A Modest Suggestion To Memorialize Victims Of Gun Violence

Yesterday I read about a new project of the Equal Justice Initiative organization to place memorial markers at the 4,000 sites where Blacks were lynched in the South.  This project follows from the Initiative’s publication of a report, Lynching in America, that documents 3,959 lynchings between 1877 and 1950, at least 700 more than previously known.  As I read the interview with Bryan Stevenson, who founded and heads the EJI, it awoke the emotions I felt when I first viewed plaques on buildings in Paris memorializing Jews who were sent East by the Nazis and never seen again.

       Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson

So in the words of Jonathan Swift, I want to make a modest suggestion to the folks who have committed themselves to bringing an end to gun violence in the United States.  And this suggestion is aimed primarily at organizations and individuals who are working against gun violence in communities where the human toll from guns – Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, DC – is a ceaseless and unending event.  Why not consider placing a permanent memorial marker where someone has been gunned down?  The markers in Paris are no bigger in many cases than six or eight inches wide; a gun-violence plaque that size could easily be affixed to a wall or a tree.  And I’m thinking this might be an interesting way to draw more attention to the scourge of gun violence, in particular because it would build a permanent consciousness about what gun violence really means.

Last week I drove through the North End of Springfield, MA, where the gun murder rate this year will probably be the highest of any city its size in the United States.  As I went past a particular corner, I could tell from the yellow tape, the cop cars, the onlookers, the ambulances and the body covered by a sheet, that a shooting had taken place within just a few minutes before I arrived at the scene.  I drove past that same corner thirty minutes later and everything that had marked the spot as a murder scene was gone; someone walking down that block for the first time that day would never know that a human life had brutally and tragically ended on that sidewalk the very same day.

Physically memorializing the place where someone was gunned down would not only raise and retain consciousness about gun violence, it would also be an appropriate way to counteract the pro-gun argument about guns which rests on the notion that most perpetrators and victims of gun violence, particularly inner-city gun violence, are criminals who got what they deserved.

That argument happens to be often tinged with racism and is simply wrong.  Don’t be fooled by the fact that a majority of gun shooters and victims are, chronologically, young adults (although many are still in their teens).  Mentally and emotionally, they are kids.  And like all kids they are impulsive and have no awareness of risk.  They carry guns because it’s “cool,” or because some older kid told them they should carry a gun, or for some other stupid, childlike reason.  But most killings and injuries from guns do not occur during the commission of other crimes.  To quote the brilliant Lester Adelson, “With its particular lethality, a gun converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing.”

In memorializing the victims of this particular form of infantile senselessness, we aren’t paying homage to the work of street criminals and thugs.  We are saying that every human life is sacred, everyone needs to feel safe, and people who lose their lives to guns deserve to be remembered by the community in which they lived.  There’s one block in Springfield – Franklin Street – where two people were murdered in two successive May weeks. The first victim, a woman, was remembered two days later when classmates from the commercial college she attended released some balloons in her name.  Now the street’s back to “normal” until the next killing takes place.

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Do We Understand Gun Violence? Not Yet.

Yesterday a very important article appeared in the Annals of Internal Medicine that once again appears to demonstrate a strong link between homicide and suicide rates and availability of firearms.  The authors, led by Andrew Anglemyer of the University of California, San Francisco, conducted an extensive search of all relevant published and unpublished studies, compared, synthesized and correlated results and confirmed that access to firearms “is associated with risk for completed suicide and being the victim of homicide.”

This is not a new piece of news for the public health community, although it will be viewed with suspicion and distrust by groups like the NRA that view everything about guns produced by public health researchers with suspicion and distrust.  Research on links between guns and violence directed either outward or inward has been going on since the early 1990’s and the results always seem to be the same.  To quote my favorite authority on the subject of gun violence, the author Walter Mosley, “If you carry a gun, it’s bound to go off sooner or later.”

Union St., Springfield, MA

Union St., Springfield, MA

But now that we have exhaustively shown when the gun will go off, either in a homicide or a suicide, the problem still remains to figure out the why.  Because even though 30,000 gun homicides and suicides is a big number, let’s not forget that there are some 35 million homes where guns can be found, which means that somewhere around 90 million people have access to those guns, which means that roughly 89,970,000 Americans who could have used a gun to commit a homicide or a suicide chose not to do so.

What we usually do is to figure out where the people live who use guns to hurt themselves or others, and once we figure that out, then we try to identify the users themselves.  Which is easy to do in the case of suicides, because the shooter and the victim are both lying there on the floor.  It’s less easy to figure out in the case of homicides, where a police department that makes an arrest in more than one out of every two homicides is doing a pretty good job.   What we don’t seem to do is what David Hemenway calls the “individual-level studies of perpetrators;” in other words, why do certain people carry and use guns?”

The answer tends to focus on what Hemenway calls “ecological” studies which make connections between gun violence and the socio-economic factors that create environments in which high levels of gun violence occur.  And we now know that if we look at a community or a neighborhood with high rates of violence and gun homicide, we can usually also find high rates of unemployment, family dysfunction, educational underachievement and the usual list of inner-city ills.

With all due respect to this scholarship however, and I have nothing but admiration for the many dedicated researchers who have been studying this problem for, lo these many years, I also think they are ignoring one important point.  The multi-family dwelling pictured above is the location in Springfield, MA, of at least three and possibly four homicides over the last 19 months.  The area within one-quarter mile of this address contains every facility and resource that the 4,000 residents of that area ever use: school, church, hospital, community center, police station, playground, supermarket, deli and fast foods.

The city of Springfield had 25 homicides over the last 19 months and 4 of them happened here.  Springfield had a homicide rate per 100,000 of 12 – three times the national average – but this street had a homicide rate of 50 per 100,000.  And they didn’t all happen in one day.  They were spread out over 19 months and the most recent occurred last week.

I wouldn’t be surprised if what goes on in front of 435 Union Street in Springfield is what goes on in every city where high levels of gun homicides take place.   It’s not just about the demographics of the inner city, because even on bloody Union Street 3,996 of the 4,000 neighborhood residents haven’t found a reason to pull out a gun. Hemenway is correct when he calls for individual-level studies of shooters, but some way will have to be found to study them one at a time.

 

Understanding Crime: A Tale Of Two Cities – Chapter 1

springfield

Springfield

After I published my last blog I received an email from Susan W: “So why does Chicago have such a high murder rate?”  She’s not the only one asking that question.   Problem is that the answer isn’t a single answer because there’s no type of behavior that can be explained by one, single factor.  In the preface to its report, the FBI lists thirteen factors that need to be taken into account, including  economic conditions, culture, marital situations, crime reporting practices of the citizenry, population density, age cohorts, etc., etc., etc.  And the report states that these are “some” of the factors that might influence crime levels.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to take the FBI at its word and use those factors plus others to try and construct a profile for two cities that have very different crime patterns even though they are extremely similar in many of the social, economic, cultural, demographic and law enforcement categories listed by the FBI.  And just as important as the statistical data is the fact that I happen to live midway between these two cities, I travel through them all the time, and I know their histories and even some of their current residents very well.

I’m talking about two cities in Massachusetts: Springfield and Worcester.  Let’s look at some quick numbers.  Population: Worcester is 183,247; Springfield is 154,518. Per-capita income: Worcester is $24,544; Springfield is $18,483.  Percentage of workforce in administrative or sales: Exactly the same (15% and 10%.)  Unemployment: Worcester is 7.7%, Springfield is 8.4%  Public school reading proficiency: Same for both – 69%.  Data is all from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose websites are shut down at the moment.

One last demographic comparison which is usually relevant to discussions about crime.  While the per-capita income is substantially higher for Worcester versus Springfield, population density which is considered a major factor in crime rates (more urban = more crime) is almost exactly the same:  4,845 for Worcester, 4803 for Springfield. When we turn to crime data, however, all similarities disappear.  Let’s look at homicide first.

worcester

Worcester

 

In 2012, Springfield’s (per 100,000) homicide rate was 7.14, in Worcester it was 4.3.  Rape was 25 to 18, robbery was 351 to 228, overall violent crime rates were 1,042 to 960, the parity due to a higher rate of assault in Worcester than Springfield.  On the property crime side, there was no parity at all.  Springfield’s rate for burglary, larceny and auto theft was 4,561, Worcester registered 3,514.

Let’s put these numbers into the national context.  Worcester’s murder rate was slightly below the national rate; Springfield’s rate was nearly twice as high.  Worcester’s property crime rate was 18.6% higher than the national number, Springfield’s was 37.3% higher.  So if you live in Worcester, your body is a little safer than anywhere else in America but your property is somewhat more at risk.  If you live in Springfield, I suggest you stay inside at all times, double-lock your doors and get rid of your car.

Back to the beginning.  Susan W asked for reasons why there are so ,many murders in Chicago.  We don’t know yet but if we analyze enough data, the answer may ultimately speak for itself.  Stay tuned.

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.