds true across both cases: Numbers aren’t emotions, and our decisions aren’t reducible to statistics alone.

If we want to understand where other people are coming from in the gun control debate, understanding how perceptions are built is vital.

Right now, we live in a country where it's estimated there are more guns than people. This is a thorny problem, but I'd guess that solutions will only come from communicating well with each other well and from trying to grasp where different people are coming from — if only as a bare minimum first step.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."