Should We Ban Assault Rifles?

              I normally don’t watch the Democratic debates because it’s still too early in the primary season and no matter who ends up with the nomination I’m going to vote blue every, single time. You see, I have this congenital physical ailment which when I get into a voting booth and reach for the Republican lever, my arm gets paralyzed and I can’t vote. I’m a bone fide gun nut and a yellow-dog Democrat and I’m proud of both.

              So I didn’t watch the debate last night but I did happen to see commentaries about the exchange between Buttigieg and Beto over Beto’s call for a mandatory buyback of AR-15’s. As I understand it, the media has decided that the Democrats are split between a ‘middle’ led by Joe and a ‘radical’ led maybe by Bernie, maybe by Warren, maybe by Ocasio, blah, blah, blah and blah. And the media has further decided that Buttigieg is somewhere in the middle while Beto is somewhere on the extreme. And what the media has decided is the acid test for where these two guys perch is over the issue of getting rid of AR-15’s.

              Now who would have ever thought that any kind of gun issue would be used to define the basic stance of the candidate who wants to lead the blue ticket in the national election next year?  I can see defining the candidates on something like universal health care, or whether or not to ‘tax the rich,’ or some other issue which hits in the middle of the must-do zone. But guns?

              Anyway, the argument between Buttigieg and Beto erupted because the kid from Texas has opted for a mandatory buyback of assault rifles, while Buttigieg wants to try and remain somehow relevant to Gun-nut Nation by saying that we can ask but shouldn’t require that gun owners turn over those lethal guns. And the way that Buttigieg is framing the argument is to challenge Beto to explain exactly how he is going to force assault-rifle owners to turn over their guns.

              Beto doesn’t yet have a plan to invoke the coercive authority of the government to get rid of all those black guns, but why should he be made to come clean on this issue when Liz Warren has promised to reduce gun violence by 80 percent without yet producing any plan at all? And let me tell you something about Lizzie; she produces position papers on just about everything under the sun. But so far we still don’t know how 120,000 fatal and non-fatal gun injuries each year will be cut down to 20,000 or less. So why should we expect Beto to explain how the government will pick up and throw out some crummy, semi-automatic guns?

              If this is the best that Buttigieg can do to vault himself ahead of Beto in the polls, I think he should go back to South Bend and figure out to keep the city parks neat and clean. That’s what municipal mayors are paid to do – collect the garbage, sweep the streets, make sure that everyone scoops up their doggie doo-doo, essential city services like that.  If someone asked me to go out and campaign for Buttigieg after he challenged Beto on something as stupid as whether an assault weapon buyback should be mandatory or not, to quote my old friend Jimmy Breslin, rather I should go lay brick.

              Mandating or not mandating a buyback of assault rifles isn’t going to make any great difference in how we deal with the violence caused by guns. What a buyback does, mandated or not, is to keep the issue of gun lethality where it belongs, namely, whether people understand the risks inherent in owning certain kinds of guns.

If you want to own an assault rifle and assume the risk, that’s fine. We all do risky things every day. But anyone who tells you that an AR-15 is just another ‘sporting’ gun is either lying or doesn’t know anything about guns.

Advertisements

Tom Gabor: Gun Violence Is A Violation Of Human Rights

With mass shootings this summer at a Walmart in El Paso, a California garlic festival, and in Dayton’s entertainment district, Americans can justifiably ask whether they are safe in any setting.  A related question is whether people have the right to be safe in their communities.  Do children have the right to attend school without fearing a mass shooting? 

            Debates over gun policy take place on two major fronts.  First, there are the scientific arguments as to whether gun ownership levels in an area, gun carrying, or the presence of guns in the home enhance or detract from public or personal safety.  Most of the science in this area indicates that raising levels of gun ownership is detrimental to public safety overall.[i]  Certainly, there are instances in which guns are used successfully in self-defense but these cases are outnumbered many times over by those in which guns are used to commit crime, to threaten or intimidate others (including domestic partners), or to commit suicide.  Consider an FBI investigation of active shooter incidents.  Despite the fact that there are 120 guns for every 100 Americans, just one of 160 of these incidents studied by the Bureau was stopped by an armed civilian.[ii]

            The second front on which the gun debate is waged relates to civil rights.  This debate has largely been one-sided with gun rights advocates and the gun lobby frequently thwarting the passage of gun laws on the basis that the laws in question violate their Second Amendment rights. 

            The Second Amendment was interpreted historically by the courts as the right to bear arms within the context of militia service.  For example, in United States v. Miller (1939), two defendants who had been prosecuted for failing to register and pay a tax for possessing and carrying a sawed-off shotgun across state lines argued that such requirements under the National Firearms Act violated their Second Amendment rights.  The US Supreme Court ultimately ruled that such a weapon had no role in an organized militia and was therefore not protected by the Second Amendment. 

            Following a decades-long campaign by the National Rifle Association to promote the view that the Second Amendment guaranteed a right to bear arms to individuals outside of militia service—a view characterized by former Chief Justice Warren Burger as the greatest fraud on the American public—the US Supreme Court did rule in the 2008 Heller decision that individuals had the right to own an operable gun in the home for protection.  However, writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia—a hunter and a conservative—made it clear that this right was not unlimited and that laws regulating the carrying of firearms, denying gun ownership to felons and the mentally ill, and prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons did not violate the Second Amendment. 

            The militia view of the Amendment does not recognize the “right to keep and bear arms” as an individual right at all and, hence, is not an impediment to laws that would restrict gun ownership outside of militia service.  The Heller decision, too, leaves a great deal of room to regulate guns. In fact, since Heller, an overwhelming majority of Second Amendment challenges to federal, state, and local gun laws have been rejected by the courts.[iii]   Still, the NRA’s campaign to sell the narrative that individuals have an absolute right to possess virtually any firearm has altered public opinion and has led to endless debates about how limited or expansive is the right to bear arms. 

            What gets lost in these debates about gun rights is the vast majority of Americans who are not gun owners or who are otherwise concerned about public safety.  What about their rights to feel safe?  What about the rights of children who are terrified to go to school?  What about the right to speak one’s mind or to enjoy a night out without intimidation by people carrying guns?  These are not academic questions as the US has the most armed population in the world.  The US is also an outlier, relative to other high-income countries, with regard to the permissiveness of its laws in relation to gun carrying and the ownership of military-style weapons.  In addition, with one hundred Americans dying from gunfire and one mass shooting each day, the US is exceptional with regard to its high level of gun mortality.   Communities of all sizes are affected and marginalized communities suffer disproportionately.

            While the rights-based debate rages on about the meaning and scope of the Second Amendment, the right of the public as a whole to be safe from gun violence has been ignored.  The absence of attention to the public’s right to safety is surprising given that the US has signed or ratified a number of human rights conventions that can be applied to gun violence.  Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”[iv]  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that no person “shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life (Article 6).[v]  

            The US has also signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; however, African Americans have exceptionally high levels of gun mortality relative to the rest of the population, are disproportionately the victims of police-involved shootings and of vigilante-type shootings enabled by the Stand Your Ground laws passed by half the states.  While the US has signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the country has also been slow to protect women in the US as they are far more likely to be murdered by gunfire than in other advanced countries.  An abuser’s access to guns increases the risk of death to women by five-fold, yet laws generally allow men with a history of violence to get around background checks by purchasing guns on the private market, permit abusive boyfriends to own guns, and fail to require the surrender of guns by those who threaten women.  The US has signed but not ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child.  Still, US children and teens are 32 times more likely to die of a gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die of a gun suicide or accident than their peers in the other high-income countries combined.[vi] 

            The human rights group Amnesty International argues in a 2018 report,  In the Line of Fire, that the US has breached its commitments under international human rights law.  AI writes:  “The USA has failed to implement a comprehensive, uniform and coordinated system of gun safety laws and regulations particularly in light of the large number of firearms in circulation, which perpetuates unrelenting and potentially avoidable violence, leaving individuals susceptible to injury and death from firearms.”[vii]  

            AI further notes that, as part of the right to life and other human rights, the responsibilities of nations to prevent gun violence requires: 1) restricting access to firearms, especially on the part of those at an elevated risk of misusing them; and 2) implementing violence reduction measures where firearm misuse persists.  The human rights group asserts that nations should establish robust regulatory systems, including licensing, registration, restriction of certain weapon types, safe storage, research, and policy development.  Nationally, the US has done little or nothing in relation to any of these policies and has seen Congress, at the behest of the NRA, suppress funding for research dating back to 1996.  Amnesty notes that countries not only have obligations to protect the life of individuals from state agents but from actual or foreseeable threats at the hands of private actors as well.  Violence is especially foreseeable in low income neighborhoods with persistently high levels of violence, poor public services, and policing that may not comply with international standards.    

            It is time to recognize public safety as a human right and for the US to adopt national policies, such as the licensing of gun owners, restrictions on gun carrying, and a ban on weapons of war.  Consistent with the notion that public safety is a human right, I have drafted A Declaration of the Right of Americans to Live Free from Gun Violence—please visit: http://thomasgaborbooks.com/a-declaration-of-rights/.  I’m hoping that different levels of government and groups concerned about gun policy will endorse the Declaration and issue proclamations asserting that safety from gun violence is a human right.       


[i] For a review of the vast body of research on these matters, see T. Gabor’s Confronting Gun Violence in America (2019) or David Hemenway’s Private Guns, Public Health (2006).

[ii] FBI, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.

[iii] Giffords Law Center, Second Amendment Basics; https://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/the-second-amendment/second-amendment-basics/

[iv] Universal Declaration of Human Rights; https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[v] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/ccpr.pdf

[vi] Children’s Defense Fund.  Protect Children not Guns.

[vii] Amnesty International, In the Line of Fire:  Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis, p.5; https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/egv_exec_sum.pdf

Should The CDC Sponsor Gun Research?

It has been more than 30 years since the CDC eliminated gun violence from its research budget, but the hiatus may be coming to an end. The Democrats have stuck $50 million into the CDC budget, whether the line item will survive the usual horse-trading between the House and the Senate remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the fact that the funding of gun research is even being discussed by all the Democratic Presidential candidates is a development which many of us believed we would never live to see.

That being the case, I find myself in something of a dilemma because I am not sure that any of this research will necessarily yield positive results. Why do I say this? How can I afford to disagree so radically from a time-honored narrative supported by virtually everyone who wants gun violence to come to an end? After all, public policies should always be based on valid research, and who can provide such research about gun violence except my friends in public health?

 There’s only one little problem. Which is that the research activity on gun violence done by public health scholars to date lacks one, fundamental element that should be present in all evidence-based research, namely, a self-imposed requirement that the point of publishing research is to invite, indeed demand public critiques from other researchers in the same field.

Unfortunately, public health gun research is the only field of academic research which can’t seem to ever produce public debate of any kind. If I had a nickel for every gallon of ink spilled by public health researchers on the so-called mistakes made by John Lott, I could stop working for a living, go down to Delray Beach and buy a condo at King’s Point. On the other hand, if I had a nickel for every ounce of ink that public health researchers have spilled criticizing the work of themselves or their peers, maybe I should go down to Lake Okeechobee and rent an unfurnished trailer at Canal Point.

And by the way, I’m not so sure that Lott’s thesis about more legally-owned guns resulting in less crime is necessarily all that wrong. If you eliminate the words ‘legally-owned’ from his argument, what he says may be more correct than not. The problem with John’s work is that he assumes something about the spread of concealed-carry laws (CCW) which probably isn’t true; namely, that criminals intent on attacking someone else usually commit violent crimes against law-abiding folks.

In fact, most victims of violent crimes happen to be the same kinds of people who commit those crimes; younger, minority males living in inner-city neighborhoods being the most typical types of people treated in the ER for gun injuries, fatal or not. These young men don’t have CCW but probably more of them are now walking around with illegal guns. For all we know, Lott’s thesis that armed, self-defense may be an effective deterrent to violent crime might be correct, even if this deterrence factor is most frequently found within the criminal-prone population itself.

I began thinking about the ‘more guns = less crime’ argument from this perspective after reading research on gun violence published by criminologists, scholars for example like Marvin Wolfgang, whose studies on both teen-age delinquency and homicide have never been surpassed. Of course Wolfgang, considered by some to be the ‘most influential criminologist in the English-speaking world,’ is persona non-grata in the public health field since he had the audacity to suggest that maybe Gary Kleck’s research on armed, self-defense should not be simply dismissed.

I simply do not understand how anyone can claim to be conducting ‘evidence-based research’ when the evidence is never subject to public, critical review. Of course I hope the CDC restores funding for gun research, but I would also hope that the resumption of such funding be tied to some degree of critical, self-analysis by the public health research community itself.

I may be the smartest person I ever met, but there are plenty of folks who would disagree. Which is why anyone is free to post a comment on what I write.

Dave Buchannon: Legislation Can’t Fix This.

Congress returned to work this week and the first order of business is gun control legislation, at least according to all the news we’ve been reading since El Paso and Dayton.  The mission seems to be, “do something, anything, to make this stop.”  Everyone’s talking about banning this gun or that high capacity magazine.  There’s also the movement to pass a national red-flag law that will take guns away from those who shouldn’t be allowed to have guns because of their mental state.  Or the best one yet – comprehensive background checks for every gun transfer.

It’s all hogwash that might make some people feel they’ve done something meaningful, but it will not change anything.  Sadly, not one thing. 

Because, no matter how horrible gun violence has become in America today, it is not something we can legislate away.  The problem goes much, much deeper than anything a new law or background check can solve.  Some would say its root is in bad parenting, genetics, is the result of our overcrowded prison system, a failed mental health system, gangs, the list could go on and on.

Dear Congress, write all the new laws you want (whether the President will sign them or not), wanna know why they won’t put a dent in gun violence?  Because the bad guys don’t care about laws – isn’t that part of the definition of “bad guy?”  No matter how many laws are enacted, the bad guys have already figured out a way to get around it.  I could give two hoots what the NRA says about this, I’ve seen it first hand as a cop – if a bad guy wants a gun, he’s going to get a gun and there’s no law that’s going to stop him.  Nice try.

Universal background checks are a great idea, if all of the agencies across the country are reporting as they are supposed to.  They aren’t.  Remember the Sutherland Park, Texas  church shooting in November, 2017?  It most likely wouldn’t have happened had the US Air Force reported Devin Patrick Kelley’s less than honorable discharge after his court-marshal for a domestic violence arrest.  You see, he passed the NICS check when he bought the rifle he used in the shooting… because the US Air Force failed to report.  Many states and municipalities do not report criminal or mental health issues that would prevent someone from buying a gun. So long as there are states, agencies, and armed forces that are not fully reporting to NICS, universal background checks will not work.  Another nice try. 

So what about those red flag laws everyone is crowing about?  Congress can pass a national red flag law with the best of intentions.  At some point an angry ex-spouse, ex-business partner, angry neighbor, or other person who is upset with a legal gun owner will fraudulently report that person as being a hazard to self or others.  The lawyers will be circulating, waiting to sue the reporting party and challenge the law.  The legal beagles will probably be successful because many of the state red flag laws currently on the books completely disregard any due process for the legal gun owner.  In my home state of Massachusetts, no hearing is required before the police show up at the gun owner’s door with a warrant to seize his guns.  After the gun owner has sold his house to pay the legal bills and proves he’s in charge of his faculties or never made any threats, how does he get his guns back?  He doesn’t, because in Massachusetts there is no mechanism in the law to return the guns to the original owner.  He winds up having to keep paying the bonded storage charges (yep, the owner has to pay for storage when’s guns are taken away).  I give the red flag laws about a year before the courts over turn them. 

What can be done?  My point is that there is no single answer to the gun violence problem.  Anyone who tells you passing a law will solve the problem is flat-out lying to you.  If you believe and embrace this hokum-filled philosophy, I’m sorry, but you are sadly misguided.  This is a much, much larger problem that has less to do with the gun than with larger societal issues. 

How Should We Deal With Gun Violence?

Turner Syndrome is a genetic abnormality which results from an absence or partial absence of the X chromosome, preventing the development of healthy ovaries in women, as well as certain heart defects.  It can be detected by genetic screening prior to birth, but sometimes a diagnosis doesn’t take place until the teen or young adult years. Once diagnosed, “girls and women with Turner Syndrome need ongoing medical care from a variety of specialists,” so says the Mayo Clinic. In other words, it’s a complicated disease.

How often does this disease appear? Roughly 1 out of 2,500 live births. If we take the best estimate for the number of fatal and non-fatal injuries caused by one person shooting a gun at someone else, the incidence of this type of gun violence within the age cohorts 16 through 34, would also be around 1 out of every 2,500 individuals in those age groups.

If we didn’t experience 90,000 fatal and non-fatal intentional gun assaults each year, it would be difficult to argue that gun violence should be considered a public health problem at all. But wait a minute, you say. What about the 20,000 people who end their lives every year by using a gun? Isn’t gun-suicide also a problem that needs to be addressed?

Of course we need to eliminate gun suicides but the issue in that instance is quite simple because overwhelmingly, people who commit gun suicides happen to use a gun that they legally own. And they use a gun because they know using a gun will almost always get done what they want to get done.

But that’s not the case with the homicides and aggravated assaults which account for more than 80% of all gun violence every year. This public health event is almost always committed by individuals who do not have legal access to the gun used in the assault. Which means that even before they use the gun to hurt someone else, they have already committed a serious crime. It’s called ‘illegal possession’ of a firearm which, under Federal law, can be punished by as much as five years in jail.

For all these reasons, I find it difficult to understand how my friends who conduct public health studies on gun violence seem to go out of their way to avoid contact with criminologists who have produced significant research on violent crime. I am referring, for example, to the study by Paul Tracy and Kimberly Kempf-Leonard, Continuity and Discontinuity in Criminal Careers, which analyzed the life histories of the 27,160 men and women born in Philadelphia in 1958, and followed them through 1984; in other words, from birth through age 26.

This longitudinal study allows criminologists to do what public health researchers do not do, namely, develop a profile of potentially high-risk behavior over time, rather than relying on one data entry for one point in time; i.e., when someone with a gun injury shows up for treatment in an ER. Here’s the bottom line: “The frequency of delinquent activity is the most consistent and strongest predictor of adult crime.”

What we get from public health gun research are the immediate symptoms which appear when the injury occurs. What we get from criminology is the case history leading up to the medical event. Can we really develop effective public policies to reduce gun violence without combining both?

This is why I began today’s column with a brief discussion of a medical problem – Turner’s Syndrome – that occurs within the overall population to the same degree as another medical problem – gun violence – occurs within the age cohorts which exhibit the overwhelming number of injuries caused by guns.

Diagnosing and treating Turner’s Syndrome is a very complicated affair. To repeat: it requires ‘ongoing medical care from a variety of specialists.’ Why should we approach gun violence in any less of a comprehensive way?  When it comes to gun violence, public health and criminology should stop avoiding each other and join together to solve this dread disease.