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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.

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After years of service as a military nurse in the naval Marine Corps, Los Angeles, California-resident Rhonda Jackson became one of the 37,000 retired veterans in the U.S. who are currently experiencing homelessness — roughly eight percent of the entire homeless population.

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One day in 2019, Jackson felt a sudden sense of hope for a better living arrangement when she caught wind of the ongoing construction of Veteran's Village in Carson, California — a 51-unit affordable housing development with one, two and three-bedroom apartments and supportive services to residents through a partnership with U.S.VETS.

Her feelings of hope quickly blossomed into a vision for her future when she learned that Veteran's Village was taking applications for residents to move in later that year after construction was complete.

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Kim showed up to the awards (virtually, of course) decked out in a tuxedo, and his parents had even laid out a red carpet in their entryway to give him a taste of the real awards show experience. When his name was announced as the Critics' Choice winner for his role in the film "Minari," his reaction was priceless.

Grinning from ear to ear, Kim started off his acceptance speech by thanking "the critics who voted" and his family. But as soon as he started naming his family members, he burst into tears. "Oh my goodness, I'm crying," he said. Through sobs, he kept going with his list, naming members of the cast, the production company, and the crew that worked on the film.

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We're redefining what normal means in these uncertain times, and although this is different for all of us, love continues to transform us for the better.

Love is what united Marie-Claire and David Archbold, who met while taking a photography class. "We went into the darkroom to see what developed," they joke—and after a decade of marriage, they know firsthand the deep commitment and connection romantic love requires.

All photos courtesy of Marie-Claire and David Archbold

However, their relationship became even sweeter when they adopted James: a little boy with a huge heart.

In the United States alone, there are roughly 122,000 children awaiting adoption according to the latest report from the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. While the goal is always for a child to be parented by and stay with their biological family, that is not always a possibility. This is where adoption offers hope—not only does it create new families, it gives birth parents an avenue through which to see their child flourish when they are not able to parent. For the right families, it's a beautiful thing.

The Archbolds knew early on that adoption was an option for them. David has three daughters from a previous marriage, but knowing their family was not yet complete, the couple embarked on a two-year journey to find their match. When the adoption agency called and told them about James, they were elated. From the moment they met him, the Archbolds knew he was meant to be part of their family. David locked eyes with the brown-eyed baby and they stared at each other in quiet wonder for such a long time that the whole room fell silent. "He still looks at me like that," said David.

The connection was mutual and instantaneous—love at first sight. The Archbolds knew that James was meant to be a part of their family. However, they faced significant challenges requiring an even deeper level of commitment due to James' medical condition.

James was born with congenital hyperinsulinism, a rare condition that causes his body to overproduce insulin, and within 2 months of his birth, he had to have surgery to remove 90% of his pancreas. There was a steep learning curve for the Archbolds, but they were already in love, and knew they were committed to the ongoing care that'd be required of bringing James into their lives. After lots of research and encouragement from James' medical team, they finally brought their son home.

Today, three-year-old James is thriving, filled with infectious joy that bubbles over and touches every person who comes in contact with him. "Part of love is when people recognize that they need to be with each other," said his adoptive grandfather. And because the Archbolds opted for an open adoption, there are even more people to love and support James as he grows.

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When 59 children died on Christmas Eve 1913, the world cried with the town of Calumet, Michigan.

Woody Guthrie sang about this little-known piece of history.

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In July 1913, over 7,000 miners struck the C&H Copper Mining Company in Calumet, Michigan. It was largely the usual issues of people who worked for a big company during a time when capitalists ran roughshod over their workers — a time when monopolies were a way of life. Strikers' demands included pay raises, an end to child labor, and safer conditions including an end to one-man drill operations, as well as support beams in the mines (which mine owners didn't want because support beams were costly but miners killed in cave-ins “do not cost us anything.")

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This March marks one year since the start of the pandemic… and it's been an incredibly difficult year: Over 500,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs. But the pandemic's economic downturn has been disproportionately affecting women because they are more likely to work in hard-hit industries, such as hospitality or entertainment, and many of them have been forced to leave their jobs due to the lack of childcare.

But throughout all that hardship, women have, over and over again, found ways to help one another and solve problems.

"Around the world, women have stepped up and found ways to help where it is needed most," says Tory Burch, an entrepreneur who started her own business in 2004.

Burch knows a thing or two about empowering women: After seeing the many obstacles that women in business face — even before the pandemic — she created the Tory Burch Foundation in 2009 to empower women entrepreneurs.

And now, for International Women's Day, her company is launching a global campaign with Upworthy to celebrate the women around the world who give back and create real change in their communities.

"I hope the creativity and resilience of these women, and the amazing ways they have found to have real impact, will inspire and energize others as much as they have me," Burch says.

This year's Empowered Women certainly are inspiring:

Shalini SamtaniCourtesy of Shalini Samtani

Take, for example, Shalini Samtani. When her daughter was diagnosed with a rare immune disorder, she spent a lot of time in the hospital, which caused her to quickly realize that there wasn't a single company in the toy industry servicing the physical or emotional needs of the 3 million hospitalized children across America every year. She was determined to change that — so she created The Spread the Joy Foundation to deliver free play kits to pediatric patients all around the country.

Varsha YajmanCourtesy of Varsha Yajman

Varsha Yajman is another one of this year's nominees. She is just 18 years old, and yet she has been diligently fighting to build awareness and action for climate justice for the last seven years by leading school strikes, working as a paralegal with Equity Generations Lawyers, and speaking to CEOs from Siemen's and several big Australian banks at AGMs.

Caitlin MurphyCourtesy of Caitlin Murphy

Caitlin Murphy, meanwhile, stepped up in a big way during the pandemic by pivoting her business — Global Gateway Logistics — to secure and transport over 2 million masks to hospitals and senior care facilities across the country. She also created the Gateway for Good program, which purchased and donated 10,000 KN95 masks for local small businesses, charities, cancer patients and their families, immunocompromised, and churches in the area.

Simone GordonCourtesy of Simone Gordon

Simone Gordon, a domestic violence survivor and single mom, wanted to pay it forward after she received help getting essentials and tuition assistance — so she created the Instagram account @TheBlackFairyGodMotherOfficial and nonprofit to provide direct assistance to families in need. During the pandemic alone, they have raised over $50,000 for families and they have provided emergency assistance — in the form of groceries — for numerous women and families of color.

Victoria SanusiCourtesy of Victoria Sanusi

Victoria Sanusi started Black Gals Livin' with her friend Jas and the podcast has been an incredibly powerful way of destigmatizing mental health for numerous listeners. The podcast quickly surpassed a million listens, was featured on Michaela Coel's "I May Destroy You," won podcast of the year at the Brown Sugar Awards, and was named one of Elle Magazine's best podcasts of 2020.

And Upworthy and the Tory Burch are just getting started. They are still searching the globe for more extraordinary women who are making an impact in their communities.

Do you know one? If you do, nominate her now. If she's selected, she could receive $5,000 to give to a nonprofit of her choice through the Tory Burch Foundation. Submissions are being accepted on a rolling basis — and one Empowered woman will be selected each month starting in April.

Nominate her now at www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen.