Did The Cops Miss The Boat On Stopping Sandy Hook?

Last week the gun violence prevention (GVP) community went into overdrive when the release of a batch of FBI Sandy Hook documents indicated that the Newtown cops were warned about Adam Lanza’s intention to commit mayhem at least four years before the actual event took place. The information appears in interview notes of an unidentified man who claimed he heard Adam Lanza make the threats which the man claims he transmitted to the local police. According to the man’s testimony, the cop who took the call told him that Nancy Lanza was the legal owner of the guns which meant there was nothing the cops could do but the caller could contact the State Police.

FBI logoComing on the heels of Las Vegas, where another shooter evidently killed and wounded more than 500 people with a legally-owned AR, the story out of Newtown only adds fuel to the GVP argument that some way has to be found to keep guns like the AR-15 out of civilian hands.

But there’s only one little problem, namely, that the story full of holes.  And it cannot be accepted even on face value, never mind the fact that the Newtown police can’t find any record of someone making such a call, because it would have been simply impossible for someone answering the telephone at the police station to have said what was allegedly said.

Please believe me when I say it’s too bad that facts keep getting in the way of opinions, but the fact is that nobody working for any police agency in Connecticut would have been able to know whether: a) Nancy Lanza owned an AR-15; b) whether she had purchased it legally or where it came from; or, c) whether the State Police should have been contacted or not. Why? Because first of all before 2014, when Connecticut passed a new gun-control law in response to Sandy Hook, purchasing a long gun from a dealer did not require anything other than the standard FBI-NICS check, information which the FBI has to destroy within 24 hours after the check is complete. Purchasing a handgun in CT in 2008 required an additional background check conducted by the State Police and this procedure was then extended to long guns but only after the new law was passed in 2014.

It would have been impossible for anyone employed by the Newtown Police Department to tell a caller about the legal status or even the existence of an AR-15 allegedly owned by someone else. On the other hand, if someone contacts a police department in Newtown, CT or Oshkosh, WI or anywhere, reporting a threat that involves potential injury to numerous individuals isn’t brushed off. There isn’t a police department in the United States which doesn’t have a very clear procedure for responding to a report about the possible commission of a serious crime. Maybe the cops don’t respond immediately, maybe the patrol car goes to the wrong address, but don’t tell me that if I called up and said that someone just told me they were going down to the local elementary school to shoot everyone in sight that I would lean back, yawn and tell the caller to contact the State Police.

Remember when Elliot Rodger rampaged through Isla Vista, CA and killed six people on May 23, 2014?  Three weeks earlier his parents contacted the Isla Vista PD and said they were concerned because their son had voiced threats and they were worried about his mental state. The cops dispatched no less than three officers who confronted Elliott outside where he lived but unfortunately made the mistake of forgetting to ask him whether he had any guns. But the bottom line is that police don’t dismiss credible reports about violence which has not yet taken place. And if we are going to advocate measures to reduce gun violence, let’s just make sure our strategies align with the facts.

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Do More Guns Equal Less Crime?

In 1998 John Lott published More Guns, Less Crime, which has become both an intellectual totem for the pro-gun gang and a harbinger of doom for folks who believe we need to do more to control guns. Lott argued that as more Americans owned and carried guns that violent crime, homicide in particular, went down because criminals realized they might be going up against someone with a gun and therefore shifted to non-violent criminality (larceny, burglary,) in response to more people being legally armed.

lott             Before going further into the hullabaloo surrounding Lott’s work, let me say that he and I share something of an academic kinship insofar as we both have published books with The University of Chicago Press. So although we disagree strongly on many issues involving guns, our arguments are couched within accepted academic norms and never flow over into personal attacks; I wish I could say the same about some of the other voices raised in disagreement with his work.

The problem I have with Lott’s thesis is that it rests on an untested assumption about the nature of crime, namely, that people who use guns to injure others will pause, think and consider the situation rationally before pulling out the old banger and firing away. Despite what Lott says about the shortcomings of FBI data which shows that most gun homicides occur between people who know each other to some personal degree, I find myself still more convinced by the Lester Adelson’s statement that: “With its peculiar lethality, a gun converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing.” After plowing through Adelson’s classic, thousand-page textbook on forensic homicide, I think he knew what he was talking about.

On the other hand, Lott’s work has been severely criticized by academic researchers whose published rebuttals could probably run several feet in my personal library except that most of them can be found in various liberal blogs, so simply bookmarking them in my browser saves me a lot of shelf space. What these critics tend in the main to argue is that either Lott’s data is unrepresentative or that his statistical models aren’t sufficient, or that he misreads his own data, or a combination of all three.

There’s only one little problem with the entire corpus of anti-Lott work, namely, none of his critics have done any primary research at all whose results might allow them to advance a different thesis as to why Americans seem increasingly positive about using a gun for self-defense. What we hear again and again is that a majority of gun owners now claim that the primary reason they own a gun is to protect themselves and others, but I have yet to see a single survey which asks these same respondents to explain why they decided that the best way to defend themselves from crime was by owning a gun.

Even the other academic researcher who helped create the public discussion about using guns for self-defense, Gary Kleck, has published research which shows that in many circumstances using a gun for self-defense in a criminal assault is basically no more effective than making a phone call or just opening your mouth. And what we do know is that the number of people who actually use a legally-owned gun to defend themselves from criminals runs from scant to none.

Lott’s academic critics have not shown the slightest interest in trying to figure out what Nassim Taleb brilliantly calls the ‘Black Swan’ effect among gun owners, namely, the existence of an idea which may or may not have any reality behind it at all. And until people who honestly want to see an end to gun violence tackle this issue on its own terms, it will simply be impossible to craft a message about gun violence that gun owners will understand. With all due respect to Lott’s many critics, running batches of numbers through different statistical models is child’s play compared to figuring out why we humans believe and act the way they do.

Is Keeping Guns Out Of The Wrong Hands The Way To End Gun Violence?

Increasingly I find myself uncomfortable with the prevailing orthodoxy in gun violence prevention (GVP) circles that the way to reduce gun violence is to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ As far as I’m concerned, gun violence, intentional or not, has little to do with whether the hands holding the gun are the ‘right’ hands or the ‘wrong’ hands, because this approach defines gun ownership in legal terms, and legal terms don’t speak to the reasons for most gun injuries. In fact, the whole concept of defining gun behavior based on ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ hands comes out of the debates which led to the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA68) which was crafted to avoid or at least lessen arguments over whether Americans could or couldn’t own guns.

Here’s the preamble to that law:

“The Congress hereby declares that the purpose of this title is to provide support to Federal, State, and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence, and it is not the purpose of this title to place any undue or unnecessary Federal restrictions or burdens on law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms appropriate to the purpose of hunting, trapshooting, target shooting, personal protection, or any other lawful activity….”

gun-violence             The whole point of gun regulations is to deal with crime, not with gun violence per se. This is because gun violence and crime simply aren’t the same. There are roughly 32,000 gun deaths each year, but only 11,000 or so are criminal events – homicides – the rest are suicides, accidents and police shootings, none of which represent a gun that was, legally speaking, in the ‘wrong’ hands. As for non-fatal injuries, somewhere around 60,000 are assaults, but many of those events (we don’t actually have any idea exactly how many) grow out of ongoing disputes between family members, spouses, friends; in fact, the FBI says that only 20% of all gun assaults occurred during the commission of another felony crime. And then there are somewhere around 20,000 non-fatal gun accidents which don’t result in any criminal charges at all. Add it all up, and the number of gun injuries which occur because a gun ended up in what the law says are the ‘wrong’ hands is not even half of the gun injuries suffered by Americans each year.

The NRA has a habit of saying things which are stupidly true, such as the idea that criminals don’t obey laws, so why make more laws that regulate guns? If the criteria for creating any law was that it had to be a statute that would be obeyed by criminals, then you could throw out the entire legal system altogether. We pass laws to establish behavioral norms, and if the norms are violated, the violator pays the price. We believe that intentionally shooting someone else with a gun is a bad thing to do. Does that mean that only ‘bad guys’ will commit armed violence with a gun? Of course not. Does everyone drive at the posted speed limit or stops at a red light before making a right-hand turn?

But the real problem is that if we want to stop gun violence before it occurs, we have to figure out who might be prone to commit gun violence and try to keep guns out of their hands. Tell that to the research team which studied every emergency room visit in Flint, MI of boys, 14 y/o and older, and discovered that the exact same social factors (poverty, lack of education, drug use, joblessness, etc.) which were associated with violent injuries were also associated just as frequently with patients who never sought medical help for a violent injury at all.

Keeping guns out of the wrong hands may pass the 2nd-Amendment litmus-test for all those folks who are worried about Constitutional ‘rights.’ But was anyone walking around Wal Mart with an AR slung over their shoulder when the Constitution was ratified in 1789?

 

What’s The Connection Between ‘Weak’ Gun Laws And Gun Violence? I’m Not Sure.

Now that the Trump Administration has made it clear that creating new gun regulations is hardly a national priority, I’d like to recommend to my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community that perhaps they would step back and rethink the issue of the alleged connection between federal gun laws and gun violence; i.e., the belief that fewer federal gun laws leads to more criminal and accidental misuse of guns.

traffic             I’m not saying that we should do away with laws which regulate the purchase, ownership and use of guns.  I’m saying that GVP needs to be a little more sensitive to the assumption that more federal guns laws equals less gun violence because at the federal level we aren’t about to see any more laws. And what the GVP community needs to do most of all is stop assuming that just because a bunch of guns from one state end up getting sold to bad guys in another state, that this means the way to fix the problem is to pass new federal laws.

Here’s a fer-instance:  The Brooklyn DA announces that he is charging 24 putzes, most of whom are Blood members, with trafficking 217 guns into Kings County, including 41 assault weapons, and selling them on the street.  The weapons, according to the DA, were ‘purchased’ in Virginia and his indictment ‘highlighted the need for federal gun control to help stem the flow of thousands of illegal guns from the South.’  And what was the evidence produced to show that these jerkoff gun sellers were exploiting (as one media report called it) the ‘weak’ gun laws in Virginia?  It was a wiretap comment made by one of the jerkoffs named Antwan Walker (a.k.a. Twan) that he could go into any gun store in Virginia and buy as many guns as he could put into a car and take up to New York.

Now let’s assume for the sake of argument that my man Twan was actually telling the truth, even though the chances that he has ever told the truth about anything is probably about as great as the chances that we will ever hear a truthful statement from #45. But the point is that if Twan could go into a licensed gun dealer and buy even one gun, he had to be able to pass a NICS background check, which means he had to have a clean record or else he would not have been able to walk out of the store with the gun.

Guess what?  The gun law which allowed our the gun-trafficking expert Twan to go into a shop and buy 50 guns and take them up to New York was the exact, same federal law which would have regulated the sale of those guns to Twan in whatever state he happened to live. So the idea that all those Southern guns are coming up to New York because Southern states have ‘weak’ gun laws isn’t necessarily true.

Now someone might say but Mike, isn’t it easier to buy guns in Virginia because that state doesn’t require background checks for secondary (i.e., non-dealer) sales? Which happens to be the case in 39 other states besides Virginia, but our young gun trafficker (a.k.a. Twan) didn’t say anything over the phone about getting guns through private sales.  Know why? Because Twan and everybody else who wants to move guns from gun-rich states like Virginia to gun-poor cities like Big Apple doesn’t have to pay for the merchandise at all. They just have to walk down any residential street, break into a private home and I guarantee you they’ll find plenty of guns to steal.

With reliable estimates of between 200,000 and 400,000 handguns stolen each year, why does the GVP community sit around bemoaning the fact that there are so many ‘straw’ sales? I’m totally in favor of extending background checks to secondary sales BTW; I just don’t think it has much to do with how those guns end up on Brooklyn streets, no matter what Twan was heard to say.

 

When It Comes to Gun Violence Chicago Is Bad But It Ain’t The Worst.

Chicago was ablaze with gunfire again this weekend and as of Sunday morning, five people were dead in a single house and another fifteen were in various hospitals with wounds.  There’s a good chance that the Windy City will rack up more than 800 gun deaths in 2016, almost double the number of gun murders in 2015, which was a 12% increase from the year before.  The city is looking at the newly-issued report of a taskforce that is calling for new measures to deal with the violence; you know, another taskforce, got it?

chicago             Last year I looked at the map of shootings for Chicago that is carried in The Tribune, and noticed that some neighborhoods, particularly parts of the South and West Sides, appeared overwhelmed with gun violence, whereas other areas of the city seemed to have little or no gun violence at all.  But the map for 2016 is different because although gun violence is still concentrated in neighborhoods like Austin in the West and New City in the South, shootings occur in every neighborhood, even in places like Rogers Park.  I lived in Rogers Park in the 1970s and forget about violence or crime, our apartment on Greenleaf Avenue didn’t even have a front-door lock.  This year there have been 25 shootings in Rogers Park, although that’s an improvement because shootings numbered 40 in 2014.

Doing a quick calculation brings the murder rate in Chicago (per 100,000 residents) to just around 30, give or take a few. The national gun homicide rate is around 3.5 per 100,000, in other words, one-tenth of what’s going on in Chicago these days, no wonder the weekend shooting deaths of five people in one house made the national news. Incidentally, I just went back to the browser and the city’s shooting toll since Friday afternoon has been upped to 9 dead and 26 wounded with most of Sunday still to be gotten through.

So what makes this city such a human shooting gallery with no end in sight?  It’s almost like you could walk down any street in the Second City and a bullet might go whizzing overhead.  Except the fact is that Chicago, compared to some other places, isn’t so dangerous after all.  St. Louis this year has a murder rate of 61, New Orleans is 46, Newark is 39.  I don’t know how many of these murders were committed with guns, but if the usual 70% average for guns used in homicides holds true in these towns, then all of them, and some others, rank well ahead of Chicago when it comes to the number of residents who are being gunned down.

If the gun-violence problem in Chicago was just related to Chicago, we could probably come up with some quick and easy reasons why such an exceptional situation existed in only this one place.  But gun violence, more particularly the increase in gun violence, isn’t just a Chicago problem at all. It seems to be occurring in many places, and I am not sure that this generalized increase in gun violence is only found in high-density, inner-city neighborhoods. The FBI says that the murder rate is lowest in cities with less than 100,000 residents, but the town of Mangonia Park, FL (which has a great waterslide) registered two murders in 2015 which gave this place a murder rate per 100,000 of 151!  When a homicide occurs in a place like Mangonia Park it never makes the national news, but there are little towns (what the FBI calls ‘tiny cities’) all over the place and violent crimes, shooting crimes, take place in these spots as well.

Violent crime and, in particular gun violence dropped steeply in the 1990s and 2000s but levelled off but let’s stop patting ourselves on the back and pretending that we’ve got the problem under control. As the accuracy of gun-violence reporting gets more accurate, it’s clear the numbers are moving up.  And they are moving up everywhere, not just in the city on the lake.

If Minorities Are Buying Guns, It’s Not To Exercise Their 2nd-Amendment ‘Rights.’

During the Presidential campaign there were all sorts of stories floating around about how some of Trump’s supporters were planning armed insurrection if it turned out that their candidate was somehow cheated out of his rightful prize.  And even The New York Times ran a story based on some interviews with Trump loyalists, none of whom actually said that they would lead an armed revolt (which even to verbally promote such nonsense happens to be a federal crime) but they knew other people who were ready to take their guns into the streets.

hate           Luckily we were saved from a revolutionary situation because Shlump actually won.  But in the aftermath of his victory, while the guy who really understands the ‘common man’ lines up an Executive management team which represents the billionaire class, we are now being treated to the opposite of the ‘Trump loss equals armed revolt’ crap with stories about how people who consider themselves targets of Shlump-o’s fascist-populist message are arming themselves in response to the impending warfare that will sooner or later break out.

This latest effort to sensationalize every aspect of political news and commentary was the handiwork of NBC, which ran a story about how ‘fearful minorities’ (read: African-Americans) were ‘buying up guns,’ the reportage based entirely on interviews with a black lady who lives in Alpharetta, GA, a black gun-shop owner in Virginia and the guy who heads something called the National African American Gun Association, which just happens to be occasionally featured on the Breitbart website (where else?) because of the group’s strong support for 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’

This idea that African-Americans should become gun owners predates the 2016 campaign, reflecting an attempt by the gun industry to reach out to new markets, in particular women, Hispanics and blacks.  The problem is that none of these demographics have ever shown any serious inclination to join Gun-nut Nation, and while noisemakers like Dana Loesch (for the women segment) and Colion Noir (for the African-American segment) push their stupidly-contrived videos on the NRA website and YouTube, they are basically speaking for themselves. The FBI, under statute, does not maintain or release data on the racial breakdown of NICS-background checks (my request for such information was politely refused last year) and anecdotal evidence is anecdotal but it’s not evidence.  What we do know from the latest Pew survey is that roughly one out of five African-American and Hispanic households contain guns, so there’s plenty of room for growth.

But let’s assume for the moment that even with the shallowness of the reportage, the NBC story about how minorities are streaming into gun shops is true.  You would think this would be a salutary news event for Gun-nut Nation, given how the gun industry has tried to promote the ownership of its products to non-white groups. But judging from a Breitbart story based on the NBC report, the enthusiasm is less than real.  Because the problem that Gun-nut Nation now faces is to find a way to promote the idea of minority gun ownership while, at the same time minimizing (or simply lying about) the reason why African-Americans are buying guns.  And the reason is very simple:  the incoming President of the United States has made it clear that minority communities can expect little, if any protection from a federal government whose Chief Executive pollutes the digital airwaves daily with a mixture of racism, appeals to violence and outright scorn.

If, as the NBC story suggests, minorities are considering gun ownership out of fear of what an unbridled racism promoted by Donald Shlump might bring, this also creates an important turning-point for the gun violence prevention (GVP) community as well. Because the one thing we know is that defending yourself or your community by going around armed basically does nothing except create circumstances and situations in which more gun violence occurs. I’m not denying the reality of a palpable sense of fear created by the shenanigans of Jerk Trump. But sticking a gun in your pocket will only make it worse.

The Government Issues A New Report On Safe-Gun Technology Which Moves The Discussion Backwards.

It’s official.  The newspaper of record, a.k.a. The New York Times, has just announced its support of a new government statement on safe-gun technology which probably represents the last thing the Obama Administration has to say about guns.  And if The New York Times believes that this report is the non-plus-ultra statement about safe guns, then this must be a very solid and very impressive report.  In fact, it’s not.

safegunThe report is an amateurish cut-and-paste job which was obviously put together so that someone deep inside the bowels of the Department of Justice could complete some end-of-year checklist and get on with looking for a new job. But of course once The New York Times gives this report its official imprimatur you can bet this shabby effort to make something out of nothing will become the new argument for adoption of safe-gun technologies, an argument that has been floating around for more than 20 years under the guise of how digital innovation can help us be safe with guns.

Entitled “Baseline Specifications for Law Enforcement Service Pistols with Security Technology,” the report is an effort to nudge the safe-gun discussion a little further by setting out design and performance standards that would have to be met by any manufacturer hoping to sell such a product to any federal agency whose personnel carries guns.  Actually, since the document is not any kind of official RFP, it represents no legal or practical advance at all.  For the most part the text consists of nothing more than a combination of the government’s handgun performance criteria which will be used to possibly adopt a new military handgun sometime in the future, along with design specifications which were taken from an RFP issued by the FBI for a new pistol awarded to Glock.

Buried near the end of the report is a brief section which describes the safe-gun technology itself except that all it basically says is that some kind of ‘security device’ will be a permanent part of the gun, will be programmable and may include something worn by the operator, like a wristband or a ring.  By the way, if the security device ‘malfunctions’ the gun will still work.

Now I thought the whole point of safe-gun technology is to prevent a gun from being used at any time except by someone digitally authorized to use the gun. But the problem with these digital gizmos is they need some kind of power source which comes from a battery and batteries wear out.  Is the average cop going to check to make sure while he’s on the job that the gizmo is always ready to go? He won’t, which is exactly why the gun defaults to being used by anyone which is exactly why nobody’s going to adopt this gun.

The NYT Editorial Board says this report is a positive step forward in the development of safe-gun technology because it creates “industry standards for reliable battery power in a smart gun, for ensuring unhindered speed in drawing the weapon and for the distance allowed between the gun and its owner’s ID device.”  In fact, what the report does is give the gun lobby an excellent opportunity to once again claim that gun-grabbing bureaucrats will find any reason to take away our guns.  The NRA called the report another example of “empty gestures meant to placate a gun control constituency that was disappointed Congress had spurned efforts to restrict Second Amendment rights.,” and went on to list several parts of the report (beyond what I mentioned above) which demonstrated the lack of substance and understanding about the actual use of safe guns.

The gun industry opposes safe-gun technology because it fights any effort to reduce gun violence through government mandates, government regulations or anything else that interferes with the industry’s ability to control the kinds of products it decides to put out for sale.  But the gun violence prevention community shouldn’t make it any easier for the gun lobby to pursue its aims, and the decision of the NYT Editorial Board to promote this report moves the safe-gun argument in a direction it shouldn’t take.