If some drug-addled sociopath shoots up a movie theater or an elementary school, there is lots of speculation about the cause. In frustration and helplessness, people search for a magic bullet - things they can ban - to keep it from ever happening again.

In European countries, at least the ones where guns are banned, and in some parts of America, guns are that magic bullet.

Actual statistics don't bear out that guns are the safety issue. Scotland, England and Wales lead the civilized world in violent crime, they just have fewer murders using guns, and people are unable to protect themselves so fewer criminals get shot. Guns are banned in Italy but it would be laughable to say there is no gun violence there.

In the last four decades, gun ownership has risen in America but mass shootings have not. Individual murders have also gone down. California had own gun ownership double in a recent 10 year period but gun violence dropped 25%.

What about in the past? Weren't we more harmonious and living peacefully with nature back then, united in our quest to survive? No, violent death was far more common before guns. As the saying in America goes, "God made men, but Sam Colt made men equal."

An article in New Scientist bi Ian Morris put this in graphical form.
risk od dying a violent death in modern times versus ancient
Credit: New Scientist

As violent weapons became more egalitarian and common, violence dropped significantly. Hunting also clearly became safer. Mutual Assured Destruction was pooh-poohed by some during the Cold War but it had a long anthropological history of success.

Morris uses the example of the gigantic leap in arms during the 20th century - automatic rifles in World War I, a nuclear bomb in World War II - to show the counter-intuitive result and that it's still the case that you have a far smaller chance of dying a violent death than anyone ... well ... ever.

Yes, people like to live in important times, so some will contend President Obama or John Boehner is the worst ever, and some will contend Crimea voting to join Russia is some giant geopolitical inflection point, but in the context of history, much less historical violence, nothing happens to today like happened when we were cavemen. Or during the Crusades. Or during the Age of Enlightenment.

Weapons have gotten better and more available, and that's why so many more of us are leading happy lives and dying a natural death.