Where’s All The Crime That Guns Protect Us From?

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Once again Gun-nut Nation is celebrating the continued health of the gun industry by misstating the monthly FBI-NICS background check number to make it appear as though gun sales continue in Obama-like fashion even during the Age of Trump.  The Washington Times blared: “Gun purchase background checks hit record after terror attacks overseas,” even though what continues to go up are background checks for gun licenses, not purchase of guns.

sessions                On the other hand, even if folks are increasingly using the NICS system to become legally-qualified to own guns, this still means that many Americans remain convinced that having access to a gun is a good way to deal with their fears of terrorism and crime. So as long as such fears abound, and as long as the gun industry creates messaging that exploits those fears, the more that guns will be floating around.  And guess what? We suffer from an extraordinary level of gun violence for one reason and one reason only, namely, too many guns.

If we regulated gun ownership the way guns are controlled in other OECD countries, the total number of civilian-owned guns would probably be around 50 million, give or take a few million here or there. How do I come up with that number? Because 14 million Americans hold hunting licenses, and let’s say that each hunter owns three rifles and shotguns, throw in another 5 million for trap, skeet and sport shooters and you’re at 50 million guns; i.e., a per-100,000 rate of roughly 15.7, which is half the gun-ownership rate of countries like Canada, Austria and Sweden, which experience little, if any gun violence at all. But in fact our actual gun-ownership rate is seven times higher than the rate calculated above, and probably half are handguns, which is what accounts for nearly all the 125,000 gun deaths and injuries that we experience each and every year. Because when there are 150 million handguns sitting in glove compartments, closets and drawers, it’s not unlikely that 200,000 or more will disappear from their rightful owners every twelve months and wind up in the wrong hands.

Now you would think that in the only industrialized country which has given its citizens relatively free access to guns, that everyone would own a gun.  After all, if the polls show that nearly two-thirds of all Americans believe that having a gun in your home protects you better than if you don’t, then obviously a lot of people out there buy the gun-industry’s idea about the virtues and values of gun ownership but don’t go out and purchase a gun. Meanwhile, for the first time in 15 years, more than half of all Americans (according to Gallup) believe that violent crime is on the rise. But each year the U.S. Department of Justice asks 160,000 adults whether they have been victims of violent crimes, and last year the DOJ reported that there had been “no significant change in the rate of violent crime.”

Talking about the Justice Department, its current boss has a date today with the Senate Intelligence Committee where it’s expected he’ll deny that any conversations he ever had with anyone, not just some guys from Russia, could constitute a crime.  And Sessions is a real expert on crime, having stated that we are in the midst of a ‘criminal epidemic’ even though he also admitted that violent crime is at a 50-year low.  Sessions has a boss who thinks that murder is the ‘highest’ in nearly 50 years; his misstatements on crime are so glaring and stupid that CNN actually ran a major story in February when Trump actually said something about crime which happened to be true.

When people with power and media access say something frequently enough, it often becomes an accepted narrative whether it’s true or not. When the President talks endlessly about American ‘carnage’ I’m not surprised that the average person then believes that crime rates are going up. Maybe the next thing Trump will do is sign an Executive Order requiring that everyone must own a gun.

 

Will The World End If We Lose Our 2nd-Amendment Rights?

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A week after the Presidential election in 2008, I walked into a gun shop in Houston. The place was packed.  In particular, customers were lining up to buy assault rifles along with as much ammunition as they could carry out of the store. I walked up to one guy who was waiting in line to fill out the 4473 form and asked him what was going on. And he turned to me with a very serious look on his face and whispered, “Armageddon’s coming.”

 

gun-sales

Ever notice how many products Glenn Beck peddles like freeze-dried food or gold bars which portend doom?  And we have long noticed that the gun industry has been selling fear as well as selling guns since old timers like me began to fade away and hunting became something of legend instead of a real-time activity.  Owning a gun is now a statement about the importance of self-defense in an age of terrorism, along with, of course, the standard bromide about 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’

But there’s one other message which resonates among Gun-nut Nation, and it’s the idea that if you own a gun then you have something in common with every other gun owner, and if you don’t own a gun, then you’re not only sh*t out of luck, but you’re also on the outside looking in.  I’m a member of AAA but they never try to make me feel special just because I own a car. Ditto AARP, whose almost daily hearing-aid advertisements just remind me that I’m one of more than 46 million people age 65 or more. In fact, I didn’t even know that May was Senior Citizens Month.

But I do know that I am a member of a very special oppressed minority known as law-abiding gun owners who have to make sure that what makes us so special and so oppressed is the possibility that at any moment, my ‘right’ to own a gun could be taken away. And if you think that the purchase of more than 150 million guns under the Obama ‘regime,’ compared to 75 million during the previous eight years of the ‘decider’ was due to anything other than the fear that I might wake up one day and the gun wouldn’t be there, think again.  Because if sales levels continue for the second half of 2017 like they were in the first half, things will be back to where they were in 2007-2008.

Back last October, I was finishing up my weekly gun-safety class which is required in my state (MA) before you can apply for a license to own or carry a gun. And a well-dressed, professional woman came up to get her safety certificate and said, “Boy, I’m glad I could get into this class.” And when I asked her why she was so excited, she replied, and I am quoting her word for word, “Because Hillary’s probably going to win the election and then I won’t be able to buy a gun.”

How did such a crazy idea get into this woman’s head? I must admit that I simply don’t know because even though the NRA spent $30 million or more during the campaign to tell its members that Hillary would take away their guns, I simply do not believe that any normal adult could think such nonsense was true.

But you know what? That guy standing on the line in the Houston gun shop wasn’t grinning or laughing when he told me that he was willing to wait half an hour for the background check to be completed because he didn’t want to face the end of the world unarmed. He meant it, and if we want to do something reasonable to reduce gun violence, we’d better figure out how to get inside that guy’s brain. Because what’s in his brain is in the brains of lots of folks who own guns.

When It Comes To Guns, It’s Not What You Say, It’s What You Mean.

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In 1989 Steven Tyler and Aerosmith released a song, ‘Janie’s Got A Gun,’ which began with the following refrain:

Janie’s got a gun
Janie’s got a gun
Her whole world’s come undone
From lookin’ straight at the sun
What did her daddy do?
What did he put you through?
They say when Janie was arrested
They found him underneath a train
But man, he had it comin’
Now that Janie’s got a gun
She ain’t never gonna be the same.

                This song became one of the group’s biggest hits, and if you don’t have the album, you can watch the video on YouTube.  It’s been seen more than 38 million times. You can also listen to it on podcasts produced and distributed by various pro-gun advocates and organizations, in particular, digital broadcasting efforts of various Evangelical preachers and personalities, such as Albert Mohler, who happens to be the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and leads a religious denomination that is overwhelmingly pro-gun.

aerosmith             There’s only one little problem.  Tyler began writing the song’s lyric’s after reading an article about gun violence which then got him thinking about child abuse. He talked about what happened in a Rolling Stone interview: “I looked over at a Time magazine and saw this article on 48 hours, minute by minute, of handgun deaths in the United States.Then I got off on the child-abuse angle. I’d heard this woman speaking about how many children are attacked by their mothers and fathers. It was f—ing scary. I felt, man, I gotta sing about this. And that was it.”

So here we have an interesting situation which needs to be considered and discussed if we’re really going to understand what to do and what to say about gun violence. Because Tyler wasn’t trying to make a positive cultural statement about guns and he certainly wasn’t trying to cynically promote himself to a certain type of audience which feeds off of pro-gun and pro-violence expressions a la the sick rantings of Ted Nugent, et. al.  He was creating an artistic expression about an idea that meant one thing to him, but ended up being taken much differently by many of his fans. Or maybe they didn’t take it any particular way. They just like his music; the ‘message’ may not be what the song meant to them at all.

But either way, in a debate as emotionally-charged as the gun debate, I think we have to be careful when we use certain words, because those words may have very different meanings depending on who uses them and when. Take for example the word ‘defense,’ as in self-defense. In the pro-gun world, this is a very positive word because it represents the idea that a gun will protect you from harm. In the gun-control community (and folks, in the Age of Trump it’s time to stop pretending that we need to apologize for wanting to control guns) a weapon that can be used defensively usually ends up being used offensively.

Why do some people believe that a gun is a valuable, self-protective ‘tool’ when study after study indicates that access to a gun actually increases risk? And I’m not talking about pro-gun trolls who will say anything to get a rise out of the other side. I’m talking about, for example, religious leaders – among conservative Protestant clergy, of whom more than two-thirds hold to the idea that gun ‘rights’ should be taken more seriously than violence caused by guns.

If we have learned anything from the extent to which a Twitter account can be used to run the United States, what is believed to be a true by one person may not be perceived as a fact by someone else. And if we are looking for messaging that will resonate with gun owners to advance public policies like expanded background checks or smart guns, we better not assume that words like ’fact’ and ‘truth’ will carry the day.

There’s A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Talk About Guns.

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Remember back in 2011 when everyone’s alt-right darling, Sarah Palin, adorned her Facebook with a map of the United States containing cross-hairs over states with gun-control Democrats that she wanted to defeat? One of her targets was Gabby Giffords, who was shot down the same week.  In case you’ve forgotten the pictorial assault by Palin on decency and common sense, here it is again:

SARAH-PALIN-TARGET-LIST

Of course it hardly came as a surprise that someone as dumb, hateful and vicious as Palin would stoop so low as to try and generate political (and financial) support by appealing to the twisted minds of some folks who enjoy thinking about inflicting violence with a gun. But don’t assume that using a gun for political messaging is just a ploy for the Right. Because we now have a Democrat who claims to be a real liberal and is doing exactly the same thing.

I’m referring to the Democratic candidate in Montana’s election today to replace Ryan Zinke. The man who’s running, Rob Quist, is a well-known country song writer who says he wants to go to Washington to fight for jobs, health care, all the usual Democratic stuff, but he’s also a strong 2nd-Amendment supporter who believes that coming out as a gun guy could tilt things his way.

Actually, it was his opponent, Greg Gianforte, who ran an attack ad against Quist because he once made an offhand comment to a reporter about the need to ‘register’ guns. Since he was just defending universal background checks, Quist had no idea what he was talking about at all. But once Gianforte began pushing the idea that Quist was anti-gun, sooner or later the Democrat needed to respond in kind. And his response has taken the form of television ads in which he stands there with what he calls a rifle that has been in the family for a ‘long time,’ even though the gun actually looks brand new. And at the end of the ad he raises the rifle and shoots out a television set that’s playing an anti-Quist ad, saying that by shooting the gun, he’s ‘defending your rights.’

quist

              Using a gun to defend anything, in particular political rights, is to stoop to a level that is just as malicious and uninformed as Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.  And the stupidity of this ad is now matched by an op-ed which appeared today in Politico Magazine by a writer named Bill Scher, who may be the last word on politics but doesn’t know anything about guns. Scher  criticizes Progressives because they haven’t come out against one of their own who is talking pro-gun. And this is a big problem for the Blue Team, according to Scher, because Democrats at the national level sometimes find themselves in opposition to Blue candidates who need to shore up local support by hiding or soft-peddling their opposition to guns.

Gee, what a surprise that a majority of the guns in this country happen to be located in 13 Confederate states, 4 border states and the rural sections of 5 Midwestern states, all of which contain populations that consistently vote red. Gee, what a surprise that the NRA ran most of their ads in these regions because this is where NRA members mostly live.

If Bill Scher really believes that he’s discovered a new fault-line which makes gun rights a toxic issue for the Blue Team, he’s actually exposed a much bigger problem for the Reds because while the DNC has kept quiet about the pro-gun messaging by Quist, can you imagine what the RNC would do and say if any Republican politician came out and questioned the validity of beloved 2nd-Amendment ‘rights?’ What Quist’s ad team should have done was consult with one of the gun-sense organizations to help craft a message that would disarm the pro-gun opposition but still properly raise the issue of guns and risk. Even Donald Trump used the phrase “responsible gun owners’ when he came to the NRA.

Can You Be Pro-Life And Pro-Gun? Some Try To Be Both.

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The night after Thanksgiving, 2012, a man named Michael Dunn gunned down an unarmed, 17-year old kid in the parking lot of a mini-mart because the kid was sitting in an SUV that was blaring music which pissed Dunn off.  At his trial (he was tried twice before being convicted of Murder One) Dunn claimed that he saw a gun, which turned out not to exist and in fact he drove off after the shooting, went back to a motel room he was sharing with his fiancée, went out for a pizza and drinks but didn’t mention what had just occurred. For all I know Dunn was going to tell his girlfriend what happened, but perhaps the issue simply didn’t come up because he wanted to make sure that the pizza had the extra anchovies that they both liked on their pies.

bible             The other night I finally got around to watching the documentary The Armor of Light, which begins with an appearance by a woman named Lucy McBath, a veteran flight attendant who appears at public events for Moms Demand Action, that gun-hugging gang led by Shannon Watts and supported by you-know-who, the former Mayor of New York.  So I’m watching Ms. McBath as she shows some cute pictures of a young child named Jordan Davis, and all of a sudden I realize – hey! – that’s the kid who was shot by Michael Dunn.  And right as I realize what the film is all about, the scene switches to a monologue from Reverend Rob Schenck, whose journeys through the gun-owning Evangelical heartland is what the movie is really all about.

Reverend Schenck has been a major force in the pro-life movement and runs an organization, Faith and Action, which calls itself the ‘missionary to Capitol Hill,’ but basically promotes pro-life policies in the Senate and the House. Back in 2013 following the September 13 at the DC Navy Yard, Schenk decided that it was time for him to speak out against gun violence and to line up support for gun-control regulations in the wider Evangelical community as well.  In this regard, Schenck was treading on unsteady ground, because white Evangelicals happen to be the most pro-gun religious group around. Not only are white Evangelicals the only religious group with gun ownership registering more than 50%, but they often lead the charge for the expansion of 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’

Much of the movie, directed flawlessly by Abigail Disney, moves back and forth between harrowing testimonies from Lucy McBath to polite confrontations with other Evangelical ministers whose requests by Schenck for a more liberal view on gun control invariably fall on deaf ears. It’s to Schenck’s credit that he has embarked on this lonely crusade to spread gun-control views throughout the Evangelical fold, but I’m not sure that a scripture-based argument for gun control gets to what the gun violence argument about is really all about.

One thing which unites most Evangelicals is that the Bible represents the immutable word of God. And while you can find Biblical texts that endorse both unarmed (Matthew 5:39) and armed (Luke 22:35-36) responses to threats, the one word you won’t find anywhere in the Bible is the word ‘gun.’ The debate about whether you should or shouldn’t use a gun to defend yourself and your family is a false one because there are many ways to defend yourself from a threat, and anyone who says that guns are more of a protection than a risk is saying something which simply isn’t true.

Every time Schenck talks about gun control with other Evangelical ministers, the first contrary words out of their mouths are the falsehoods and bromides about armed self-defense that come not from Scripture, but right from the playbook invented by the NRA. Schenk might believe he’s talking to men of God, but when it comes to guns, he’s talking to the self-same crowd that stands up and cheers whenever someone dares Obama, Hillary or Bloomberg to take the guns from my ‘cold, dead hands.’

 

Should 2nd Amendment ‘Rights’ Be Based on Facts Or Beliefs?

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The Brennan Center for Justice, part of the Law School at NYU, is named after the late SCOTUS Associate Justice William Brennan, who came from a family of Irish immigrants in New Jersey and ended up serving on the Court for more than thirty years. During that time, he authored 461 majority opinions, of which perhaps the most important, Baker v. Carr, established the principle of ‘one man, one vote.’  Brennan viewed government as the ‘great equalizer,’ and the Center which bears his name is particularly busy these days insofar as our current Chief Executive seems obsessed with tilting the balance in one particular way. And if you don’t know which way I’m talking about, I’m sorry to have bothered you and please go back to sleep.

2A             In 2016 the Brennan Center held a colloquium on the 2nd Amendment which has become a more significant element in the world of scholarly jurisprudence since the landmark Heller decision handed down in 2008.  The papers presented at that meeting have just been published online, and while I intend to discuss the entire collection at some point, several of the individual contributions deserve attention, the first being the paper authored by Eric Ruben, who happens to be a Brennan Fellow specializing in 2nd-Amendment scholarship and law. I should add that I was invited but did not attend the Brennan Center event.

Ruben’s paper is extremely important because it strikes at what is perhaps the major issue confronting gun law right now, i.e., the perceptions that individuals and communities hold about the social utility of guns; i.e., do guns protect or threaten public safety?  Because even though Heller says that Americans have a ‘right’ to own a gun, on what basis can government limit that right, for example, the way that government limits free speech? After all, speech isn’t protected if you yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, so why should owning a gun be Constitutionally guaranteed if it is perceived that a community’s safety is threatened by a resident of that community whose house contains a gun?

This issue was addressed by Ruben with reference to Friedman v. Highland Park, where the Chicago suburb of Highland banned AR-15 rifles and large-capacity magazines because the law would “increase the public’s sense of safety,” even if the odds of a mass shooting occurring in the town were little to none. Although the case was appealed, notwithstanding a dissent from Thomas and Scalia, certiorari was denied because the town government had an interest in the public feeling safer, even if there was no evidentiary proof that the gun ban would actually make the community a safer place.

Ruben discusses examples of 1st Amendment cases where laws regulating speech were based not on actual damages caused by what someone said but the perceptions about how government viewed a certain kind of speech. But as for the 2nd Amendment, Ruben notes that other than allowing the ownership of a handgun in the home, 2nd-Amendment rulings based on perceptions is a wide-open field. Which means that the issue of gun ‘risk’ could possibly be used as a criteria for determining whether gun regulations are consonant with 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’

If you are concerned about reducing gun violence, the importance should not be understated regarding what Ruben has to say. Gun-nut Nation rests its entire strategy for weakening gun regulations on the idea that the risk from guns is mitigated because guns keep us ‘safe.’ Now in fact, there is absolutely no evidence which even hints that such an argument can be shown to have the slightest relationship to the truth. But here is where the perception issue as a rationale for regulation becomes somewhat sticky, because in a gun-owning community the residents might want their perceptions that guns keep them safe (as opposed to representing a risk) to be protected under statute as well. But if the issue ended up in Court, we might get a more evidence-based discussion than what we currently hear from the NRA.

Will Keeping Guns Out Of The ‘Wrong Hands’ Reduce Gun Violence?

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In his complex but ultimately simple book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel-laureate economist, Daniel Kahneman, tries to explain the decision-making process we use to make decisions, distinguishing between instinctive reasoning based on experiences and emotions, versus reasoning based on thoughtful analysis of what we hope will be valid information, with the former often influencing the way we deal with the latter.

gun-violence             Behind both these mental processes, according to Kahneman, is the idea that as human beings, we are always trying to figure out causality; why do things happen, not just what happened. Unfortunately, what for me was the most important and formative idea in the book is buried in a 400-page text by the author’s seemingly obsessive concern to relate a personal anecdote about every one of his students, academic colleagues and dear friends. Nevertheless, I found myself thinking about the notion that we always need to understand causality, and nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than when it comes to the issue of guns.

Actually, the search for the cause(s) of gun violence only exists within the community that would like to see gun violence come to an end. Because if you’re a member of the pro-gun camp, you’ve already decided that the fact that we suffer in excess of 120,000 gun deaths and injuries each year is a small price to pay for the ‘freedom’ to own a gun, and let’s not forget that you can and should use a gun to protect yourself and others from crime.

On the other hand, if you don’t start from the position that, like it or not, we can and should own guns, then the issue of causality looms large, if only because we assume that figuring out the cause(s) of gun violence will help us define some useful strategies for changing or preventing the behavior which leads to violence caused by guns. And what most of the research leads us to believe, from the perspective of causality, is the necessity to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  And how do we identify the wrong hands? We try to figure out what makes some individuals use guns to inflict injuries against themselves or against someone else.

This approach stands behind the ‘prohibited person’ categories which have been the foundation of gun regulation since 1968; i.e., if someone is a felon, or a fugitive, or a domestic abuser, or a mental defective, or a few other things, they should not be allowed to own a gun. And these definitions of prohibited behavior for gun ownership are based on substantial research which shows that individuals who fall into any of those prohibited categories have an above-average propensity to use a gun in an unlawful or inappropriate way.

Notwithstanding the fact that much of the activity by gun violence prevention (GVP) advocates is based on finding ways to either expand the ‘prohibited person’ categories, or make the reportage of prohibited individuals more accurate and comprehensive, or a combination of both, I’m not sure that the approach of pro-gun advocates is necessarily wrong. And furthermore, I’m not sure the GVP community couldn’t align itself with the gun-nut approach while maintaining and even strengthening their commitment to find more effective strategies to reduce violence caused by guns.

The problem with trying to figure out a rational or causal explanation for gun violence is that, despite the shocking numbers, most people who want to injure themselves or others don’t use guns.  In fact, of the 2,227,998 intentional injuries reported to the CDC in 2015, slightly more than 103,000, or 5%, were committed with guns.  And don’t tell me that the other 95% who committed a homicide, suicide or aggravated assault couldn’t get their hands on a gun.

Anyone can get their hands on a gun. And as far as I’m concerned, if GVP wants to end gun violence, they should take Gun-nut Nation at its word that ‘sh*t happens’ and just get rid of the guns.

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