The United Nations Speaks Out On Gun Violence

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published a study of global homicide that should be required reading for everyone who has an interest in dealing with gun violence.  The 100+-page report is breathtaking in its scope and detail, and is without doubt the most comprehensive study of its kind to ever see the light of day.  When it comes to talking about crime, violence and guns I’m not usually comfortable with cross-country comparisons because there are so many historical, economic, cultural and social variables that constitute the makeup of any country so as to make comparisons between countries risky at best. But what stands out in this report is its methodology and its comprehensiveness to the point that its analysis and conclusions simply can’t be overlooked.

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The report is based on hundreds of published and unpublished sources, as well as homicide data from both law enforcement agencies and public health organizations in just about every one of the 192 countries that comprise the U.N.  I didn’t do an exact comparison, but a quick eyeball of the data appears to suggest that in countries where homicide data is available from both law enforcement agencies and public health organizations, that the latter number is more often higher than the former for reasons that the report does not make clear.  The report also gives very comprehensive, global data on the percentage of homicides in each country that are committed using guns. And here is where a cross-national comparison needs to be made.

Of all the countries that furnished data on the types of weapons used in homicides, the data suggests that slightly more than 40% of worldwide homicides were committed using a gun.  The United States, in this regard, contains roughly 2% of the world’s population but accounted for 4% of the world’s homicides, and has a gun-homicide rate in excess of 60%.  In Europe, by contrast, the gun homicide rate is slightly above 20%.    Last week, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a very important article covering research into suicide and homicide rates relative to access to guns.  The authors found a very strong correlation between gun access and suicide, and a less strong but nevertheless  noticeable link between homicides and guns.

I’ll burden you with only one link to the numerous research that has attempted to prove that there is not only a connection between our homicide rate and guns but the extent to which it is elevated because of easy access to guns.  And this research invariably “proves” this point by comparing data between the United States and other Western countries, most of whom have much lower homicide rates and make it much more difficult to buy and certainly to carry guns.  But in reading the U.N. report one statistic leaps off the page and makes me wonder whether this comparison means anything at all.

According to the U.N., Italy has  homicide rate of 1 per 100,000, which is basically the average for Europe as a whole.  By comparison, our homicide rate in this report is 5 times higher than Italy’s rate.  On the other hand, the report states that 60% of our homicides are committed with guns, but in Italy the rate of homicides committed with guns is nearly 70%.  As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s always difficult to make cross-country comparisons with any degree of certainty, but this comparison at least suggests that the correlation between homicide rates and access to guns may not be all that exact.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not casting doubt on the research efforts or outcomes of my public health colleagues when it comes to explaining the danger of guns.  I’m just impressed by the wealth of data assembled by the U.N. report and I only hope it gets wider attention here at home.

 

Is There Enough Data On Gun Violence? I Think So.

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The current issue of the journal Pediatrics contains a disturbing article on childhood gun violence; disturbing for what it says and for what it doesn’t say.  The article uses a relatively new source for analyzing the incidence and cost of child and adolescent hospitalizations for gunshot wounds and comes up with numbers that are much higher than previously believed to be the case.  The authors examined data from hospitals that cover 96% of the total U.S. population and computed their estimates based on admissions under the age of 20 coded for any type of gunshot wound.

1911In brief, the researchers found that there were almost 7,400 hospitalizations for gunshot wounds in 2009, with the overwhelming majority concentrated in African-American males ages 15 to 19.  This group accounted for more than half of all the hospitalizations, with a rate at least ten times higher than White males of the same age.  The racial disparity in gun violence between Blacks and Whites of all ages is significant, but it appears to be highest in the late adolescent years.

The article is important because it is derived from a data source that is probably more representative than any other source used by public health researchers to date.  Nevertheless, the findings about the incidence and demographics of adolescent gun violence are not substantially different from what we already know. Frankly, if there’s anyone out there who still needs to see more data to convince them that gun violence,  particularly directed at adolescents, is a public health issue, then that’s someone who won’t be convinced there’s a problem even if they took a bullet in the head.

mini for blogI think that physicians, public health researchers and other health professionals need to stop accumulating data about gun violence and start figuring out effective and realistic strategies for dealing with the problem itself.  They also need to stop being concerned about whether their research can be used to offset the continued promotional activities of the NRA.  The NRA isn’t in the business of doing research on gun violence or doing research on anything else.  The NRA is in the business of marketing guns.  And as long as its message doesn’t create the risk of legal retaliation, the NRA will keep telling its members what they want to hear.  Which may or may not have anything to do with the facts.

The advocacy groups and medical professionals that want to end gun violence need to figure out how to end gun violence, whether or not their strategies appeal to gun owners, or non-gun owners or anyone and everyone else.  Gun violence is aberrant behavior and while we know everything we need to know about the results of this behavior, we know next to nothing about why people who commit this kind of behavior act the way they do. If we figured out this behavior perhaps we would have a better chance of stopping it before it begins.

 

When Is A Crime Not A Crime? Beats Hell Outta Me.

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Remember the old doggerel about if a tree fell in the forest and nobody heard it, did it really fall? I’m running into the same kind of problem in trying to understand the data on crime.  There are two agencies that publish crime data: the FBI (Uniform Crime Reports) and the BJS (National Crime Victimization Survey.) With one exception, all of this information comes from statements by crime victims who may or may not choose to report the crime. The one exception is homicide because it’s pretty tough to hide a dead body plus, given the severity of the crime, the moment we even think it has taken place, everyone gets into the act.  Otherwise, there isn’t a single category of serious (or non-serious) crime whose occurrence can be counted or even estimated without the cooperation of the victims themselves.

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I have been trying to figure out how many crimes really take place for two reasons. First, the question has become a big political football in the ongoing debate about guns.  The NRA and its allies claim that the drop in violent crime over the last twenty years demonstrates both the futility of more gun laws and the efficacy of concealed-carry permits as a further defense against crime.  The gun control crowd, on the other hand, points to the fact that although the overall rate of serious crime has declined, the homicide rate due to the proliferation of guns, is still much higher than we would like.

The second reason that I have been trying to figure this out lies in the disparity between crime data generated by the FBI as opposed to crime victim data produced by the BJS.  The gap between those two reports has narrowed considerably over the last number of years, but it is still significant enough to make me wonder whether the numbers can be trusted at all.  As a starter, let’s compare crime data for 2012, the most recent year for crime data published by both agencies.  According to the FBI, there were 1,214,462 homicides, forcible rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults committed that year. According to the BJS, there were 2,084700 serious criminal victimizations that same year, and this number does not include the nearly 15,000 homicides reported by the FBI.  Now according to the BJS, virtually all the victmizations covered by their survey are reported to the police, but I since the data for this assertion is presented in terms of rates per 1,000 rather than raw numbers, I can’t really figure out why such a discrepancy between between the two reports exists.

And the discrepancy becomes much greater if we go back to the period when, according to both agencies, there was a lot more crime.  Let’s look at the data for 1996, which is considered the high-water mark for crime levels over the last two decades.  According to the FBI, there were 1,688,540 serious crimes reported in 1996, the number of 1996 victimizations, according to BJS, was 3,371,445 (adding the murders counted by the FBI.) In that year the difference between BJS and FBI numbers was 2:1, again, a discrepancy which neither agency seems able to explain.

But what this might explain are all the public polls which indicate that most people believe that violent crime in on the rise, even when the official numbers keep show that it is going down.  In a survey published last year during the debate over a new gun control law,  Pew found that a majority of Americans (56%) believed that crime was at higher levels than during the 1990’s, and only 12% thought it had gone down.

The difference between the data from the FBI and the BJS can’t just be dismissed as stemming from different definitions of crime or different methods of  data collection or different something else. You can, in fact, read a very detailed statement about the difference between the two sets of data published by the Department of Justice (which oversees both agencies) but it doesn’t offer even the slightest acknowledgement that the disparity in numbers published by the two agencies calls into question the accuracy of either one.

Do We Understand Gun Violence? Not Yet.

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Yesterday a very important article appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine that once again appears to demonstrate a strong link between homicide and suicide rates and availability of firearms.  The authors, led by Andrew Anglemyer of the University of California, San Francisco, conducted an extensive search of all relevant published and unpublished studies, compared, synthesized and correlated results and confirmed that access to firearms “is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.”

This is not a new piece of news for the public health community, although it will be viewed with suspicion and distrust by groups like the NRA that view everything about guns produced by public health researchers with suspicion and distrust.  Research on links between guns and violence directed either outward or inward has been going on since the early 1990’s and the results always seem to be the same.  To quote my favorite authority on the subject of gun violence, the author Walter Mosley, “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”

Union St., Springfield, MA

Union St., Springfield, MA

But now that we have exhaustively shown when the gun will go off, either in a homicide or a suicide, the problem still remains to figure out the why.  Because even though 30,000 gun homicides and suicides is a big number, let’s not forget that there are some 35 million homes where guns can be found, which means that somewhere around 90 million people have access to those guns, which means that roughly 89,970,000 Americans who could have used a gun to commit a homicide or a suicide chose not to do so.

What we usually do is to figure out where the people live who use guns to hurt themselves or others, and once we figure that out, then we try to identify the users themselves.  Which is easy to do in the case of suicides, because the shooter and the victim are both lying there on the floor.  It’s less easy to figure out in the case of homicides, where a police department that makes an arrest in more than one out of every two homicides is doing a pretty good job.   What we don’t seem to do is what David Hemenway calls the “individual-level studies of perpetrators;” in other words, why do certain people carry and use guns?”

The answer tends to focus on what Hemenway calls “ecological” studies which make connections between gun violence and the socio-economic factors that create environments in which high levels of gun violence occur.  And we now know that if we look at a community or a neighborhood with high rates of violence and gun homicide, we can usually also find high rates of unemployment, family dysfunction, educational underachievement and the usual list of inner-city ills.

With all due respect to this scholarship however, and I have nothing but admiration for the many dedicated researchers who have been studying this problem for, lo these many years, I also think they are ignoring one important point.  The multi-family dwelling pictured above is the location in Springfield, MA, of at least three and possibly four homicides over the last 19 months.  The area within one-quarter mile of this address contains every facility and resource that the 4,000 residents of that area ever use: school, church, hospital, community center, police station, playground, supermarket, deli and fast foods.

The city of Springfield had 25 homicides over the last 19 months and 4 of them happened here.  Springfield had a homicide rate per 100,000 of 12 – three times the national average – but this street had a homicide rate of 50 per 100,000.  And they didn’t all happen in one day.  They were spread out over 19 months and the most recent occurred last week.

I wouldn’t be surprised if what goes on in front of 435 Union Street in Springfield is what goes on in every city where high levels of gun homicides take place.   It’s not just about the demographics of the inner city, because even on bloody Union Street 3,996 of the 4,000 neighborhood residents haven’t found a reason to pull out a gun. Hemenway is correct when he calls for individual-level studies of shooters, but some way will have to be found to study them one at a time.

 

The Florida Movie Shooting: Why Back Down if You Have A Gun?

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This past Monday, a retired, 71 year-old Tampa policeman named Curtis Reeves, shot and killed another, younger man in a movie theater evidently because his victim would not stop texting during the Coming Attractions and in the argument which then ensued, hurled an “unknown object” at the cop which may have been deadly weapon known as a bag of popcorn. The victim, Chad Oulson, was sitting in the row in front of Reeves and was not making any effort to climb over the seat but a well-aimed bag of popcorn can, as is well known, be a dangerous thing.

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According to the FBI, there were  260 justifiable homicides committed by civilians in 2011, of which guns were used 75% of the time.  There were also 12,664 murders in 2011, of which roughly 8,800 were committed with guns.  Of the 12,664 felony homicides, about half started as arguments and then things got out of control.  Assuming that the ratio of murders to gun use stayed constant, between 3,000 and 4,000 gun murders occurred in 2011 that were no different from what happened in a Florida movie theater; a little yelling back and forth followed by a few fuck you’s, and then out comes the gun.

In this recent case, the shooter first complained to the theater management but nothing was done.  But the point is he knew there were other options which suddenly turned into non-options as the argument got out of hand.  The question that needs to be asked is what would Reeves had done if he hadn’t been armed with a gun?  His victim was younger, bigger and stronger.  Without a gun Reeves would have had no choice but to avoid a confrontation by walking away from the scene.

The next time that Wayne LaPierre or John Lott go on television to tell us how unsafe we are in gun-free zones, someone should ask them what they would have done had they been inside the theater where this tragic event took place. Would they have walked over during the argument and intervened? Would they have waited until Reeves pulled his weapon and then tried to shoot him down just in case the shooting of Oulson was the beginning of a rampage that had to be brought to an end?  I’m not asking these questions to be silly.  I’m asking them because this is what really happens when someone believes they can protect everyone around them because they are carrying a gun.

The problem with thinking of guns as defensive weapons is that the argument cuts both ways.  The guy who walks around carrying a gun may think he’s protecting himself and others against crime, but he also knows that if he gets into an argument he doesn’t have to back down. I find it interesting that proponents of defensive gun use cite all kinds of public surveys in which people are asked whether the fact that they were carrying a gun kept a crime from taking place.  But I haven’t seen any surveys where they interview guys in prison who pulled out a gun and shot someone because it was the “only” way they could settle an argument on favorable terms.

Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.  Maybe when it comes out that the bag of popcorn could have caused serious or fatal damage to Reeves that he’ll be lionized by the NRA as another ‘good guy with a gun.’  And maybe the people all over America who sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to George Zimmerman can now send their hard-earned money to Curtis Reeves because he really didn’t so anything wrong.

Want To See Crime Go Down? Buy An Anti-Theft Device For Your Car

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There will be plenty of debate over the next couple of years about Mike Bloomberg’s tenure as Mayor of New York but just about everyone agrees that perhaps his biggest accomplishment was transforming most of New York City into a crime-free zone.  Sure, there are still neighborhoods that aren’t safe, particularly some inner-city parts of Brooklyn and The Bronx. But if you live just about anywhere else in the five boroughs that comprise America’s most populous metropolis, the high levels of crime and violence that engulfed much of the city in the 1970’s and 1980’s seem to belong to a very distant past.

nypdOf course we also know that the drop in crime after the early 90’s wasn’t unique just to New York.  Virtually every major metropolitan area registered steep declines in violent and property crimes beginning in the early 90’s and lasting for about ten years.  Nationally, the violent crime rate dropped from 747 crimes per 100,000 in 1993 to to 386.9 in 2012, a decline of nearly 50%.  Property crime went down over the same period about 40%, a remarkable change given the extent of the recession of 2007-2008.

In most parts of the country the decline of crime leveled around 2005 and has moved slightly upwards over the last several years.  But remarkably enough, not only did the crime decline continue in New York but it actually became even more pronounced over the last several years.  Frank Zimring, who studied New York crime through 2009, estimates that New York’s crime decline between 2000 and 2009 was at least twice as great as that of any other major American city, and in certain specific crime categories crime declined in New York over other cities to an even greater degree.

There are lots of theories out there that attempt to explain why the decline of crime in New York is both so steep and prolonged.  Much of the credit usually goes to much more aggressive policing aided by computer-aided deployment of resources in high-crime zones.  Tracking and curtailing the activity of street gangs and gun merchants also come in for examples of strategies that seem to work.  But if you ask me, one of the real heroes in figuring out how to cut crime in New York should be the insurance agent who figured out that nifty idea to offer policy discounts for vehicles equipped with electronic burglar alarms, because if there’s one thing that’s driving (no pun intended) New York crime rates downhill, it’s the virtual disappearance from many neighborhoods of automobile theft.

Between 2000 and 2013, the category known as ‘grand larceny – auto’ dropped by more than 80%!  No other crime category declined at that rate and no other crime category  declined by at least 50% in every precinct in the town.  The 5th precinct in lower Manhattan had just one reported vehicle theft per month, the 100th precinct in Far Rockaway, Queens, had less than two car thefts every 30 days.  Even though car ownership in New York City is far below the national average, the DMV reports that there are still nearly 2 million vehicles registered in the city, and daily commuter traffic no doubt boosts this number by at least another half-million or more. With all that traffic there were less than 7,500 vehicle thefts reported for all of 2013.  The police and Mike Bloomberg have done quite a job.

Actually the drop in auto thefts has little to do with effective policing because the truth is that with the new technologies it’s getting harder to steal a car every day.  Of course a car thief may luck out and find a car door unlocked or a forgotten set of keys.  But between incentives provided by insurance companies and aggressive enforcement of alternate-side parking which drives vehicle owners to keep cars off the streets, staying in business as a car thief isn’t an easy gig.

But if the cops and the Mayor don’t deserve so much credit for making it tough on car thieves, then this substantially changes the profile of crime in New York over the last twenty years.  Because if we pull the auto theft numbers out of the overall crime data covering the last ten years, all of a sudden New York’s vaunted crime decline becomes somewhat less steep.  In fact, the overall drop in crime since 2000 is no longer 50% but comes out around 20 percentage points less.  This is still a very impressive number but it’s far below the level being thrown in Bill DeBlasio’s face today.  I only hope that the new Mayor also knows how to read between the lines.

Dumb, Dumber, Not Yet Dumbest

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This year we will hold a contest for the dumbest thing that anyone says about guns.  Believe me, there will be plenty of candidates and I invite all my readers to submit any candidates for the award.  In the meantime, I’m going to start off with the first nomination: State Legislator Leslie Combs (D-Pikeville) who “accidentally” shot off a gun in her State House office.  “I didn’t want to use it any more,” she explained, “so I thought that I would just put that sucker away.”

Rep. Leslie Combs

Rep. Leslie Combs

Want to make sure a gun is empty before putting that ‘sucker’ away?  Just pull the trigger and if the sucker goes off, at least you know that the round in the chamber is no longer there.  Of course another round could now be in the chamber but what the hell, as Representative Combs explained to the media, “I’m a gun owner, it happens.” Duhhh.

Actually, Leslie Combs has to share this week’s Dumb award with someone else, namely, Tracey Goodlett, head of the Kentucky chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense which just last week came together with Mike Blooomberg’s organization to form one big, happy coalition to help rid America of the scourge of guns.  Ms. Goodlett and her organization called for the “immediate resignation” of Representative Combs because her behavior not only endangered her own life but the life of another legislator who happened to be standing in her office when the little sucker went off. The Moms press release went on to say that “Rep. Combs’ actions set a poor example for those who hold her in high regard, including Kentucky’s children.”

I don’t know whether the citizens of the Blue Grass State hold Leslie Combs in high regard or not, but it seems to me that if anyone calls for her resignation it should be because she’s too dumb to hold elected office and certainly too dumb to own a gun.  Oops!  The 2nd Amendment doesn’t qualify the right to bear arms based on IQ, so I guess we’ll have to let that one fly.  On the other hand, the whole point of owning and carrying a gun is that what happened in Leslie Combs’s office shouldn’t happen and her comment, “it happens” because she owns a gun gets the first Dumb Award of 2014.  After all, would it have happened if she didn’t own a gun?

The NRA has three basic rules that every person must follow when they pick up a gun: (1). Always point it in a safe direction; (2). Don’t touch the trigger until you’re ready to shoot; (3). Make sure the gun isn’t loaded unless Rules #1 and #2 are in effect.  Virtually every gun accident occurs when one or a combination of those three rules aren’t followed and Leslie Combs has no doubt been taught those rules as well.  The issue isn’t whether Rep. Combs was careless and  forgot how to deal safely with her gun.  The real issue is whether anyone should be walking around with an item where the briefest lapse can result in terrible harm.  Leslie Combs can  afford to downplay the seriousness of that ‘sucker’ going off because neither she nor her legislative colleague took a bullet in the leg.  But what if the gun had been pointed up instead of down and the round ended up going through her head?

Unfortunately, the hysterical-nonsensical comments from the Moms organization don’t clarify the problem but simply make it more difficult to figure out what, if anything, we should do.  I really wish the Moms and all the other gun control advocacy groups would stop pretending that they support the 2nd Amendment because the truth is that from their point of view, safety doesn’t begin with everyone carrying a gun, it begins when guns are no longer around. So let’s drop the false pretenses and have an honest debate.  The novelist Walter Mosley put it this way: “If you carry a gun around, it’s going to go off sooner or later.”  Is he right or is he wrong?  That’s really what the gun debate is all about.

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