Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, and Guns


I am not a sport’s fan, and I am especially not a baseball fan. In fact, I can only remember ever seeing one baseball game all the way through on TV. It was on April 8, 1974. The Atlanta Braves were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was 8 years old, and my dad made sure we were all watching as, in the fourth inning, Hank Aaron hit his 715th career home run and broke the record that Babe Ruth had held for more than 50 years. It has always been a minor source of pride for me that I saw something so incredible happen.

As it turns out, however, the event was not as incredible as I once thought. Given enough players playing enough games over enough years, Ruth’s record was statistically guaranteed to fall, as was Aaron’s, who lost the record to Barry Bonds in 2007. If Major League Baseball lasts long enough, somebody will break the record again. Hitting 715, or 750, home runs in a career is an extreme accomplishment, but it is a completely predictable extreme.

With one exception, science guru and baseball statistician Stephen Jay Gould assures us, “nothing has ever happened in baseball above and beyond the frequency predicted by coin tossing models.” The one exception is Joe DiMaggio’s “streak of streaks” in 1941, in which he hit safely in 56 consecutive games. No statistical model could have predicted this streak; it should not have happened in the entire history of baseball, and it will almost certainly never happen again. It is a true anomaly.

I bring up all of this baseball arcana to illustrate a point: there are different kinds of rare things. Some uncommon occurrences are truly anomalous, like Joe DiMaggio’s streak, while others are merely extremes that are virtually guaranteed to happen given enough repetitions of a phenomenon. Which leads me to what I really want to talk about, which is children and guns.

In most of the industrialized world, the death of a child in a gun accident is a true anomaly. It happens, of course, but very, very rarely. In most Western European countries, during most years, the number of such accidents is zero. In the United States, however about 500 children a year are killed in gun-related accidents. In a country of 300 million people, 500 deaths a year is a very small number. But it is not an anomalously small number, nor is it an unpredictable one.

When I wrote yesterday of “walking away from Omelas”—of refusing to assent to a culture in which giving a five-year old boy a rifle for his birthday is considered normal and acceptable—a number of people responded that the only real problem was insufficient parental supervision. Guns are just tools, inanimate objects that are incapable of killing anyone on their own. Why must people always blame the gun? This line of reasoning, I believe, mistakes an extreme for an anomaly. There will always be a natural variation on how much attention parents pay to their children’s activities. In most countries, this does not lead to completely predictable numbers of children shooting each other every year.

One reader wrote that it would be just as dangerous to leave a child behind the wheel of a car. And I agree. But we all more or less agree that a child should not be given a fully-functional automobile for his fifth birthday. Car companies do not build automobiles specifically for toddlers or market “baby’s first real car” in soft pinks and pastel blues. The same goes for other “tools,” like power drills and harpoons. We all know that giving such things to kids is a really bad idea. As a result, the number of kids who run over each other, or who accidentally kill their siblings with a “My Little Buzz Saw,” is vanishingly small—when such things happen, they are true anomalies.

It is not the same with guns, which are the only extremely dangerous tools whose primary purpose is to kill humans and other animals that anybody seems to think it is OK to give to a child as a birthday present. Consequently, the deaths of 500 children a year in gun accidents is not an anomaly; it is a predictable extreme of the cultural assumptions that we have accepted in America. Among these are 1) that it is perfectly fine to manufacture and market deadly weapons to children before they are potty trained; and 2) that to say otherwise is to attack somebody’s liberty.

Those who believe that the Second Amendment conveys the right for any person to take any gun anywhere for any reason—an interpretation that would have been completely alien to the men who created the Constitution—should at least be honest about what we as a society must sacrifice in the name of what they call “freedom.”