Do Armed Citizens Protect Us From Crime? The Cops Don’t Think So.

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If you want to check out one of the truly great internet marketing scams, take a look at the website of the Concealed Carry Association of America, an outfit started by a guy named Tim Schmidt who developed something called ‘tribal marketing’ which entices people to join (and spend money) on websites promoting the idea that membership is a very special kind of thing.  And what’s more special than believing you’re fulfilling God’s work by walking around armed? Tim’s CCAA website gets a membership ‘retention’ rate three times’ longer than the average membership website, and the longer the members hang around, the more they’ll spend.

tombstone              And believe me, there’s plenty to buy, including books, videos, clothing, gifts and novelty items, and all sorts of other stuff. Next month you can go down to Fort Worth and enjoy a fun-filled three days at the annual CCAA trade show, which includes a live-fire range where you can bang away with real guns and a guest appearance by none other than the prancing master, Colion Noir.

When I say that CCAA is a ‘scam,’ it’s not because you don’t get anything for your membership fee.  To the contrary, you get a slick magazine, a pretty decent personal liability insurance policy, a newsletter and, of course, a nice decal to stick on the window of your car. But no matter what CCAA gives you for joining, the real reason it’s a scam is because there’s simply no truth (as in none) that walking around with a gun makes you safe.  I didn’t say that you might be a little safer; I didn’t say there was a chance that carrying a gun made you safe, I said there is absolutely no proof whatsoever that you will be safe or safer if you carry a gun.

I know, I know, examples abound about all these armed citizens who pulled out a gun and chased the bad guy away. There’s only one little problem; all these armed citizens who engaged in what we call defense gun use (DGU) don’t really exist. Gun-nut Nation still cites Gary Kleck’s 1993 survey conducted which pegged yearly DGU’s at maybe 2 million and maybe more.  Funny, but the same folks who promote this survey never seem to mention the study Kleck published in 2004 where he couldn’t find any difference in outcomes for resisting crime by crime victims who didn’t use guns.

If you want to attempt a serious and honest look at whether guns keep us all that safe, I suggest you take a look at the article just published by Julie Mack, who interviewed law enforcement officials in Michigan’s 15 most populated counties asking them whether they knew of any DGUs in their jurisdictions, and “most officials could not cite a single incident in their jurisdiction within the past 12 months.” Now this doesn’t mean that the cops are necessarily opposed to concealed carry (CCW); in fact Detroit’s chief, James Craig, is an outspoken and ardent supporter both of CCW and of Donald Trump. But being in favor of CCW  and knowing that an armed citizen prevented a crime just aren’t the same.

Undaunted by their inability to actually validate the ‘widespread’ occurrence of DGUs, Gun-nut Nation has fallen back on the notion that the increase in CCW licenses, estimated at roughly 14 million nationwide, has been a significant factor in the continued decline of violent crime. Once again, the research shows that this rationale for spreading the gospel of concealed-carry simply isn’t true.

Want to play cowboy, walk around with a gun and pretend you’re in Dodge City, you go right ahead. But Dodge City experienced, at best, two murders each year and Dodge City banned guns in the 1870s, a law that was strictly enforced by lawmen like Wyatt Earp. I don’t know a single man, including myself, who didn’t have a Roy Rogers revolver when he was a kid. But I grew up and some of my Gun-nut friends might think of growing up too.

Why Do People Stop Owning Guns? A Possible Answer

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Sometimes surprises come from the funniest places, like a study of the relationship between religious belief and gun ownership which turns out to yield possible answers to one of the major points of disagreement in the gun-violence debate. But before we get to the big surprise, let’s spend some time looking at the basic findings of the study itself.  Published by David Yamane, a sociologist at Wake Forest who teaches an undergraduate course on the sociology of guns, this study attempts to create a ‘nuanced’ view of gun owners based on looking at gun ownership relative to religious belief and what Yamane refers to as various forms of religiosity, such as attendance at religious functions and strength of religious beliefs.

church             What Yamane claims to have discovered is that, contrary to what many people believe, evangelical Christians are no more likely to own guns than Catholics, Jews and people who profess no specific denominational orientation at all, although evangelicals are more oriented towards gun ownership than members of mainline Protestant denominations (Episcopalian, Methodist, et.al.) But when Yamane talks about gun ownership, it’s very important to understand that he defines a ‘gun’ only as a handgun, basing this choice on the fact that lately more and more Americans state that the primary reason they own a gun is for self-defense.

Yamane’s focus on handguns is an important nuance to inject into the gun debate because the motives that drive people to own handguns, by definition, will be different than the reasons why people own and use long guns whose design and function basically fit the requirements for hunting and sport. And I wish that more gun scholars would follow Yamane’s lead in this respect and nuance their own research to take into account the differences involved  in the ownership of handguns as opposed to the general ownership of guns.

On the other hand, Yamane has to be careful not to push his nuanced methodology too far.  Because as he admits, most gun owners own multiple guns, and the fact that they consider their primary reason for currently owning guns to be self-defense doesn’t mean that they aren’t also buying and using long guns for hunting and sport.  So the fact that someone decides to own a self-defense gun because he doesn’t trust the government to keep him safe, still leaves open the question as to why that same person owns other types of guns. Which makes correlating the reasons for gun ownership with other social or cultural factors a bit more difficult to do.

But let’s leave those issues aside and get to the big surprise which awaits the reader if he/she can wade through the sociological jargon which permeates sections of the text. Yamane states at the outset that gun owners tend to live in rural areas, the South and the Great Plains/Mountain West. But he notes that when these folks move out of those places, the only population which retains the same or higher rate of gun ownership are former residents of rural zones. But what he doesn’t tell us (perhaps the data simply doesn’t exist,) is where these ‘out-migrants’ go to live, because with the exception of former rural dwellers, folks who leave the South or the Midwest and Great Plains show a significant decline in their ownership of guns.

This is a very important finding and may represent a great gift to the gun violence prevention (GVP) community because a major proposition of the gun-control crowd, fiercely contested by the other side, is that more laws help curb gun violence. So if the ‘out-migrants’ caught in Yamane’s data become less involved with guns after they leave the places where they were born and grew up, does this perhaps mean that they are moving into areas which have greater regulation of guns?

The fact is that most states with strong gun regulations also tend to be states with lower per-capita ownership of guns. But which came first – the lack of guns or the tough gun laws?  Too bad the answer to that question still isn’t known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff Sessions May Believe That Longer Sentences Curb Gun Violence But He’s Wrong.

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The moment that the 45th President nominated Jeff Sessions to be the People’s Lawyer, everyone on both sides of the gun debate began to shout out. The NRA posted television ads saying that “our nation’s chief law enforcement officer will work tirelessly to defend our rights while protecting us from violent criminals.”  As to the former, Sessions was an outspoken champion of the 2005 PLCAA federal law immunizing gun makers from tort suits; regarding the latter, he is known to be ‘tough on crime,’ in particular violent crimes caused by a gun.

sessions             Sessions is one of a number of public officials who has been fervently impressed by a gun-control initiative in Richmond, VA known as Project Exile, which mandated lengthy federal prison time for anyone convicted of a gun crime in a city whose gun violence rates in the early 1990s ranked it as one of the most violent urban centers in the entire United States. In 1997, when the program first began, Richmond experienced 140 homicides, or an annual rate of 73!  In 1998 homicides dropped by 36%, and continued to dwindle down over the next few years.

The good news is that by 2005, homicides in Richmond dropped to 84, then to 76 in 2006 and to 31 in 2008.  From 1997 until 2010, more than 1,300 people were convicted of gun crimes and received prison sentences which totaled more than 8,000 years, for an average prison stay of more than 6 years per crime.  No wonder Tough Guy Trump has praised Project Exile, but in all fairness the program was strongly supported by a Richmond City Councillor named Tim Kaine.  The program was also supported by folks in the GVP community, including the Brady Campaign, then known as Handgun Control, Inc.

There were also some dissenting voices, most notably from various Gun-nut groups like saveourguns.com, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership and, of course, Larry Pratt.  And lost in the rhetoric were complaints from federal judges who heard these cases and claimed they were an ‘overreach’ of federal authority, along with the charge that the program was inherently racist and led to over-incarceration of black defendants who always end up as the chief victims of any over-zealous response to crime.

Like most special law-enforcement initiatives that cost extra dough, Project Exile petered out in the mid-2000s after funding was cut by Congressional Republicans in 2003.  But meanwhile, homicides in Richmond remained well below levels recorded before Project Exile went into effect in 1997-98.  That is to say, until this past year.  In 2016, the final murder number may end up at 60, the highest since 2007, and this would bring the annual murder rate back up to 30, which puts the former capital of the Confederacy back in the high end of gun-violence cities big time.

Nobody really knows for sure how come gun killings in Richmond have suddenly spiked last year, just as nobody really knows how come they dropped so significantly twenty years ago.

Back in 2002 several noted public policy and gun researchers, Steve Raphael and Jens Ludwig, published an assessment of Project Exile for Brookings, and decided that the “reduction in Richmond’s gun homicide rates surrounding the implementation of Project Exile was not unusual and that almost all of the observed decrease probably would have occurred even in the absence of the program.”  Why did Raphael and Ludwig come to this conclusion? Because the same drop in violent crime occurred at roughly the same time in many cities which didn’t have any special anti-violence programs running at all.

Trying to figure out why America experienced a 50% decline in violent crime from the mid-90s until the mid-years of the following decade has become an academic cottage industry, without any real consensus as to the cause. Senator Sessions may believe that getting ‘tough’ is an effective to what has now become a new upwards spike in gun violence, but it won’t work until and unless we figure out why sometimes violent crime goes up and other times goes down.  The solution hasn’t yet been found.

Why Do Americans Stand Their Ground? Because The Law Says We Can.

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Last September I reviewed Caroline Light’s book, Stand Your Ground, and said it was a must-read.  The book is now about to be published, so I thought I would go back and discuss what I didn’t cover in my previous review.  Last time I discussed the major theme of the book, which is how and why America departed from the British, common-law tradition of retreating in the face of a direct threat and replaced it with laws which basically sanction the use of homicidal force in just about any kind of direct confrontation that might occur.  And what’s the most efficient way to respond to a real or imagined threat? We all know the answer to that.

laws           This time, however, I want to look at the issue which is somewhat tangential to Professor Light’s primary concern, but nevertheless must be addressed. At the same time that states began passing SYG laws, they also began easing restrictions on the ability of citizens to walk around with guns, two legal developments that are promoted vigorously by Gun-nut Nation, and which may set the legislative gun agenda on Capitol Hill in the Age of Trump.

For SYG and CCW the argument in favor goes like this: gun-owners are extremely law-abiding, people with concealed-carry permits even more so, bad guys will always try to avoid a criminal situation where their victim might be armed, hence, the armed citizen protects society from crime.  The NRA has been peddling this formula for more than twenty years, they trot it out every time an act of gun violence occurs in places where citizens should be able to carry guns (schools, airports, etc.) and Trump vigorously promoted this nonsense at every opportunity during the campaign.

But what if it’s not nonsense?  What if the end result of people walking around with guns is no real increase in gun-violence?  In that case, what difference would it make if a bunch of children masquerading as adults want to pretend they can behave like citizen-protectors and use their guns to shoot the bad guys and reduce our risk of harm?  The problem is that the evidence on the value of people carrying guns and playing cops and robbers is ambiguous, if not wholly incorrect, but the counter-argument, that the presence of armed citizens increases the risk of gun violence is also not a proven fact.

On the pro-gun side we have, as always, the works of Gary Kleck and John Lott. On the basis of 221 completed telephone interviews, Kleck decided that armed citizens were responsible for preventing upwards of 2 million crimes each year. Kleck’s fantasy has been more or less consigned to the dustbin and replaced by John Lott’s statistical mish-mash which nobody else can validate or reproduce. He says that when the number of concealed-carry licenses goes up, violent crime goes down.  Lott could teach Donald Trump a few things about how to get caught in a lie and keep insisting it’s the truth.

For GVP, the evidence pointing to increased gun violence in SYG states is not entirely conclusive but it’s strong.  On the other hand, the argument that letting people walk around ‘strapped’ generates more gun violence is less clear.  The numbers of gun deaths committed by CCW-holders averages roughly 100 per year – that’s not even 1 percent of all gun homicides and in many states the toll is less than 1 per year.

I like Caroline Light’s book – concise, readable and the analysis of court decisions is very well done.  It’s too bad it will only be taken seriously by advocates on one side.  The other side is too busy awaiting the day that every single last, bothersome gun law will finally be put to bed.  But a funny thing seems to be happening in DC because more people may show up to rally against Trump than to celebrate his great day. And most of the folks who give Trump low marks so far happen to be people who aren’t enamored of guns.  So we’ll see what we see.

 

 

Just Because Cops Like Guns Doesn’t Mean They Oppose Gun Control.

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During the campaign one of Trump’s poster-boys for getting out the gun vote was Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, who has been a featured speaker at the national meeting of the NRA. America’s oldest civil rights organization has long promoted the alleged support of law enforcement when it comes to protecting gun ‘rights’ and solicits and receives pro-gun homages from many of the nation’s sheriffs.

cops Why sheriffs?  Because they are responsible for law enforcement in just about every part of the country outside the larger urban centers, and in case you didn’t notice it back on November 8th, rural areas and small towns usually vote red. And since sheriffs, as opposed to police chiefs, are elected not appointed, the political views of most American sheriffs tend to reflect the political views of the people they are sworn to protect. It’s hardly a surprise, for example, that more than 50 sheriffs sued Colorado’s Governor, claiming that the state’s new gun laws were unconstitutional. The suits went nowhere, but it gave the sheriffs something to do besides running down to Dunkin’ Donuts to bring coffee back for the boys.

There are somewhere upwards of 765,000 full-time law enforcement officers working in the United States, along with some 400,000 part-timers.  Roughly half are attached to departments that number 10 sworn officers or less. Not only do law enforcement personnel in these smaller agencies patrol wide swatches of underpopulated territory, they usually come from the same community themselves. Which means that their views on all subjects is often no different than the views of the people whose neighborhoods they patrol.  And let’s not forget that the further you move away from cities, the higher is the per capita ownership of guns.

To quote an officer serving in a small, rural department: “I grew up in a rural county, so everyone hunted. I’ve been around guns since I was a kid.” Another officer from the same department said: “My views are shaped [by rural life] because that’s how I was raised—around guns.”  These and other comments by members of a rural sheriff’s department appear in a remarkable article written by Rachael Woldoff, a sociologist at West Virginia University who, with the help of researchers from Washington & Jefferson and the FBI, spent several years conducting detailed interviews with 20 members of a rural sheriff’s department to better understand what she refers to as ‘complex views’ on gun control held by these cops. [Download the article here.]

And what she learned and has explained in impressive detail is that, when it comes to views about guns, police both reflect the views of the communities in which they were raised and served, as well as separating themselves from some of those views because of the nature of their work and experiences.  She refers to this process as the ‘multiple identities’ that police in rural areas must learn to incorporate into their work even if they tend to come on the job from a pro-gun background.

What does Woldoff mean by a ‘nuanced’ view on guns?  She learned that rural police overwhelmingly rejected the concept of ‘gun control’ while embracing the notion of ‘individual rights. Nevertheless, these same officers supported expanded background checks and mandatory, pre-licensing training prior to concealed-carry issuance.  Here again, the multiple identities that these cops must fold into a ‘police identity’ is reflected by the fact that they view rural gun owners as responsible gun owners, “but also as unsafe and insufficiently trained to own and use firearms.” Wow.

This article is a very serious academic effort and the reader must work through some lengthy discussions about identity theory and other sociological methodology, but it’s worth it.  The fact that these cops unstintingly line up on the side of rural gun culture doesn’t necessarily make them averse to supporting reasonable measures to curb gun violence.  And advocates for gun violence prevention shouldn’t take anyone for granted in terms of pushing their message as far and wide as they can.

Does Anyone Ever Think About The Cost Of Regulating Guns? The NRA Does.

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If you listen to the media’s spin on the NRA, the first thing they always tell you is that the success of the gun lobby is due to the amount of cash they spread around.  And while it’s true that they give substantial amounts of money to this candidate and that, and they spent a ton of dough on television ads for he-who’s-name -shall-not-be-mentioned even though he’s soon to become 45th President of the United States, the fact is that the NRA’s real success on the legislative playing field is due not to what is spent, but what is not.

laws             At the Federal level, most of the NRA’s lobbying activity consists of shooting down gun bills promoted by the other side.  And the funny thing about increasing gun regulations, such as expanding background checks to cover private sales, for example, is that someone has to foot the bill.  The gun owner who wants to give a gun to his son or sell it to a neighbor or friend has to pay a gun dealer to do the requisite paperwork and background check; the FBI will have to hire more staff to respond to the increased volume of NICS calls; the ATF will want to increase the number of agents because the dealers whose stores they inspect will have lots more transactions on their books.

Like it or not, most schemes to regulate anything, not just guns, live or die based on the ability of the relevant government agencies to ensure through enforcement that the new regulations are being followed and kept.  When Nixon dropped the speed limit to 55 mph in 1974 it was estimated that gasoline consumption declined by a whole, big 1% because most states ignored the rule and drivers were rarely, if ever ticketed for exceeding the new limit on speed.  But guns are already a highly-regulated industry, so additional regulations would be enforced.

The real political clout of the NRA is felt at the state level because this is where the entire licensing procedure for gun ownership takes place.  Thirteen states require a pre-purchase permit requirement for hand guns, long guns or both which means finding the time and money to process such transactions; carrying a concealed weapon is now legal everywhere but requires some kind of permit in 44 of the 50 states.  Again, the issuing authority for these licenses needs to spend money to get the job done.

Take a look at laws which the NRA is promoting at the state level, again and again such laws would cost nothing at all.  Texas is now the eighth state to allow students to bring concealed guns onto college campuses, a law that might make a college administrator decide to hire some more security, but it won’t be at the taxpayer’s expense.  Back in 2014 Georgia passed a ‘guns everywhere’ law which opened bars, restaurants, churches and just about every other public place to those hardy souls who just can’t walk around without their guns. Did this law require an uptick in the state budget bottom line?  Not one bit.

A recent study from three researchers at the Harvard Business School tracked state legislative responses to mass shootings from 1999 through 2014. What they found was that after a mass shooting, laws that loosened gun restrictions increased in Republican-controlled state governments by 75%, no comparable activity for tightening gun restrictions in states with blue governments was found.  I’m not sure that I entirely buy their research because Connecticut, New York and Maryland all passed restrictive gun laws after Sandy Hook, but all three laws mandated new regulations which could only become effective with enforcement at every turn.

Going forward, Gun-sense Nation will have to tread carefully when it comes to advocating new gun regulations which bear any cost.  Because we are clearly entering a time when ‘tax relief’ and ‘downsizing government’ will be the orders of the day. And since most laws cost money to enforce, this puts Gun-nut Nation in the driver’s seat because they don’t want any gun laws at all.

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