Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Mesquite pods with added interest

with 14 comments

While out on the Blackland Prairie in far northeast Austin on the first day of August I came upon a mesquite tree (Prosopis glandulosa) with plenty of long, well-developed pods on it. Whether the species name glandulosa accounts for the two resinous drops on one of these pods, I don’t know. I do know that the drops attracted me as a photographer. Not till after I got home and looked at the pictures on my computer screen did I notice the tiny spider close to the larger of the two drops. From a different frame taken at a different angle, here’s a closer look at the tiny spider and the larger resin drop:



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On Monday I saw a photograph showing a 2018 demonstration outside Minnesota’s Capitol. Prominent in the photograph was a handwritten placard that began: “Hammer[s,] screwdrivers and knives kill more people than rifles.” You know me: I immediately wondered if the claim is true. To try to find facts to confirm or refute it, I did an Internet search and turned up an article from the Joslyn Law Firm. Here’s how it starts:

With the renewed push by the federal government for an assault weapons ban, we couldn’t help but wonder, just how often are assault rifles really to blame for crimes? More specifically, how often are they used as murder weapons when compared to all of the other types of weapons available?

Using FBI homicide statistics from the 2019 Crime in the United States report, the insights team at the Joslyn Law Firm charted out how often different types of weapons were used in homicides in the U.S. Of the 16,425 homicides that occurred in 2019, the FBI was able to collect supplemental data for 13,922 of them, which is what our data is based on. The weapon types are broken down into the different types of firearms: handguns, rifles, shotguns, and a category for homicides in which the type of firearm was unknown. It also compares the number of homicides that were committed by non-firearm weapons such as knives or cutting instruments as well as bodily weapons, which include people’s hands, fists, and feet. Non-firearm weapons were used for one-quarter of all homicides in the United States.

You can look through the resulting chart (click on it to enlarge it). Of the 13,922 homicides in 2019, rifles accounted for a mere 364 (2.6%). If you want to interpret “rifle” loosely as “long gun” and therefore include shotguns, you can add another 200 (1.4%). In contrast, there were 1476 (10.6%) homicides using knives or other cutting instruments, so already the claim on the demonstrator’s placard seems correct. Because the placard also included hammers and screwdrivers, the outweighing of rifles is even greater.

One possible objection is that 3326 (23.9%) of the homicides involved firearms of an undetermined type. Might enough of those have been rifles to increase the rifle total of 364 to more than the 1476 incidents involving knives and other cutting instruments? While that’s theoretically possible, it’s extremely unlikely, given that among the firearms that have been identified in homicides, rifles account for only 5.25%. We have no reason to suppose the distribution of undetermined gun types is overwhelmingly different from the distribution of determined gun types.

The current push among certain activists is to ban so-called assault rifles, which are a subset of rifles in general, and therefore account for even less than the 2.6% of all the rifles known to have been used in homicides.

To fill out the broader picture, notice that there were 600 (4.3%) murders involving “hands, fists, feet, etc.” (I wonder about that “etc.”: is there homicide by knee or elbow?) That number is also greater in its own right than the known number of homicides committed with rifles. Blunt objects, poison, explosives, fire, narcotics, and other agents accounted for 1591 (11.4%) of murders—again a lot more than the number using rifles. People committed by far the greatest number of homicides with handguns: 6365, or 45.7%. For that reason activists who want to ban “assault” rifles work to make it hard for people to legally get handguns, too. (Of course criminals, by the very fact of being criminals, abide by no prohibitions on guns.) In any case, short of repealing or tortuously reinterpreting the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right of the people to keep and bear arms, the complete prohibition of guns in the United States can’t happen.

In summary, based on the FBI’s 2019 statistics, the claim that hammers, screwdrivers, and knives kill more people in the United States than rifles turns out to be true, and by a convincingly large margin. If that doesn’t seem right, it’s probably because whenever a mass shooting involving a rifle like an AK-47 or an AR-15 occurs, it immediately makes the news and stays there for days. Meanwhile, we hardly ever hear about most of the much greater number of people who are killed individually by other means every single day of the year. Psychologists refer to that as the availability bias or availability heuristic: what you’re frequently exposed to looms much larger in your view of the world than what you’re seldom exposed to.

It’s important to have all the relevant facts and statistics when evaluating something.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman




Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 11, 2022 at 4:41 AM

14 Responses

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  1. This is an excellent example of the beautiful world of the very small.

    Peter Klopp

    August 11, 2022 at 8:39 AM

    • Thanks, Peter. It’s also another example of something turning up in a photograph that I wasn’t aware of at the time I took the picture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2022 at 8:46 AM

  2. The resinous drops brought to mind cypress balls, which have begun to ripen. Squirrels adore them, and they’ve been working over the trees pretty well. They tend to pick the balls, split them open, nibble for a while, and then discard them. It makes a mess, but when I took a good look at some of their discards this week, I noticed that the inside is filled with tiny droplets of reddish ‘sap.’

    Now for the connection. Remember when I wrote about my pet squirrel getting drunk on fermented mesquite beans? They’re quite high in sugar, and now I’m wondering if the cypress balls are as well. When I go back to work this afternoon, I’m going to indulge in a little taste test, to see if that sap is sweet. I wonder if those drops on your mesquite are sweet, as well. I suspect it’s possible. Lookie here:

    “The bark of Prosopis produces a viscous gum in the cavities of the xylem and phloem as a response to insect attack, wounding, or dry conditions. The gum could be defined as “the dried gummy exudation obtained from the stems and branches of Prosopis species…” the gum was widely used by the native cultures of the Mexican Northwest (Seri and Yaqui) and Southwestern US (Papago and Pima) (Felger, 1977), mainly as a candy and as a medicinal aid to prepare eye drops (Felger & Moser, 1974).”

    The source for that paragraph is here. It sure makes the name ‘honey mesquite’ more understandable.


    August 11, 2022 at 3:39 PM

    • Funny you should mention cypress balls, because I pointed some out just this morning when we drove to Central Market. The tree’s foliage was turning brown from the drought but the fruit seemed just fine.

      Yes, I certainly remember your pet squirrel getting drunk on fermented mesquite beans. I’m glad you did research into the “honey” of the honey mesquite. Next time I see an amber-like drop on one I’ll give it a taste. Along those lines, I’ve been wanting to try the flour that’s made by grinding up dry mesquite pods. A few years I got on a list for a local company to call me after they’d milled their yearly crop of pods but unfortunately I never heard back from anyone at that company.

      Happy taste test.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2022 at 3:56 PM

      • My taste test turned out to be more about ‘sticky’ than ‘sweet.’ I didn’t want to try any of the balls that already had fallen and split, or those that had been gnawed, so I pulled some from the tree. As hard as they are, I decided to attack them as I would a black walnut: with a hammer. I smooshed one, and found little red droplets already forming inside. When I ran my tongue over one, it wasn’t sweet at all, but it may be a good thing my tasting was tentative. Those things are so sticky on the inside it took forever to get the stickiness off my fingers. Soap wouldn’t do it, alcohol didn’t touch it, and even scouring powder and a sponge wouldn’t work. I finally resorted to acetone, which did work.

        My conclusions: unripe cypress balls aren’t sweet. They are so sticky inside that squirrels couldn’t possibly eat them; they must lose some stickiness as they ripen. That could explain why so many have only a gnaw or two taken out of them before they’re discarded; those balls may represent squirrels’ misjudgments. The next step is to try and find a ripe (e.g., brown) ball still on a tree before the squirrels get to it. Then, I can compare it with the green, unripe balls.

        Hey ~ citizen science at its best!


        August 14, 2022 at 11:26 AM

        • “Citizen science” sounds like just the right term for it. Good luck finding some ripe bald cypress balls.

          I wonder whether the not-easily-removed sticky stuff has any practical applications in the human world. For example, chemists might be able to isolate the chemicals that create the stickiness and use them in glue.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 14, 2022 at 3:15 PM

  3. I’ve had plenty of experiences with things discovered while examining an image on the computer rather than in the field to my disappointment. The pods resemble some of the beans we grown in the garden.

    You can play games with numbers all you want. The number of people involved in most hammer killings would be that monumental number 2, a hammeree and a hammerer, which would likely be the reason it does not make widespread headlines. The same applies to being kicked to death. The number of children, worshippers, or shoppers, and others killed in the use of an assault weapon is usually quite a bit larger which is why it makes headlines. Also most hammer killings are the result of an argument between two people so likely a reason for only a local headline. Years ago assault style weapons were not allowed in the hands of the public yet surprisingly they still had personal weapons such as pistols and rifles. Also the second amendment allowed for well-armed militias and not necessarily every man woman and child to walk around with weapons. As well, their weapons at that time were muzzleloader type and not repeat firing automatic weapons. As far as I know, there have not been government goons banging down doors and confiscating weapons which is often a defense for having personal arsenals. Times change and our laws should reflect those changes.

    Steve Gingold

    August 11, 2022 at 4:44 PM

    • Sometimes my after-the-fact discoveries are disappointing: I see something I wish I had noticed at the time so that I could have gotten it in focus, or not partly blocked by something else.

      I don’t see that I’m playing games with numbers, unless the FBI was playing games when it gathered its data. The statistics clearly show that the number of people killed by rifles was minuscule compared to the number killed by other means.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 11, 2022 at 4:59 PM

      • I didn’t mean you were making things up but giving them more importance than they merit. You inferred that assault rifles were not that big a concern because more people were killed by hammers, etc. You also inferred that as a result of limiting assault style weapons we would be taking all peoples arms from them which I have not heard any but a relatively small number of extremists call for.

        Steve Gingold

        August 11, 2022 at 5:34 PM

        • To my mind I was doing two things. The first was to verify or disprove the claim on the placard, namely that hammers, screwdrivers and knives kill more people than rifles. The claim turned out to be true, with knives taking up by far the largest part of that first group. The other thing I did was point out that rifles of all kinds accounted for only 2.6% of homicides, and therefore the subset of assault rifles must have accounted for an even tinier portion of all homicides. The implication is that even if you were to ban assault rifles, it would barely reduce the number of homicides. In fact it might not even reduce the number at all. That’s partly because so many assault rifles are already in circulation, and partly because a person without an assault rifle who was intent on murdering would find another weapon, most likely a handgun or a knife.

          I believe it’s best to put our energies into strategies with the greatest returns. Because handguns are by far the most common weapon involved in murders (plus the great many non-lethal wounds they inflict), cracking down on illegal handguns will probably save a whole lot more lives than banning assault rifles. I’ve read story after story of young men arrested for having illegal handguns but then getting quickly turned back out onto the streets—often without even any bail—only to go on and commit more shootings and killings. If I can make a play on words, that’s where we’d get the biggest bang for the buck.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 11, 2022 at 6:36 PM

          • Of course getting handguns out of criminals” hands makes sense. I didn’t read that as your point in the original post. Maybe my reading comprehension needs some work.

            Steve Gingold

            August 11, 2022 at 7:02 PM

        • By the way, I wasn’t implying that banning assault rifles would lead to banning all guns. I was merely mentioning that that is the goal of some activists, and of others who have the same goal but won’t admit it.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 11, 2022 at 6:39 PM

          • Yes, there are those using assault weapons as an excuse for banning all guns but it is never going to happen and the majority of reasonable people of both parties don’t support banning. Even here in liberal Massachusetts there is not much of a movement for that.

            Steve Gingold

            August 11, 2022 at 7:05 PM

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