Why Do Some People Commit Gun Violence But Most People Don’t?

Over the next couple of news cycles, no doubt gun violence prevention (GVP) advocates will be engaged in an intense discussion about whether Trump’s SCOTUS nominee will help open the floodgates for more pro-gun legal decisions.  But with all due respect to concerns and fears about whether the Age of Trump will see a further tilting of the legal landscape in favor of the NRA, I would suggest that perhaps there is a much more pressing issue which GVP needs to address.

urban             If the preliminary numbers turn out to be correct, 2016 will have seen a significant uptick in gun violence, and so far 2017 promises to be more of the same. And while there is certainly some kind of correlation between the existence of legal gun controls and gun violence levels, the truth is that we still do not know why more than 120,000 Americans pick up a gun, point it at themselves or someone else and pull the trigger each year.  Theories may abound, but the reality is that we just don’t know.  So how you do come up with an effective strategy in response to a problem when you cannot say with any degree of certainty that you know why the problem exists?

And don’t make the mistake of following the CDC in this respect and begin by making some kind of distinction between intentional gun injuries on the one hand, and unintentional gun injuries on the other. Because the people who commit intentional gun injuries (males, ages 15 to 35) also happen to be the people who shoot themselves or other accidentally with a gun. To paraphrase Walter Mosley, if you put your hand on a gun, it’s going to go off sooner or later.

But what’s interesting is that gun violence, as serious and scary as it may be to those either directly or indirectly involved, is still, statistically speaking, a rare event.  Last year over one million people were arrested for trying to really injure another person, what is called aggravated assault.  In less than 6% of those attacks, the attacker used a gun. How come the other 95% didn’t use a gun?  And don’t tell me they couldn’t get their hands on a gun.  And even though people who commit suicides use a gun in half those successful attempts, what about the other half?  After all, using a gun to end your life is really about the only way you can guarantee to really get the job done.

Virtually all of our knowledge about the how and why of gun violence comes from public health research which, notwithstanding the lack of funding, continues to appear.  But virtually all the research, in keeping with public health methodology, attempts to create an epidemiology of gun violence; i.e., figuring out how to respond to the injury by figuring out where, when and how it occurs.  Which tells us a lot about who gets shot, but tells us next to nothing about the shooters themselves.  Which wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that as I said above, the 115,000+ gun injuries that occur each year are, for the most part, rare events.

To which the immediate objection is that maybe on an overall basis gun violence is an infrequent event, but in certain neighborhoods it’s as frequent and common as the veritable slice of apple pie. Except that even in the worst, most violent-ridden neighborhood say, West Chi, most crimes of violence are committed without the use of a gun.

So where does this leave us when it comes to figuring out a strategy for reducing gun violence? To be sure, if Judge Gorsuch is a threat he deserves to be opposed and condemned.  But when it comes to ending gun carnage, he’s not the elephant sitting in the living room.  The elephant is what we still don’t know about why people pick up guns to hurt themselves or someone else, and we need to figure that one out.

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6 thoughts on “Why Do Some People Commit Gun Violence But Most People Don’t?

  1. ” … the truth is that we still do not know why more than 120,000 Americans pick up a gun, point it at themselves or someone else and pull the trigger each year. ”

    Actually, we do know. But to get there you need to abandon the current morality framework which says that everybody thinks the same way, but some people had a poor moral upbringing. Neuroscience (with the emphasis on the ‘science’ bit) says that if someone a) has the ‘warrior’ gene, detectable using a mouth swab, and b) had a abusive childhood, then c) they can be very violent. I also suspect that the reason why alcohol is a problem is that effectively it allows a) to be displayed without the need for b).

    A case in the US, involved a man who shot his wife and his wife’s friend. He killed the friend, severely injured his wife, and pleaded guilty to premeditated murder. Mitigating, his lawyer hired a neuroscientist. The tests indicated that he had the warrior gene. He also had a violent childhood. He was found guilty, but of a lower level offense.

    Unfortunately, the politicians don’t seem to have noticed. Like a pub boor, they want to inflict their opinions on everyone around. Hence the laws which exist.

    “In less than 6% of those attacks, the attacker used a gun. How come the other 95% didn’t use a gun?”

    The attacker used whatever came to hand. Literally in many cases.

    “And even though people who commit suicides use a gun in half those successful attempts, what about the other half? ”

    Suicides are impulsive behaviour. If the person cannot immediately get a gun they will use something else, often poisons or bleach. In countries with fewer guns, this is often the result. If they fail, they almost invariably don’t go back for another go.

  2. Recently there have been articles written about the correlation between prior violence (domestic, etc) and mass shooters. Thoughts?

    Sent from Gail Lehmann’s iPad 203-438-7755

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    • Unfortunately I cannot assist, since I don’t have access to the data. This is certainly the theory behind US background checks, that someone who would pose a risk with a gun has already done something else violent, enough to have their gun purchase blocked. The UK system of licensing relies upon a police interview, and observation of behaviour by other fun owners,in the hope that they will show aberrant behaviour before they do something violent. Neither incorporates insights from neuroscience.

  3. There is a vast research literature explaining violence, not gun violence specifically, from sociological, psychological, biological/genetic, and economic perspectives. Unless you believe in the “weapons effect”, guns do not “cause” violence. Rather, their presence when an act of violence (including self-directed violence) is committed, makes a lethal or debilitating outcome more likely. Thus, guns enable lethal violence, rather than cause violence to occur. Prior violence may be a predictor of violence but it is not an explanation although being a victim of violence may help explain a retaliatory act.

  4. A close reading of history suggests that aggressive violence has often been seen, in many times and places, as a rational choice. It may be comforting to look into the genetics of impulse control, etc. to explain violence because it is always comforting to medicalize problematic behavior. But what are we to say about whole cultures that conducted raiding and pillaging as a matter of routine? A big problem for some N. American groups in adapting to modern ways was that without raiding and pillaging, their culture became meaningless. With the Comanches, for example, the sole path for young men to gain adult status (and wives) involved committing what most people now would call murder. It might be worthwhile to look at the effect of committing violent aggression has on the perceived sexual attractiveness of the young men who do it in the eyes of the young women of their sub-cultures.

  5. Pingback: Why Do Some People Commit Gun Violence But Most People Don’t? | Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning"

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