If The NRA Didn’t Exist, The Gun Control Crowd Would Have To Invent It

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Today I received an email from the Violence Policy Center, a DC-based advocacy group that often partners with Brady and Bloomberg to push back against the legislative and legal initiatives of the NRA.  Like every organizational email I receive from both sides, the VPC wants dough.  But this particular message caught my eye because of what it said about the NRA’s upcoming Indianapolis show.

The VPC is upset not just in general about the NRA’s impending celebration of gun ownership, but in particular because the show is being held this year in a city that has an alarmingly high murder rate, many of these homicides, according to the VPC, committed with guns.  Here’s a quote from the email:  “Wayne LaPierre, Ted Nugent, and the rest of the NRA leadership will be in Indianapolis later this month for the NRA’s annual meeting which begins on April 25. We don’t expect they will mention the fact that Indianapolis has a murder rate higher than Chicago’s and that most of those killings are committed with guns.”

I’m not exactly sure what the connection is between the crime rate in Indianapolis and the fact that the Indiana Convention Center no doubt worked like hell to land the NRA show.  I also suspect that the decision to hold the show in Indianapolis was made years ago and who knows whether crime in Indianapolis has since gone up or down.  But if you think for one second that anyone who’s coming to Indianapolis to visit the NRA show gives a rat’s damn about crime in Indianapolis, you’re barking up the wrong tree.

feinsteinThe crowd at the NRA show is going to look just like the NRA membership everywhere else; mostly male, White, over the age of 50 and living in rural areas or smaller towns.  The NRA show is just a big gun show and these folks will do what they always do at those shows: play with the guns, eat a few treats, stand on line for a couple of hours to get Ted Nugent’s autograph, say hello to friends, then hop in their 4×4’s and drive back home.  They won’t spend a second in the city of Indianapolis, and if while they’re at the show a couple of more inner-city residents are gunned down, they won’t know about it and they won’t care.

Meanwhile, the NRA will treat them to a good dose of double-talk as to why they are really there.  They’ll remind the visitors that guns are the best line of defense against criminals and crime. There will be endless exhortations to fight back against a federal government that is out to grab their guns.  And if they need the ultimate proof that God is on their side, they can always line up for admission to the Prayer Breakfast before entering the exhibit hall.

lapierreWant the truth? Both sides in the gun debate mobilize their followers by appealing to fear.  In the case of the NRA, it’s a fear of losing your guns, a fear of the government, a fear of crime.  For the Violence Policy Center and like-minded organizations, it’s a fear of guns.  As long as the two sides continue to appeal to their followers on the basis of fear, there’s really no chance that we will have a reasonable and responsible discussion about how to stop the killings that occur in Indianapolis and other cities and towns.

If we ever had such a debate, maybe it would turn out that we as Americans would decide that 30,000 gun deaths every year is a small price to pay for the fun of attending the NRA show.  Or maybe we would decide that the violence has to stop right now and the 2nd Amendment notwithstanding, everyone has to turn in their guns.  I don’t really care which way such a debate works out; all I know is that neither pro-gun nor anti-gun advocates are interested in kicking one off.

 

They Keep Standing Their Ground In Florida And People Keep Getting Shot

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Last week Michael Dunn, a dapper, 47-year old software engineer was hoping that his trial would end up the same way as George Zimmerman’s trial ended up but no such luck. Even if he’s never convicted of killing Jordan Davis, he could end up being sentenced to 60 years in jail because the jury decided that the fact that he kept shooting at the truck as it pulled away from him meant that he was trying to kill the other passengers who, it turned out, were armed with nothing more than big mouths.

What probably cooked Dunn’s goose, in addition to the forensic evidence which indicated that Davis was shot while sitting in his vehicle, not, as Dunn claimed, after he got out of the truck and came towards him in a menacing way, was the fact that he drove away from the scene, spent the night in a motel and then drove back home before contacting anyone to talk about the incident.   Not much different, when you stop and think about it, from the way that Curtis Reeves, the 71-year old ex-cop from Tampa pulled out a gun, shot and killed Chad Oulson in a movie theater and then calmly sat back down and waited for the cops to walk in, surround him and take away his gun.

10734Even the National Rifle Association, which champions the ‘stand your ground’ law that has been cited by lawyers both for Dunn and Reeves, draws the line when it comes to how someone should behave if they defend themselves with a gun.  Their course books on self-defense both in and outside the home specifically advise that anyone who is involved in a shooting incident should remain on the scene, contact law enforcement, separate themselves from any weapon, and make sure that they clearly state their name and their reasons for calling 911.  

In both the shootings in Florida, Dunn and Reeves didn’t follow any one of those rules.  Neither contacted law enforcement directly after the incident, neither separated themselves from their guns, neither did anything that would have indicted even their awareness that something like an emergency existed based on what they had done.  Dunn not only waited more than 24 hours to contact anyone, but that gave him enough time to concoct a phony story that even his fiancee, who was on the scene, couldn’t support when she took the stand.

I’m beginning to wonder whether we have any idea about what’s at stake when we give civilians the right to walk around with a gun. Just this week the 9th Circuit in California ruled that the state’s concealed carry law violated the 2nd Amendment because it denied  residents the ability to carry a gun outside the home.   And while it will ultimately be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the 2nd Amendment really does apply beyond the limits of one’s residence (in fact the Heller decision speaks only to possession of firearms within the home) the bigger issue is how we behave once the Constitutional right to self-protection is actually invoked.

Because we can talk and argue all we want about whether Americans are safer if everyone walks around with a gun.  But once the gun appears and the trigger is pulled, then what happens has nothing to do with the Founding Fathers.  It’s all about something called common sense and nobody should be protected by the Constitution if they fail to understand what that’s all about.

Is New York City A Crime-Free Zone?

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The news at the end of 2013 was remarkable- New York City once again led the nation in the lack of violent crime. And while violent crime has continued to show a decrease throughout the United States, the numbers in New York appear to be exceptional.  In a nutshell, violent crime fell roughly 50% between 1994 and 2000 in the country as a whole, but in New York the decline has continued, with numbers for 2012, particularly homicides falling to levels not seen since the Beatles got off their plane.

To understand the true nature of New York’s crime decline, however, we have to look at the data not at the citywide level, or even the borough level, but at the neighborhood level itself.  Because there is an enormous variation in crime rates throughout the city, and this variation extends to differences within the boroughs as well.  Let’s look, for example, at Brooklyn.  The area known as Brooklyn Heights, which faces Manhattan from across the Eastern edge of the harbor, registers crime rates as low as can be found.  Last year there was one homicide in this area whose population was around 50,000; walk a mile into the Fort Greene neighborhood, an area with the same number of residents, and the homicide total last year was 6.  The homicide rate in New York was slightly more than 4, in Brooklyn Heights it was 2, in Fort Greene it was 12.  Fort Green had an average of 4 homicides each year between 2009 and 2012. The city had the overall lowest number of homicides in 2013 since the end of the Korean War, but some kind of war is still going on in Fort Greene.

Brownsville - East New York. Picture by author.

Brownsville – East New York. Picture by author.

If you go around the city with a map in one hand and the NYPD crime data in the other, an interesting profile begins to emerge.  Neighborhoods that were at the two extremes – richest and poorest – back when crime numbers began falling after 1994, appear to have changed little since that time.  The city’s wealthiest neighborhood, Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is largely vertical in terms of residential architecture, has little street life, even less commercial activity, and experiences very little crime. The poorest neighborhoods, with the exception of public housing projects are for the most part architecturally horizontal, have little street life, even less commercial activity and experience lots of crime.  While crime has decreased in inner-city neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, rates for every category of serious crime are four to five times higher than the city as a whole but the lack of population density masks these numbers when they roll up within citywide numbers as a whole.

Upper East Side - Manhattan

Upper East Side – Manhattan

Where neighborhood profiles and the crime rates have changed most dramatically is in areas that have either gentrified, such as the former meatpacking district in Manhattan, or the great swatches of real estate now occupied by “new” immigrants in The Bronx, Brooklyn, and most notably, Queens.  These populations, who at last count spoke more than 700 different languages, now account for more than 40% of the city’s total population, the first time that such a high percentage of foreign-born have been living in New York since before World War I.

Many of the areas now occupied by new immigrants were former working-class and middle-class neighborhoods whose previous residents fled the city in droves during the economic and fiscal downturn of the 1970s, or held second-generation Americans whose idea of capturing the American dream meant moving out to the ‘burbs.  But the new immigrant populations appear eager to stabilize their urban neighborhoods and their decision to re-urbanize what otherwise might have become more inner-city ghettos is what has driven down the city’s rate of crime.

Between 1970 and 1990 the city lost more than one half million residents.  Between 1990 and 2010 New York made up the entire deficit and added 300,000 more.  Without understanding how this ebb and flow of the city’s population changed the character of neighborhoods in every borough, discussions about crime border on the unreal.  We can talk from today to next year about policing, stop-and-frisk strategies, arrests and everything else, but we should always be mindful of this comment by Jane Jacobs: “The first thing to understand is that the public peace – sidewalk and street peace – of cities is not kept by the police, necessary as police are.  It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.”

 

 

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.

fbi

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.

theater

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.

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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