A Must-Read Book On Cop Killings.

Now that we finally have a President who supports the police and promises to end the ‘dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America,’ we can begin to gauge how and why this so-called anti-police atmosphere has arisen from a remarkable piece of research, When Police Kill, written by Frank Zimring and published by Harvard University Press.  Zimring is no stranger to the field of gun violence research, having produced formative efforts in this field for more than forty years. And if you think for one second that the issue of cop killings doesn’t go to the heart of the debate about gun violence, think again. Because what Zimring shows is that not only are most fatalities which occur at the hands of police the result of cops using guns, but the number of such deaths each year is undercounted by more than half!

cops             Zimring bases his estimate of 1,000+ fatal cop shootings each year on the data collected by The Guardian, whose website contains incident-by-incident counts of cop shootings drawn from a constant scanning of web reports, tips from viewers, social media, what is referred to as ‘crowdsourced’ information which Guardian staff carefully examine and attempt to validate before posting the results online. The first half of When Cops Kill is based on the Guardian data covering January 1 through June 30, 2015. I looked at the remainder of 2015 and the year’s entire total was 1,146, more than twice the number estimated by the three government agencies – FBI, DOJ and CDC – which are supposed to provide solid information on which discussions about public policy usually depend.

Zimring’s explanation for this whopping discrepancy in the numbers covering cop killings basically falls back on some well-worn idea about the limitations of coroner reports, the lack of money for more intensive research and the fact that not one single police agency whose jurisdiction might encompass a police shooting (or any kind of shooting, for that matter) is required to report this information to the FBI.  But what’s really behind this lack of specificity about cop shootings is something more generic to the problem itself, namely, that better data would require that the cops do a more thorough job of investigating and reporting shootings by their own, and this just simply doesn’t take place.

One might be tempted to assume that the underreporting is also a function of the extent to which police gun violence, like all gun violence, primarily involves minorities, but this is not the case.  In fact, in 2015, whites were 50% of all victims shot by cops, blacks were 27% and Hispanics comprised 17%.  But of the 12,979 deaths attributed by the CDC to non-cop gun violence, the ratios were reversed, with whites comprising 24% of the total, blacks comprising 58% and Hispanics at 16%. The bottom line is that police gun violence is ignored because it’s ignored, period.

Reported or not, the real question is why are there so many fatal cop shootings each year – the numbers dwarf differences between our overall gun violence and what is experienced in other Western countries. Zimring’s answer is what you might expect, namely, “the proliferation of concealable firearms in the civilian population.”  For the first half of 2015, guns were recovered from 56% of the victims of fatal police shootings, a number which dropped to slightly below 50% for the year as a whole.

Notwithstanding the lack of training, the lack of thorough reporting and the lack of operational concern, the fact is that a police officer in the United States who finds himself in a confrontational situation believes that there is a one out of two chance that his adversary is carrying a gun.  And as we say, you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.

I will publish a separate column on Zimring’s recommendations for what he refers to as ‘the mess’ of police gun violence. But don’t wait for my additional thoughts on this valuable and important book before reading it yourself. It needs to be read.


Is Gun Suicide A Form Of Gun Violence? You Betcha.

Gun suicide accounts for 2/3 of fatal gun violence every year.  Until recently I have always been somewhat uncomfortable lumping suicide and homicide together, if only because the nature of the event is so different, the ownership and access to the weapon is so different, hence one assumes that the mitigation strategies should be different. But following discussions with the expert suicide researchers at Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center and a review of peer-reviewed literature, I am persuaded that gun suicide is not only a fundamental gun violence problem, but understanding and responding to it might provide a map for mitigating gun homicides and gun assaults as well.

suicide foto               Gun suicides and gun homicides intersect In two basic ways: the lethality of the weapon and the motives and behavior of the shooter leading up to the incident itself.  As to the former, guns used in suicides result in a success rate of 95%.  No other suicide effort is half as effective in the final result.  As for homicide, obviously the “success” rate is only about 10%, but there is no other serious injury which comes close to generating the costs and trauma that results from being wounded with a gun.

As to behavior, the degree to which impulse governs the actions of everyone who shoots themselves or others with a gun should not be overlooked.  Less than 20% of all homicides occur during the commission of another, serious crime.  Most gun homicides grow out of a history of disputes between individuals who know each other and the incidence of domestic abuse in homicides where the victims are women is virtually 100%.  I recently discussed a report from the Violence Policy Center in which I noted that a random search of gun homicides committed by CCW-holders showed that virtually all of them grew out of arguments and fights, usually aggravated by too much to drink. Is there really a great difference between the guy who gets sick and tired of fighting with himself or sick and tired of arguing with his wife and reaches for his gun?  I don’t think so, and the research on suicide and homicide tends to bear me out.

What about mitigating strategies for both types of fatalities involving guns?  An article on suicide prevention among Israeli soldiers caught my eye because Israel is often touted by the pro-gun community as the model for giving civilians full access to guns with a consequent low rate of violent crime.  But the policy of allowing soldiers to keep their guns with them on weekend leave also resulted in an alarmingly high rate of suicide among these soldiers, which dropped by nearly 40% when soldiers had to leave their guns secured at their base while spending weekends at home.  Anyone who thinks there’s no connection between suicide and gun access needs to look honestly at what happened in Israel before and after access to guns was denied.

The pro-gun folks would like to believe that gun fatalities have nothing to do with guns and are all about crime.  There’s a simple logic to that argument except for the fact that every single gun involved in a criminal event first started out as a legal gun.  For that matter, most of the guns in suicides either were legally owned by the suicide victim or belonged to another family member who legally purchased the gun.

The usual response from the gun-safety community is to push for an expansion of CAP laws, and clearly such laws do have a mitigating effect when it comes to keeping kids away from guns.  But let me break the news to you gently – the big problem with such laws is that the only way that someone can use a gun is to unlock where the gun is stored or unlock the gun itself.  And the problem we face with both gun suicides and gun homicides is figuring out how to spot the impulsive, destructive behavior of certain people before they get their hands on a gun.