Are Guns Pathogens? Yes. They Cause A Disease Called Gun Violence.

            You may recall that last year eight national medical organizations plus the American Bar Association issued a manifesto calling for medical professionals to become more involved in the debate about gun violence. Actually there wouldn’t be any reason for physicians to justify or explain their professional responsibility to counsel patients on gun violence if it weren’t for red-meat politicians at the state and federal level who gin up political support from Tea Party elements by pretending that guns aren’t a risk to health.

 docs versus glocks           Of course we all know that guns don’t kill people, right? Know how many gun homicides and suicides were recorded by the CDC in 2014?  32,743.  Know how many homicide-suicide deaths occurred with every other type of device?  26,354. Nah, guns aren’t lethal, people are lethal. And if you really agree with Wayne-o and all the other gun promoters on that one, please don’t waste your time sending me a snarky tweet or a nasty blog.  Go lay brick.

            When the Florida gun-crazies passed the physician gag law I was actually somewhat pleased in a perverse kind of way.  Because the truth is that prior to Docs v. Glocks, medicine had allowed itself to get sidelined on the gun issue through a combination of inadvertence, lack of specific counseling guidelines and the refusal of the federal government to fund gun-violence research through the CDC.  And even though medical academies like the AAP had issued pronouncements about gun violence over the years, stating a concern about a medical problem is one thing, doing something about it is something else.

            But last year’s manifesto by the 8 medical organizations marked a turning of the tide, and a recent editorial in the Boston Globe demonstrates that the medical community is moving back into the center of the gun debate where it happens to belong.  The editorial, “Doctors should talk to patients about guns,” is a no-holds barred declaration by the newspaper’s editors that doctors need to go beyond voluntary screening for gun risk and incorporate such questions into their everyday contact with patients.  The editorial recommends the development of clinical guidelines that would not only give guidance for what kinds of questions should be asked, but would “lay the groundwork for breakthrough research on the effect of gun ownership and the roots of gun violence.” In this regard, doctors in Massachusetts have a willing and forceful ally in State Attorney General Maura Healey, who has offered the resources of her office to help develop and implement treatment guidelines as well.

            The Globe editorial was acknowledged several days later in a Letter to the Editor from two prominent Massachusetts pediatricians, Judith and Sean Palfrey, the former a past-President of the AAP, the latter a leader in the campaign to rid lead from environments in which children live and play. What makes this letter so important is the following statement: “Guns, and the bullets they shoot, are deadly pathogens….” 

            Like it or not, that statement happens to be the truth.  The evidence to bolster that statement has been published again, and again, and again.  And I believe that as physicians get more involved in counseling their patients about guns, their approach should be governed by this one fact above all: guns are pathogens.  And a pathogen is something which causes a disease.  And 120,000 violent deaths and injuries each year is a disease.  Period.  Let’s cut the nonsense, okay?

            By the way, calling a gun a pathogen has nothing to do with 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’  I happen to be carrying around 30 pounds of excess weight.  And when I see my beloved internist he would be remiss if he didn’t tell me to cut out some of those carbs that I love to eat.  But it’s my choice if I want to keep eating more than I should.  And it’s his responsibility to remind me of how what I choose to eat might affect my health.  Think it’s different with guns?  Think again.

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The ATF Issues A New Report On Gun Traces And Once Again They Get It Wrong.

Here they go again – patting themselves on the back for the good work they do protecting America from the scourge of gun violence.  We do have a scourge of gun violence, but whether the ATF does anything in response to this problem other than releasing self-congratulatory and misleading reports remains to be seen.  The latest such missive, the ATF annual Firearms Trace Data, covers 2014 and Is advertised on the ATF website as containing “critically important information.” This sounds impressive, but let’s spend some time trying to understand exactly whether this ‘critically important’ information has any bearing at all on efforts by law enforcement agencies to deal with gun violence.

atf                In 2014 the ATF traced 246,000 guns, of which 175,000 were handguns, 65,000 were rifles and shotguns, 245 were “unknown types,” (I love that category), the remainder various pieces of crap.  Here’s how a trace works.  The cops get a gun and then send a trace request to the ATF which includes the manufacturer and serial number and the reason why the gun is being traced. The ATF then contacts the manufacturer and a paper trail from factory to distributor to dealer to first buyer is created by contacting each point in the trail in turn.

Of course once the gun leaves the shop with the initial buyer, that’s it.  And the ATF has absolutely no way of knowing whether the gun being traced was sold to someone else, or stolen, or ‘trafficked,’ – a meaningless word if I ever heard one – or whatever.  The ATF keeps a missing/stolen list of guns but the only people required to report such guns to this list are federally-licensed gun dealers.

In addition to describing the gun, the agency making the trace request must also specify the reason for the request.  Here’s where things get very interesting.  There are 64 different reasons why a trace is made, ranging from homicide and aggravated assault to such serious threats to community safety as abortion, bribery, election laws (I’m serious), forgery, gambling and the greatest scourge of all – found firearm.  This last category by itself covered more than 22,000 traces in 2014; i.e., nearly 10% of all traces.  Of the 246,000 total traces conducted by our intrepid ATF in the process of protecting us from gun violence, I’m being generous by saying that 25% involved guns picked up during or after the commission of serious crimes.  Yea, yea, I know.  All those other guns might have been used in serious crimes, and I might actually go on a diet later today.  In my state, Massachusetts, the cops asked the ATF to trace roughly 1,200 guns.  Know how many were associated with violent crimes like homicide and assault?  44 guns.  That’s five percent.

Along with telling us which gun shops sold all these crime guns, the ATF report also discloses another pile of data that is indispensable in the fight against gun crime, namely, what the ATF refers to as ‘Time-To-Crime;’ i.e., how long between when the traced gun was sold and when it was traced, the idea being that guns that are purchased as ‘straw sales’ will end up being used in crimes more quickly than guns sold to law-abiding purchasers.  In 2014, the ATF says that TTC was just under 11 years.  So if a bunch of guns came from a gun shop with a much briefer TTC, obviously this is a shop where something nefarious is going on.

Let me break the news to the ATF gently. The firearms inventory of most gun shops consists of 30%-40% used guns.  Since TTC is only calculated on the initial sale, the TTC numbers are off by a factor of 30% to 40%,.  Want to base public policy on data that might be 40% incorrect?  I don’t.

I have no issue with regulating a consumer product that is as lethal and dangerous as a gun.  But the regulators should at least know something about how the industry operates they are regulating.  The ATF trace report proves that they don’t.

 

 

 

How Do We Know That Crime Is Going Up or Down?

Violent crime rates 1973-2005

Violent crime rates 1973-2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every time the gun control crowd makes a peep, the NRA and its juggernaut PR operation swings into high gear to remind  us that Americans are safer because we can own guns.  And they point to the fact that over the last twenty years, while the number of guns in private hands has doubled, the rate of violent crime has dropped by half.  Now let’s forget the fact that 95% of the decline in violent crime took place fifteen years ago and that over the last few years the violent crime rate has been slowly inching up.  If for nothing other than coincidence, you still can’t argue with the notion that more guns does seem to equal less crime.

But a funny thing happened the last time this debate broke out, namely, that despite the evidence of a decrease in violent crime, a majority of Americans feel that they are living in a more dangerous place.  This was the finding of public opinion polls published both by Gallop and Pew, the former finding that more than two-thirds of their respondents felt crime was worse, the latter pegging the number at 55 percent.  Given these findings, should it surprise that so many Americans are heeding the NRA’s call and rushing down to their local ;police stations to apply for permits to carry a gun?  Every day we read another story about how police agencies are unable to keep up with the flood of applicants for concealed-carry permits while most gun manufacturers report that they are at least six months behind in  catching up with the demand for small, concealable guns.

But if you want to blame the NRA for ginning up public concern about crime and therefore the necessity to go out and buy a gun, you may be barking up the wrong tree.  Because it turns out the percentage of Americans who believe that crime has increased and are in favor of stricter gun laws outweighs the percentage who agree that crime has increased but are against stricter laws by a factor of two to one! And even though this is a Rasmussen poll, and everyone knows that Rasmussen screwed up 2012, a difference of 64% to 28% simply can’t be ascribed to the bias or agenda of the polling organization.

So where does this disconnect between perception and reality about crime come from on the part of people who don’t like guns?  You might find the following story interesting, if not instructive.  Last week a community discussion about gun violence took place in Jamaica Plain, MA, which is a middle-class, racially and ethnically mixed community bordering the Roxbury ghetto on one side and the very affluent community of Brookline on the other. The meeting was called by the area’s State Representative, Jeff Sanchez, who supports a new gun law proposed by Gov. Patrick.

Reading the report of this meeting, it’s clear that the tone and the content of the meeting was decidedly anti-gun.  But what caught my eye was the comment by County Sheriff, Steve Tompkins, who noted that Massachusetts already had some of the toughest gun laws in the country but gun crimes were “spiraling” upwards.  Not moving slightly upwards, not increasing substantially, spiraling upwards. His word, not mine.

There’s only one problem with this ‘spiral.’  It doesn’t exist.  In 2011 Massachusetts recorded 28, 232 violent crimes, including 184 murders, 19,626 assaults and 6,768 robberies.  For 2012, violent crime totalled 26.953, murders were 121,  assaults were 18,638 and robberies were 6,552.  In fact the data clearly shows that there has been a crime spiral in Massachusetts – downward; more than a 5% decline in the overall numbers in one year.  The drop in murders (roughly 30%) is particularly significant because murders are mostly committed with guns.

I don’t blame the folks who attended this meeting for thinking that crime is increasing when their own law enforcement officials tell them that this is the case, even when the same officials send data to the FBI that shows the opposite to be true.  But I have to wonder about the motivation of law enforcement officials who talk about the ‘spiraling’ of crime to the people whose taxes pay their salaries.  I hav to wonder…

 

 

Great News! Illinois Finally Joins The Rest of America in Letting Its Citizens Carry Guns

The Illinois legislature has just passed a concealed-carry bill and the Governor may have no choice but to sign it into law. Until now, Illinois was the only one of fifty states that did not allow its citizens to go around packing a gun.  But a court decision last year and some very aggressive lobbying by – you guessed it – the NRA, finally brought the Land of Lincoln into line.

You would think that with all the recent attention being paid to concealed carry of handguns, plus a long history as a state that regulates ownership of guns, that the new concealed-carry law in Illinois might serve as a model for an intelligent and responsible legislative effort to give the state’s citizens the right to be armed.  To the contrary, the law has parts that are silly, parts that are stupid, and parts that are just bizarre.  Did the folks in Springfield even read the bill before they voted?

Here’s a bizarre part: An individual must apply for the CC license to the State Police and the application then circulates to all law enforcement agencies within the state for comments and review.  If an applicant has three arrests for gang-related offenses (yes – you read it correctly) during the seven years prior to the application, the State Police must refer the application to a Review Board, which will then make a final determination.  If the Board believes that this individual does not pose a danger to himself or anyone else, the application goes forward.

Now with all due respect to being innocent until proven guilty, how far are we going to stretch the 5th and 6th Amendments in order to protect the 2nd? I mean, give me a break.  Does this law mean that if someone was arrested only twice for “gang-related offenses” that their carry-concealed application might be approved?

That’s the most bizarre part of the law.  Want a stupid part?  How about the safety course that requires someone to show proficiency in using a handgun by shooting a total of 30 rounds?  Well I guess that’s better than the safety course required for concealed-carry permits in Florida where the live fire consists of a single round.  I’m one to talk because my home state – Massachusetts – issues the license to carry without any live fire requirement at all.  That’s really stupid, but so is the new Illinois law that gives citizens the right to carry and use a gun in self-defense  with proof of proficiency that’s no real proof at all.

As for a silly part, try this one.  During the safety training, the applicant must also be taught the “appropriate and lawful interaction with law enforcement while transporting or carrying a concealed firearm.”  What does that mean?  As a NRA-certified instructor who has trained several thousand men and women in safe use and shooting of guns, I’ll tell you what it means.  It means nothing at all.

One more point (it’s a toss—up between bizarre and stupid so let’s just call it dumb.) The new law does not permit bringing a concealed weapon into a bar but allows concealed guns in restaurants where liquor is served, as long as – get this – the liquor tab is less than 50% of the total bill.  So I sit down with you; you order food, I get smashed on a couple of drinks but your steak cost more than my Jack Daniels.  Oh, by the way, I’m carrying a gun.  And if a town decides it doesn’t want to allow such dumbness, the law overrides any local carry-concealed restrictions anyway.

I belong to an organization called Evolve.  We started this organization because we want to have a rational and realistic discussion about gun violence that will avoid the ideological extremes which characterize the discussion now.  And we want to focus on gun safety and the need for everyone to stand for responsible ownership and use of firearms.  We have no issue with people owning or carrying guns as long as everyone plays by sensible and effective rules.   The new Illinois law is neither sensible nor effective.  It’s just another example of how two extremes dominate a discussion while the rational middle remains silent and another opportunity for meaningful reform goes right down the drain.