Who Owns The Argument About Guns And Crime? We All Own It.

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When a major player in the world of political messaging gets involved in the gun debate, we should all read what he has to say.  That’s because Danny Franklin from the Benenson Group isn’t about to waste precious space in The Washington Post talking about something that isn’t near or in the middle of the public opinion radar scope.  And Franklin knows a little about public opinion, having conducted political polls for guys named Barack Obama and Cory Booker, to name a few.  His op-ed piece in The Post appears to have been occasioned by a poll he conducted which showed that a majority of respondents believe that a house with a gun is safer than an unarmed home; in fact similar results have cropped up here and there in recent years.

conference program pic                What I like about Franklin’s piece is the linkage between reducing gun violence and public health which, if nothing else, confirms again what we all know; namely that gun violence has an epidemiology that has to be studied and treated on its own terms.  We can talk all we want about strengthening or passing laws to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands,’ but when all is said and done, getting shot usually means a major commitment of medical resources, extended psychological trauma for the victim, family and friends, and costs in the millions for apprehending, convicting and punishing the dope who pulled the trigger of the gun.

These costs – financial, psychological, cultural – might be somewhat more acceptable if it were the case that guns in private hands serve any positive civil function at all.  In fact, if you are a gun hobbyist who collects guns or uses them for hunting or sport,  guns do serve an enjoyable end in and of themselves.  But the nonsense peddled by the NRA and pro-gun politicians about how armed citizens protect us from crime in not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense at that.  The odds that the average middle-class person will be the victim of a violent crime are about the same as the odds of that person getting run over by a rhinoceros; on the other hand, a gun in the home of that same person possibly considering suicide poses a real threat.

The data which demonstrates the indisputable risk of gun ownership comes from research produced by scholars in the field of public health.  And Franklin is on solid ground when he uses this data to advance the argument for viewing gun violence in public health terms.  Where I want to raise a comment, however, is when he evaluates public health strategies that will reduce gun violence because I think he identifies an interesting issue whose importance for the safe-gun movement has been ignored or not fully understood.

Franklin notes that public health measures were sometimes successful not just because of changes in the law but because of a growing public awareness which developed a momentum of its own.  By the time the Federal Government put health warnings on cigarette packs, for example, the number of adult smokers had already dropped from one out of three to one out of four.  And Franklin claims that the drop in gun crimes over the last twenty years might provide a similar degree of public awareness and momentum in the gun debate as well.

Every year when the FBI publishes its crime data the gun lobby seizes on the continued decline in violent crime as ‘proof’ that an armed citizenry is keeping us safe.  The truth is there’s absolutely no evidence showing any linkage between gun ownership and rates of violent crime.  I think the gun-safe movement should jump on these numbers to help promote their point of view, namely, that Americans clearly understand the risks posed by guns and should welcome everyone’s help to reduce gun violence even more. Why should the pro-gun community own the argument about guns and crime? If we are all concerned about gun violence, then we all should take credit when the numbers go down.

 

 

The New York Times Thinks The NRA Has Won. I’m Not So Sure.

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It’s official.  The NRA has won the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. The victory has been announced by none other than The New York Times in an editorial from Charles Blow, reporting on a report from Pew Research, which shows that more Americans favor “gun rights” than favor “gun control.”  The margin is narrow, 52 to 46, but in surveys conducted since 1993, the gun-control folks held a substantial lead over the pro-gun gang in every poll.  Now for the first time, the positions have “flipped,” leading Blow to announce that “The NRA appears to be winning this round.”

Not surprisingly, this opinion piece caught the attention of the gun-sense community, and not in a particularly positive way.  After all, the Times has published numerous editorials calling for stricter gun licensing, and the paper went out of its way to highlight the news that none of the guns displayed at the recent NRA show in Nashville could actually be made to shoot.  Want to get someone on the pro-gun side to quickly lose his cool?  Mention Mike Bloomberg or The New York Times.  Take your pick.

nyt logo                After announcing the results of the Pew survey, Blow gave his best guess as to why public opinion appears to be favoring less gun control.  I’m being polite by characterizing Blow’s explanations as being a ‘best guess.’  The truth is that nobody really knows whether anyone who is asked a question about something as politically insignificant as guns has spent more than two seconds thinking about the issue before they picked up the phone.  Guns only register as an important issue in polls that are conducted immediately after a high-profile shooting (Gabby Giffords, Sandy Hook), and with all due respect to Mr. Blow, I have never been convinced that we should take public opinion all that seriously about an issue whose significance rises and falls following random events.

Be that as it may, I want to offer a counter-argument to the Times and Charles Blow, and I want to make it clear that neither am I looking for some kind of silver lining in what otherwise might be seen from the gun-sense side as a depressing state of affairs, nor am I suggesting that the survey question no longer captures a valid view of what the gun argument is all about.  Because no matter what people who want to see an end to gun violence might think, changing public policy on gun ownership means making changes in the law.  And even if the laws are only changed to make it more difficult for guns to get into the ‘wrong hands,’ (e.g., domestic abusers, violent misdemeanors), this still means extending the reach of government as to whom should be able to own guns.  If that doesn’t qualify as new or additional controls, no matter how you dress it up, then perhaps I need a refresher course in English 101.

One thing I do know is that the mortality and morbidity resulting from the use of guns amounts to more than 100,000 Americans every year.  And it doesn’t matter whether it’s intentional or unintentional, whether it’s self-inflicted or inflicted by someone else, the one thing that all this mortality and morbidity shares is that it involved a gun.  And the other thing we know is that changing anything that results in this kind of behavior takes a very long time.  Tobacco was proven harmful fifty years before warnings appeared on cigarette packs.

Widespread advocacy about gun violence is really only twenty years old.  And let’s not forget that the survey used by Charles Blow was actually conducted and published last December, with public opinion about all progressive issues in the doldrums after the mid-term election results of 2014.  The fact that the NRA continues to marginalize and sensationalize its own message is not symptomatic of strength, but of a failure to attract new demographics (women, minorities, etc.) to its fold.  I wouldn’t be so quick to move the NRA into the winner’s circle.  Not just yet.

 

Want To Support The 2nd Amendment? Visit The NRA Tactical Store

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When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s, there was very little talk about guns that didn’t in some form or another relate to Cowboys, Indians and the Old West.  Actually, the Old West wasn’t really that old, because it was only in 1890 that the Census Department stated that the frontier was now ‘closed.’  But the West was old enough to be featured in Shane, the very first movie I went to see, I never missed an episode of weekly television shows like Gunsmoke starring James Arness, and I chased plenty of make-believe Indians with the Colt Single Action Army plastic revolver strapped around my waist.

The kids growing up today continue to see lots of guns on video and tv, but the context has changed from Westerns to soldiers, with the guns now symbolizing our overseas military adventures in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.  And there doesn’t seem to be a single gun maker who doesn’t try in some way to tie his products to the military, and I’m not just talking about the obvious connections between Bushmaster or Colt black guns and the battlefield; take a look at how Glock is pushing its military product line or the soldier-like images behind Smith & Wesson’s online rebate form.

If you really want to see a consumer-products company that’s gone whole hog for the military look, take a gander at the new tactical online store of the NRA.  Wait a minute.  I thought the NRA was a gun-advocacy organization that promoted gun safety, sport shooting and, most of all, the protection of our civil rights (a.k.a  the 2nd Amendment which the NRA claims to be the most important civil right of all.) Since when did they become involved in promoting, never mind selling tactical gear to guys and gals?

tactical gear                Actually, from as long as I can remember, the NRA always sold products that promoted its own brand, like books on shooting and training, decals for the back of the truck or the side window of the car, and caps, shirts and other garments that proclaimed one’s support of gun rights, freedom and the American way.  There’s nothing wrong with any organization securing its financial base by selling items that both increases the bottom line as well as getting the logo and the message out in front of the public eye.  But what I find interesting about the new tactical product line is that for the first time, as far as I can remember, the organization is selling products that are actual accessories for guns.  It’s one thing for an organization to sell a shirt embossed with a logo which can be worn at a shooting range but can also be worn anywhere else.  It’s another thing to sell hi-cap magazines for AR-15s, or universal gun magazine reloaders, or instant concealment kits which can, according to the advertising, convert  “ordinary” packs and bags into “extraordinary” gun concealment systems.

The NRA isn’t selling these products because they are trying to start a new trend.  The fact is that promoting guns and gun gear has become part-and-parcel of the general militarization of our culture since the horrific events of September 11, 2001. After all, if we are going to let the local cops ride around in armored personnel carriers and carry bayonets on their AR-15s, why should we be shocked when the NRA sells tactical-style boots for only $129.95?

The great irony in the NRA’s attempt to make common cause with the military is the whole point of the 2nd Amendment was to give citizens the right to defend themselves with guns because liberties might be threatened by a central government that had a monopoly on armed force.  Of course the Framers couldn’t imagine a central government run by a liberal who also happens to be Black. For that matter, I can’t imagine that any of the stalwart defenders of our civil rights who happen to be selling goods in the NRA tactical store know or even care what the 2nd Amendment really means.

 

 

Does Ted Cruz Understand The 2nd Amendment? The NY Times Says No; I Say Yes.

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I never thought I would agree with anything that Ted Cruz says about guns, or anything that he says about anything else, for that matter.  But I have to admit that I entirely agree with a statement he made about the 2nd Amendment in a fundraising appeal that he sent out last week.  According to Daily Kos, the email quoted Cruz as saying that “the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny — for the protection of liberty.”

As soon as this statement hit the internet, the usual scions of liberal respectability and proper discourse demonstrated their usual pique and concern, not the least a statement by the Editor of the New York Times Editorial Page, Andrew Rosenthal, who accused Cruz of promoting the “ridiculous” and “silly” idea that the 2nd Amendment was the handiwork of Framers who, according to Rosenthal, wanted to “encourage the idea of armed rebellion against the government.”  And this guy’s running for President?

cruz                I have something to tell the Editorial Board of The New York Times. The fact is that what Crazy Cruz said about the 2nd Amendment is not only true, it happens to be the foundation upon which the Supreme Court based the 2008 Heller decision which gave Americans the inalienable right to keep a gun in their homes for self-defense. The law which came before the SCOTUS basically said that a resident of the District could only keep a handgun in his domicile if it were locked at all times, thereby not allowing the gun’s owner to use it for self-defense.  Heller challenged this statute based on the idea that if he couldn’t use the weapon for self-defense within his domicile, then the 2nd Amendment right to private gun ownership was basically null and void.

What had always created confusion among jurists and scholars regarding the 2nd Amendment was the strange wording which divided the Amendment into two parts: the prefatory clause which says, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and the operative clause which continues, “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  One side had always argued that the wording tied, indeed qualified private gun ownership to be a function of military service; the other side argued that owning a gun was a fundamental right that was not in any way dependent upon military service at all.  The 5-4 majority opinion in Heller written by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, came down on the side of a private right.

If you read Scalia’s decision closely, however, it turns out that the idea of using guns for personal defense appears in many local statutes and legal commentaries contemporaneous with the drafting of the Bill of Rights.  It also turns out that there was considerable concern in the post-Revolutionary period about whether the national government should raise and support a standing army or whether the national defense should be left to citizen’s militias raised by the individual states.  But what comes out in reading the numerous sources cited by Scalia to justify gun ownership on the basis of self-defense is that, overwhelmingly, the notion of self-defense was considered first and foremost to be defense against government tyranny, not using a gun to shoot the thug who tries to break down your back door.

Not only is Cruz correct when he says that the folks who wrote the 2nd Amendment were looking for a way for citizens to protect themselves from governmental abuse; the writings and commentaries of the period bear him out.  The fact that Scalia took those writings and gave them a modern twist says a lot more about his agenda than whether Ted Cruz understands the Constitution or not.

Wayne LaPierre Wasn’t The Only Person At Nashville Talking About Guns.

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Now that the NRA annual big deal has come and gone, there will be the usual post-mortem as to whether the show was the biggest and the best, which Republican candidate gave the best speech and, of course, whether the Donald is still looking for that birth certificate.  You can get a taste of all this and more on the NRA website where most of the celebrity speeches have been posted, but what I found interesting was a comment made by Wayne-o in his annual attempt to scare gun owners into buying more guns.

The appeal to fear first started with Wayne’s predecessor, Harlon Carter, who ran the NRA from 1977 until 1985. It moved into high gear when Charlton Heston was featured in a series of anti-crime television ads that showed the former Hollywood liberal walking down back alleys in Washington, D.C. while saying that the streets were “ruled by criminals” and that criminals should be “banned” rather than guns.

moms logo                Unfortunately for the NRA, the problem with using crime as a rationale for owning guns is that violent crime in the United States keeps going down.  For that matter, so does the percentage of older, White men, who just happen to be the demographic that buys and owns most of the guns.  So sooner or later, if these trends continue, the NRA is going to have to craft a new message and find a new reason for all those guys and gals walking around armed.

They began to take a new approach last year before the mid-term elections with a series of cable ads that featured the “five million NRA members” standing up for honesty, truth and various so-called core values, while at the same time swiping at you-know-who in  the White House and the elitist culture that is undermining everything we hold dear.  The problem with this ad campaign, however, is that it doesn’t do what the NRA has been most successful at doing for the last twenty years, namely, ginning up fears about something that can only be overcome if you go out and buy a gun.  But Wayne-o and his PR staff have evidently come up with their latest scare technique, which came at about the 4th minute of his speech to NRA members when he mentioned that “terror cells” were operating in cities all across the United States and that a major terrorist attack was about to take place.

At last year’s meeting Wayne-o told the audience that terrorists were just one of a large group that were threatening America, a group which included home invaders, drug cartels, campus killers, airport killers, power-grid destroyers – it was quite a list.  This year he got his act somewhat more focused, pulled the ‘terror cells’ out of his hat, and then reminded his listeners that only a national CCW law and every NRA member renewing their dues would truly make Americans safe.

Meanwhile, outside the NRA meeting, Shannon and the Moms held a rally to promote a different idea about whether guns make us safe.  Immediately after the rally, various pro-gun bloggers went out of their way to assure their readers that the small attendance at Shannon’s rally showed that the anti-gun forces would never be a match for the NRA.

I have gone to more than 20 NRA meetings and for people who like guns, the exhibit hall is a cross between a swap meet and a Scout jamboree.  As for core values, just wander into the sales area and see how much the NRA charges for a t-shirt or a hat.  In all the years I went to the annual meeting, the only person demonstrating outside the hall was some old guy with a ‘Prey To Jesus’ placard, and not the Moms who have chapters in all fifty states. The NRA’s attempt to use terrorism as a bogey-man to sell more guns is a new riff on an old strategy that sooner or later will wear out.  Shannon and her Moms are truly new, different and here to stay.

How Much Does Gun Violence Cost? Mother Jones Has A New Number.

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Economists and public health researchers have been trying to figure out the costs of gun violence for more than twenty years, and the latest estimate, just published in Mother Jones, puts the total tab at $229 billion. This isn’t the first time that attempts have been made to estimate gun violence costs; Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published an entire book on the subject back in 2002, and they put the annual figure at $100 billion – surely the number couldn’t have more than doubled in the past 15 years,  particularly since the number of robberies, assaults and homicides have all declined from the earlier date.  In fact, the lead researcher for the Mother Jones piece, Ted Miller, said in 2010 that gun violence was costing the U.S. $170 billion, which means that somehow total costs have increased by 35% over the last five years.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not playing Monday-morning quarterback and casting aspersions or doubts on the research and analysis presented in Mother Jones.  Anyone who believes that gun violence isn’t a public health issue of major proportions might as well join Wayne-o, Chris Cox, Larry Keane and other professional gun delusionists in promoting the idea that guns don’t represent any risk at all.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious discussion among rational-minded folks about the ways in which we understand and frame the debate about guns.  The Mother Jones report is a serious contribution to that discussion and I’m responding to it on those terms.

conference program pic                The report breaks things down between direct and indirect costs, the former reflecting such expenses as medical care, policing, emergency services and penal  charges (courts and incarceration), the latter reflecting what the researchers call “less tangible” costs, such as lost income, quality of life impacts and labor replacement.  I would rather refer to these two categories by the qualitative value of the data, because most of the direct costs can be calculated from governmental budgets covering policing, medical care and penal institutions, whereas the indirect costs are estimates at best, and may or may not be based on any real numbers at all.  The direct costs of America’s annual gun carnage is estimated at less than 4% of the $229 billion total, of which incarceration accounted for 94% of the direct cost total for homicides, but only a fraction of that amount for each aggravated assault.  Miller and his associates claim that incarceration costs $414,000 per homicide; Cook and Ludwig set the cost at $244,000.  Could this number have nearly doubled in 15 years?  The overall gun violence costs appear to have more than doubled during the same period, so why not?

Moving from direct to indirect costs presents other types of data issues which I’m not sure are discussed with the sensitivity and acuity which they deserve.  The biggest one to me is the attempt to calculate the economic value of a human life which is based primarily on estimates of what that person would have earned had they lived out a normal life term.  And even though the report calculates the number to be significantly lower than estimates from various government agencies, any such estimate is based on assumptions about the economy’s long-term performance that may or may not be true. Those of us who watched out 401Ks shrivel in 2007-2008 or got called into the boss’s office at 4 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, know how dangerous it is to attempt to predict any degree of financial or economic performance out beyond the next couple of months.

When it comes to gun violence there’s a moral imperative – thou shalt not kill – which transcends any discussion about numbers even though the gun industry evidently feels that it doesn’t apply to them.  The cautions above should not detract at all from the value of this report which reminds us again that the real cost of gun violence, the cost to our humanity and decency, remains to be solved.

Is Gun Suicide A Form Of Gun Violence? You Betcha.

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Gun suicide accounts for 2/3 of fatal gun violence every year.  Until recently I have always been somewhat uncomfortable lumping suicide and homicide together, if only because the nature of the event is so different, the ownership and access to the weapon is so different, hence one assumes that the mitigation strategies should be different. But following discussions with the expert suicide researchers at Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center and a review of peer-reviewed literature, I am persuaded that gun suicide is not only a fundamental gun violence problem, but understanding and responding to it might provide a map for mitigating gun homicides and gun assaults as well.

suicide foto               Gun suicides and gun homicides intersect In two basic ways: the lethality of the weapon and the motives and behavior of the shooter leading up to the incident itself.  As to the former, guns used in suicides result in a success rate of 95%.  No other suicide effort is half as effective in the final result.  As for homicide, obviously the “success” rate is only about 10%, but there is no other serious injury which comes close to generating the costs and trauma that results from being wounded with a gun.

As to behavior, the degree to which impulse governs the actions of everyone who shoots themselves or others with a gun should not be overlooked.  Less than 20% of all homicides occur during the commission of another, serious crime.  Most gun homicides grow out of a history of disputes between individuals who know each other and the incidence of domestic abuse in homicides where the victims are women is virtually 100%.  I recently discussed a report from the Violence Policy Center in which I noted that a random search of gun homicides committed by CCW-holders showed that virtually all of them grew out of arguments and fights, usually aggravated by too much to drink. Is there really a great difference between the guy who gets sick and tired of fighting with himself or sick and tired of arguing with his wife and reaches for his gun?  I don’t think so, and the research on suicide and homicide tends to bear me out.

What about mitigating strategies for both types of fatalities involving guns?  An article on suicide prevention among Israeli soldiers caught my eye because Israel is often touted by the pro-gun community as the model for giving civilians full access to guns with a consequent low rate of violent crime.  But the policy of allowing soldiers to keep their guns with them on weekend leave also resulted in an alarmingly high rate of suicide among these soldiers, which dropped by nearly 40% when soldiers had to leave their guns secured at their base while spending weekends at home.  Anyone who thinks there’s no connection between suicide and gun access needs to look honestly at what happened in Israel before and after access to guns was denied.

The pro-gun folks would like to believe that gun fatalities have nothing to do with guns and are all about crime.  There’s a simple logic to that argument except for the fact that every single gun involved in a criminal event first started out as a legal gun.  For that matter, most of the guns in suicides either were legally owned by the suicide victim or belonged to another family member who legally purchased the gun.

The usual response from the gun-safety community is to push for an expansion of CAP laws, and clearly such laws do have a mitigating effect when it comes to keeping kids away from guns.  But let me break the news to you gently – the big problem with such laws is that the only way that someone can use a gun is to unlock where the gun is stored or unlock the gun itself.  And the problem we face with both gun suicides and gun homicides is figuring out how to spot the impulsive, destructive behavior of certain people before they get their hands on a gun.

 

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