What Should We Do About Gun Violence?

              Our friends at March For Our Lives have just issued an impressive document, A Peace Plan for a Safer America, which can be downloaded here. If the server traffic keeps you from pulling it off the cloud, you can also go to my website and download the report here. The document, or better yet the proclamation, begins like this: “The next President must act with a fierce urgency to call this crisis what it is: a national public health emergency.”

              The good news is that the Parkland kids and their allies aren’t operating under any illusion that the current Administration will get anything done. The only problem is that I’m also not sure that the ‘next’ President won’t be named Trump. Unless of course we are talking about 2024. But that’s a long way off, which means that in the interim at least another 185,000 or more Americans will massacre themselves or others with guns. So what should we be trying to do about it now?

              The Peace Plan lists what is called six ‘bold’ steps, none of which are particularly or different from what we have seen before. There’s Cory’s idea for a national gun licensing system, repeal PLCCA which is a standard gun-control demand, cut the gun-violence rate in half although Lizzie says she will figure out a way to reduce it by 80 percent, support community-based, anti-violence groups, and two new, rather clever ideas. The first is that the President should name a gun-violence czar who would coordinate all federal gun-control efforts as well as give out a much bigger chunk of research about guns; the second is to push for a domestic peace corps for gun violence that will be called the ‘Safety Corps.’  I like that idea; it’s actually different and new.

              What concerns me, and I trust what I now say will be taken in the same constructive manner in which I have read and evaluated this plan, is that the only mention of law enforcement is in a paragraph about the need to produce ‘better policing’ so as to cut down on gun violence committed by the cops. What about the fact that right now the odds of someone getting arrested for committing a non-fatal gun assault are roughly one out of five. Don’t the cops deserve some more resources considering the fact that probably somewhere around 75,000 people are gunned down every year and survive simply because the shooter didn’t shoot straight? 

              We seem to have a serious problem in this country when it comes to talking about gun violence because the discussion always ends up looking primarily at the victims (call them ‘survivors’ if you will) with scant attention being paid to the individuals who shoot the guns.  In fact, while gun suicides claim more than 20,000 casualties every year, the total number killed and wounded in felonious assaults is now probably around 90,000, although we really don’t know a good number because the CDC has decided that its estimates for non-fatal shootings can no longer be used. So much for the public health ‘approach’ to gun violence.

              The bottom line is that somewhere between 75% and 85% of all gun injuries happen to be crimes. And we can express all the concern we want about the root causes of criminal behavior, but when someone walks down the street and gets hit by a bullet that happens to be flying by, the injury isn’t going to be somehow less serious because that guy just spent the afternoon cleaning up a vacant lot. 

              Again, I want to make it clear that I share the frustrations and concerns of everyone in Gun-control Nation who would like to see us turn a corner and really do something meaningful and successful about the violence caused by guns. But as often as they make mistakes or give in to popular prejudices, when it comes to gun violence, the cops aren’t causing 125,000 gun injuries every year. And neither is it the fault of the crazies, not the guns, to quote Number 45.

              It’s the guns, stupid. The small, concealable handguns occasionally mixed in with an AR.

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Now That The NRA Is Dead, Who’s Going To Be The Enemy?

              Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s that time of year, all I know is that there seems to be a definite lack of interest and activity within the ranks of the gun-control gang. Judging from the frequency of posts on various Facebook pages and the number of emails that I usually receive from Gun-control Nation every day, I don’t recall such a period of calm in the ranks of my gun-control friends at least from before Parkland, or maybe before Trump embraced the NRA at the start of his 2016 campaign.

              According to Google Search Trends, the highest number of searches for the words ‘gun control’ since July, 2018 was the week of November 4 – 11, 2018 which was the week of the mid-term elections when guns played a significant role in how some Congressional races turned out. Last week, this same search term received almost 90 percent fewer hits. The exact same trend shows up when we change the search to the ‘gun violence’ term. When we look at the trend over the past five years, again we don’t find any weekly period where the search numbers are as low as they are right now.

              What’s interesting about these numbers is that they don’t align at all with the actual gun violence trends. According to our friends at the Gun Violence Archive (GVA), the number of total shooting incidents has risen steadily from 2014 until the mid-point of this year.  In fact, if we assume that by dividing the numbers for a previous total year in half would give us more or less a valid comparison to shootings so far in 2019, there would have been roughly 26,000 events by mid-2015; right now for 2019 we stand at more than 30,000 reports. Of course the GVA is in no position to estimate total gun violence accurately because open-source data rarely covers non-fatal shootings or fatal shootings where someone picks up a gun and points it at himself. Nevertheless, assuming that GVA tracks its data using the same sources every year, their numbers make it quite clear that the overall gun violence trend is up, not down.

              How do we explain this apparent disconnect between the continued increase in gun violence versus what appears to be a lessening of interest in the problem by the gun-control advocates who should be the folks who are most motivated and involved? And you can’t put this down to any lack of gun violence events themselves. After all, just six weeks ago a disgruntled city employee killed 13 people (including himself) and wounded 4 others in a rampage at the municipal building in Virginia Beach.

              Here’s my theory and although I could be wrong, I suspect I’m actually right. When most gun-control activists think about gun violence, the first thing that pops into their minds is not the number of people killed or wounded with gunfire but the existence and the activities of ‘America’s first civil rights organization,’ a.k.a. the NRA. Every one of the 2020 Presidential wannabees from the blue team has explicitly mentioned the NRA in one campaign speech or another; beating up on the boys from Fairfax is a constant theme in virtually every gun-control fundraising email I receive.

              Right now, the problem for Gun-control Nation is that the boys from Fairfax seem to be doing a pretty good job of bashing themselves. There have been numerous public defections from the NRA Board, resignations of key senior staff, and our friends at The Trace claim that the number of government investigations has hit ten.

              In my first gun book (Volume 10 will shortly appear) I make the point that if the NRA didn’t exist, the gun-control movement would have to invent them. For that matter, if Mike Bloomberg and Shannon Watts didn’t exist, the NRA would have to invent them, too. To all intents and purposes, right now the NRA doesn’t exist. Can my gun-control friends come up with a new bogey-man to take the place of the NRA?

Want To Understand Gun Violence? Try Using Your Gmail Account.

Our friends at the Gun Violence Archive have been tracking gun violence since 2014, and their data is often cited by news agencies, researchers and advocacy groups. The problem with what they publish, however, and it’s not their fault by any means, is that as an open source aggregator, GVA‘s data is more a reflection of how and why the media covers gun violence than as a comprehensive picture of what is going on. 

To begin with, and again this is a problem which the GVA admits to as well, suicides, even suicides committed with guns, rarely make news. Unintentional shootings are also events which never attract any public concern unless it’s when the four-year old grabs the gun and shoots the older sister in the head. Finally, intentional shootings where the victim survives are undercounted by as much as half, again a function of media coverage which open-source aggregators are unable to overcome.

I have created my own little GVA version by simply going into my Gmail account and setting alerts for the following terms: ‘shootings,’ ‘gun violence’ and ‘guns.’ Every day those three alerts generate thirty or more links to internet-based media stories, many of which also end up being sourced by the GVA.  Much in the same way as many people start their mornings off with a cup of coffee and a newspaper or other source for news, I begin my day with coffee and those Gmail alerts.

I would estimate that over the last five years (I started reading the Gmail alerts at some point in 2014) I have read or at least scanned 30,000 media sources related to the violence caused by guns. And if anyone reading this column decides to send me a snarky email about how ‘it’s not the guns that cause the violence, it’s the people using the guns,’ do me a favor and save your time and mine, okay? I made an executive decision last week to stop replying to any email that scores higher than five on what Al Franken calls the dumbness scale, and that message earns a ten.

The reason I read these alerts is because I have always felt uncomfortable whenever my gun-research friends in public health describe what they are doing as creating an ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence. The CDC defines epidemiology as the “study of distribution and determinants of health-related states among specified populations and the application of that study to the control of health problems.” But gun violence is a very special problem because with the exception of gun-suicide and accidental shooting, every other gun injury is caused by someone other than the person who gets hurt. So the fact that our data on gun injuries gives us detailed information about the person who got shot, doesn’t tell us very much about the individual who pulled the trigger and committed the crime. And make no mistake about it, more than 75% of all gun injuries happen to be crimes.

Thanks to  FBI-UCR data, we know where and how these crimes occur, and we also know whether the shooter and the victim had some degree of contact before the event. So we know the what, the who and the where of gun violence, but we don’t know the why. More than one and one-half million violent assaults take place every year but guns are involved in less than one hundred thousand of these events. How come more than 90 percent of the people who want to really hurt someone else do it without using a gun? The answer to that question is what epidemiological research should provide.

My public health researcher friends might consider spending a little less time gathering data and a little more time actually reading descriptions of how people get shot. After all, when it comes to something as complicated as violence, the devil has to be found in the details, right?

Greg Gibson: Survivor Apocalypse – Part I

I – Lord of the Flies

I’m holed up in my shack in a distant corner of the north woods. It’s cold, and quiet, and very still. I have dried and canned foods, jugs of drinking water, solar powered LED lights, and plenty of sweet, dry, apple wood to burn. I’ve set myself the task of composing a “Survivor Apocalypse Manifesto.”  But I am not a survivalist. I’m a survivor of gun violence.

For years I’ve sought new ways of talking and thinking about the problem of gun violence in America, some way to break through the indifference of the American people. I see myself as an anti-Ted Kaczynski, an un-Unabomber engaged in the creation of a subtly explosive document which, by its eloquence, charm, and irrefutable logic, will put an end to gun violence as we know it, much as Jerry Rubin and Ed Sanders levitated and exorcised the Pentagon in 1967. But it’s not going to be that easy this time around, for the simple reason that most non-survivors don’t give a hoot about the problem of gun violence in America. As they’ve demonstrated ad nauseam, the pink-faced white men in power don’t care, and that vast majority of citizens who tell pollsters they favor stronger gun laws don’t care either. If they did, they’d already have voted the pink-faced politicians who don’t care out of office.

Who, then, is left to deal with the eradication of gun violence? The survivors of gun violence, that’s who. And the many more people who are in imminent danger of being personally affected by gun violence. Which includes everyone. Too bad for you if you don’t see the truth in this. The purpose of the “Survivor Apocalypse Manifesto” should therefore be clear.

First, however, I must deal with a fact of woodland life. In the fall, a particular species of fly crawls into every cranny of a place like this to sleep through the winter. When I opened the door this afternoon, for the first time since October, the floor was covered with them, right where they’d dropped when the temperature fell low enough to knock them out. I swept them up and threw them away. Then I lit a fire in the wood stove. To my horror the warmth brought more flies back to life. Many more, crawling out of whatever fly holes they’d been sleeping in. Thousands of them, big and fat. They’re called “cluster flies” because they cluster, and right now they’re clustering on the windowpanes, marring my view of the highlands. It’s disgusting. I’m sorry to say that composition of the “Survivor Apocalypse Manifesto” will be postponed owing to the necessity of initiating a cluster fly holocaust.

No wonder Kacsynski went nuts.

But there’s always something, isn’t there? Some impediment, some fly in the ointment. What does it mean, “well-regulated militia?” What is the definition of an assault rifle? Why don’t we just enforce the laws already on the books? This is not the time for such talk. This is the time for thoughts and prayers.

II – History

In 1978 my sister Wendy died, as we say, by her own hand, which had a revolver in it, which was pointed at her heart when she squeezed the trigger. (Women tend to go for the heart; men the head.) She purchased her gun at a pawn shop the day before her death – an unfortunate impulse shopping decision that would be just as easy today, in many states, as it was in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1978. Most people who survive a suicide attempt never try again. If she’d decided instead to hang herself she would have had only a 60% chance of success. Poison, 40%. Cutting, 2%. With a gun the chances of success rise to 90%. Though it’s not success, is it?

Fourteen years later, in December 1992, my eighteen-year-old son Galen was killed in a school shooting at Simon’s Rock College in western Massachusetts. He was the random victim of a disturbed fellow student who’d bought a used semi-automatic rifle at a local gun shop the afternoon of the shootings. The killer modified his gun to accept thirty-round magazines, which he’d ordered, using his mother’s credit card, along with 180 rounds of ammunition, from a mail order company in South Carolina. Purchases of the gun, the ammunition, and the aftermarket accessories were perfectly legal, and they’d be be just as legal now, in many states, as they were in 1992.

These events have given me the unusual perspective of having spent forty years closely watching nothing happen. Or, watching a lot happen, most of which involves people getting killed by guns and politicians doing nothing about it. Let us observe a moment of silence. Let us attend to the buzzing of flies.

A Different Look At America’s ‘Exceptional’ Gun Violence.

If there is one truism about gun violence which is subscribed to by everyone who is active in the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement, it’s the idea that the United States has a higher rate of fatal violence than any other advanced country because we have so many guns. The studies which confirm this notion first began to appear in the 1970’s, reappearing with regularity every few years. In addition to finding a link between fatal gun violence and the size of the civilian arsenal, a more recent study suggests the same link also exists between mass shootings and the number of guns in civilian hands, although the author of this study has made no attempt to give us even the slightest hint about the data he used to develop this idea.

gun violence everytown             If the defining characteristics of intentional gun injuries was similar to what we find in other injuries from commonly-owned consumer products (ex., automobiles, bikes) I would have no issue with this approach to understanding injuries caused by guns. But it’s not. Gun injuries are unique among all product injuries tracked by the CDC because in every other category, the person who commits the injurious behavior and the person who gets injured are one and the same. As for gun violence, and violent behavior in general, other than suicide, the injured party and the party who commits the injury are two different people, so we need to understand the behavior of both.

Additionally, gun violence is skewed in terms of where it happens and who is involved.  Of the 3,100 counties in the United States, more than half are not the locations for any gun homicides at all. And less than 2% of all U.S. counties are the locations for more than half of all fatal gun injuries each year.  Furthermore, within these high-risk counties, most of the perpetrators and victims of intentional gun violence are men between the ages of 16 and 34, a majority of whom happen to be from non-white racial groups.

Now let me make one thing very clear.  I am not trying in any way, shape or form to assign certain behavioral characteristics to any particular racial or ethnic group. Nor do I ever make judgements about the relative cultural values of one population group versus another. My approach to understanding gun violence is very simple, namely, the data either explains something or it does not. And the strategies that we adopt for reducing gun violence can either be justified by a rigorous analysis of the data or they can’t. In that regard, I am afraid that the way we analyze data on fatal gun violence, particularly when we use the data for cross-national comparisons, simply doesn’t work.

I have just posted a very detailed paper examining how we define and use data for cross-national comparisons about fatal gun violence that raises substantive questions about whether the accepted narrative about the exceptional rate of American gun violence leads us towards more effective GVP strategies or not.  The paper is available on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) and can be downloaded here.  You can also send me comments about the paper to which I will quickly respond.  This is the second paper I have posted and I am pleased to join more than 370,000 scholars worldwide who use SSRN to share research with other scholars in their field. Without such intellectual cross-fertilization, our body of knowledge would expand at a much slower pace.

Regardless of how we feel about guns, everyone has a vested interest in feeling secure and safe. And it doesn’t matter whether risks to our safety are felt more in one area or among one population group as opposed to another, either we share a commitment to the commonweal or we don’t. My only hope is that part of this commitment will rest on validated data culled from serious research.

 

 

Want To Understand Gun Violence? It’s The Details That Count.

Every day our friends at the Gun Violence Archive (GVA) put up the list of people who were killed or injured by guns the day before, something they have been doing since 2014. Their data comes from more than 2,500 open sources, and while it’s not a complete listing of everyone whose life ends because they got hit with a bullet, their efforts give us a remarkable opportunity to understand when, how, where and why shootings take place.

GVA              Mark Bryant and his merry band have come in for their lumps from both camps in the gun debate, gun-control scholars seemingly never satisfied unless every bit of data can be linked to a legitimate, government source; Gun-nut Nation trolls refusing to accept the idea that there’s something called gun violence at all. But the GVA gives us details of each incident, read enough of them and you begin to realize that analyzing gun violence just by using numbers obscures as much as it explains.

Let’s take every gun killing listed in GVA for March 25. There were 18 separate incidents in 10 different states resulting in 22 deaths.  In other words, more than one out of 5 fatal shootings resulted in more than one death. What does this mean? Neither the FBI nor the CDC, the two agencies which gather data on gun violence, publish the actual number of fatal shooting events; they just give us an overall body count, which is not the same thing.

March 25th was a Monday. Are 22 fatal gun shootings what normally occur on the first ‘business’ day of the week?  Again, we have no idea because the studies that look at day-to-day variations in gun killings tend to be localized within a particular city or particular state. Another problem from a quantitative perspective is that the GVA can’t rely on open sources to generate any kind of comprehensive data on gun suicides. If that were the case, generally speaking, a day which registered 22 gun homicides would count only 40 gun suicides, when the actual number is 55 or more. with guns. But one incident described by GVA did stand out in this respect. A man in Harris County, TX caused an accident by driving the wrong way down a one-way street. He came out of his car, observed the incident (nobody was badly hurt) and then went back to his car and shot himself dead. We always think of suicide as a planned, isolated event. Really?

Another interesting bit of information which came out of the listing was that five of the 22 casualties were women, which happens to be roughly twice the usual proportion of female gun homicide victims to victims overall. Two of the women were shot inside their homes alongside a male victim; another woman was pregnant, she survived but the unborn baby did not, another woman sitting in the car was also gunned down.

Finally, two of the shootings took place in situations where liquor was involved, a strip club and a bar. Maybe the shooters were under the influence, maybe not. Alcohol is certainly an extenuating factor in all kinds of violence; that 10% of the March 25 shootings were in or near places serving booze shouldn’t surprise.

I saw the first photographic show mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1958 or 1959.  It featured the photos of Arthur Zellig, aka Weegee, whose pictures of New York homicides were graphic enough to be considered works of art. Taking a Weegee-like approach to gun homicide brings us face-to-face with a type of behavior that no amount of data can necessarily explain. Americans commit more than 2 million serious acts of personal violence each year, so how come only 75,000 are committed with guns? It’s not like the other 1,925,000 people who really try to hurt someone else can’t get their hands on a gun.

Everyone in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community should read some of the descriptions of the shooting events listed in the GVA.  It’s a sobering exercise, to say the least, but I guarantee that after you finish, you’ll never think the same way about gun violence again.

An Approach To Gun Violence Which We All Need To See.

When I was 14 or 15 years old, my brother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see an exhibition of photographs by an immigrant named Arthur Felig who went by the street name of Weegee, and whose photos showed the gritty side of New York. Using one of those heavy Speed Graphic cameras with the big flash bulbs, Weegee would hang around a police precinct and when a call came in about a murder or some other criminal event, he would often get to the scene before the cops, shoot a picture and sell it to one of the city’s tabloids where it would usually appear the next day.

Weegee’s subjects were everyone and anyone, from the Park Avenue society dowager arriving for a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to homeless men and women sleeping in Central Park. But if there was one subject which showed up again and again in his work, it was pictures of shooting victims who lying there in the street, often surrounded by the cops who usually followed Weegee to the scene. Here are some of ‘New York’s Finest’ standing around a shooting victim and notice that none of the cops appears to be particularly concerned or upset.

weegee2

              I was reminded of Weegee last week when I took a look at a website, It Takes Us, which is the handiwork of a professional photographer named Joe Quint. The website is contains a collection of videos, testimonies and what Quint calls the ‘faces of gun violence,’ which are portraits of people who have either been victims or connected to victims shot by guns. If you haven’t yet seen this remarkable portfolio, put me on hold for a minute, click the link above and take a look.

Quint was reared on Long Island, went to Temple University and now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and kids. He’s had a camera in his hand since he was four years old, his work clearly demonstrating that he’s a master of his craft. He joined Everytown but then decided to construct this website because as he says, he had reached a ‘tipping point’ in which he could no longer justify his own inaction in the face of the ongoing carnage which claims more than 30,000 lives every year. Along with this venue, Quint has also contributed articles and narratives to NBC, PBS, Huffington Post among others, as well as our friends at The Trace.

The reason I made the connection between Weegee and Joe Quint is, first of all, they are both artists who use a camera rather than a paint and brush. But the ability to convey more than just some pictorial details about their subjects is what sets them apart. In this respect, if you compare the work of both men about the same subject – gun violence – what you come away with his how gun violence has changed.

When Weegee was running around Manhattan taking pics of this gun-violence and that, virtually every one of the individuals lying in their own blood had been shot because they were gangsters and mob guys for whom ending up with a bullet in the head was an occupational hazard, or better said, occupational requirement for the kind of lives these wise guys led. The shootings caught by Weegee weren’t random, they didn’t happen because there were so many guns around, and most of all, they didn’t involve kids.

quint

              Joe Quint’s gallery, on the other hand, should be understood as reflecting how gun violence has changed. Because even though every once in a great while some connected guy is found in the trunk of his car, every day more than 200 people are killed or injured because someone else points a gun at them and goes – bam! – and too many of these victims are simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If today’s gun violence was like the gun violence in Weegee’s time, we’d be way ahead.

When It Comes to Gun Violence Chicago Is Bad But It Ain’t The Worst.

Chicago was ablaze with gunfire again this weekend and as of Sunday morning, five people were dead in a single house and another fifteen were in various hospitals with wounds.  There’s a good chance that the Windy City will rack up more than 800 gun deaths in 2016, almost double the number of gun murders in 2015, which was a 12% increase from the year before.  The city is looking at the newly-issued report of a taskforce that is calling for new measures to deal with the violence; you know, another taskforce, got it?

chicago             Last year I looked at the map of shootings for Chicago that is carried in The Tribune, and noticed that some neighborhoods, particularly parts of the South and West Sides, appeared overwhelmed with gun violence, whereas other areas of the city seemed to have little or no gun violence at all.  But the map for 2016 is different because although gun violence is still concentrated in neighborhoods like Austin in the West and New City in the South, shootings occur in every neighborhood, even in places like Rogers Park.  I lived in Rogers Park in the 1970s and forget about violence or crime, our apartment on Greenleaf Avenue didn’t even have a front-door lock.  This year there have been 25 shootings in Rogers Park, although that’s an improvement because shootings numbered 40 in 2014.

Doing a quick calculation brings the murder rate in Chicago (per 100,000 residents) to just around 30, give or take a few. The national gun homicide rate is around 3.5 per 100,000, in other words, one-tenth of what’s going on in Chicago these days, no wonder the weekend shooting deaths of five people in one house made the national news. Incidentally, I just went back to the browser and the city’s shooting toll since Friday afternoon has been upped to 9 dead and 26 wounded with most of Sunday still to be gotten through.

So what makes this city such a human shooting gallery with no end in sight?  It’s almost like you could walk down any street in the Second City and a bullet might go whizzing overhead.  Except the fact is that Chicago, compared to some other places, isn’t so dangerous after all.  St. Louis this year has a murder rate of 61, New Orleans is 46, Newark is 39.  I don’t know how many of these murders were committed with guns, but if the usual 70% average for guns used in homicides holds true in these towns, then all of them, and some others, rank well ahead of Chicago when it comes to the number of residents who are being gunned down.

If the gun-violence problem in Chicago was just related to Chicago, we could probably come up with some quick and easy reasons why such an exceptional situation existed in only this one place.  But gun violence, more particularly the increase in gun violence, isn’t just a Chicago problem at all. It seems to be occurring in many places, and I am not sure that this generalized increase in gun violence is only found in high-density, inner-city neighborhoods. The FBI says that the murder rate is lowest in cities with less than 100,000 residents, but the town of Mangonia Park, FL (which has a great waterslide) registered two murders in 2015 which gave this place a murder rate per 100,000 of 151!  When a homicide occurs in a place like Mangonia Park it never makes the national news, but there are little towns (what the FBI calls ‘tiny cities’) all over the place and violent crimes, shooting crimes, take place in these spots as well.

Violent crime and, in particular gun violence dropped steeply in the 1990s and 2000s but levelled off but let’s stop patting ourselves on the back and pretending that we’ve got the problem under control. As the accuracy of gun-violence reporting gets more accurate, it’s clear the numbers are moving up.  And they are moving up everywhere, not just in the city on the lake.

Want To Keep Guns Out Of The Wrong Hands? Check The 3rd Grade.

While the gun violence community (GVP) approaches the question of reducing gun violence from many different perspectives, there does seem to be a basic consensus around the idea that the 120,000+ gun injuries (more than 35,000 fatal) suffered each year by Americans can be substantially lessened by keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  This basic approach was embodied in the first, major effort at gun regulation, the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA68), which stipulated that certain individuals who were felons or fugitives, among other unsavory types, shouldn’t be allowed to get their hands on guns.

voting            Over the years a few more ‘wrong hands’ categories have been added to the list, as well as attempts to make it more difficult for wrong-handed people to get access to guns which, in case you hadn’t noticed, is what was behind the FBI-NICS background check system implemented under the Clinton Administration and has become the great GVP battleground over the extension of background checks to secondary sales.

Despite the stupidities of Gun-nut Nation regarding the uselessness of background checks, I’m willing to bet that the NICS system has probably been somewhat responsible for the more than 50% decrease in gun violence between 1995 and 2005, but while the system has become more efficient over the last ten years and secondary background checks are now conducted in 20 states, the overall rate of gun violence has plateaued over the last ten years and now appears to be edging back up.  So perhaps it’s time to re-examine the entire ‘wrong hands’ approach to dealing with gun violence, if only because more ‘bad hands’ seem to be getting their hands on guns every year.

The basic assumption that lies behind ‘wrong hands’ is the idea that people who behave in violent ways will become even more violent if they get their hands on a gun.  But the problem is that even if we had airtight reporting of all criminal behavior, even if the NICS database contained an absolutely complete and comprehensive list of everyone convicted of a violent crime, particularly crimes related to domestic abuse, these records only reflect the behavior of adults, which is way too late to predict who might be a threat to themselves or others when/if they got their hands on a gun.

The life-cycle of gun access has been studied by some of our most eminent public health and criminology researchers and they all agree: guns start showing up in the ‘wrong hands’ beginning around age twelve.  Because a real gun in the hands of any twelve-year old is, by definition, a gun in the ‘wrong hands,’ but that’s when they start showing up.  And the kid who starts carrying a gun to show off at twelve will be carrying it to use it when he’s sixteen. And he will have used it or had another gun used against him over the next ten years.  The studies that confirm the recidivism of gun violence by perpetrators and victims are conclusive in this respect.

But here’s the problem. By the time the kid with a gun reaches the age of sixteen, he no longer can be found.  And he can’t be found because he dropped out of school at age fourteen.  And now he’s wandering the nabes or the hood and he supports himself by doing things that require carrying or using a gun.  The city of Springfield, MA has a gun-homicide rate more than three times the national rate.  It also has a school drop-out rate of 40%. Who’s watching these kids?  Nobody’s watching these kids.

Youngsters don’t wake up one day in the 9th grade and announce they are quitting school.  These are kids with all kinds of behavioral and learning issues which appear by the 2nd or 3rd grade.  And then, ten or fifteen years later, they get shot or go to jail for shooting someone else.  Want to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands?’ Those hands are attached to someone jumping around in the classroom right down the hall.

 

Ending Gun Violence Means Understanding Gun Violence And Here’s A Good Start.

So now we have the second report in as many weeks that strongly points to the connection between gun violence and gun laws; i.e., less of the latter produces more of the former.  The first report came from the Center for American Progress (CAP) which found that states with fewer legal restrictions on guns have higher rates of gun violence; now we have another report issued by New York State’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, which shows that states with lax gun regulations also export more crime guns to other states, hence raising gun violence rates in states which often have very strict and comprehensive controls.

gun-violence           So the bottom line is that states that do not view guns as a threat to community safety not only make their own communities less safe but also help to make communities elsewhere dangerous as well.  And if you believe that this is in any way a new discovery, let me take you back the passage of the Federal Firearms Act in 1938.  The FFA38 was actually the second gun bill passed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the first being the 1934 law that regulated sale and ownership of full-automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns whose use became the staple of Hollywood gangster movies then and now.

The 1938 law moved the Federal government into gun regulation big-time, because it focused not on the control of these somewhat exotic and relatively unusual (and relatively expensive) machine guns, but established the regulation of standard, run-of-the-mill handguns and long guns which could be found in probably a majority of American homes. Moreover, the basic components of the 1938 law, even though much of it was revised by the Gun Control Act of 1968, created the regulatory environment which exists to the present day. To wit:

After 1938, anyone who wanted to be in the business of selling firearms, as opposed to simply collecting and transferring personal guns, had to acquire and operate the business with a federal firearms license issued by the Treasury Department.  Why the Treasury Department?  Because the license cost one buck, and anyone who paid anything to the U.S. Government paid to the U.S. Treasury.  The law also made it illegal if a felon, fugitive, or anyone ‘convicted of a crime of violence’ received a gun and, most important, required that federally-licensed gun dealers only transfer guns to individuals who were residents of the same state in which the dealer sold guns. The law was later revised to exempt long guns from the in-state purchase requirement (hence Lee Harvey Oswald was able to purchase and directly receive a rifle from a sporting-goods dealer in Chicago) but the requirement that handgun sales be limited to in-state transfers remained law from then until now.

Why has the government always required that handgun ownership be more rigorously regulated than long guns?  Because the basic purpose of federal gun regulations is to “provide support to Federal, State and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence.” So says the Gun Control Act of 1968, a law which, incidentally, was supported by the NRA.

Note that neither the 1938 gun law nor the law passed thirty years later or, for that matter, the third big law passed in 1994 attempted to regulate guns per se; all three laws were attempts to break the connection between guns, crime and violence by defining which individuals could acquire guns. But none of these laws defined gun violence for what it really is.

Gun violence is a pathogen and most pathogens spread through human contact, which is certainly the case with the pathogen caused by guns.  We still don’t know exactly how, when or why this human contact takes place, but the reports issued by CAP and New York’s AG provide a good start. They also provide valid methodological templates to be used for further research. In sum, these reports deserve to be read, discussed and their value applauded and understood.