Sunday, June 21, 2015

Getting Real About Gun Violence After Charleston

Just a few days after the massacre in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, 1 person was killed and 9 injured when a gunman opened fire on a house party in a low income area of Philadelphia. The only thing that stopped that shooting from being far worse was bad aim. Unsurprisingly, this incident did not rate any coverage outside the Philadelphia media market, probably because that type of violence is commonplace in our country and addressing it is far more complicated than a simple sound bite or segment on a cable news chat show. 

On the other hand, the coverage of the Charleston massacre has been wall-to-wall for days, but, predictably, continues to miss the mark when it comes to addressing gun violence in our nation.  Do not get me wrong. What happened in Charleston was an awful tragedy, a hate crime, and, arguably, an act of domestic terrorism, but focusing attention on whether or not the Confederate flag should be taken down (it should, clearly) or on the mental faculty of Dylann Roof misses the forest for the trees if you are interested in the topic of what to do to reduce gun violence in our country. Indeed, attempting to create policy off of "black swan" mass shooting events while ignoring the everyday gun violence that is taking places on the streets of so many of our cities is political and journalistic malpractice. 

Sadly, "gun violence" is actually quite predictable - it occurs disproportionately in cities, is associated with things like domestic violence, drugs, and gang activity, with weapons that are used by people who acquire them illegally. This is an important point because the idea that strict, state-level gun laws in and of themselves will reduce gun violence is a fallacy. In New Jersey, where I live, the Brady Campaign rates our gun control laws as the third strictest in the nation - we require people to obtain licenses to purchase guns, we do background checks, closed the "gun show" loophole, and have a waiting period between when you get your gun license and when you can purchase a gun, and on and on, but that has not stopped Camden, to take one example, from consistently being at or near the top of the list of the most dangerous cities in our country. Other cities, like Newark, Trenton, and Paterson also experience a per capita murder rate far greater than the national average and just six cities in New Jersey account for the more than 340 shooting murders that occur in our state each year. 

You see, strict gun laws in New Jersey do nothing about the lax gun laws in places like Virginia, North Carolina, or Georgia, three states where a large number of the "crime guns" recovered in New Jersey are originally purchased. In fact, roughly 80% of the guns used in the commission of crimes in New Jersey were bought somewhere outside of New Jersey and trafficked here to be used for illegal purposes. If it is easy to acquire guns in one place and traffic them into another place without much fear of apprehension or prosecution and is also very profitable for the people doing the trafficking, cutting off that pipeline will do a lot more to have a meaningful impact on gun violence than taking down a flag. 

Another talking point you hear a lot about is the the need for mental health screening, but that story is also mixed. First, there is no test or diagnosis that can accurately predict who may "go postal" and even if there was, research shows that people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. 

Moreover, there is already a way to determine whether a person is disqualified from buying a gun based on a mental defect, but the data is incomplete. In early 2008. some guy named George W. Bush signed an amendment to the Brady Act requiring states to submit mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). This amendment was passed after a gunman killed more than 20 people at Virginia Tech University and was supposed to ensure that people who were prohibited from buying a gun due to a mental health disability were not allowed to do so, as the gunman at Virginia Tech was. Before the law was signed, only 22 states turned over such information voluntarily, and even since the passage of the 2008 Brady Act Amendment, many states are not in full compliance with its requirements. In fact, the law provided financial incentives to try to speed the process, with mixed results - as recently as last month, DOJ was still putting out grant funding to get all states up to date. 

Lastly, "straw" purchasers, people who are not legally prohibited from buying guns and do so and then sell (or give) those guns to others, need to be made a priority by the Department of Justice and laws need to be strengthened to stiffen the penalties for making straw purchases, up to and including allowing prosecutors to charge straw purchasers with the same crime as those charged for the crime in which the straw purchased gun was used. 

Of course, adding prosecutors to go after straw purchasers and traffickers or making sure that all states are current in transmitting mental health records to NICS costs money and lord knows how friendly this Congress is toward giving more money to the federal government to discharge its duties. And such efforts do not even scratch the surface of the deeper questions of how to bring economic opportunity, better educational outcomes, and greater safety to cities where most of the gun violence is taking place in our country. But in the meantime, it would not kill the people who report on these issues to do a little digging to better understand the nature and reality of gun violence in America so they can start pressing our leaders to do things that will actually make a difference. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


  1. This is one of your best posts. You hit the nail on the head with exactly what's wrong with gun laws/gun violence in this country.

  2. My ususal policy is to avoid floods of "coverage" on most news matters - mostly because (as you alluded, TK) the coverage involves rhetorical manure


    (I'd expect attorneys to do a better job than journalists - but it (and science) don't pay as well as practicing law)

    Did you hear the brief bit with an official of the Emanuel AME Church on NPR? He mentioned that the broad organization had taken steps in response to the

    Charleston atrocity. As is proper, in matters of preventive security, he declined to elaborate (a good thing, since many States, Cities, and Counties might try

    to override the Churches' legitimate autonomy regarding security matters).

    No doubt that "it would not kill the people who report on these issues to do a little digging to better understand the nature and reality of gun violence",

    however it is plain that the vast majority of fish wrapper writers lack the critical and quantitative skills to do the job. This is the proper provenance of scientists

    who do have such skills. Put real science together with some private money and high-powered lobbyists and you might succeed in overcoming at least a

    little political malpractice.

    But remember that all policy has winners and losers - costs that come with benefits - AKA "Secondary Effects" (the road to hell is paved with good

    intentions). My gut (and a fair amount of social science) indicates that gun control tends to divert arms from the legitimate to the malevolent.

    After Newtown I tried some quick-and-dirty social science. I found a Mother Jones graphic (based on news accounts) which compiled American deaths by

    mass shooting going back to 1981. I then found a similar compilation over a lesser period (about 15 years) for death by lightning strike. I then normalized

    each of these by population and found that the incidence of lightning fatalites was about three times greater than that by mass shooting.

    This is not relevant to urban violence, which is a much thornier problem - one which requires a lot more than gun regulation.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I don't disagree with your points, but my argument is more that driving policy based on random incidents like Charleston (or Newtown for that matter) is not the way to address "gun violence" in our country. That phenomenon is largely one of "street" and relational violence (violence committed by people who know each other). Street criminals do not typically acquire their guns "legally," so tightening restrictions on purchase will not necessarily have an impact unless you make it more risky for straw purchasers and others who DO buy guns legally and then traffic them ILLEGALLY to do so.

      Also, instead of blathering on about mental health, pundits would be better served learning how NICS actually operates and what its shortcomings are based on the gaps in data referenced in the blog post. It's not just that the punditry misses the forest for the trees, by obfuscating the real issues, the populace is less informed.

    2. Your proposed focus on straw-dealers appeals if only for the reason that legitimate private interests could still legally possess arms. With 300-million privately-owned weapons extant in 50 states (and porous borders*) there are far too many leaks in the dike to plug. Plus doing so would give us a even more of a police state than we now have.

      (the operation was a success, the patient lived but she can never again get out of bed)

      An ideal gun environment would likely be, as Rachel said to Don, Utopos - a place that can never be.

      Mass shootings are so rare, that the AME church will probably never get to successfully test their new security measures. It they did it would, like most local gun violence, not make it to the likes of NTY/WSJ/WP/LAT et al.

      *pretty easy to pack weapons from New Brunswick to Maine, for instance - or as you mentioned, even easier from Texas, NM, AZ to NJ

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.