On Terrorism and Gun Violence, a 1,000-to-1 Spending Gap

Nine facts and one question about why we spend what we spend to prevent sudden deaths.


Before Colorado and the rest of America move on from last Friday's theater massacre, before all the satellite trucks and national reporters return to their homes, before the politicians stop preaching and the preachers stop politicking, I'd just like to ask a quick question of President Obama, presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, and any federal or state elected official who wants to chime in. But first a few stipulations:

Fact 1: In a piece titled "Assessing the Trade-Offs Between Security And Civil Liberties," The New York Times Tuesday tells us that national security apparatus in America is today so extensive that no fewer than 4.86 million people in the United States have some form of "security clearance" as part of the nation's response to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Fact 2: In the same piece, The Times' Scott Shane reports: "In return for the bulked-up surveillance and the costly security industry boom, some counterterrorism officials would say the nation has gotten a good deal: there has been nothing even close to a repeat of 9/11. Islamic extremists have killed 14 people in the United States since 2001, 13 of them in the shooting spree by an Army psychiatrist at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009."

Fact 3: Last month, the National Counterterrorism Center issued its 2011 report. Its drafters concluded that "seventeen U.S. private citizens worldwide were killed by terrorist attacks in 2011" and that "fourteen U.S. private citizens were wounded by terrorism in 2011." In the NCTC's 2010 Report, those figures were 15 killed and nine wounded.

Fact 4: Last year, around the anniversary of the terror attacks, David Sanger of the Times estimated the cost of America's counter-terrorism program following 9/11 to be $3.3 trillion. On Tuesday, my Atlantic colleague Steve Clemons put the figure at $2.7 trillion for just defense spending alone. Let's agree, whatever the exact figure, that it's an awful lot.

Fact 5: According to 2008 statistics, compiled by the CDC's National Center for Injury and Violence Prevention and Control and chronicled by the Brady Campaign To Prevent Gun Violence, 31,593 people died in America as a result of gun violence. Of those, 12,179 people were murdered. Nearly 3,000 children died as a result of gun violence that year, and another 66,749 people were injured.

Fact 6: According to 2009 statistics, again compiled by the CDC, 31,147 were killed in America by firearms. Of this figure, 11,493 were murdered. The Brady Campaign estimates that 334,182 people have been killed by gun violence since the Twin Towers fell.

Fact 7:  In Colorado Friday, an alleged lone gunman, armed with an assault rifle, body armor, and gas grenades, killed 12 people and wounded 58 more. Last month, during a single weekend in the city of Chicago, eight people were killed and 45 wounded as a result of gun violence. Approximately 33 people are murdered each day in America.

Fact 8: According to a 2011 CRS Report, from FY2001 to FY2010 "Congress increased direct appropriations for the ATF by 50.2%, from $771.0 million to $1.158 billion... The proposed FY2011 firearms program allocation accompanying the Administration's budget request is $837.4 million, or 72% of the FY2011 budget request ($1.163 billion)." In the end, Congress evidently approved an ATF 2011 budget of $1.113 billion. For FY2012, that number evidently is $1,152 billion. (The ATF puts the increase at only 45% over the period, and says the appropriations through 2010 came to $1,115 billion).

Fact 9: Of course the ATF isn't the only federal bureau which addresses the issue of the enforcement of existing gun laws in America. Other arms of the federal government also are involved. Although I could not find these expense figures on short notice (earnest crowd, please feel free to source), let's stipulate that another $2 billion dollars of federal money* goes toward these efforts. I think that's a generous estimate.

My question now is simple: Why do we spend at least 1,000 times more money protecting ourselves from terrorism than we do protecting ourselves from gun violence? I'm not necessarily suggesting that we spend less on anti-terrorism programs. Like everyone else, I am grateful there have been no mass casualty terror events since 9/11. I'm just wondering, instead, what possible justification there could be for spending so relatively little to try to reduce the casualties of gun violence.

Surely the Second Amendment alone -- and the United States Supreme Court's recent rulings in District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago -- cannot explain this contrast. Our government has asked us consistently since 9/11 to sacrifice individual liberties and freedom, constitutional rights to privacy for example, in the name of national security. And we have ceded these liberties. Yet that same government in that same time hasn't asked anyone to sacrifice some Second Amendment rights to help protect innocent victims from gun violence.

If we can reduce the impact of terrorism to a trickle -- good for us! -- why aren't we doing more to save some of those 31,000 people who die each year from gun violence? This is not a question for the advocates to spin. It's not a question for the media to ponder. It's a question for elected officials to answer. And it's not apples and oranges, either. Those poor people in Aurora were plenty terrorized. And if they somehow some way don't merit the same proactive government response that victims of traditional terrorism have received since 9/11, then at least they deserve an explanation why.

If the president and Mr. Romney don't want to talk about gun control on the stump this summer, if the pollsters say it's bad election-year politics, then at least these leaders can candidly explain and justify the contradictions inherent in the above numbers. It's a conversation worth having not just in the blessed memory of all those who have died this year at the wrong end of a gun. It's a conversation worth having now for the thousands more who aren't going to make it to 2013.

*As an early commenter rightly points out, let's not forget state and local funding to enforce existing gun laws. Is this included in $2 billion estimate? I don't know. But the point is essentially the same. There are orders of magnitude difference in funding detached from toll counts.