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.

 

Guns And Angry Behavior. Is There A Link?

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Whenever Jeffrey Swanson publishes research on gun issues, it’s worth taking a break from whatever else you are doing and read what he has to say.  His work is always rooted in attention to detail, analytical models which fit the problem he is trying to address and, best of all, Is presented in a context which is both realistic and sensitive to other research being conducted in the same field.  If I sound like a fan of Swanson, I am.  And today I caught up with his most recent effort as regards guns and behavioral factors that might increase risk.

The study compares rates of impulsive, angry behavior with access to guns.  Swanson and his research colleagues asked 5,653 respondents to answer questions about their own behavior, and also asked these same research subjects if they owned and/or carried guns.  The subjects lived in cities, suburbs and rural areas throughout the United States, and roughly one-third stated that they owned or had access to firearms, which seems to be what we consider the national firearm ownership rate to be today.
Every respondent was asked whether they had tantrums or angry outbursts; broke something in anger; lost their temper and got involved in physical fights.  These are classic indicators of impulsive, angry behavior, with the tantrums/outbursts being the least serious, the fights being the most serious and the breaking of some object in between.  Both the owners and non-owners of guns reported engaging in all three types of behaviors, with tantrums being three times as common as physical fights for both groups, and the percentage of gun owners and non-gun owners engaging in any of the three anger indicators being about the same.

gangsWhat struck me as I read the survey results was that overall, there was not a great difference between gun owners and non-gun owners regarding to what degree they admitted engaging in any form of impulsive, angry behavior.  Where the difference was clearly pronounced was among the 5% (roughly 290 people out of 5,600) who admitted to owning 11 guns or more, which was the only gun-owning group whose penchant for getting into fights was significantly higher than people who owned no guns at all. For that matter the percentage of the 11+ gun-owning group to get into physical altercations was substantially higher than gun folks who owned less guns.

Where the number of guns owned by individuals seemed to be a real risk issue can be found in the correlation between number of guns owned, engaging in any of the three anger indicators and carrying a gun outside the home.  The good news in this survey was that less than 5% of the respondents reported that they walked around with a gun.  The not-so-good news is that folks who owned 6 or more guns and carried a concealed weapon reported that they engaged in at least one of the three impulsive behaviors 4 times more frequently than persons who owned 5 or fewer guns.

This is the first study I have seen that finds a correlation between the numbers of guns owned  and a propensity to carry one of them around. It undercuts the usual pro-CCW argument that people carry guns to defend themselves against crime.  I always thought that folks who are “into” guns are more likely to carry one, simply because they enjoy doing whatever they can do with their guns.

Notwithstanding my admiration for Swanson’s overall work, I am a little skeptical of his conclusion in this article when he says that it is “reasonable to imagine” that many people with common mental disorders leading to angry, impulsive behavior have an arrest history and therefore should be denied access to guns.  Swanson joins other scholars who have called for more restricted access based on misdemeanors, DUI and other non-felonious behaviors, but I’m not convinced that research so far shows any link between angry impulses and using a gun.  I’m not saying the connection isn’t there; I’m saying that it remains to be found.

Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.

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The Injury Control Research Center has been engaged in fruitful and necessary gun research from a public health perspective since it was founded by David Hemenway whose book, Private Guns, Public Health, is a fundamental contribution to the field.  Since May, 2014 the Center has been engaged in an interesting survey effort to measure attitudes of gun researchers towards different aspects of the gun debate.  Each month they send a questionnaire to slightly less than 300 researchers who have published at least one a relevant, peer-reviewed article since 2011.  The questionnaires cover virtually every major argument about guns, from background checks to concealed carry to safe storage and beyond.

     David Hemenway

David Hemenway

The results to date were just summarized in a Mother Jones article which compared the responses of the survey respondents to the arguments against gun control that are made by the NRA.  Not surprisingly, the difference between the public health consensus and the NRA positions on the same gun issues are, to put it mildly, about as wide as what God did to the two sides of the Red Sea.  Here are some salient examples of those differences:

  • The NRA says a gun with a home is safer than a home without a gun, two-thirds of the public health researchers disagreed.
  • The NRA says that guns are used much more frequently in self-defense than in crime, three-quarters of the researchers said it was the other way around.
  • The spread of concealed-carry laws, according to the NRA, has reduced crime, six out of ten researchers disagreed.

What the Mother Jones article did not point out, however, is that the Harvard survey also asked respondents to evaluate the quality of the research, from ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’  on which their responses were based.  On only one question were the researchers overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of the research that formed their response, namely, whether a gun in the home made it a safer place.  Only 25% of the respondents felt the research on this issue was medium or weak, whereas more than half believed the research to be ‘strong’ or ‘very strong.’  In other words, of the nine survey questions that have been answered to date, this question not only showed a strong response indicating that a gun did not make a home safer, but it also showed the highest rate of validation in terms of the quality of the relevant research.

How is it that of all the major issues on guns that David Hemenway and his Harvard colleagues surveyed, this issue – the risk versus benefit of owning a gun – not only shows the widest disparity between public health researchers and the NRA, but an equally-wide disparity between public health researchers and the public at large?  I am referring to the recent Gallup poll where  63% said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?’ This is the fourth time the poll has been taken since 2000, and it was the first time that the affirmative response reached above 60%, never mind ever previously climbing above 50%.

Public concern about global warming was basically non-existent in the U.S. until the 1980s, and as late as 2006 a slight majority of Americans still didn’t think it was a major issue.  But the tide seems to have turned in the last few years, and now only petroleum-funded public figures like Jim Imhofe dare to suggest that global warming isn’t a fact of life.  We can also dismiss the mutterings of the GOP’s most recently-announced Presidential candidate because he mutters about everything.

What can’t be dismissed is the fact that research on the risks versus benefits of gun ownership have failed to persuade a majority of Americans that they would be safer without their guns.  And nothing persuades me that the public perception will change just because the public health community conducts more research. There’s a disconnect here that has yet to be explained.

 

Everytown Does A New Video And It Really Hits The Mark.

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Shannon and the Everytown chicks have just posted a new video which you should watch and push out to all your friends. It’s a collection of excerpts from various appearances by Wayne-o starting with a rather statesmanlike comment quoting Churchill to a descent into lunacy about how a Glock or S&W will protect you from destruction of the national power grid.  The NRA didn’t invent the culture of fear, but they go out of their way to convince their members that the world is going to hell in a hand basket unless everyone goes out and buys a gun.

I like Everytown’s video for two reasons.  First, it’s artistically done and its theme, “fear is not the American way,” is a strong response to the endless fear-mongering by the NRA to promote the false idea that we are weak and therefore need to be afraid. I also like this video is because it’s funny as hell.  The five kids are remarkably cute; they riff their lines with a combination of innocent panache and joyful delight – the video-ending flip of the script is a moment to behold and I guarantee that you’ll play those few seconds again and again.

everytown logo                What both disarms and concerns me about pro-gun video messaging is they take themselves so friggin’ seriously.  I have watched hundreds of minutes of Billy Johnson, Colion Noir, Dom Raso and other NRA commentators, and they never crack a smile, not even a little grin.  The NSSF video on gun safety featuring Julie Golob had some good-looking kids giving brief testimonials, but if you turned off the sound you’d think they were all describing a funeral or some other tragic event.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of humor on the pro-gun side.  The last time I went to the NRA show the featured comic at the banquet was Dennis Miller, who’s about as funny as swallowing a bar of soap. But the real reason the marketers promoting the NRA brand take themselves and their message so seriously is because they don’t want their audience, or their would-be audience, to misunderstand what guns are all about.

The NRA began selling guns for self-protection back in the late 1980s when urban crime appeared to briefly spiral out of control.  In 1992 the violent crime rate was 757 per 100,000, in 1983 it was 538, an increase of 40% in just nine years. Nine years later, in 2001, it had dropped back down to 504, but the psychological damage had been done.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century Americans believed they were under threat from crime; they still believe today that crime is seriously on the rise.

It doesn’t really matter whether guns can or cannot protect us from crime.  What matters is what people think about the world around them, particularly the world in which they work and live.  And as Barry Glassner, the foremost authority on the culture of fear reminds us, “Americans have remained inordinately fearful of unlikely dangers,” and when the danger is unlikely, the response, such as carrying a gun, is just as misdirected as the fear itself.

Next week the NRA comes to Nashville for the annual big-deal event, and I can guarantee you that speakers like Perry, Santorum, Rubio, Cruz and Palin will be trying to outbash each other to see who can ratchet up the highest level of fear; fear of Obama, fear of Isis, fear of losing all those guns.  It’s too late for this year but maybe in 2016 the gun-sense groups can get together and hold their own big event. Every organization can have a booth, there won’t be any problem finding vendors to sell the usual junk and most of the big-time rock bands would probably show up for free.  I’ll even read some of my gun blogs – that would draw quite a crowd.  Call it the Convention of Hope; that’s a nice antidote to the NRA’s peddling of fear.  And it just might work.  It might.

 

If We Curb Straw Sales Do We Curb Gun Crime? I’m Not So Sure.

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Last week the NSSF announced they were going to bring their Don’t Lie for the Other Guy billboard campaign to Oakland, CA, Wilmington, DE and Camden, NJ.  They claim that the campaign will generate more than 11 million weekly “media” impressions, which I guess is the number of people who might drive past these billboards in a week.  I always thought that the only roadside billboard which made any impression on drivers was the one that reads Next Exit, but the NSSF probably knows something about advertising that I don’t know.

The gun industry has been promoting this campaign for years, the idea being that conducting a background check for over-the-counter transfers deters “straw” sales. The industry has also been fighting tooth and nail to prevent background checks on transfers of guns that take place outside of a gun shop, but since you can’t lie on a background check form if there is no background check form, in their own stupid way at least the NSSF’s Don’t Lie campaign is nothing if not consistent.

dont lie               One area in which both sides of the gun debate appear to agree is the idea that straw sales are a major source of guns that end up being used in crime.  Obviously the Don’t Lie campaign is based on this premise;  ditto are statements from the various gun-safety advocacy groups.  But when it comes to getting on the Let’s Stop Straw Sales bandwagon, nobody outdoes the ATF.  Not only does ATF partner with the NSSF in the Don’t Lie campaign, but they take the whole thing a step further by running educational seminars for dealers and distributing thousands of Don’t Lie campaign kits to gun shops nationwide. The ATF takes this issue very serious because, according to them, “The denial of guns to prohibited persons is critical to the mission of ATF in preventing violent crime and protecting the nation.”

Which brings us full circle back to the reason for the concern about straw sales in the first place, namely, keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  The idea that we can deter crime by defining certain groups of crime-prone people who are, ipso facto, unable to legally acquire a gun was the basic premise of the GCA68, as well as the Brady bill of 1994. According to the FBI, more than 700,000 gun transfers were denied over the past ten years, which resulted in “saving lives and protecting people from harm.”  In other words, thanks to the NICS system, roughly 70,000 people each year were prevented by NICS from getting their ‘wrong hands’ on guns.  Which brings up some interesting questions:  If 70,000 would-be criminals couldn’t walk into a gun shop each year and briefly thereafter depart with a gun, how come the number of gun homicides since 2000 hasn’t declined at all?  How come the overall rate of firearm violence has not essentially changed since 2003?

I’ll tell you why.  Because maybe, just maybe the ability of criminals to get their ‘wrong’ hands on all those crime guns doesn’t have all that much to do with straw sales.  The Justice Department estimates that at least 200,000 guns are stolen each year, and that’s probably a minimal number at best. Of course the ATF will chime in and tell you that each year they have done more than 300,000 traces of confiscated guns over the same period of time, but if you look at their trace reports carefully you’ll notice that less than 20% involved guns picked up in serious crimes.

One way or another at least 100,000 – 150,000 guns get added to the ‘wrong hands’ arsenal each year without anyone committing a straw purchase at all.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against extending background checks to secondary transactions or private sales.  But for the last twenty years I’ve been listening to public health scholars and gun-safety advocates promote the necessity to curb straw sales and now the chorus also includes the NSSF. Anyone interested in doing something about theft?

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