What Does Gun Safety Really Mean?

It’s been a bit more than twenty years since the debate over guns really heated up.  Much of the noise was due to the 1994 Clinton gun bills which the NRA and other gun-owning organizations vigorously opposed, but it also reflected a genuine concern that gun crimes and gun violence were out of control.  And even though crime and gun violence rates then dropped by nearly 50% before the 21st Millennia and continue at historic lows, the argument over what I call the social utility of guns continues to grow.

The social utility of guns from a negative and a positive can be summarized as follows.  On the one hand, public health researchers and gun-control advocates believe that the risks of gun ownership outweigh the gains; i.e., if you own or carry a gun sooner or later someone will get shot and the victim won’t be that bad guy trying to break down your back door.  On the other hand we have the gun makers and gun-owning organizations like the NRA who just as firmly believe that virtually all gun violence is caused by bad guys with guns, and that the level of violent crime would be much higher if we didn’t have the 2nd Amendment right to own or carry a gun.

safe                I happen to believe that the public health research on gun risk is valid.  I also happen to believe that most people who keep a gun around to protect themselves would have absolutely no idea what to do if they found themselves in a position where their physical security depended on their ability to use a gun.  It also doesn’t matter what I happen to believe. We accept all kinds of risks in our lives – smoking, obesity, drinking – for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with our ability or willingness to deal with the risk itself.  So who am I to say that one person’s perception of risk shouldn’t be another person’s equally valid perception of gain?

The fact is that virtually every single gun that is used in an actual or threatened shooting of another human being started out as a legal gun.  And while the recent video about gun histories posted by States United was a clever way to link guns with their use in murders and assaults, the history of every single gun in that faux gun shop started off in the same, legal way. Now I can’t imagine that there’s one law-abiding gun owner out there who consciously would want one of his guns to be used to injure or kill someone else.  Thanks to the NICS, I also don’t think that anything but a small percentage of guns are initially sold to someone who doesn’t legally deserve to own a gun.  But if 11,000 guns are used in homicides, 140,000 in assaults and another 120,000 in robberies, then we can say with some degree of assurance that every year at least 270,000 guns fall into the wrong hands.

It’s all well and good to talk about extending background checks on the one hand, or telling kids to STOP – don’t touch – leave the area – tell an adult- on the other.  But I got news for you.  If 200,000 guns are stolen every year, and that’s a minimum figure, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how easy it is for guns to get into the ‘wrong’ hands. And if anyone out there believes that the five-dollar cable locks you can pick up at your local police station courtesy of the NSSF is going to stop someone from  stealing your guns, think again.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, thefts of guns are nearly twice as likely to be reported than thefts of other household items of comparable value.  Which means that gun owners understand the consequences of losing their guns.  All the more reason why both sides should be talking about gun safety in terms of theft control, and not just arguing about the social risks versus the social benefits of owning guns.

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Want To End Gun Violence? Stop Settling Arguments With Guns.

As soon as the word got around last week that a middle-aged, white man shot three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, the net exploded with the usual speculation about whether it was a hate crime, an attack on the Muslim religion, a civil rights assault, and so forth and so on. While the police haven’t yet ruled out the possibility of religious or ethnic bigotry, the preliminary indication is that the gunfire erupted during a dispute over a parking a car.  Three young, lovely human beings are dead because nobody could figure out how to find an empty parking space in a wide-open suburban parking zone.

Last year, a highly-decorated, retired police officer walked into a matinee showing of a movie in a suburb of Tampa and found himself sitting behind a young man who was texting messages to his daughter before the movie began.  An argument over whether the younger man should continue texting erupted, one thing led to another, the retired cop pulled out a gun and that was that.  At the time that these two gentlemen decided that staying put was more important than one of them moving to another location and thus avoiding any problem altogether, the theater audience filled less than 30 seats.

If you haven’t figured out the parallel between these two utterly senseless shootings, let me tell you what it is: nobody knows how to back down.  In each situation a man was legally armed, no doubt walking around with a weapon to protect himself against crime.  Of course the armed guys weren’t going to back down.  Why should they?  They had guns.  As for the victims, they weren’t about to walk away either.  After all, who were they to back down from a dispute in which they no doubt were in the right?

For all the talk about why the good guys need guns to protect everyone from the bad guys, the  truth is that more than 90% of the 31,000 gun homicides that occur each year are the result of someone’s inability to back down.  It’s what we call a lack of anger management, and if your anger gets out of control, being able to put your hands on a gun won’t result in protecting yourself against crime or against anything else, including anger directed at yourself.  It will probably result in you or someone else being seriously injured or seriously dead.

violence                According to the FBI, less than 15% of homicides each year occur during the commission of a serious crime; i.e., robbery, larceny, burglary or rape.  On the other hand, at least 4 out of 5 homicides grow out of arguments, and these arguments involve people who know each other.  And we aren’t talking about casual acquaintances – we’re talking about people who knew each other on a continuous basis and had been arguing and fighting over a period of time.  The personal connection between shooter and victim in domestic disputes accounts for virtually every single killing in which the victim is a female (who are 15% of all murder victims each year) and accounts for 100% of all suicide victims who, by definition, have allowed their anger at themselves or others to get out of control.

It’s important to remember that even when we are dealing with violence as a criminal offense, more than 1 million violent crimes were reported to the police in 2013, of which only 1% involved homicides using a gun. And the fact that someone has a propensity to behave violently doesn’t ipso facto mean that they would ever express this anger by using a gun. But there is no other form of personal behavior that is as dangerous and costly as pulling a trigger at yourself or someone else.  And I don’t think we will get very far just by trying to identify the most violent among us and then figuring out how to keep guns out of their hands.  Wouldn’t it be much easier to just get rid of the guns?

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Why Has Crime Declined In New York?

The year-end numbers are just about in, and once again, New York City appears to be setting a new record about crime.  But what used to be a record for the most crime has become a new record each year for the least crime of any major American city.  And when you consider that four of New York’s five boroughs separately constitute five of the country’s ten largest cities, you begin to get an idea of the scope of the achievement.

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The decline in New York City crime is even more significant because while major crime rates declined throughout the United States (and western Europe) from the mid-90’s into the following decade, the crime drop in New York has continued past 2005 whereas, with the exception of Los Angeles,  it has leveled off or shown slight increases everywhere else.  The data for all this is best summarized in Frank Zimring’s The City That Became Safe, which covers the period up to 2009, although crime rates since that date have continued their downward trends.

While Professor Zimring does an admirable job in collecting, aggregating and summarizing crime data, his book doesn’t leave us feeling warm and fuzzy when it comes to explaining why this unprecedented change in criminal behavior occurred throughout the United States, nor why it continues to occur in New York.  Thanks to the data generated weekly by the NYPD’s Compstat program, he is able to tell us what, where and how much crime has declined, but the why remains an elusive conjecture at best. Zimring is aware of this shortcoming; in fact he readily admits that, like every other scholar who has studied this problem, he is unable to bridge the gap between numbers of crimes and causality; i.e., he cannot say with any certainty why the numbers keep going down.

Not that Zimring is without a solid conjecture, in his case having to do with effective policing, an explanation for which he is hardly alone.  In fact, of the nearly 300 explanations for the drop in crime during the 1990s that appeared in major media outlets, innovative policing strategies ranked as the most popular, although it was only one of at least ten basic theories put forth to explain the drop in crime.  A quick review of the bibliography in Zimring’s book and other sources indicates that the post-1990 debate has not produced any greater degree of consensus in academe.

I became interested in this issue when I began doing the research on Volume 3 of my series about guns in America, a book that examines gun violence as and when it actually occurs.  And since so much involving gun violence takes place within a criminal context, thinking about gun violence quickly leads to thinking about crime.  But what I find disquieting in all of the scholarly attention that is being focused on this issue is the extent to which virtually everyone seems to avoid the elephant in the living room, namely, understanding or even acknowledging the behavior of the criminals themselves.

With all due respect to my academic peers and betters, noting that crime rates are inordinately high in low-income neighborhoods doesn’t necessarily mean that because jobs aren’t available someone will turn to crime.  I would be much more convinced of the efficacy of an income-crime correlation if someone would take the trouble to simply inquire along these lines amongst the criminals themselves.  After all, if the robbery rate drops 80% in a neighborhood where the population remains the same, then we have to assume that there are  a bunch of people walking around who have decided that crime no longer pays.

The real problem with the data used by criminologists and other researchers is that we tend to make qualitative assumptions based on quantitative evidence and, in the process, simply fail to understand the social fabric that must be considered prima facie when talking about crime. Zimring, for example, notes that average incomes went up substantially in Manhattan but remained level in other boroughs, leading to the conclusion that economic change was not a determinant for the drop in crime.  But there are now many neighborhoods in Queens, for example, that have become major destinations for New Yorkers from other neighborhoods who want to eat Asian in Flushing or Indian in Jackson Heights and flood these streets on weekdays and weekends, no doubt their presence having a salutary impact on rates of crime. The mile-long elevated park known as the High Line in Manhattan, probably the single most-visited destination in the entire city since it opened in 2009, used to be known as an area where kids from Jersey could drive into the city through the Lincoln Tunnel, score drugs from the dealers and prostitutes who crowded every corner, and get back to their suburban neighborhoods in time to turn on the television and watch the latest installment of NYPD Blue.

I don’t know other cities the way I know New York, but there are certain social trends that have occurred, perhaps to a more obvious degree in New York, but in most other cities as well.  You can’t go into any urban neighborhood in the United States without noticing, for example, that virtually the entire street-level retail trade is in the hands of immigrants from Asia, the Indian sub-continent and the Pacific Rim.  These shopkeepers are in those delis and coffee shops day and night, their presence means that anything happening on the sidewalk will be observed, and even though they may only constitute a small proportion of the total inhabitants of a particular town, their numbers understate the extent to which their livelihoods serve as a critical resource for the safety of all.

If there has been one major socio-demographic change in the United States since 1990, it’s the re-urbanization of many city communities who lost population to the suburbs in the thirty years following World War II.  I suspect that much of the increase in crime that occurred in American cities in the 70’s and 80’s reflected the gradual disappearance of the middle class, just as I also suspect that much of the decline in crime beginning in the 90’s reflected a decision by the middle class to return to the urban core.  At this point my thesis is a conjecture and must await the application of some data that I have yet to study and some observations that I have yet to make.  But the one thing I won’t do is let the data speak for people who should be speaking for themselves.  If we really want to know why criminals have stopped committing crimes, don’t we need to walk right up to them and ask them to explain?