Does It Really Matter How We Define Mass Shootings? I Don’t Think So.

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When it comes to mass shootings, or I should say what to do about mass shootings, the argument is usually between pro-gun folks versus GVP folks and the argument usually turns on whether or not these shootings occur in what are called ‘gun-free’ zones.  The pro-gun strategy for dealing with mass shootings is the usual pro-gun solution for all gun violence; namely, respond with more violence in the form of arming civilians and getting rid of ‘gun-free’ zones.  The GVP strategy is, well, there isn’t a single strategy because what’s the point of trying to figure out what to do about something that we seem unable to define?

san bernardino               The latest contribution to the GVP mass shooting discussion comes from Mark Follman, a Mother Jones editor, who has become a major voice in the mass shooting debate since attending the annual conference of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) at Disneyland this past August where 700 attendees talked their heads off about what to do to deal with the threat of mass shootings.  Threat assessment has become big business and the scenario painted by threat assessment companies is scary enough to convince just about anyone that we need to take all threats seriously.  Here’s why threat assessment is so important, as described by a company called At-Risk International, which provides security to “companies, individuals and families who face threats in the workplace, at home, on vacation, around the world. Kidnappers. Stalkers. Terrorists. The list goes on and on.”

The truth is that ATAP is basically a trade association representing private security companies that have transitioned from local outfits offering guard services and other basic security protections to international companies like Kroll Security, which gained notoriety when it was hired to find the personal assets of various deposed dictators like Ferdinand Marcos and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Companies like Kroll and At-Risk have been financial beneficiaries of the War on Terror for obvious reasons, so why not add another notch to the ever-expanding list of threats by protecting us from mass shooters?

Maybe an ATAP-certified threat assessment professional convinced the Disney Corporation to ban toy guns and install metal detectors at its theme parks, but if we perceive that mass shootings are on the rise and, as Follman argues, such perceptions will generate “undue fear and bad policies,” then perhaps it really is time for GVP activists to define mass shootings in a consistent and logical way.  Follman himself claims there have been four mass shootings in 2015, the Feds say there have been six, but the Shooting Tracker website says there have been nearly one every day, and of course it’s this inflated number that ends up driving the debate.

The main difference between Follman and the Feds versus the Shooting Tracker is that the latter counts multiple persons hit with bullets from the same gun whether they survived or not, whereas Mother Jones and the FBI only consider a mass shooting to have occurred when at least three or four persons get killed.  As a result, of course, mass shootings that occur in public places like Umpqua CC and San Bernardino get all the attention because the shooters go to public locations where, to paraphrase Willy Sutton, that’s where you find lots of people.

But I happen to believe that if we are concerned with eliminating mass shootings as an aspect of overall gun violence, the approach of Shooting Tracker and others who don’t distinguish between dead and injured is the way to go. And the reason I believe the GVP community should adopt this latter definition is because there’s a good chance that many mass shootings result in fewer killed than wounded simply because skilled trauma surgeons save many shooting victims who otherwise would wind up dead.

In the last nine mass shootings over just 11 days, according to the Shooting Tracker, 7 were killed and 30 were wounded but survived.  And we’re spending our talents and energies wondering how to label such events?






How Much Does Gun Violence Cost? Mother Jones Has A New Number.


Economists and public health researchers have been trying to figure out the costs of gun violence for more than twenty years, and the latest estimate, just published in Mother Jones, puts the total tab at $229 billion. This isn’t the first time that attempts have been made to estimate gun violence costs; Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published an entire book on the subject back in 2002, and they put the annual figure at $100 billion – surely the number couldn’t have more than doubled in the past 15 years,  particularly since the number of robberies, assaults and homicides have all declined from the earlier date.  In fact, the lead researcher for the Mother Jones piece, Ted Miller, said in 2010 that gun violence was costing the U.S. $170 billion, which means that somehow total costs have increased by 35% over the last five years.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not playing Monday-morning quarterback and casting aspersions or doubts on the research and analysis presented in Mother Jones.  Anyone who believes that gun violence isn’t a public health issue of major proportions might as well join Wayne-o, Chris Cox, Larry Keane and other professional gun delusionists in promoting the idea that guns don’t represent any risk at all.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious discussion among rational-minded folks about the ways in which we understand and frame the debate about guns.  The Mother Jones report is a serious contribution to that discussion and I’m responding to it on those terms.

conference program pic                The report breaks things down between direct and indirect costs, the former reflecting such expenses as medical care, policing, emergency services and penal  charges (courts and incarceration), the latter reflecting what the researchers call “less tangible” costs, such as lost income, quality of life impacts and labor replacement.  I would rather refer to these two categories by the qualitative value of the data, because most of the direct costs can be calculated from governmental budgets covering policing, medical care and penal institutions, whereas the indirect costs are estimates at best, and may or may not be based on any real numbers at all.  The direct costs of America’s annual gun carnage is estimated at less than 4% of the $229 billion total, of which incarceration accounted for 94% of the direct cost total for homicides, but only a fraction of that amount for each aggravated assault.  Miller and his associates claim that incarceration costs $414,000 per homicide; Cook and Ludwig set the cost at $244,000.  Could this number have nearly doubled in 15 years?  The overall gun violence costs appear to have more than doubled during the same period, so why not?

Moving from direct to indirect costs presents other types of data issues which I’m not sure are discussed with the sensitivity and acuity which they deserve.  The biggest one to me is the attempt to calculate the economic value of a human life which is based primarily on estimates of what that person would have earned had they lived out a normal life term.  And even though the report calculates the number to be significantly lower than estimates from various government agencies, any such estimate is based on assumptions about the economy’s long-term performance that may or may not be true. Those of us who watched out 401Ks shrivel in 2007-2008 or got called into the boss’s office at 4 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, know how dangerous it is to attempt to predict any degree of financial or economic performance out beyond the next couple of months.

When it comes to gun violence there’s a moral imperative – thou shalt not kill – which transcends any discussion about numbers even though the gun industry evidently feels that it doesn’t apply to them.  The cautions above should not detract at all from the value of this report which reminds us again that the real cost of gun violence, the cost to our humanity and decency, remains to be solved.

Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.


The Injury Control Research Center has been engaged in fruitful and necessary gun research from a public health perspective since it was founded by David Hemenway whose book, Private Guns, Public Health, is a fundamental contribution to the field.  Since May, 2014 the Center has been engaged in an interesting survey effort to measure attitudes of gun researchers towards different aspects of the gun debate.  Each month they send a questionnaire to slightly less than 300 researchers who have published at least one a relevant, peer-reviewed article since 2011.  The questionnaires cover virtually every major argument about guns, from background checks to concealed carry to safe storage and beyond.

     David Hemenway

David Hemenway

The results to date were just summarized in a Mother Jones article which compared the responses of the survey respondents to the arguments against gun control that are made by the NRA.  Not surprisingly, the difference between the public health consensus and the NRA positions on the same gun issues are, to put it mildly, about as wide as what God did to the two sides of the Red Sea.  Here are some salient examples of those differences:

  • The NRA says a gun with a home is safer than a home without a gun, two-thirds of the public health researchers disagreed.
  • The NRA says that guns are used much more frequently in self-defense than in crime, three-quarters of the researchers said it was the other way around.
  • The spread of concealed-carry laws, according to the NRA, has reduced crime, six out of ten researchers disagreed.

What the Mother Jones article did not point out, however, is that the Harvard survey also asked respondents to evaluate the quality of the research, from ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’  on which their responses were based.  On only one question were the researchers overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of the research that formed their response, namely, whether a gun in the home made it a safer place.  Only 25% of the respondents felt the research on this issue was medium or weak, whereas more than half believed the research to be ‘strong’ or ‘very strong.’  In other words, of the nine survey questions that have been answered to date, this question not only showed a strong response indicating that a gun did not make a home safer, but it also showed the highest rate of validation in terms of the quality of the relevant research.

How is it that of all the major issues on guns that David Hemenway and his Harvard colleagues surveyed, this issue – the risk versus benefit of owning a gun – not only shows the widest disparity between public health researchers and the NRA, but an equally-wide disparity between public health researchers and the public at large?  I am referring to the recent Gallup poll where  63% said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?’ This is the fourth time the poll has been taken since 2000, and it was the first time that the affirmative response reached above 60%, never mind ever previously climbing above 50%.

Public concern about global warming was basically non-existent in the U.S. until the 1980s, and as late as 2006 a slight majority of Americans still didn’t think it was a major issue.  But the tide seems to have turned in the last few years, and now only petroleum-funded public figures like Jim Imhofe dare to suggest that global warming isn’t a fact of life.  We can also dismiss the mutterings of the GOP’s most recently-announced Presidential candidate because he mutters about everything.

What can’t be dismissed is the fact that research on the risks versus benefits of gun ownership have failed to persuade a majority of Americans that they would be safer without their guns.  And nothing persuades me that the public perception will change just because the public health community conducts more research. There’s a disconnect here that has yet to be explained.


Is Gun Violence Committed By Bad Guys? I’m Not Sure

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Will more gun control reduce gun violence? This may sound like a stupid question but I feel compelled to ask after reading a very good article about Shannon Watts and Everytown in the current issue of Mother Jones.  Entitled, “Mothers in Arms,” Mark Follman perceptively explains why the Moms constitute a threat to the hegemony of the NRA, given the extent to which the Everytown message resonates both with gun and non-gun owners who together may be looking for an alternative to the stridency and combativeness of Wayne LaPierre and his friends.

So let’s play a little parlor game and assume that Shannon is able to muscle aside the NRA and actually get some “meaningful” gun control laws passed, like expanded background checks, tightened licensing procedures, “safe” guns and so forth.  In other words, making it more difficult for the ‘bad guys’ to get their hands on guns.

everytown logo
There’s only one little problem.  How do we know that gun violence is committed by people who shouldn’t be able to get their hands on guns?  After all, we agree that the 2nd Amendment allows law-abiding Americans to own guns. We also agree, more or less, on the legal definition of ‘law-abiding.’  That being the case, how do we know that most of those 31,000 deaths and 60,000-70,000 injuries attributed to guns each year are committed by people who don’t meet the legal requirements for owning or possessing a gun?

We don’t have any data on how many of the 20,000 people kill themselves with guns actually have the legal right to own the gun in question, but I’m willing to bet that most victims of gun suicides, even teen suicides, used a gun that was either legally owned by themselves or by another family member or close friend.  And don’t delude yourselves into thinking for one second that someone, even a kid who wants to commit suicide can’t break open one of those crummy, ten-dollar gun locks or learn the combination of the family safe.

As for the 11,000 gun homicides, it’s easy just to assume they are all ‘bad guys’ who shouldn’t have been able to get their hands on a gun, but that’s a judgement made after the fact and frankly, distorts the whole question of how and why guns are used to commit capital crimes.  More than three-quarters of all homicides arise out of circumstances that are not necessarily criminal in nature at all.  This includes all kinds of domestic situations, like children killed by babysitters, as well as the run-of-the-mill household arguments, disputes between friends, spousal and non-spousal IPV and the like.  Only 20% of all homicides occur between perpetrators and victims who don’t know each other, whereas in 4 out of 5 cases they involve family members, neighbors, friends, and even an occasional employee and boss.

Not only do homicides involve a familiarity between perpetrator and victim more frequently than any other type of violent crime including rape, but the fact that someone pulls out a gun and shoots someone else doesn’t automatically mean that the perpetrator is a criminal (a ‘bad guy’) whereas the person who gets shot (a ‘good guy’) is simply the victim of a crime.  The most eminent American criminologist, Marvin Wolfgang, once wrote, “In many cases, especially in criminal homicide, the victim is often a major contributor to the criminal act.”  And while aggravated assaults with weapons involve two strangers roughly half the time, there’s no reason to believe that in the other 50% of cases Wolfgang’s admonition to look beyond traditional penal categories wouldn’t hold true as well.

Both pro-gun and anti-gun advocates subscribe to the idea that it’s those ‘bad guys’ who commit violence with guns.  But how many of those bad guys are simply people who use guns stupidly or impulsively but otherwise have every legal right to own a gun?  I’m all in favor of reasonable measures for reducing gun violence, but I hope we understand that the issue can’t just be reduced to good and bad, right and wrong. Things just aren’t that simple.


The New Georgia Gun Law: Much Ado About…Nothing.

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You know that gun control is no longer an issue, either pro or con, when both sides in the gun debate try to make you believe that something big has happened on the legislative front when nothing of any real importance happened at all.  I’m referring to the gun law just passed in Georgia which is awaiting Governor Nathan Deal’s expected signature, a law described by the New York Times as one of “breathtaking sweep” and by the NRA as  a “historic victory for the 2nd Amendment.”

Since I really do believe in evidence-based discussion about guns, I took the trouble to read HB60, as the new law is known. If this law represents a ‘historic victory’ for the 2nd Amendment, the NRA better find someone else to defend the beloved Constitutional rights of gun owners.  On the other hand, if the editors of Mother Jones really believe that this new law will result in guns being “everywhere” in Georgia, then there must be some place named Georgia other than the state where this law was just passed.

Here’s what the bill basically does: (1). It allows guns to be carried in places where liquor is served, which previously had been off-limits for guns. (2). It also allows guns to be carried in churches which, like restaurants and bars, were also off-limits for guns. (3). It allows guns to be carried in certain non-secure areas of airports, which is really funny since Atlanta’s airport was ranked #1 nationally in the number of guns confiscated in 2013.  Since most guns are confiscated as people move through the security zone, the new law will probably result in the number of Atlanta confiscations going up!

The law also makes some minor changes in the application process, a few new do’s and don’ts when it comes to hunting and, what has become requisite in virtually every gun law passed since Sandy Hook, some language allegedly making it easier to pass information about mentally ill people to the feds.  But if you take the time to read the new law and go back and read the current law as well, you discover that most of these “historic” changes don’t mean much at all.

First of all, the law about carrying guns into liquor-serving establishments does not prevent any bar or restaurant owner from declaring his premise off-limits to guns.  All he has to do is stick a sign in the window or simply stand at the door and tell patrons that he would appreciate it if they left their guns in their cars.  As for bringing guns into houses of worship, this is an ‘opt-in’ law which means that the congregation has to agree to let parishioners bring their guns into the building before anyone can have a conversation with the Almighty while sitting on their Glock.

Finally, while Georgia does not require a permit in order to purchase or own a gun, it does require a background check and prints in order to carry a weapon, and the issuance of said license can be denied if the licensing authority (who happens to be the County Probate Judge) decides that the candidate, even if he meets the legal requirements, is “not of good moral character.”  You’ll have to read down to Page 16 (Section 1-7) to find this little gem and a few pages later you’ll learn that someone who is denied a carry license can appeal the decision and will then appear at a hearing – before the same judge! And if the judge prevails at the hearing?  That’s it. The law makes no mention of an appeal. Well, I guess you can move to another County.

I’m not an attorney and certainly no expert in constitutional law.  But it seems to me that if a Probate Judge or anyone else can determine someone’s fitness to carry a gun based on something as vague as “moral character,” then this law hardly enshrines 2nd Amendment rights.  At the same time, the fact that I can pee in an airport toilet without first unhooking my holster doesn’t seem much of an indication that guns will soon be found in every nook and cranny of the Peach State.  Like I said, right now there’s just not a lot of noise being made about guns.


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