Deaths from opioids outpace deaths from guns per year in US

The number of deaths due to opioids in a given year has surpassed the number of gun deaths in the same period.  Heroin overdose deaths specifically are now barely above gun homicides, and deaths due to all forms of substances derived from or made in copy of those that come from the opium poppy passed 33,000 last year.

By themselves, these are just numbers.  One needless death is too many, and tens of thousands are an outrage.  But as always, the question is what do we do about this.

The War on Drugs has been going on in one form or another for a long time, often having a component of racism against groups perceived as users—the Chinese with regard to opium in the latter half of the nineteenth century and blacks and Hispanics in the beginning of laws against marijuana.  Our experiment in Prohibition should have taught us that punitive measures are a blunt instrument that do more harm than good.  We officially declared war on certain substances in 1971, which is to say, President Nixon declared it.  At that point, spending increased significantly, now totaling $51 billion over the same period as we lose 33,000 to opioids.  Millions of Americans are arrested or imprisoned for drug offenses each year.  And in keeping with the tradition of drug enforcement, violations against minorities continue, added to violations of rights generally.  Privacy, the presumption of innocence, the obligation of the government to offer evidence against the accused and the list goes on are all put at risk by our current drug policy.

There is a parallel here between drug deaths and at least one kind of gun death, namely suicides.  The initial choice to use drugs is one made by the user, not often one imposed on someone else.  A variety of motivating factors lead to this decision, and once someone starts down that road, it’s hard to turn back.  In many respects, the choice of more than 40,000 Americans to kill themselves each year—about half of those by gunfire—is similar to the abuse of drugs, a decision that make little sense to those who watch from outside, no matter how much compassion we feel.

Another aspect of this is worth considering.  While we are in the least violent period in our history—violence here meaning physical force used against others.  We are, however, near a high point of suicide rates in recent decades.  Are these two trends meaningful?  It may be that they indicate a shift in preference of force from outward to inward, self-destruction rather than attacks against our fellow human beings.

It’s best to be cautious when we’re trying to find patterns, especially when they relate to human behavior.  But we are allowed to speculate, the more so when we consider speculations as suggestions for research.  It would be interesting to see if there is a directionality in violence, at the beginning of human civilization against anyone not of our tribe, then anyone not of our nation and so forth, along with the constant of an impulse to something like violence that has had to adapt in each generation.  One of the drivers of suicide has been the military conflicts of this century, leading to too many of our service personnel to kill themselves.  But perhaps there’s also a kind of narcissistic obsession in the modern western world generally.

The death of John Glenn recently could be a reminder of a better way.  Violence is one form of a broader element of the human character that can be constructively exercised by pushing boundaries.  We’ve been to the Moon and no farther ourselves.  Even fewer of us have been to the bottom of the Marianas Trench than to the Moon.  We have diseases left to cure, songs yet to write, and secrets of the universe yet to discover.  I don’t know if this is the answer to the needless deaths we’re experiencing, but the benefits of promoting the arts, the sciences, and human exploration of our potential generally are great enough to be worth trying.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of

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