Are We In The Middle Of A Gun Violence Epidemic, Or Is It Something Worse?

I happened to glance at the remarkable Gun Violence Archive website today and two things caught my tired, old eyes.  First, the site has added maps, which allows someone at a glance to see the location of mass shootings, the places where law enforcement officers have been shot or killed, and the locations where people were shot or killed by police.  I’ll comment below on what these maps mean to me, but first I want to spend a few paragraphs discussing the other thing that caught my eye, namely, the number of people who have been killed this year by guns.

GVA            The figure for fatal shootings is unbelievable: 9,175.  If gun shootings continue at this level for the rest of the year, we end up at more than 14,000 who lost their lives due to guns, which will also be an unbelievable figure.  And it’s unbelievable for two reasons: first, because the number would mark an extraordinary increase from previous years; second, because the numbers captured and then published by the Gun Violence Archive go far beyond the numbers presented by anyone else, including the government agencies who are paid by us – the taxpayers – allegedly to track and publish these numbers on official terms.

According to the CDC, the total for all gun deaths other than suicide was 11,995, a number which includes homicides, accidental shootings and what is politely referred to as ‘legal interventions, which means that someone was shot (and killed) by a cop.  The FBI doesn’t track deaths, it tracks crimes, and they say there were 11,971 homicides in 2014, of which 8,124 were committed by someone who used a gun.  If we compare these 2014 numbers to the number in the GVA, both the CDC and FBI come up short.

I trust the GVA not because their numbers are higher than the other figures, but because their research is rigorous and comprehensive. But let’s not forget that since GVA pulls its information from media and other open sources, by definition even its number undercounts what’s really going on.  Notwithstanding these caveats, what the GVA shows is that gun deaths went up 7% from 2014 to 2015, and if the current carnage rate continues until year’s end, the 2016 figure will jump at least another 4% again. Is there a chance that we are now looking at an annual 5% increase in gun deaths every year?  That’s not only a good possibility; the numbers actually indicate that the increase in annual gun-deaths might be higher than that.

Now let’s take a look at the new GVA maps.  There are three maps that show the location of this year’s mass shootings, the location of cops shot or killed and persons shot or killed by cops. I am hopeful the GVA will eventually give us is a map showing the location of all person-to-person shootings because what I suspect we will see is that gun violence is generic to all 50 states.  And this should not surprise given the number of times each year that someone kills or injuries someone else with a gun.

If the annual rate of gun deaths continues to mount at 5% a year, by 2024 we will be over 20,000 gun deaths, and if we add that number to what has also been an upward trend in gun suicides, we could be looking at gun violence claiming more than 50,000 lives each and every year. Gun violence is often called an ‘epidemic,’ but I prefer the approach taken by one of our most brilliant gun researchers, Katherine Christoffel, who considers gun violence to be endemic to our society because it exacts a constant and more ongoing toll.

Feel free to download Dr. Christoffel’s article and consider what she has to say. The bottom line is that unless we take very dramatic and very forceful steps to curb gun violence, we may find ourselves with no choice but to accept this extraordinary loss of life as an ordinary state of affairs. And that is something we simply cannot permit.

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What Would Happen If Americans Didn’t Own Guns?

The NRA keeps saying that if HRC is elected, the first thing she will do is confiscate all the guns.  So that got me thinking.  What would happen if the guns were taken away?  Or to put it more specifically, what would happen if America implemented licensing for gun ownership similar to what exists in the rest of the OECD?  Such a system would mean the immediate disappearance of assault weapons, the gradual disappearance of small, concealable handguns and the remaining firearms (true sporting rifles and shotguns) being regulated to varying degrees. The number of guns manufactured and imported each year would drop by more than half, but the revenue loss of roughly $13 billion in a GDP of almost $18 trillion would hardly be noticed at all.

conference-program-pic            On the other hand, what would the absence of guns mean to public health and crime?  As to the former, there would probably be some drop in the 20,000 suicides that occur each year with guns, but the evidence also suggests that there would be a ‘substitution’ effect, meaning that many, if not most suicide-prone individuals would find other means for ending their lives.  As for unintentional injuries from guns, as the total number of guns in civilian hands declined, so would the number of injuries, but the medical costs of gun accidents is less than .001% of the medical costs racked up each year for treating all unintentional injuries, hardly a major component in driving costs of medical care.

As for intentional gun injuries, for the sake of argument, let’s place annual gun assaults midway between FBI and CDC, or roughly 100,000.  That’s still only 15% of all serious assaults which might not be committed if guns couldn’t be used, but I suspect that the ‘substitution’ effect here would also render the difference less, because our overall assault rate is not much different than average assault rates throughout the OECD.  As for the argument that our homicide rate would be much lower if we didn’t have easy access to guns, this is perhaps true.  But in 2014 the U.S. still racked up almost 5,000 homicides without guns, substantially higher than most of the OECD.

In all of the arguments being made about strictly regulating guns however, what seems to be missed is the effects of gun absence on gun owners themselves.  Because there are somewhere around 30 million households that contain legal guns, and of the 60 million or so legal gun owners, at least 5 million define their life-styles, the social milieu, their culture and cultural beliefs in terms of guns. So what happens to these folks and their everyday existence if they can’t have access to guns?

When I was growing up in the 1950s, I had lots of toy guns but what I really took pride in was my collection of Lionel trains.  The trains and the room-wide track display eventually disappeared, both for me and for just about everyone else who loved model trains.  By the time my children were old enough to play with model trains, they were sitting in front of a television set playing Nintendo and collecting video games.

For that matter, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I don’t recall all that many cars on I-91 going towards New Hampshire and Vermont with kayaks on top or backpacks and tents behind.  Times change, styles change, leisure activities change – the market will always find a way to satisfy our desire to accumulate objects we really want but don’t need.

Which is exactly the problem with guns.  More than 30,000 people die and another 70,000+ are injured each year because Americans have free access to something they really don’t need.  So the issue of how and why to regulate this product doesn’t come down to numbers at all.  It comes down to a moral imperative which says that we should not sanction the use of violence in the ordinary course of human affairs – neither violence towards ourselves or towards anyone else.

Is Gun Violence Going Up Or Going Down? A New Technology Gives Us One Answer.

If you want to fix something, the first thing you have to do is figure out what you are trying to fix. So if you are a GVP activist or supporter, obviously you want to do something about gun violence.  But how do you define ‘gun violence?’  Does it mean when someone uses a gun to hurt someone else?  Does it mean when someone uses a gun to hurt themselves?  How about when the gun was used intentionally?  Or unintentionally?

And even if you decide that ‘gun violence’ includes all those categories, the 110,000+ or so physical injuries that happen each year when the trigger of a gun is pulled may only be the tip of the iceberg.  And it’s a very large iceberg, believe me. To begin, we only count victims by the number of people who end up with a bullet in their bodies.  What about the people who witness the assault? Numerous studies support the idea that witnesses to shootings are often severely traumatized, particularly when these witnesses happen to be kids.  What about people who are threatened with a gun but luckily are able to walk away without getting shot?  This happens many more times each year than the few times that guns are used for self defense.

The problem in trying to figure out the real size of the iceberg is compounded because Gun Nation decided years ago that there’s no iceberg at all.  In fact, the truth is that guns have nothing to do with violence because it’s the people stupid, not the gun.  The gun-nut lobby is so committed to disconnecting the word ‘gun’ from the word ‘violence’ that many of them refer to guns as ‘tools,’ which has got to be about the stupidest, most pandering and meaningless description of any consumer product that has ever been produced anywhere, any time.

But let’s get back to the serious side of the issue which has been raised in an article just published by the Washington Post. The article describes a technology, ShotSpotter, which is now operating in more than 60 locations around the U.S., and basically is used by police departments to figure out how and when to deploy resources in response to spikes of violence measured by the number of guns that go off in the areas where the technology is deployed.

Guess what?  According to the data generated by ShotSpotter, gun violence went down from 2014 to 2015,  The ShotSpotter website contains a very interesting report which compares data from 2014 to 2015 in the 46 cities that deployed the technology both years. And with the exception of cities in the Midwest like Chicago and St. Louis, reports of gunfire are way down in the East and West, and even slightly lower in the South.

My only issue with the report’s methodology is that it generates gunshot rates by comparing the number of gunshots to the geographic area in which the technology is deployed, whereas gun injury rates developed both by the FBI and the CDC compare injury numbers to an area’s population. At this point that we can’t really tell whether the measurement of gun violence by ShotSpotter can really be compared to the usual way that we measure gun violence, namely, by the number of bodies that end up in ER, Trauma, or the morgue. On the other hand, we have to assume that outside of shooting ranges or hunting areas, anywhere that a gun goes off, gun injuries won’t be far behind.

I happen to think that ShotSpotter technology is an effective response to gun violence for the simple reason that the data collected by a ShotSpotter device, if nothing else, tells us where guns are can be found. And despite what Gun Nation would like to believe, it’s the gun, not the person, which causes 31,000+ gun deaths every year. How we find and (yes) grab those guns remains to be figured out.  But ShotSpotter is a good first step.

The Doctors For Responsible Gun Ownership Crawl Out From Under Their Rock Again.

               It figures that just when an effort is being made to push money for gun research back into the budget of the CDC, that the Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership would crawl out from underneath their rock and once again simply lie to the American public about the medical risks of guns. These guys have been around for the last twenty years and even though they claim to represent a large group of physicians, I have never found a single doctor who would admit to being involved with these charlatans because what they say about guns and medicine is simply an attempt to promote gun ownership without the slightest shred of evidence that supports anything they claim to be true.

               Their latest attempt to use the fact that they claim to be real physicians in order to pretend that what they say is scientifically-based is a little meme on their Facebook page which purports to give the true ‘data’ about gun violence, in particular the number of lives lost each year because of guns. Their post begins with the statement that 32,000 ‘firearm-related’ deaths a year are, in fact, a number in decline.  Actually, the 2014 number is 33,599, which is up from the 2011 total of 32,351.  In fact, the number has been rising steadily since 2000 when it hit a low-point of 28,663.  Where do I get my numbers which show a 17% increase since Y2K?  The same place those schmucks claim to have gotten their numbers: the CDC. Moving right along.

               They then claim that 80% of all gun homicides are the result of crimes and participation in gang activity.  Now to begin with, they give the number as 10,560 when in fact the real number of gun-related homicides is 10,945.  You might think this is a trifle to be upset about, but remember we are talking about doctors who are supposed to use evidence-based data to support their point of view.  So either the number is correct or its wrong.

               More important, their statement about 80% of gun homicides being the work of criminals or gang members is simply not true.  According to the FBI, less than 20% of all gun homicides take place during the commission of violent crimes.  And somewhere around another 5% of all gun homicides are listed as involving criminal activities between gangs.  Most gun homicides are crimes after the fact because they take place as a result of a domestic or other dispute and until someone decides to end the argument by pulling out a gun, no crime has usually occurred.  Moving right along.

               Having decided that only 5% of all gun homicides take place outside of criminal events, these medical frauds then concoct the usual statistic designed to show that there’s really no gun violence in America by simply taking the number of murders left over after eliminating just about everyone killed with a gun, dividing that number by the total American population and declaring that “America does not have a gun problem.” 

               I’ll tell you what America has right now.  It has two or three men claiming to be physicians who simply invent whatever numbers they want to invent in order to serve as shameless shills for the NRA.  That’s all these guys are: shills and stupid ones at that.  You would think that if they wanted to convince any physician that their numbers mean anything at ball, that at least they would copy the numbers correctly from the CDC.

               But the truth is that these phonies aren’t looking to convince other physicians of the rightness of their cause. They are simply trying to make sure that any time the issue of gun violence and medicine comes up, they’ll get a call to appear on Fox News, the NRA video channel or some other media channel that will help them spread their exaggerations, untruths and outright lies.  God bless America, even quacks like this bunch can find a warm rock under which to build a nest.

              

Is There A Connection Between Gun Violence And Mental Illness? That’s Not The Right Question To Ask.

Over the last several months, the intersection of horrific shootings and Presidential politics has once again ignited the debate over mental illness and guns.  After Sandy Hook, the pro-gun forces took the position that mass shootings could be stopped if we ‘fixed’ the mental health system.  In the wake of Roseburg, however, even that tepid (and meaningless) strategy has been abandoned by the gun gang and their Republican allies with Shlump Trump advising us that too many mentally-ill people “slip through the cracks.”  Meanwhile, mental health professionals and researchers continue to hold to the belief that, with the exception of suicide, that there is little, if any connection between mental illness and violent behavior involving guns.

shooter               What both sides seem to be saying is there’s no real solution to the problem of gun violence from a mental health perspective, because either there are too many crazies walking around or there’s no necessary connection between being mentally ill and using a gun in a violent way .  But deciding that a certain kind of behavior does or doesn’t reflect mental illness is one thing; understanding the behavior itself is something else.

If the evidence about gun violence tells us anything, it’s that using a gun to hurt yourself or someone else is an overwhelmingly impulsive act.  It is impulsive because in perhaps 90% of all gun violence, the shooter and victim not only knew each other before the gun was pulled out, but there had been continuous and angry or abusive contact between the two parties often for a lengthy period of time.  Obviously this is the case in gun suicides, which comprises two-thirds of all gun mortality; it’s true in most gun homicides, particularly for every gun homicide that grows out of a domestic dispute.  As for gun morbidity, which is so noticeable between the ages 15 and 25, most of the young men who present themselves in ERs and clinics with gun violence injuries previously sought medical assistance for other, less lethal injuries committed by the same assailants again and again.

Gun violence is not the usual way in which disputes are settled. In situations where two people get involved in a continuous dispute, four out of five of these arguments are eventually resolved violently or not – and here’s the critical point – without anyone pulling out a gun.  As Lester Adelson says in what remains the most brilliant article ever written about gun violence: “With its peculiar lethality a gun converts a spat into a slaying and an argument into a killing.”  But for every act of gun violence there are hundreds, no doubt thousands of spats and arguments that do not end up with someone being shot with a gun. And for the 20,000 law-abiding gun owners who use a gun to end their own lives each year, there are tens of thousands of seriously-depressed men and women who obtain counseling and assistance without ever thinking of taking out a gun.

Gun violence, particularly mass shootings, tears deep wounds in our cultural and emotional frameworks and shouldn’t be the subject of nonsensical and cynical sloganeering by entertainers masquerading as Presidential candidates who spend a few months on the national media circuit shamelessly promoting their names.  By the same token, those who are genuinely trying to do something to eliminate gun violence need to understand what is really at issue when it comes to defining a response to this national shame.

The word ‘impulsive’ means that someone engages in behavior without first spending one second considering the consequences of the act.  The good news is that nearly all of us learn how to express anger, even rage, without yanking out a gun.  Pardon the pun, but we still don’t know have a good fix on the trigger mechanism that turns violent behavior into gun-violent behavior. And if you want to yank out a piece, believe me, it will be there to yank out. Believe me.

Want To Carry A Gun Anywhere? A Democrat May Have Just Provided The Chance.

You may recall that for many years both the State of Idaho and the NRA were represented in the U.S. Senate by Larry Craig, who until he was arrested for tying his shoes in an airport toilet, spent as much time promoting the interests of gun owners as he supported the interests of the voters who sent him to Capitol Hill.  In 1997 he crafted and submitted the first attempt to create a national concealed-carry licensing system which was basically patterned after the state-to-state reciprocity that we all enjoy when driving a car; namely, if it’s valid in one state, it’s valid in all.  Following Craig’s political demise, other pro-NRA politicians took up the issue of national CCW, continue to submit a bill every two years, and while the measure has never passed, it creeps steadily forward bit by bit.

I started thinking about national CCW when Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Representative who is running for the Senate, introduced legislation to create a permit-to-purchase (PTP) process to cover the transfer of all handguns by giving federal money to states in order to cover administrative costs.  Basically, the feds would pay each state that would implement some kind of pre-purchase vetting system requiring a background check prior to the FBI-NICS check that occurs when a federally-licensed dealer sells anyone a gun.  Van Hollen’s bill, which of course will go nowhere until Democrats regain control of Congress, would allow each state to establish its own rules for a background check process covering the transfer of all handguns, regardless of whether a subsequent NICS check also occurs.

ptp                The PTP process exists in a number of states, but it usually takes the form of some kind of general licensing procedure which then allows the licensee to acquire any number of guns as long as the PTP-issued license remains in effect.  New Jersey, on the other hand, requires a separate permit for the purchase of any handgun; New York City goes one better by requiring that each handgun purchase requires not only an individual permit but also a police inspection of the weapon before the transfer is complete.  Most states imposing any degree of PTP usually issue a blanket eligibility or ownership license but all guns acquired from dealers must still undergo the NICS check.

Basically, any form of PTP imposed on buying a gun would both slow down the process, as well as weed out people whose gun access would represent what we are all trying to prevent, namely, guns getting into the ‘wrong hands.’   To support his national PTP bill, Van Hollen cited a new study by researchers from Johns Hopkins  which examined the impact of the Connecticut PTP law that went into effect in 1995 and may have contributed to saving as many as 300 lives over the following ten years. While the PTP implemented by Connecticut may or may not be a basis for comparing the outcome to what would happen in other states with other PTP laws, it’s pretty hard to ignore what happened to Connecticut’s gun homicide rate after the PTP went into effect.

Leave it to the NRA of course to both pooh-pooh Van Hollen’s bill and get it wrong when it claimed that its members “don’t want to ask permission of the federal government to exercise constitutional right,” even though the law would help states, not the feds, keep guns out of the wrong hands. But you would think that someone at NRA headquarters would realize that Van Hollen’s bill would be the perfect vehicle for getting the holy grail of all gun bills passed, namely, a bill extending concealed-carry in all 50 states.

If the NRA would stop pretending to be the valiant defender of the 2nd Amendment, they could offer something both logical and reasonable for both gun safety and gun rights. Because what Van Hollen wants for PTP is what basically exists for driver’s licenses, which is what the NRA wants for CCW as well.  Who’s going to blink first?