Violence and Policy in America

On December 31, 2015, in Constitution and Laws, Ethics, by David Atlas

Submitted by Matthew Daley of Chestertown, MD.    One of many points of view on the topic of Gun Control, Safety and Access.  Thank you Mr. Daley for your thoughtful essay.    KCBG

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America is in many respects a complex nation and many would agree that the proposition is certainly true with respect to violence, in particular, to gun violence. In the wake of the San Bernardino killings, the debate over gun control is again energized.  Perhaps it is time to step back from advocacy of any particular legislative proposal and try to identify if not common proposals, at least approaches that might make the debate less rancorous and more productive.

The Context

Several phenomena stand out at the macro level. First, and encouragingly, the number and incidence of homicides in America have been on a striking three decade decline, overall about 50 per cent despite a significant increase in the number of firearms in private hands.   (Roughly two thirds of homicides are committed with firearms.)[1]  Second and also striking, women’s access to birth control and legalized abortion is cited by some experts as accounting for up to half of the decades-long drop in crime.[2]  Put simply, fewer unwanted children mean a smaller pool from which future criminals will be disproportionately drawn.  Third, traditional gun control measures have not been shown to make a major dent in the problem.  Fourth, and more importantly from the perspective of the number of deaths, we need to focus our efforts increasingly on mental health aspects, both suicides and mass shootings.  Mass shootings receive far more media attention than suicides, but in comparison to suicides mass shootings account for a small percentage of mental health related fatalities.  Slightly over half of suicides are accomplished with firearms and these account for close to two thirds of all firearms deaths.[3]

Discussion of the topic suffers from overly narrow perspectives. Some believe that tighter restrictions on legal access to firearms will be significantly productive.   The issue, however, is multifaceted and includes cultural, social, demographic, economic, law enforcement and mental health aspects.  Measures to reduce accidents or suicides often have little relevance to efforts to constrain the criminal use of firearms.   Similarly, mass murder by mentally disturbed individuals and acts of domestic terrorism are in distinctly different categories, albeit ones that receive vastly more publicity compared with “ordinary homicide” despite being dramatically less frequent. [4]

Terrorism, even more than non-political mass shootings generates enormous publicity and resultant anxiety. That said, terrorism in the US accounts for so few fatalities compared to other causes of premature death that in the discussion of firearms violence, it should assume a low priority.  Moreover, the approaches to address terrorism are markedly different from either criminal use or suicide.

Gaps in Research

Discussion also suffers from a lack of solid research and a lot of what does appear in ink or in pixels is regarded as biased by one side or the other.   Certainly if federal funding of research is involved, the Congress and the American people will need to be persuaded of the impartiality of the research.   The scope of research is also fundamental.  For example, many proponents of additional restrictions on firearms cite the harm caused with these instruments, but ignore the substitution effect that the criminal or mentally disturbed may (and do) employ when access to firearms becomes more difficult.  It also ignores the benefits that individuals and society derive from self-defense with firearms which appear far more common that the media acknowledges.[5]  Neglecting the benefits of self-defense (especially when a firearm is brandished and not actually discharged) is akin to making arguments about the benefits of our hospitals while ignoring the patients killed by medical error.  While CDC’s 2013 tables on causes of death do not refer to medical error, reports elsewhere suggest we are far more likely to be killed by medical error than by gun homicide.

Lax Enforcement of Existing Laws

We might also ask why so many of the current gun control laws that have wide public support are enforced so weakly.  For example, relatively few Brady act violations are prosecuted by the Justice Department.  Worse, according to research at Syracuse University, in 2012, the federal districts that cover three of the most plagued gun crime cities, Chicago, Los Angles and New York ranked last in federal gun law enforcement i.e. 88th, 89th and 90th of 90 federal judicial districts.[6]   This enforcement failure undercuts the rationale for further steps to close gaps in various legislative regimes and weakens the political constituencies that might support additional measures. It is important that laws be enforced, and that their effectiveness in achieving intended goals be monitored.[7]

Notifications to the FBI data base are the critical and irreplaceable input that would prevent the seemingly legal purchase of a firearm by someone who has been prohibited from owning a gun. The shooter at Virginia Tech had been adjudicated as mentally defective by a state court, but his name was not submitted to the FBI data base.  The Aurora theatre shooter was determined (according to press reports) by his state university psychiatrist to be a danger to others, but his name was not submitted to the data base.  As a consequence, both were able to readily purchase the guns used in the mass shootings which they ought not to have been able to buy.   This kind of nonfeasance should spark outrage among those who are concerned by the resulting deaths.  However, all too often the problem is ignored by the media.

Moving the Discussion Forward

So how do we move the discussion forward? Aside from trying to keep a civil tone and a willingness to look at the many facets, here are some ideas.

– Support impartial research financially and insist that policy prescriptions be well grounded in fact rather than in fear, and hew to the principle of supporting proven results.

– For example, Maryland’s 2013 gun control legislation, places stringent restrictions on access to firearms by anyone who voluntarily checks into a mental facility for more than thirty days. This stigmatizes a broad category of people who seek professional help while doing nothing to protect the public.  All that thirty days of voluntary residence in a mental facility predicts about an individual is that they have great health insurance or are wealthy – period.  At the same time, the law fails to focus on the very small category of mentally disturbed individuals who really do have an identifiably significant higher likelihood of violence than the norm and crafting approaches to deal with that tiny population.

– About two thirds of firearms deaths in the US are suicides and perhaps something over ten percent of homicides may be attributed to the mentally ill. That said, our methods of limiting access to firearms by the mentally disturbed, while observing due process of law, offer enormous hope for discussion and research. Aside from grappling with the issue of family planning, there is no facet of the problem that offers as much scope to reduce the death toll, nor a facet that has as many complexities and equities to be considered.

– The decline in crime that can be attributed to lower numbers of unwanted children being born arguably is the single largest policy factor that has been identified, one accounting for up to half the decline in crime we have experienced since the mid-1980s.[8]  Clearly, we need to consider innovative measures to provide incentives to young women to postpone or avoid childbirth, as well as to preserve their access to legal abortion services.  We may well find that the cost of such incentives will be more than offset by savings in expenses on the criminal justice system, emergency rooms, remedial education and so forth. Due consideration for strongly held right to life beliefs will need to be part of such a process. (KCBG edit)

– Demographic considerations loom large as well. When center city ghettoes are factored out of the data base, the homicide rates in the US start to resemble those of other advanced countries.  Young African-American males are about eight to nine times more likely to commit murder than their white counterparts, and their victims in equal proportion are Afro-American.[9]  That said, the state of the national discussion on race issues is such that palliative prescriptions perhaps should best be left to leaders of that community.

– We know from repeated studies the propensity to commit crime is not evenly distributed across society, but we are nowhere close to exhausting the options to deal with those who are by far the most likely to commit violent crimes. Herewith an illustrative suggestion:

Under Federal and state laws, convicted felons forfeit a number of rights and prerogatives.   For example, a convicted felon may not buy, possess or transfer a firearm.  In many, perhaps, most states, convicted felons face restrictions on voting rights.  To protect society, we could also remove from any felon convicted for a crime involving gun violence, or threat of gun violence the Fourth Amendment protections regarding search and seizure insofar as weapons are concerned when the felon is in a public space.  We could require as a condition of release from prison that any felon convicted of violent crimes wear a RFI bracelet that identifies the individual’s criminal history, any parole restrictions or probation conditions.  These bracelets can signal location and be scanned remotely by police officers before approaching an individual on the street and thus allow the police to focus on the individuals who are most likely to commit further crimes and ease prosecution when they are found to be armed.

– Make compliance for law-abiding citizens with the many and different 20,000 odd laws that regulate firearms easier than it is today.   For example, if a parent wants to transfer a firearm to an adult son or daughter, let them do the paper work online instead of having to take off work and drive sometimes hundreds of miles to find a police station or licensed dealer to process the transaction.

– Require Federal, state and local prosecutors to report annually those instances when they decline to prosecute cases in which the police have made arrests for firearms related offenses.

– Require state and local governments to report on compliance with submissions to the FBI data base of the names and identifying information on individuals who have become legally ineligible to purchase or possess firearms.

The above is an illustrative list, not an exhaustive one and hopefully will be grist for reasoned discussion.

 

FOOTNOTES FOLLOW:

[1] Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports and FBI Uniform Crime Statistics

[2] This trend was first identified by John Donohue and Steven Levitt.  See their article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. CXI, Issue 2, May 2001.  There3 have been criticisms of their original findings, e.g., by John Lott ( a proponent of the hypothesis that more guns equals less crime) and others as well as rebuttals by Donohue and Levitt.

[3] See the annual CDC reports on causes of deaths in the US.

[4] Some assert a strong casual connection between the prevalence of firearms and the rate of homicides.  This argument encounters difficulty in explaining the low gun crime and homicide rate in Switzerland where male citizens of military age who are physically and mentally fit are required to keep military weapons and ammunition in their residences.

[5] Research is hampered by the absence of systematic efforts to report and collect the data.    The Department of Justice once included broad questions on self-defense in their crime victim surveys, but under the current Administration has restricted the latest questionnaire to asking “what happened” after an individual was assaulted.  In 2006, a Supplemental Victimization Survey that focused on unwanted contacts or harassing behavior skirted the issue.   For its part, the CDC does not refer to self-defense in its tables on Cause of Death.

[6] Summary by US News and World Report,, Elizabeth Frock, March 28, 2013n

[7] The State of Maryland recently abandoned a multi-year and multi-million dollar program of ballistic fingerprinting after it failed to solve a single crime.

[8] See Donohue and Levitt above.  The analytical support for other factors that may impact crime rates tends towards the anecdotal and conjectural.

[9] FBI Uniform Crime reports.

 

Dick Swanson of WCALL pays CBG a visit

On December 17, 2015, in Education, by David Atlas

Swanson

We got an early-bird preview of the new 2016 courses on offer at the Washington College Adult Lifetime Learning program.  Out organizations share the “Come Learn With Us” philosophy.  CBG’ers learn in the morning and WCALL’ers mostly learn later in the day.  However, our goals are very similar.  Being informed is far better than not knowing about the world and what surrounds us.

CBG can tackle issues that might be a bit too controversial for a non-profit, college based group such as WCALL, but there is a great role for such an organization to fill.  How many highly educated and worldly people have retired to Chestertown and the surrounding area?  They have a great deal of experience and knowledge to share.  Many have had a lifelong practice of continuing education.  As teachers or as students, WCALL keeps fertile minds flowing with new facts and stimulating thoughts.  CBG thinks the same way.  We support WCALL in the effort to raise the bar in seeking knowledge and truth.

Thank you Mr. Swanson for your great explanation about the details of WCALL and its many years of successful programs.

 

John Sirna led the group in a thought provoking exchange of ideas and positions on this terrifically #1 hair trigger topic.  It is good to sit with down with others over a cup of coffee and make your position known while sharing the position of others who may or may not agree with you.  It is a learning experience that has almost been lost in today’s busy and politically correct society.  We can discuss some topics, but others are often frowned upon or totally off limits just because not everyone agrees on what one can say, do, or even think, these days.  In an ideal world, the freedom to choose most anything that does not infringe on the rights and choices of another is fair game.  We don’t happen to live in such an ideal world.

Our world has people in it that don’t live by any standard of kindness, courtesy, obedience or discipline.  Sure, we have many who do, but our expectation that most everyone is a good and decent person has slowly been dissolving over the past couple of decades.  Do we have an absolute right to self protection?  Do we have an unchangeable right to “bear arms”?  Is the US Contitution on the same level as the 10 Commandments?  Not everyone is a believer in the infallibility of religion or government.  Not everyone is even willing to allow another to make such a statement.

On one side you strongly favor maximum safety and maximum control.  On the opposite side you have a right to all possible freedoms so long as you act as a responsible individual and citizen.  Is  there a reasonable balance point between these poles?  You had to be at CBG to know what was discussed.

CBG thinks we will understand the world best by learning and informing ourselves from all the positions our fellow men and women take take in dealing with such a difficult topic that so firmly grips a large number of the general public.    John Sirna said it was a very beneficial meeting for those who attended.  Views were exchanged.  We get to know more about how others think while possibly re-framing our own beliefs a bit from the influences of good people.

 

No meeting Dec 24th or Dec 31.

Dave Atlas

 
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