Is Gun Violence Committed By Bad Guys? I’m Not Sure

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Will more gun control reduce gun violence? This may sound like a stupid question but I feel compelled to ask after reading a very good article about Shannon Watts and Everytown in the current issue of Mother Jones.  Entitled, “Mothers in Arms,” Mark Follman perceptively explains why the Moms constitute a threat to the hegemony of the NRA, given the extent to which the Everytown message resonates both with gun and non-gun owners who together may be looking for an alternative to the stridency and combativeness of Wayne LaPierre and his friends.

So let’s play a little parlor game and assume that Shannon is able to muscle aside the NRA and actually get some “meaningful” gun control laws passed, like expanded background checks, tightened licensing procedures, “safe” guns and so forth.  In other words, making it more difficult for the ‘bad guys’ to get their hands on guns.

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There’s only one little problem.  How do we know that gun violence is committed by people who shouldn’t be able to get their hands on guns?  After all, we agree that the 2nd Amendment allows law-abiding Americans to own guns. We also agree, more or less, on the legal definition of ‘law-abiding.’  That being the case, how do we know that most of those 31,000 deaths and 60,000-70,000 injuries attributed to guns each year are committed by people who don’t meet the legal requirements for owning or possessing a gun?

We don’t have any data on how many of the 20,000 people kill themselves with guns actually have the legal right to own the gun in question, but I’m willing to bet that most victims of gun suicides, even teen suicides, used a gun that was either legally owned by themselves or by another family member or close friend.  And don’t delude yourselves into thinking for one second that someone, even a kid who wants to commit suicide can’t break open one of those crummy, ten-dollar gun locks or learn the combination of the family safe.

As for the 11,000 gun homicides, it’s easy just to assume they are all ‘bad guys’ who shouldn’t have been able to get their hands on a gun, but that’s a judgement made after the fact and frankly, distorts the whole question of how and why guns are used to commit capital crimes.  More than three-quarters of all homicides arise out of circumstances that are not necessarily criminal in nature at all.  This includes all kinds of domestic situations, like children killed by babysitters, as well as the run-of-the-mill household arguments, disputes between friends, spousal and non-spousal IPV and the like.  Only 20% of all homicides occur between perpetrators and victims who don’t know each other, whereas in 4 out of 5 cases they involve family members, neighbors, friends, and even an occasional employee and boss.

Not only do homicides involve a familiarity between perpetrator and victim more frequently than any other type of violent crime including rape, but the fact that someone pulls out a gun and shoots someone else doesn’t automatically mean that the perpetrator is a criminal (a ‘bad guy’) whereas the person who gets shot (a ‘good guy’) is simply the victim of a crime.  The most eminent American criminologist, Marvin Wolfgang, once wrote, “In many cases, especially in criminal homicide, the victim is often a major contributor to the criminal act.”  And while aggravated assaults with weapons involve two strangers roughly half the time, there’s no reason to believe that in the other 50% of cases Wolfgang’s admonition to look beyond traditional penal categories wouldn’t hold true as well.

Both pro-gun and anti-gun advocates subscribe to the idea that it’s those ‘bad guys’ who commit violence with guns.  But how many of those bad guys are simply people who use guns stupidly or impulsively but otherwise have every legal right to own a gun?  I’m all in favor of reasonable measures for reducing gun violence, but I hope we understand that the issue can’t just be reduced to good and bad, right and wrong. Things just aren’t that simple.

 

The ‘Show Me’ State Won’t Show Anyone Anything With Its New Gun Law

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Nobody really knows how Missouri got the nickname the “show me state,” but what we do know is that under a new gun law passed last week, Missouri residents will be able to walk around openly showing their guns.  And what we further know is that this law drops the CCW age requirement from 21 to 19 and allows local school districts to grant CCW privileges to teachers whose job will be to protect everyone else in the school from all those bad guys carrying guns.

The intent of this new law obviously is to make Missourians more safe because lowering the CCW age to 19 will qualify more people to walk around armed and letting teachers bring concealed weapons into schools will also protect the children and other teachers when a bad guy with a gun comes into the school.  In other words, the new law supports a favorite theory of the NRA which can be summed up as “more guns equals less guns.”  Oops, what we mean is more guns carried around by the “good guys” means less guns carried around by the “bad guys.”

The last time Missouri made it easier for its citizens to arm themselves was in 2007 when the Legislature abolished a law which required that people wishing to buy handguns first had to go to the police department and get a permit-to-purchase (PTP,) in order to take possession of the gun.  To show you how successful this measure was in helping good-guy Missourians use guns to protect themselves from bad-guy Missourians, the gun homicide rate over the next three years jumped by almost 25%, even though the non-gun homicide rate remained about the same.

pink gun                Of all 50 states, only Louisiana currently has a higher gun homicide rate than Missouri, and while the overall violent crime rate in Missouri has declined by about 20% between 2007 and 2012, the homicide rate has remained remarkably stable and remarkably high, a testament no doubt to the Legislature’s uncanny ability to understand how making it easier for everyone to acquire handguns would lead to a safer and more secure place to live.  Having seen the positive impact of easier handgun access on gun homicide rates, the Legislature in its wisdom now believes that it will move the gospel of ‘good guys with guns protecting us from bad guys with guns’ into the schools.

But what are the facts about the utility of using guns to protect kids (and teachers) in schools?  Actually, the number of homicides that take place in schools each year has shown the same gradual decline over the last twenty years that has characterized violent crime rates in the United States as a whole.  From 1994 to 2013, violent crime dropped roughly 50%, with most of the decline taking place prior to 2004.  As for school homicides, according to a Justice Department study, they have dropped by about the same amount over the period 1992 to 2010, and serious victimizations, including robberies and assaults, have declined by as much as two-thirds.

Most of this decline in school criminality seems to have been the result of increased attention paid to people entering school buildings and increased surveillance within the buildings.  By 2011, nearly 90% of all public schools had some kind of security measures to monitor access and the same percentage reported requiring visitor sign-ins.  On the other hand, less than one-third of all schools had armed security patrolling on a full-time or part-time basis.  And while I don’t have specific numbers on school security in Missouri, I can tell you that the last school shooting in the ‘show me’ state occurred in 1993.

Do you think there was any connection between the passage of the new Missouri gun law and the racial strife in Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown?  It’s as good a theory as any about what really motivated legislators to let guns into schools, because there sure isn’t any violence problem in Missouri schools that this law will solve.

Can Technology And Entrepreneurship Solve Gun Violence? Worth A Try

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This week more than 1,000 people have gathered in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco for the annual TedMed conference, which is one of those fast-paced, international meetings bringing together people who want to come together to make deals, make connections, make friendships, make whatever people like to make who get together and then be able to tell everyone who wasn’t there how much they missed by not being there.  Think the Aspen Institute conference, think Davos, think TedMed, get it?

TedMed claims that its meetings explore “the technology, creativity and innovation that contributes to a healthier future,” which is an understated way of saying that if you have a new idea that will make a gezillion dollars in today’s health technology market, you’ll meet plenty of deep pockets belonging to people who want to help you get it out there as long as most of the profits end up belonging to them.  But that’s the way entrepreneurship works and that’s the reason why the TedMed meeting was video-streamed to more than 140 countries worldwide.

tedmed               I normally avoid having anything to do with such meetings because I know that the real action takes place not on the speaker’s platform, but in the hallways and the lounges where the conference delegates meet and greet.  But I had to watch today’s session because one of the main speakers was Daniel Webster, who runs the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.  And if readers of my column find that this name strikes a familiar chord it should, since the School in which the Center is located is endowed by the NRA’s chief antagonist, the former Mayor of New York.

If you’ve read the Center’s publications, you won’t find anything in Webster’s remarks at TedMed that would surprise.  And the prescription for reducing gun violence, which he described artfully and fully to the TedMed audience, can be found in the many published articles of the Center and are summarized in the book, Reducing Gun Violence in America, which the Center released following  the massacre at Sandy Hook.  In sum, Webster and his colleagues believe that gun homicides can be reduced by roughly half of the 11,000 that occur each year, a goal which could be met if gun ownership standards were more higher and more consistent, gun dealers were better regulated, private gun transfers came under NICS, and safe-gun technologies, particularly ballistic prints of ammunition, were implemented by manufacturers prior to retail sales.

As I was listening to Dan Webster’s remarks, however, it occurred to me that perhaps something needed to be considered beyond the strategy for change that he outlined in cogent and hopeful tones.  Because while there’s no question that a majority of Americans, even a majority of gun-owning Americans, support (at least in theory) sensible measures to reduce the carnage from guns, perhaps the audience at the TedMed conference included entrepreneurs and investors who view this issue, like they view all such issues, as a question of market, products, profit and loss.  So why not enlist them in figuring out how to translate some of these policy ideas into profitable ventures – the real American approach to solving problems – which will create financial incentives to help reduce harm from guns?

The smart-gun technology stuff has been kicking around for years, but the Number 1 reason why guns go off when they shouldn’t is because the owner forgot to unload it before he put it away.  We have sensors that tell us if we forget to turn off the lights on our cars.  Would anyone believe that their 2nd Amendment rights were under attack because they were reminded electronically to unload their guns?  Don’t get me wrong – the Hopkins gun violence research team understands the policy imperatives that would bring gun violence way down.  But asking entrepreneurs to advance the goals of those policies through market-based ideas and products certainly wouldn’t be wrong.

All Of A Sudden The NRA Doesn’t Want To Mention Guns

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Two weeks ago, coincidentally on the same day that the unfortunate nine-year old girl accidentally shot and killed a firearms instructor in Arizona, the NRA kicked off a series of Netflix-style video ads that are perhaps the organization’s most disingenuous effort to present itself as something other than what it really is; namely, an organization devoted to ownership and use of guns.  In fact, having watched all 12 one-minute productions, I can tell you that the only way you would know that this is an effort of the NRA is that each commentator ends his or her spiel by telling the viewer that their wholesome and didactic script was produced by the “National Rifle Association of America” with a slight pause and then heavy emphasis on the word ‘America’ even though officially the NRA is still just the NRA, not the NRAA.

panera                This new media blitz by the people who used to bring us messages like “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”  is significant insofar as the word ‘gun’ is never mentioned in any of these videos, not even once.  You would think the NRA had become some kind of touchy-feely civics organization devoted to uplifting our moral virtues rather than a trade association committed to getting everyone in America to own a gun.  And not only are the minute-long lectures all about honesty, and decency, and respect for everyone’s point of view, but only four of the homilies are delivered by White males, who just happen to own most of the guns in America – seven of the commentators are women, one is Asian-American and, of course, there’s always room for Colion Noir, aka NRA’s house Black man.

When I first started watching these videos I thought I was looking at a remake of the Reagan “its morning again in America” campaign ads from 1984.  Those were slickly-produced messages which never showed Reagan, who was beginning to look his age, but instead had a variety of American families proudly standing in front of a farmhouse, a factory gate, a well-manicured suburban lawn, all smiling, all happy, all gently reminding us that if we just remembered to vote Republican that all those things we cherished and loved would never be taken away.

The NRA scripts flow back and forth between a kind of Tea Party lite condemnation about the problems we face – government spying, unlawfulness in high places, fear of crime – and an immediate sense of setting things right with the help of the ‘good guys,’ the real Americans who can be counted on every time to keep us safe, honest, decent and sound.  And who are these good guys?  They are your neighbor with a decal on the back of his truck which reads: N-R-A.

I can’t imagine anyone actually watching one of these messages and coming away having learned anything at all.  But I don’t think that’s the point.  What the NRA is trying to do is cast itself in a softer, more reasonable and, if you’ll pardon the expression, less combative way, because for the first time they are up against an opponent whose money, smarts and media access can sway lots of people to go the opposite way.  And not only does Bloomberg have that kind of dough, for the first time he might be able to energize non-gun owners to stay active and committed to the gun control fray.

This week we have another retail chain, Panera’s, who is walking down the path blazed by Starbucks and Target and asking gun owners to leave their weapons at home.  Like the other chains, Panera’s isn’t posting a gun-free sign on their front doors, but if any of the 2nd-Amendment vigilantes believes that this isn’t a victory for the folks who want more gun control, they better think again.  The fact that Panera’s announcement coupled their concern about guns with their desire to build social “communities” in their stores should tell you why, all of a sudden, the NRA has stopped talking about guns.

 

Docs Versus Glocks: Now It’s Round Four.

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Last month a three-judge panel of the 11th Federal Circuit reinstated Florida’s gag law that prevented physicians from talking to patients about guns, a law that had been initially struck down at the Circuit Court level in 2011. Now the physicians have asked for an en banc rehearing of that decision by the entire 11th Circuit which, if the panel decision is affirmed, may move this case one step closer to a hearing before the Supreme Court.

The plaintiff’s brief, whose amici reads like a Who’s Who of virtually every medical association beginning with the AMA, notes that “there is no disagreement within the medical community that providing patients with information about firearm safety is a valid aspect of preventive care and thus beneficial to public health.”  They contend that the state’s gag order not only prevents physicians from delivering proper medical care, but opens the door for other limitations on physician-patient discussions because “once it is known that physician communications can be compromised in one area, then politically empowered interests will be emboldened to compromise it in others.”  Florida’s legislature, for example, could use a similar justification to limit whether a physician can ask a patient about whether they smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol or consume red meat.

glock logo                The gun lobby’s answer to this problem, which was echoed by the panel decision majority, was that physicians are always free to hand out gun safety pamphlets which, of course, the NRA is always happy to provide.  But the NRA’s support of gun safety information is disingenuous at best and consciously deceptive at worst, because this same organization is on record as opposing laws that would really increase gun safety by requiring that guns either be locked or locked away.  Arizona was the 50th and last state to legislate protective barriers around backyard pools in homes where minor children live.  Want to guess why there are still 22 states that do not mandate any kind of safe storage of guns at all?  Last year in Kentucky a five-year old boy shot and killed his two-year old sister and the County Judge drily observed that “there’s probably not a household in this county without a gun.”

I’m not surprised nor really upset that the gun lobby would try to keep physicians from talking to patients about guns.  After all, if the medical associations are on record as believing that gun ownership is a health risk, then they will line up some way or another as being against guns.  And the fact is that physicians have reams of peer-reviewed studies that link higher levels of gun mortality and morbidity to ownership of guns.  Even without the studies, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that the more guns there are in everyone’s homes, the greater are the odds that more of them will be left around unlocked, and as the novelist Walter Mosley says, “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”

But even though virtually every medical association acknowledges that guns constitute a risk to health, somehow this message still hasn’t gotten back to the feds. In response to a call from President Obama after Sandy Hook, the Institute of Medicine published a report listing the major gun violence issues that needed further research over the next 3-5 years, including the influence of video games, interventions and strategies, risk and protective factors, safe guns and, most important, “characteristics of firearm violence.”

With all due respect, I would like someone to explain to me why we need more research on the characteristics of gun violence to understand why 100,000 deaths and injuries from guns each year constitutes a risk to health.  I don’t believe there would be such unanimity among the national medical societies on this issue if it were just because most doctors don’t like guns. But as long as the federal government can pretend that the ‘jury Is still out’ on the medical risks of gun violence, jurors like the panel majority of the 11th District can tell physicians not to talk to their patients about guns.

 

 

 

Where To Look For Gun Violence? Start With The Kids

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Last year after Sandy Hook, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and their Past President, Judith Palfrey, came in for an extended and indecorous series of attacks by the NRA and other supporters of the gun lobby.  In particular, the AAP and Dr. Palfrey were attacked for voicing the bizarre idea that guns in the home were a danger to children’s health.  And since the only way to get rid of all those guns would be to confiscate them or worse, the AAP became Public Enemy #1 in the eyes and mouths of people and organizations sworn to defend the right of all law-abiding Americans to own a gun.

This campaign to create a cordon sanitaire between pediatricians and the American family had already been elevated to a level far beyond nasty rhetoric when the State of Florida decided to criminalize physicians, mostly pediatricians, who had the audacity to ask their patients about guns. The law was first passed in 2011, was overturned at the District level in 2012, and recently reinstated by the 11th Circuit, and now is probably on its way to the Supreme Court.

docs versus glocks               The attempt to keep physicians out of the gun debate can only be understood if we look at the issue creating the argument in the first place.  Which goes like this.  Each year roughly 100,000 Americans are killed or injured by guns, which is 4% of violence-related injuries and deaths that occur each year.  Of this total, roughly 20,000 are gun suicides and the remaining 80,000 are either homicides or aggravated assaults.

Both sides in the gun debate agree that the way to deal with the suicide problem is to “fix the mental health system,” whatever that means.  On the other hand, both sides also agree that people who use guns to consciously hurt others have committed a crime. Tap the average gun owner on the shoulder and ask what to do with people who commit a gun crime and he’ll probably say, “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” or words to that effect.  Tap the average non-gun owner on the shoulder, ask the same question and you’ll probably get, ”We have too many guns,” or words to that effect. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people says the NRA; hence, control the people.  Guns kill a lot more people than if we didn’t have guns, says the Violence Policy Center; hence, control the guns.  That’s where the gun argument begins and ends.

Both of these arguments obscure the reality of the problems they seek to correct.  Increasing the severity of punishments assumes that one can stick the perpetrators in one category and the victims in another, when in fact most violent crime, in particular gun homicides, usually occurs because both the perpetrator and the victim are contributors to the criminal act.  As for getting rid of the guns by registering transactions, what do you do about the more than one million guns that are reported stolen or lost each year and are overwhelmingly the guns that show up in cases of murder and aggravated assault?

In a brilliant study Marvin Wolfgang found that 6% of all juvenile offenders committed more than half of all juvenile crimes.  And guess what happened when they became adults?  The chronic juvenile offenders became the chronic adult criminals and committed the most violent crimes. Wolfgang looked  at juveniles over the age of ten. What’s missing in the debate about guns and violent crime in is what Wolfgang did not incorporate into his work, namely, whether or not interventions occurred with kids who became chronic offenders before their delinquent behavior took place.  And where could such interventions have happened?  During consultations with pediatricians who are trained to look for anti-social behavior during pre-school years.

Pushing pediatricians out of the orbit of caregiving for children means eliminating contact with a professional committed to reducing harm that puts a child’s health at risk.  Anyone who wants to put their 2nd Amendment ‘rights’ ahead of their child’s health better hope they have lots of luck.

Why Do People Like Guns? Ask GroupOn.

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Back in July, 2012, I received a call from GroupOn who wanted to sign me up to offer their subscribers a “shooting experience” in the gun range that is located beneath the retail level of my store.  I use the range primarily in conjunction with the safety course that I offer which is required by my state if you want to apply for a license to own or carry a gun.  The state doesn’t require live fire, you can buy and walk around with a concealed weapon without ever having actually fired a gun, but I require it for reasons that are too obvious to even discuss.

Ultimately what GroupOn and I worked out was a 30-minute session that would involve a brief safety lesson, then shooting at stationery targets with a 22-caliber pistol and a 9mm Beretta or Glock.  The sessions were limited at my request to two shooters at a time, with each shooter supervised closely by myself and only one person shooting at a time.  GroupOn did not set a minimal age for participation and neither did I.  With all due respect to the memory of Charlie Vacca, the instructor is always supposed to stand behind the pupil, never alongside.

GroupOn told me that since my range was connected to a retail gun shop, I could expect to see a substantial increase in retail sales as a spill-over from the shooting sessions on my range.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  Of the more than 300 GroupOn customers who redeemed their coupons between July and December of 2012, only one had a license that was required to buy a gun, and maybe one or two others bought some little crap.  The typical profile of the average gun owner is a blue-collar, married White male, age 30-50, driving a truck.  Want to know who came in for a shooting session courtesy of Groupon?

gallery                To begin, the GroupOn crowd was more female than male.  They were mostly between the ages of 20 and 30, more often than not unmarried, often living with a partner of the same sex.  Almost all had college degrees, a majority had gone beyond college to graduate or professional schools, and the most popular occupational categories were medical technology, finance and IT.  A young surgical resident and his wife stand out because they had such a good time; ditto two women married to each other who serviced and repaired those machines that you get hooked up to for your annual EKG.

I started every session by asking the Groupon coupon-holders why they had plunked down fifty bucks apiece to come out to my range.  And the responses were almost uniformly the same: they had no prior experience with guns, had seen countless guns being shot in movies and on TV and always wanted to “see what it’s really like” to hold a Glock in their hands and fire away.  I don’t recall a single GroupOn customer who, following the session, expressed any interest in buying a gun.  What they all wanted was to get a picture of themselves holding the guns that they could post on their Facebook page or some other social media site.

When I was a kid living in New York City my parents took me to Coney Island where I always went to the shooting gallery and shot a 22-rifle at some metal targets that moved by.  The guy who ran the gallery wasn’t promoting the gun industry and the folks who came to my range thanks to GroupOn couldn’t have cared less about the corporate fortunes of Smith & Wesson or Glock.  What GroupOn was selling was a chance to do in real life what they had all grown up watching TV.  That’s not going to change just because GroupOn stops sending their customers to people like me.

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