How to Curb Gun Violence (Really)

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Mass shootings like those in Las Vegas and Sulphur Springs, terrible as they are, are only a small taste of the carnage that goes on in America on a daily basis, courtesy of firearms. Most of it slips under the media radar; it’s only when a bunch of people are killed all at once that the lead holocaust is considered newsworthy. It’s only then that the media start talking about what can be done about it.

And the line of thinking from most media talking heads goes like this. If the shooter was a Muslim, we need to tighten immigration laws. If the shooter was Hispanic, we need to build a wall. If the shooter was black, we need more prisons and tougher laws. If the shooter was white, thoughts and prayers will do the trick. And above all, protect the Second Amendment.

And the causes of all this violence? Well, in addition to immigration, some of the causes that have been seriously suggested are: video games; Hollywood movies; Barack Obama; day cares; the “liberal media” (hey, I guess if the violence isn’t reported, maybe it won’t exist); mental illness; antidepressants (nothing like hedging your bets); abortion; “taking God out of our schools” (not sure how that’s even possible, since God is supposedly everywhere); “gun control”; not beating kids enough (to teach them violence is wrong, don’t you know); not enough guns out there; and, of course, the victims of the shootings.

The actual causes of gun violence are varied, complex and even to an extent inscrutable. So are the remedies. But as difficult as solving the problem may be, there are really just a few simple principles that we need to keep in mind.

1. Weave a web of regulation

Quite simply, a society should regulate the hell out of firearms. There’s no valid excuse for not doing so, no matter how much distaste you have for “big guvmint” cramping your right to shoot things up.  One of the gun culture’s popular sayings is “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” — which is irrelevant, since regulation is not about “outlawing”.  When you are required to be tested before obtaining a driver’s license. and stick to the speed limit, and drive in the right lane, does that mean that the government is trying to “take away” your car?

Regulation is not the final solution, by any means; on the contrary, it’s just the first step, a necessary foundation.  It’s something that we can’t afford not to do, if we want to avoid a broken windows effect that invites crime and carelessness.

Of course whenever you propose firearm regulation,  someone is bound to respond with another old tried and false big fat floppy red herring: “Criminals don’t care about laws”. Well, their victims might not “care about” bullets, either, but they’re still just as dead. Who the hell cares what criminals “care about”?  The real questions are (a) what kind of message do we want to convey, and (b) do gun regulations (“gun control” in the haughtily dismissive vernacular) help reduce crime.

The evidence is very strong that they do, both when we examine states within the U.S. and when we examine countries around the globe. Japan, to take just one example, has very strict laws about types of firearms allowed, registration, background checks, renewal periods and penalties. And it has, on average, about 30 gun deaths per year (and as few as 6). In contrast, the U.S. (with a population about two and a half times as large) has about 30,000 gun deaths per year.

2. Think long term

Still, even if the U.S. adopts the same gun policies as Japan, that doesn’t mean that America will suddenly become Japan.  They are very different nations with very different histories and cultures.  Japan has a culture of respect and courtesy and a constitution that explicitly states the nation will never again resort to aggressive warfare.  The U.S., on the other hand, has a long tradition of people believing (incorrectly) that they have a constitutional and/or god-given right to build up their own private arsenals without restriction.  And a long history of brutally enslaving and exterminating entire races of people — with the aid of guns.

We here in the U.S. have developed a mythos that brandishes the almighty gun as the infallible key to conquest and power. That mindset won’t be changed overnight. And the effects of gun legislation or any other reforms cannot be expected to manifest immediately.

3. Get creative

When we talk about measures to curb gun violence, we’re not just talking about “gun control”. To tackle a problem of this scope and complexity, we really have to think outside the ammo box. Strangely enough, one of the most interesting proposals came in jest(?) from a comedian. Actually, that’s not so strange; comedians tend to possess the kind of insight that politicians and pundits rarely do. In any case, this is what Chris Rock said in 1999:

You don’t need no gun control, you know what you need? We need some bullet control… I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars… people would think before they killed somebody if a bullet cost five thousand dollars. “Man, I would blow your fucking head off– if I could afford it. I’m gonna get me another job, I’m going to start saving some money, and you’re a dead man. You’d better hope I can’t get no bullets on layaway”. So even if you got shot by a stray bullet, you wouldn’t have to go to no doctor to get it taken out. Whoever shot you would take their bullet back, like “I believe you got my property”.

Doesn’t it indeed seem logical that making bullets prohibitively expensive would reduce the number of times people fired them? Furthermore, the extra fees could be in the form of taxes that could go toward further steps to reduce gun violence and/or to clean up the mess it leaves. And what about target practice, you ask? Well, with today’s technology, it surely would be possible for virtual bullets to substitute adequately for the real thing.

And for that matter, technology offers a wealth of other possibilities. What about, as a random suggestion, mandating that guns be designed so they only can fire when handled by an authorized user. The point is that there are many, many different ways to approach the problem.

4. Radically alter public (mis)perceptions about firearms

And now we come to the portion of the discussion most pertinent to the content of this blog. Even if the Chris Rock Doctrine proves to be impractical, it at least makes a very important point: in order to combat gun violence, you have to condition the public to think about guns very differently. If you think this suggestion reeks of Orwellianism or totalitarian efforts to “reeducate” citizens, what you need to bear in mind is that the public already has been conditioned, for many generations, to have certain perceptions about guns — and those perceptions are quite faulty.

We have inherited the archetype of the rugged frontiersman who lived and died by his gun,  lionization of the screen personae of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood,  and a false perception that an “armed good guy” has a good chance of stopping an “armed bad guy”. A great deal of what the public believes about guns has come from popular entertainment. This is not to suggest that Hollywood is to blame for the violence, but it is to suggest that Hollywood could play a role in addressing it.

Many people seriously think it’s practical to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand. Most Americans don’t even recognize the sound of a gunshot when they hear it, because they’ve been conditioned by entertainment media to associate gunfire with a totally different sound (an unfortunate fact that could affect how quickly a person can respond and get to safety in an active shooter scenario). In the movies, the good guy mows down the bad guy with both six-guns blazing (which in real life is a difficult feat to pull off); the bad guy dies immediately and the good guy rides off into the sunset without a care in the world.

Imagine instead a film industry that portrays gun violence more realistically and responsibly. Imagine studios that stop promoting action films by using publicity photos that make guns appear sexy and glamorous. Imagine an entertainment industry that routinely gives some indication of how much gunshot victims often suffer before they die, and how long it takes them to do so. Imagine more realistic portrayal of the emotional recoil that people feel when they fatally shoot someone — an effect that can haunt them the rest of their lives. Imagine this knowledge uniformly transmitted through awareness programs at schools like Straight Talk About Risks (STAR). Can we afford to be any more lax with kids about the dangers of guns than about drinking or drugs or sex?

If we instill in the public what horrific deadly implements guns can be (which is one of the purposes of enacting stiff gun laws), chances are not so many people will automatically reach for one to settle a dispute over a parking space. Ironically, we can help reduce gun violence by respecting guns — respecting them for what they are rather than worshiping them for what they are not.

5. Spread civility

Even if everybody had a gun, there would be considerably less violence if everyone behaved civilly. That’s a big pipe dream, of course; there is no way everybody will ever behave civilly, which is precisely why it’s a bad idea for most people to be armed.

The gun lobby likes to say that “an armed society is a polite society”. but the facts just don’t support such a thesis. Americans are armed to the teeth, but America is a seething cauldron of anger and rudeness. In fact, there is some evidence that gun ownership actually contributes to this animosity. In any case, it makes the anger and rudeness far more dangerous. The hostility quotient would be high enough even if left to its own devices. But it’s very far from being left on its own; it’s constantly being amped up by a virtual army of demagogues saturating every corner of American media and American culture. And it certainly doesn’t help matters any that one of them is currently in the White House.

Again, the U.S. will never become Japan. But by exercising courtesy as much as possible, we should be able to defuse many of the situations that lead to violence, and thus lead to shots being fired. Arming a society certainly doesn’t make it polite, but being more disarming can make it a bit more dis-arming.

6. Tame the Testosterone

You hear a lot about mental illness being the cause of mass shootings. Well, it does play a role. But it’s clearly not the only factor or even the most important factor.  There are approximately as many mentally ill women as men. But guess what? All the mass shooters, with one exception, have been male.  In fact more than 75 percent of all violent acts are committed by males, and about 90 percent of killers are male.

Maybe some of this is biological. When my son was a toddler, we made a point of keeping him away from “war toys”, and minimizing his media exposure to weaponry. But he still went around pretending to shoot things with whatever object he could pick up.  Maybe there’s something about having a Y chromosome that makes a person attracted to lethal phallic symbols.

But it’s also unquestionably cultural.  (My son soon outgrew his armament phase, unlike many other males, and as an adult has shown no interest in guns at all.) Violence, and particularly an addiction to guns, is largely learned just as misogyny is. And the two tend to go hand in hand. Is it just coincidence that committers of gun violence frequently have a strictly patriarchal worldview, and often a history of domestic abuse? Is it just coincidence that terrorist cultures are also sexist cultures? Is it just coincidence that the U.S., which is a lead-sprayer’s paradise, is now discovering a widespread, deep-rooted epidemic of sexual harassment that has been right under its nose all along?

Bullet Points

The gun lobby incessantly promotes an obscene, and obscenely profitable, lie: the pulp fiction fantasy that guns make you safer. (This is often bolstered by mythical “statistics” about defensive gun use.) In fact, having a gun multiplies several times the odds that you will be the victim of a crime and/or be shot yourself.  You may assume (as many gun enthusiasts apparently do) that probability is for wusses, and you’ll beat the odds, by god. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to be right. But you might want to consider that guns and gun incidents don’t just affect gun owners; they affect potentially anyone the owner — or a recipient of his bullets — comes in contact with.

It would greatly behoove us to reduce and limit the number of guns in circulation. It should be at least as hard to get a gun as it is to get an abortion,  and their use should be at least as stringently controlled as the use of automobiles.  But we also need to radically alter how the public thinks about guns. And we need to clean up cultural garbage of more than one kind.

All of this constitutes a tall order, and we need to be in it for the long haul. But the benefits would be well worth the effort and minor inconvenience.

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More on Defensive Gun Use

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It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the NRA and the gun lobby have profited immensely from the most recent school massacre du jour. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that they always profit immensely from mass shootings. And you’re probably familiar with the fact that part of their strategy involves whipping up hysteria in their constituents about how President Obama (or fill in the Democrat of your choice) wants to “take away your guns”. What you may not realize, however, is that during the past election season while they were publicly demonizing the president for his supposed hostility to supposed “Second Amendment rights”, they were privately rooting for his reelection so they could ratchet up the paranoia and the profits even more. Nice work if you can get it.

You’ve probably heard about Wayne LaPierre and others declaring that the solution to gun violence is… well, a hair of the dog, natch. (Actually, they’re likely to insist that “gun violence” is merely a semantic contrivance of the “gun control” advocates — that “there is no such thing as gun violence, only violence committed with a gun”. You just can’t make up this kind of stuff.) They have an ample supply of cutesy slogans to promote their panacea, but their primary mantra is “more guns, less crime” — which is even the title of a popular book by soundly discredited gun guru John Lott. This slogan expresses their belief (or at least the belief they want their clientele to maintain) that guns are used more often for defense than for crime.

Even if that were perfectly true, employing it as an excuse to put more guns into circulation is rather like saying we should start more house fires because more people will collect insurance than will die.  But there’s no evidence their premise is correct; in fact, the evidence strongly suggests that the reverse is true.  The best they can come up with is statistics that seem to show a correlation in certain localities between stricter gun laws and higher crime and/or looser gun laws and lower crime. (In reality, such correlations aren’t nearly as clear-cut as they assume; and in any case, correlation is not the same as causality. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Gunsters often tout “studies” (i.e., surveys) that supposedly prove that there are hundreds of thousands, or even a few million, defensive guns uses (DGUs) every year. But not even all of these surveys support the “more guns, less crime” motif.   Two of the best known figures, both projected by the Dept. Of Justice, are 108,000 and 65,000 DGUs. Both of which fall far short of the documented 400,000-plus crimes committed with a gun annually. No wonder the gun culture has such a love affair with Dr. Kleck, who posits 2.5 million. He calculated this by interviewing just 222 individuals. Furthermore, as stated by the Virginia Center for Public Safety:

Kleck’s Interviewers do not appear to have questioned a random individual at a given telephone number, but rather asked to speak to the male head of the household.  Males from the South and West were oversampled.  The results imply that many hundreds of thousands of murders should have been occurring when a private gun was not available for protection. Yet guns are rarely carried, less than a third of adult Americans personally own guns, and only 27,000 homicides occurred in 1992.”

I’ve discussed some of the problems with these surveys in two previous posts, Make My Day: Mention Gun Defense Statistics and Estimating Defensive Gun Uses Reasonably.  Since then, I’ve heard from a great many gunsters who really, desperately want my analysis to be wrong. Which is not surprising; if we burst the bubble of “more guns, less crime”, the very foundation of the gun culture starts collapsing.  Some of them are obsessed with trying to establish that I’m a “liberal”, which one gathers would instantaneously vaporize all the inconvenient facts. But not one of them has been able to provide any evidence that my “theory” about the true number of DGUs (as if I actually had one) is mistaken.  Except for saying something like “I’ve had 27 DGUs of my own, and none were reported by the media”. But such anecdotes, even if perfectly true, hardly contradict anything I’ve said. The gun culture insists upon the existence of a legendary beast of titanic proportions, but the only evidence is the most miniscule of footprints.

Potential vs. Probable

Mostly, these folks just argue in a circle: “The numbers produced by the surveys must be accurate because there are surveys that produce them”; or “I believe these figures are right because they seem reasonable to me.” They also tend to confuse potential with probability. Their reasoning is that if we know the number of gun owners in the U.S. and the number of annual crimes committed,  then we can make an educated guess about the probable number of DGUs. Not so. There are many other factors that can play a role. Many of these factors we do not know; some, indeed we probably will never know. But two of the most obvious are: (1) The criminals usually have the element of surprise on their side, and (2) Few gun owners are armed at all times.  A third factor that’s not so obvious, but which nonetheless has the potential for a significant impact is that humans have a documented tendency to compensate for an added safety measure (e.g., a gun) by indulging in riskier behavior, so the net level of danger remains the same.  Which might help explain why some alleged DGUs, on closer inspection, turn out to be aggressive rather than defensive.

Mind you, these are just some of the major factors. And even a number of very minor factors can make an enormous difference in the final product. Which might help explain how Kleck’s 222 interviewees mutated into 2.5 million.  It’s called the butterfly effect. Look it up. Or see the movie.

The Hawthorne-Rambo Effect?

The overriding fatal flaw of those DGU surveys is that, contrary to what they purport, they really don’t even attempt to determine how many DGUs really occur. Instead, they attempt to determine how often participants say they occur. And they obviously have difficulty succeeding even at that task, as evidenced by the extremely wide range of results. Gallup, for instance, conducted a poll in 1991 in which it concluded that the annual DGU count was just under 800,000. Two years later, the organization conducted another poll on the subject, and came up with a total more than twice that high! And we’re really expected to take such estimates seriously? If so, which one?

Dr. Kleck and others poo-poo the notion that interviewees in these studies might have been, um, less than truthful. While I won’t go so far as to say that they outright lied — well, at least not all of them — it’s clear that their responses are grossly distorted.  And we don’t have to cast about a great deal for a scientific explanation.  It might be a variation of the experimenter effect, epistemic feedback, the subject-expectancy effect and/or the Hawthorne effect  — all of which involve the researcher somehow influencing the subject’s response. In addition, this particular topic of inquiry invites the subject to regale the researchers with tales of his derring-do, which openly invites embellishment, whether deliberate or inadvertent. (See Prof. Hemenway’s commentary for more factors of distortion.)

In preparing to write the previous posts, I scoured several gun-friendly websites that attempt to do their own tracking of defensive gun use, inviting their followers who’ve experienced one to submit their accounts. Among others, I combed through more than 50 years of records compiled by the NRA. But none of these sources ever racked up a tally of more than a few hundred per year. Why the gargantuan discrepancy between these totals and those supplied by the scientific surveys? The likely explanation lies in the difference in how the data are collected. In the surveys, researchers contact individuals directly and put them on the spot to deliver narratives of their heroism. The tracking websites maintained by gun communities, however, put out a general call; and perhaps only those individuals who’ve had a genuine experience are likely to respond. I’d also submit that perhaps these individuals feel bound by some unwritten code of honor to be truthful and accurate when dealing with an organization they belong to and/or respect. Moreover, they might fear, and perhaps rightly so, that their narratives will be subject to corroboration.

Virtually all of these latter incidents also were reported in the media. This, of course, does not prove that all DGUs that occur appear in the media, nor even that most of them do. But it does make you wonder why, if these (as often alleged) are only the tip of the iceberg, can’t millions of gun owners cough up more personal accounts to put on these websites and keep the public better informed about them. In any event, whether or not most DGUs really are covered by the media, most — are at least a very large percentage — are newsworthy; i.e., they would be reported in the news given the right circumstances. The less newsworthy such an event is, the less likely it is to be a bona fide defensive gun use. The media love this kind of story, and they’ll seldom just ignore it if it comes to their attention. And a great many genuine DGUs are difficult to keep secret even if one wanted to. Bear in mind that it’s irresponsible of the defender not to report the encounter to police, given that there’s a criminal running around who might attempt the same crime on someone else with tragic results. Of course, there is sometimes good reason why the alleged defender might keep the episode under his hat: he might, for example, be in possession of a firearm in violation of the law. But isn’t that all the more reason to question the defensive nature of the “defense”?

It’s particularly difficult to hush up those incidents in which a gun is fired; and doubly, triply, quadruply so for those instances in which the assailant is killed or wounded. For one thing, concealment itself would be a serious criminal offense. With the latter group, you can be virtually assured that such a sensationalist episode will make the news.

And here is where those surveys actually might be of some value. According to Kleck, 8 percent of the defenders wound or kill their assailants. This figure is certainly too low,  given Kleck’s extremely loose standards for what constitutes a DGU. But even so, 8 percent of 2.5 million would mean it happens about 200,000 times per year. And yet only about one in 400 of these is reported in the news? Seriously? The National Crime Victimization Survey says it happens 3 percent of the time out of 108,000 DGUs per year.  That’s 3240 in which the offender is wounded if not killed. And yet fewer than one in six is deemed newsworthy? Get real. One might argue that the media would have neither the capacity nor the interest to cover 200,000 such incidents per year. Perhaps not. But they would definitely have both the capacity and the interest to report 3240.

The most comprehensive listing of DGUs I’ve found is at keepandbeararms.com. Looking at the 75 most recent incidents listed (which covers a period of about 2 months), I see that, as best I can determine, there were 22 offenders killed, 38 merely wounded, and 29 were neither — some incidents involved more than one assailant. (And by the way, these incidents include “Man pulls gun on rowdy, line-cutting Black Friday shopper” and “Woman pulls gun on man who exposed himself at lake”. Very defensive, no? Note also that at least one of the stories is listed twice, and at least one actually details a case of unarmed self-defense — the defender had guns on hand but chose not to use them. How many other “DGUs” could be prevented if more people used their heads instead of their trigger fingers?)  If these proportions are typical — and further research would be needed to declare that they are — then we could conclude that attackers wounded in a DGU die more than a third of the time.  (In fact, this is quite consistent with a larger sample I examined in a previous post.) So if the NCVS is correct, then at least one percent of DGUs should involve the death of the suspect — which would amount to more than 1000 per year. But FBI statistics confirm that this only happens no more than about 300 times. Therefore, it seems that NCVS estimates are inflated by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, and thus the actual sum, by its own standards, should be about 25,000 to 30,000 DGUs per year. But bear in mind that this includes an unknown number of false positives. The Kleck survey would yield nearly 75,000 deaths, which would suggest it’s inflated by more than 250 to 1, which works out to fewer than 10,000 annual DGUs.

In fine, there is substantial proof of only a few hundred DGUs per year, and even inferential evidence of no more than a few thousand. The surveys that profess to demonstrate far in excess of that are, to say the least, highly unreliable. Crimes committed with a gun almost certainly outnumber gun defenses, probably by a large factor. And it’s staggeringly naive at best to propose that the remedy for gun violence (or whatever euphemistic circumlocution you choose to apply) is even more guns.

(NOTE: This post was revised on 1/7/13 to correct a couple of minor errors and insert a new paragraph of further explanation.)