Guns And Drugs: What’s The Connection?


CIA Map of International drug pipelines

CIA Map of International drug pipelines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much of the discussion about gun violence revolves around illegal drugs because both are found in abundance in inner-city neighborhoods where a majority of gun homicides occur.  And since members of drug gangs are known to carry and use guns to protect their turf or keep a drug deal from going wrong, it’s assumed that we can’t do much about gun violence unless we attack inner-city poverty and joblessness that creates the environment in which drugs flourish and guns are kept ready at hand.

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any truth to this argument at all.  To be sure, drugs play a role in many gun homicides; after robberies it’s the single, largest category of felony circumstances in which murders with a firearm occurs.  But I’m not thinking so much of circumstances as I am thinking about causality, in particular the alleged connection between poverty, drugs and guns.

In 1995 Professor Michael Porter of Harvard published a seminal article on returning inner cities to market competitiveness.  Noting that most anti-poverty programs address social, but not economic issues, he argued that many inner cities possessed advantages which were true engines of economic growth. These advantages are:   1. Strategic Location – Inner-city neighborhoods are often located nearby major business and residential centers.  2. Local Market Demand – Inner-cities have high population density and thus strong demand for consumer goods.  3. Regional Cluster Integration – Inner cities often connect to nearby clusters of related companies that are competitive nationally or globally.  4. Human Resources – Inner cities contain large numbers of employable people who might trade off less than maximum wages in order to secure a job.

In this and subsequent articles, Professor Porter and his Harvard colleagues wrap this model around a dynamic agenda to invigorate inner cities through a combination of private-sector investment and public sector cooperation.  But rather than argue for something that is still largely a theoretical model, we should take a look at an economic success story of the inner city which has been utilizing Professor Porter’s model long before he ever dreamed it up.

I’m referring, of course, to the illegal drug market, what in polite terms we refer to as ‘controlled substances,’ which generates some $70 billion in revenues each year, most of which comes from street transactions in the inner cities.  Until 1906, opiates as they were called were unregulated, but a combination of Progressive reformism and pressure from the expanding pharmaceutical industry (and medical profession) pushed the Federal government into regulating and gradually criminalizing addictive drugs.

The watershed moment took place in 1971 when Nixon declared “war” on drugs,  efforts were expanded under Reagan and again under Clinton, resulting largely in more men behind bars and more drugs out in the street.  The United States, which has always been by far the largest consumer of addictive substances, supports both a substantial retail market at home as well as a global network of manufacturers and suppliers abroad.

When it comes to understanding how the drug market operates in our inner cities, Professor Porter’s model couldn’t be a better fit.  As regards strategic location, for every dollar that ghetto residents spend on drugs, middle-class buyers spend twice as much or more, easily driving through a nearby poor neighborhood in order to score.  It goes without saying that local demand plays an important role in inner-city drug markets and dealers have no trouble integrating themselves to regional clusters in order to maintain their supply.  Finally, the ghetto gangs provide the human resources that dealers use to sell and deliver the goods.

What role do guns play in all this?  According to the research of Lizotte and others, guns are a necessary tool of the trade, so to speak, and begin to appear in the hands of gang members for protection in their adolescent years and then to enforce drug deals or protect turf as they move into their mid-20s and become sellers and distributors of drugs.

If drugs are a response to poverty, then it seems to me that it’s a very rational response operating along normal market lines.  In which case gun violence that accompanies the drug trade shouldn’t be seen as a manifestation of violence growing out of hopelessness but rather as an efficient mechanism required to enforce market rules.  After all, drugs are illegal, so you can’t just walk into small claims court when the guy doesn’t show up with the dough.


Time To Play The Great American Crime Game

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Every year when the FBI publishes the Uniform Crime Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes its report on crime victimizations, all the criminologists and crime researchers get to play what I call the Great American Crime Game.  It’s a game where you take the data from the FBI and the BJS, plug it into other types of numbers and then try to figure out why crime has gone up, or gone down, or not changed at all.

The UCR is based on crimes reported to the police and, according to the FBI, aggregates this information for law enforcement agencies that cover 95% of everyone living in the United States. The BJS report, on the other hand, is compiled by conducting at least two interviews with more than 160,000 respondents living in different, but representative  localities throughout the United States.

Both reports present data on what is called ‘index’ crimes which, according to the FBI, are the most serious crimes against persons or property and for which definitions of each type of crime tend to differ only slightly from state to state.  The most important crime for my purposes is aggravated assault, because it is within this category that most gun violence occurs. In 2012, for example, more than 427,000 serious crimes took place involving firearms, according to the BJS, of which the majority were assaults followed by robberies, with homicides (which BJS doesn’t count) placing a very distant third.

Now that you understand where the data comes from, you too can play the Great American Crime Game. What you do is take the data and correlate it with other data, such as population, employment, education and so forth.  And if a particular type of number, let’s say household income or employment correlates with crime numbers, i.e., they both go up or they both go down, then – voila! – we have an explanation for why crime is getting better, or getting worse, or whatever crime is doing.

The Great American Crime Game has been particularly popular since 1993, because that year marked the high watermark of violent crime, after which it has tumbled more than 50 percent in the following two decades.  Article after article, and book after book have been published on this unprecedented drop in violent crime, all of them built around various versions of the Great American Crime Game.

There’s only one slight problem.  The number of violent criminal victimizations reported by the BJS is about twice as high as the number of crimes reported by the UCR.  But that’s because the FBI only publishes crime data derived from crimes reported to the police, whereas the BJS asks and counts all criminal victimizations whether they were reported or not.  And they candidly admit that underreporting of serious violent crime runs at more than 50 percent.  In 2012 for example, the FBI report shows 657,545 aggravated assaults, the BJS shows 996,110 in the same category.

I have been reading crime studies for years, and virtually every article and book repeats two basic maxims that are accepted up and down the line: (1). violent crime rates in disadvantaged neighborhoods are much higher than anywhere else; and (2). inner-city crime is underreported compared to reports of crime everywhere else.  I can’t remember the last time I read a scholarly article on crime in which the author didn’t raise a cautionary note based on one, if not both of those views.

There’s only one slight problem.  It’s not true. In fact, even though African-Americans are twice as likely as Whites to believe that the cops aren’t interested in responding to crime, the BJS report indicates that 60% of all violent crimes are reported by Blacks, whereas only 45% of violent crimes are reported by Whites.  And if we drill down a little further to examine aggravated assaults with weapons, 76% of such crimes were reported by Blacks and only 49% were reported by Whites.

I’m not saying that the ghetto is safe.  But the discrepancy in these numbers is so significant that it makes me wonder whether playing the Great American Crime Game has taught us much at all.  On the other hand, why should I be surprised?  We sent 60,000 young men to their deaths in Southeast Asia based on a naval attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never took place.  So should we be overly concerned about the validity of a shooting or a knifing here or there?

Hunters in the Wilderness

Hunters in the Wilderness 





Will The Bloomberg – Moms Merger Make A Difference?


Starbucks Touchscreen Storefronts

Starbucks Touchscreen Storefronts (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

The NRA better watch out.  There’s a new gun in town and it’s called, well, actually it doesn’t have a name but it’s a combination of two gun control groups – Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense which, according to their merger announcement, will “soon be stronger than any gun lobby.”  And who can argue with that claim when you put together Mike Bloomberg’s gazillions with the tireless energy of Shannon Watts and other moms, right?

The Moms claim they have more than 130,000 members and Bloomberg has enrolled more than 1,000 mayors in his club.  But who knows what those numbers really mean?  Moms also has 130,000 Likes on its Facebook page and when I went to their website it appeared that if I sent them an email with my name and address, that this made me a member.  As for Bloomberg’s membership, I took a quick look at the list for Massachusetts, my state, and guess what?  I couldn’t find a single Massachuetts Mayor who’s a Republican, but I did find Dominic Sarno, the Mayor of Springfield, where the gun homicide rate this year will probably top out at four times higher than the national average. Way to go, big Dom!

And since this new combination will soon be bigger than any gun lobby, let me tell you a little about that other lobby.  There’s been a lot of back and forth over the size of the NRA membership, with the gun organization claiming 4.5 million and various critics scaling this down to 3 million or a bit more.  I’m willing to cut both estimates in half and assume that they have somewhere above 3.5 million, even though even they admit that their recent increase was partially due to a one-year cut in dues paid by new members and it remains to be seen whether all these folks will re-enlist when they have to pay a higher price.

But the fact that Moms doesn’t have any dues not only makes me wary of their membership claims, but also raises the more important question of exactly how effective they can be.  Because it’s not very hard to use today’s social media to create the image of an organization whether something really exists or not.  The Moms group garnered lots of publicity when they showed up at Starbucks and sent a letter to Howard Schultz demanding that the company ban guns from all their stores.  But the company sidestepped the issue by issuing a statement ‘asking’ but not requiring gun owners to keep their guns outside, but even as strident (and usually stupid) a pro-gun outlet as the Washington Times covered the issue in very timid terms because it turns out that lots of gun owners didn’t want to risk the possibility that Starbucks might eventually get a little backbone and ban them permanently. After all, would anyone elevate the 2nd Amendment above that steamy latte?

Of course an advocacy organization can play an important role in any public debate regardless of its size.  But the trick is to figure out who you’re really talking to and whether or not they will listen to what you have to say.  If the Moms want to have a real impact in the argument over guns, why don’t they talk to gun owners and stop wasting their energy on convincing people who don’t need to be convinced?  And you don’t talk to gun people by throwing up a website or a Facebook page and just ‘invite’ them to post a comment or engage in a chat. Sometimes that strategy works when you’re selling a product, but it’s rank arrogance or simply stupid to confuse marketing a product with marketing an idea.

Every weekend there are dozens of gun shows all over the United States.  Each of these shows, on average, count 10,000 admissions. So do the math: if you went to one gun show every weekend, set up a booth, gave out a flyer and shot your mouth off, by the end of the year you would have talked to 500,000 gun guys (and gals.) And don’t think for one second that nobody would talk to you.  Gun folks love to talk – that’s why they go to those shows.

I’d love to walk into a gun show or some other gun-friendly place and see those Moms promoting their point of view.  Would they get an argument from gun folks? Sure.  Would the argument sometimes get nasty or offensive?  It might.  But if Moms or any other gun-control group believes they will make a difference by not going out and meeting the other side, they’re barking up the wrong tree.

What Happened To All The Concern About Guns?

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For a few months after Sandy Hook, it looked like the government was going to pass a new gun control law, specifically aimed at keeping guns out of the “wrong” hands. The president got behind a bill, ditto the gun-control advocacy groups, the pundits wrote and spoke, even the lamentably tragic Newtown parents had their moment on the White House porch.

Meanwhile, everyone forgot the simple fact that the Democrats could barely muster 60 votes for any kind of legislation, a weakness that was exploited by the NRA and its allies to a remarkably-effective degree. All the polls showed a majority of Americans favored stricter gun control, but those numbers didn’t translate into 60 votes on the Senate floor, so Manchin-Toomey quickly died.

Then nine months and one day after Adam Lanza went on a rampage in Newtown, another loony named Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in DC and the response from the White House and Capitol Hill was no response at all. But here’s the more important news: Four days after the Navy Yard shooting, Gallup conducted its annual poll on whether Americans thought we needed stricter gun control, and the percentage of respondents who wanted stricter laws declined significantly from the previous year!

Gallup has been running this poll since 2000, and the question is always the same: “Do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” The high watermark for making the laws more strict was the first year of the poll, with 62 percent wanting the laws to be more strict and 31 percent wanting them to remain the same.

Year after year the trends narrowed until 2011-2012, when the percentage of Americans who wanted stricter gun laws versus those who saw no reason for change were basically the same. Then we had Sandy Hook, and for the first time since the poll was initially conducted, respondents by almost a two-to-one margin once again opted for stricter laws covering guns.

And yet, according to the latest Gallup finding in the aftermath of both Newtown and the Navy Yard, for the first time since 2008, less than 50 percent want stricter gun laws and the percentages who want the laws unchanged (37 percent) or want the laws to be less strict (13 percent) have both gone up.

How is it that a majority of Americans now believe gun laws should be weakened or remain the same? Part of the answer lies in the degree to which the NRA and the NSSF have continued their grass-roots efforts to mobilize their memberships while the gun control groups, lacking a legislative push on Capitol Hill, have gone back to sleep. The gun folks have become obsessively safety-conscious, just take a look at the NSSF’s Project ChildSafe website and you’ll get my point.

But the real reason for this attitudinal change is because public opinion doesn’t push politics, it’s usually the other way around: political leadership shapes public opinion. The jump in public demand for more gun control after Sandy Hook occurred because the president made guns an issue in every speech he gave. Once Obama and the Democrats stopped talking about gun violence, so did everyone else.

If you believe that we need stricter gun laws, then the year since Sandy Hook should give you no comfort at all. You might cynically believe that gun control will remain on the back burner until another massacre takes place, but if it happens when political agendas are focused on other issues, even the slightest attempt to push a common-sense response to gun violence probably won’t get very far.

There Is A Way To Keep Guns Out Of The Wrong Hands. Let Doctors Decide.

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NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA

NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we approach the Newtown anniversary everyone’s going to weigh in with their thoughts about gun control, so here’s mine.  I believe the NRA is more right than wrong in questioning the motives of many of the proponents of more gun control.  They are correct when they say that just about all gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens who don’t need to jump through yet more legal hoops in order to buy or own guns.

At the same time, the NRA should stop diluting the force of their argument and keep their nose out of places where it doesn’t belong.  And one place they don’t belong is challenging the right of physicians to talk to their patients about guns.  Their attempt to criminalize such efforts by physicians (‘Docs versus Glocks’) is both stupid and wrong.  And here are the reasons why.

Every day in Emergency Rooms all over the country, people wander in complaining of various degrees of mental distress.  Unless they present a “clear and present danger” to themselves or anyone else, they are free to leave and, if we follow the argument of the NRA, they can walk out into the street even if they walked into the ER with a gun.  Physicians can restrain a person in the ER who is drunk and might, if released, drive off in his car.  But unless an individual actually threatens someone with his gun, the physician who even asks the patient whether he has a gun is, according to the NRA, trampling on the guy’s 2nd Amendment rights, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

In 2004 a woman in Indianapolis called the police and reported that her 24-year old son was exhibiting dangerous signs of mental distress.  The cops found the kid in possession of multiple guns and ammunition, briefly took the guns away but within several days let the young man reclaim ownership of his guns.  Eight months later the young man, Kenneth Anderson, shot and killed his mother, a police officer, and then was shot and killed by the police.

I don’t know whether in the intervening period this troubled young man ever saw a physician or other medical professional even though he was clearly at risk.  But I do know that even if he had been seen by a physician, the NRA’s position would be that the doctor would not have been able to ask him about his guns.  The NRA is trying to have it both ways.  On the one hand, they say that the mental health system needs to be ‘fixed.’  On the other hand, they don’t want physicians to be able to close a gap in mental health treatment simply through asking appropriate questions and using common sense.

If you walk into a doctor’s office and you’re obese, the physician would be violating the Hippocratic Oath if he or she didn’t tell you to lose some weight. Not everyone who weighs too much is going to live a shortened life, but the physician isn’t violating your privacy by telling you that your weight is putting you at risk.  If someone walks into an ER or a doctor’s office and exhibits symptoms of emotional distress, anyone who would deny that gun ownership by that individual constitutes a risk, has no business engaging in a rational discussion or debate about guns.

The 2nd Amendment gives us the right to arm and protect ourselves from the bad guys in our midst.  It doesn’t give anyone the right to prevent physicians from finding out whether someone’s behavior might turn them into a bad guy whether they meant to be bad or not.

Will the 2014 Election be Red or Blue?

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National_Rifle_Association (Photo credit: ChrisWaldeck)

This morning I received an email from Chris Cox, who spearheads the membership campaigns for the NRA.  The email referred to a recent comment by Michelle Obama at a New York fundraiser in which she asked the guests to donate to the 2014 campaign in order to push through the President’s agenda; issues which, of course, include the gun control bill that failed to pass the Senate earlier this year.  The point of Cox’s email, which also solicited a contribution, was that , “next year’s elections will decide whether you and I get to keep our freedom, or if we will lose the Second Amendment as we know it…PERIOD.”

It would be easy to dismiss Cox’s hyped-up rhetoric except that it might just be true.  And the reason I say this is that while the Colorado recall last September was a big victory for the NRA, more recent election results seem to indicate a turning of the tide.  In particular I’ll draw your attention to the close contest for Attorney General in Virginia which, although there will be a recount, will still probably end up with the election of a Democrat who ran a very explicit anti-gun campaign. Not only did he charge his opponent, State Senator Mark Obenshain, with opposing “common-sense” gun controls, he also brought such gun control heavies as Gabbie Giffords into the state to campaign on his behalf.

Virginia has been turning steadily more blue and less red but that only reflects trends that are happening elsewhere as well.  Slowly but surely the county is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse, the population is increasingly urbanized or suburbanized, the percentage of households that admit to gun ownership, according to Gallup, keeps going down.  Overwhelmingly gun owners are white, male, high school but not college educated, and located in smaller cities and towns, particularly in the South.   While people who fit this profile may vote overwhelmingly Republican, the truth is that this profile just doesn’t register majorities at the polls, particularly in ‘battleground’ states like Virginia which hold the key to electoral victory every four years.

Right now, and of course things could always change, whichever party wins two of three states – Florida, Virginia, Ohio – will control the White House in 2016.  And don’t think that the GOP is in any better shape when it comes to their majority in the House of Representatives, because even though they currently enjoy a 31-seat edge (but will lose the majority if the Democrats pick up 17 seats), in 2012 they actually lost the total popular House vote.

Given those numbers, I don’t think that Chris Cox is being at all extreme when he says that gun owners could lose their 2nd-Amendment “rights.”  Of course this assumes that any change in current gun regulations, even something as feeble as Manchin-Toomey, represents an erosion of the right to bear arms.  The NRA would like everyone to believe that gun ownership is as mainstream and traditionally American as apple pie.  But what’s really mainstream is the notion that everyone has the right to vote.  And right now, the votes don’t seem to be adding up for the NRA.



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