What Do We Really Know About Gun Violence?

1 Comment

              I spent the weekend reading a wonderful, wonderful novel by Joyce Carol Oates. It’s The Gravedigger’s Daughter, which I read when it first appeared in 2007, but I chanced to pick it up again as I was looking for another book on one of my shelves, so I read it again. Wow.

              There’s a brief section in the text which describes how the gravedigger, an immigrant from Germany who came to the United States with his family in 1936, shoots and kills a man during an argument in the cemetery, then goes into the shack where he lives, shoots his wife, and then shoots himself. The episode is described through the eyes of his daughter Rebecca, who is twelve years old at the time.

              Her father had been a mathematics teacher at a very exclusive school in Germany where the family lived a substantial, middle-class life. He packed up everyone in 1936 and fled, no doubt running from the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, although this issue, like many issues within the family, is left unspoken and unsaid.

              They get into the United States, and the only job this educated, professional man can find is to take care of a small, Christian cemetery in a crummy, little, upstate New York town, where he is regarded as something of a weirdo, a loner, but at least the family has survived.

              As the years go by, the daughter’s father becomes more bitter, more anguished, more pissed off at how the world has not treated him the way he deserved. At some point he goes into town, takes his savings out of the bank, and buys a Remington shotgun and some shells. He tells the owner of the gun shop that he’s buying the gun to ‘protect’ his family from some kids who had painted swastikas on the cemetery walls.

              Rebecca has two older brothers of whom the eldest viciously beat up two of the kids who had vandalized the cemetery and he is now a fugitive with a warrant out for his arrest. The younger brother one day simply disappears. So, the family is in a state of gradual collapse – the father drinking too much, the mother increasingly withdrawn.

              One day two men come to the cemetery to visit a family grave and get into an argument with Rebecca’s father because they are pissed off at what they consider to be the lack of caretaking in the cemetery – the overgrown plots, the weeds growing on gravesites, the general lack of attention and care.

              Rebecca’s father goes into the tool shed, comes out with the shotgun, and blows one of the men away. He then walks into his little, stone cabin, kills his wife and then shoots himself dead. Rebecca is made a ward of the state and is taken in by her grammar-school teacher where she lives for the next four years.

              From the first page of this novel, you get the idea that something bad will happen to this family. You don’t know what it is, and when it finally happens, it’s not something you would expect. And when it does happen, it’s over and done with in about as much time as it takes to read the single page in this novel which describes the horrendous event.

              But this is exactly what happens in the United States more than a thousand times every year, what is called ‘murder-suicide’ almost always involving members of a family where things have just gotten out of control.

              I don’t know anyone who has ever written about this kind of event with the descriptive powers and observations employed by Joyce Carol Oates. But I have read endless accounts of families blown apart by this kind of behavior and until I read The Gravedigger’s Daughter I have never (read: never) been as overwhelmed by the suddenness and immediacy of such an event.

              Our friend Jennifer Mascia has just published an article about gun suicide in The Trace, where she makes the point that while we lead all advanced countries in our rate of overall gun violence, we are the country with the highest rate of gun suicides by far.  Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter – gun owners in the United States who want to end their own lives overwhelmingly do it with a gun.

              Mascia’s article goes into details about gun suicide, which each year claims some 30,000 lives or more. She mentions gun murder-suicides and quotes the publisher of the Gun Violence Archive, Mark Bryant, who gives a figure for annual murder-suicide events which may be about half as many of these events as actually take place.

              We don’t really know how many times someone shoots someone else and then turns the gun on himself. The reason we don’t is because the data on gun violence, regardless of the source (CDC, FBI, etc.) looks either at victims or perpetrators, but never at both. The FBI breaks out data on who commits gun violence using the standard SES categories: gender, race, age, etc. But we are left completely in the dark when it comes to tying the behavior of these individuals to the individuals they killed or how the actual killing took place.

              The World Health Organization defines violence as any intentional attempt by an individual to injure himself or someone else. Most violent behavior results in a non-fatal injury, the one exception being violence caused by using a gun.

              How will we ever figure out an effective strategy to deal with gun violence if we don’t know how, when, and why a life ended because someone picked up a gun?

No Matter Where It Happens, Gun Violence Is Still Gun Violence.

Leave a comment

Like it or not, much of the discussion about gun violence flows over to the issue of race, or more specifically, how racial minorities are disproportionately the victims of violence caused by guns. According to our friends at the Violence Policy Center (VPC), black Americans “are only 13% of the U.S. population, yet represent 50% of homicide victims,” of whom 83% were killed with guns.

town              Things don’t get any better when we break the numbers down by racial and age groups. In 2016, the leading cause of African-American mortality for men and women ages 15-24 and 25 -34 was homicide, accounting for 42% of all deaths for the 15-24 group, and ‘only’ 26% for the age group 25 to 34.  For whites in those some age groups, homicides ranked 7% and 5% respectively for all deaths.

These are terrible numbers, for the most part reflecting the degree to which African-American communities continue to experience the socio-economic manifestations of poverty which divide such populations from everyone else. I recall the shock and dismay when Michael Harrington ‘discovered’ this seemingly-intractable indigence in his classic The Other America, published in 1962. In the more than half century since that time have things really changed?

I think it’s a major step forward when a Parkland kid like David Hogg, who refers to himself as ‘white and privileged’ makes it clear that he wants to speak not just for his classmates but for “all of the people that have died as a result of gun violence and haven’t been covered the same can now be heard.” As terrifying as mass shootings are, let’s not forget that such events add a tiny fraction to the overall gun violence body count, and most of that count are bodies which are young and black.

The purpose of this column, however, is not to advocate for more attention paid to inner-city gun violence, but rather to discuss another aspect of the gun violence issue which is too-often ignored.  Because if we are going to concentrate our concerns on what gun violence does to the quality of life and the length of lives in our inner cities, we skip over what gun violence does in communities not of color, but communities where only folks in the majority race tend to live.

Ever been to Wirt County in West Virginia?  It covers some 250 square miles of rolling hills and small farms some 40 miles north of Charleston, in 2016 four out of five voters marked their ballots for D.D.D. Trump. The county is home to some 5,800 people, median family income is around $36,000 (the U.S. median is now just under $60,000) and the racial diversity is zero; i.e., it’s all white.  In 2014, there were 9 murders in Wirt County, which doesn’t sound like a heckuva lot except on a per-100,000 basis, which is how we figure crime rates, it works out to 155.  The last time I checked, the murder rate in gun-happy Philadelphia was 16.

Look at the murders in Wirt County from another point of view.  The population density in New York City is 66,000 per square mile, which means that in Manhattan, the average city block is home to roughly 3,300 folks.  Put two city blocks together and you have about the same number of people that live in Wirt County.  How would you feel if 9 people were murdered in one year on the block where you lived?

In 2016, more than 8,600 white men and women were murdered, three-quarters with guns. But we don’t hear about these killings because they take place in small, dispersed, isolated places like Wirt County, and believe me, there are plenty of Wirt Counties all over the national map.

I’m really hopeful that the Parkland kids will create more pressure on the media to talk not just about the spectacular, rampage shootings, but as well spend more time reporting about the humdrum, one-on-one shootings which happen every day. But let’s just remember to include all the victims of gun violence in those reports.


Does Concealed-Carry Reduce Crime?



Today’s media will be carrying the story about NRA Board member and NASCAR team owner Dick Childress, who evidently frightened away three dopes who broke into his home by firing a gun at them, an event which Childress claims resulted in no loss of life to himself or his wife thanks to “the 2nd Amendment and God.” No doubt this story will be repeated when the Senate takes up a debate on the national concealed-carry reciprocity bill, with Childress becoming a poster-boy for the idea that we should all be going around armed.

If there is one cottage industry which has emerged and grown within the gun violence prevention (GVP) research community, it’s the continued effort to debunk the work of John Lott, whose book – More Guns Less Crime – has been the clarion-call for the concealed-carry (CCW) movement since it was first published in 1998. The book first appeared when the residents of nearly half the states still had to prove a need to walk around with a gun. As of today, only 8 states still give the authorities who issue CCW some discretion as to who shall and shall not be able to walk around armed; the rest of the country couldn’t care less.

Lott’s argument is based on statistical models which show that as the number of concealed-carry licenses increase in most jurisdictions, criminal activity shifts from in-person to anonymous crime; i.e., a decline in homicides but an increase in burglaries, his argument based on the assumption that criminals don’t want to confront potential crime victims who might be armed.

Lott’s thesis has been attacked by any number of GVP researchers, of whom perhaps the most prominent and prolific scholar is a law professor at Stanford, John Donohue, who has published two, very detailed critiques of Lott’s work.  The first paper was published in 2012, and basically argued that Lott’s argument was based on data which was, at best, incomplete. The second paper was released this year, and went further because it claimed that by using a more sophisticated modeling approach, the data actually showed that in CCW states that violent crime went up. Lott has replied in detail to both these critiques, so the battle wages on.

I recently began a study of murder from a forensic point of view, hence, I took the trouble to read Lott and Donohue again and find myself unable to subscribe to either point of view. The reason I am unpersuaded has nothing to do with the validity of statistical models employed in either approaches; rather, it is based on the assumptions that both Lott and Donohue make about the behavior of criminals versus the behavior of armed citizens, assumptions which I believe in both cases to be totally wrong.

Let’s go back to the three jerks who broke into the home where Dick Childress and his wife were asleep. Obviously, they didn’t do their homework in preparation for the attack because not only were the residents in their home, but the homeowner was certainly armed. I mean, a member of the NRA Board wouldn’t have been able to pull out a gun?

But let’s presume for the sake of argument that the burglary team’s collective IQ wasn’t below the standard of ‘dumb.’ The point is that anonymous crimes, crimes of stealth, usually involve some degree of thought and planning before the crime occurs.  On the other hand, what emerges from the brilliant, 1,000-page textbook on forensic homicide by Lester Adelson is the proven argument that of all crimes, murder is the one crime which is preceded by any planning or conscious thought at all.

Then there’s the question of the degree to which the population which commits the most violent crime – murder – has any degree of contact with the population that believes they need to protect themselves by walking around armed. Because if these two population groups don’t come into contact with one another, making some kind of causal connection between how the two groups behave regarding any issue is about as far away from reality as you can get.

Violent crime, particularly murder, is overwhelmingly an intra-racial affair. Blacks kill blacks, whites kill whites; for both races the intra-racial character is around 90 percent. And just as murder is segregated by race, it’s also segregated by income and where people live. Warren Buffet lives in Omaha, the only murder in Buffet’s neighborhood in the last couple of years was an elderly lady, living alone, who met some dope on the internet and then invited him to move in. He repaid her for her generosity and kindness by bopping her over the head and running off with her jewels. Meanwhile, a mile away from Buffet’s house is a small ghetto surrounding a ballfield and some swing sets known as Giffords Park. The neighborhood has about 5,000 residents but chalks up 8 or 9 shootings each year, the reason that most of the victims survive is because the park is located a block away from the Creighton University Medical Center and ER.

If we are really going to do something about the behavior caused by guns which will probably result in more than 12,000 murders this year, I think it’s time to stop indulging in arguments about statistics and statistical models and start paying attention to how, when and where these murders actually occur. And by the way, don’t make the mistake of assuming that the number of individuals who have concealed-carry licenses represents in any way, shape or form, how many Americans are walking around with guns.  Let me break it to you gently – in neighborhoods, both white and black, where most murders occur, everybody’s got a gun.

Have A Wonderful and Joyous Christmas Season.  


Thank God Our 2nd Amendment Rights Are Being Protected By Kasich, Walker And Bridge.

Leave a comment

Okay, it’s time to play gun nut quiz.  And here’s the gun nut question today: What do the following states – California, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey – have in common?    And the answer is – actually they have two things in common.  Each state contains at least one city with a murder rate at least four times the national average – Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Newark;  and each state is home to a Republican Presidential candidate: Fiorina, Carson, Kasich, Walker, Christie.

chris2                Right now the national murder rate per 100K is somewhere slightly above 4.  The murder rate in Oakland is 22, in Detroit it’s 45, Cleveland’s rate is 14 (oops, that’s only 3.5 times the national average), Milwaukee rolls in at 17 and peaceful  Newark sits at 40. Now you would think that Fiorina, Carson, Kasich, Walker and Christie would know something about gun violence, given the fact that they come from states with cities that have murders happening as if it were Mog.  And if you don’t know where Mog is, take a look at a map of Somalia – it’s what our Airborne guys call Mogadishu, the place we lost a couple of Black Hawks back in those heady days before the Twin Towers came crashing down.

kasich                Before I get into this issue too deeply, I’m going to give Carly and Ben each a pass, because they come from California and Michigan respectively, but they don’t live there any more.  On the other hand, Kasich, Walker and Bridgegate are the friggin’ governors of their states.  They live there, they work there, and they are ultimately responsible for public safety there.  And since most murders occur with the use of guns, and these guys need to show they are doing something about murder rates that are beyond belief, let’s see what, if anything, they have to say about guns.

I’ll start with Kasich.  “I believe in the 2nd Amendment.”  That’s from a 2010 webcast during his successful gubernatorial campaign.  What was Kasich supposed to say?  I love how all these red-meat politicians ‘believe’ in the 2nd Amendment.  Duhhh, it’s part of the Constitution.  What are they supposed to day?  That they don’t believe in it?  In 2011 Kasich signed a bill that allows Ohioans to bring concealed weapons into establishments that served liquor, including nightclubs, restaurants, stadiums, malls and, of course, restaurants.  He really believes in the 2nd Amendment.

walker               Scott Walker also believes in the 2nd Amendment.  He believes in it so much that he says it’s his duty as Governor to “protect and preserve our Constitutional freedoms.” To prove how important the 2nd Amendment is to our freedom, he recently signed a bill that ended a long-established 48-hour waiting period to purchase a handgun in Wisconsin.  The fact that the bill’s supporters used a fabricated tale about a woman who ended up being killed by her husband because she couldn’t get her hands on a gun is further proof of Walker’s commitment to Constitutional rights, in this case the right to tell a lie protected by the 1st Amendment’s defense of free speech.

As for Bridgegate, he began huffing and puffing after the Roanoke shooting with the standard bromides about the ‘terrible tragedy,’ his condolences to the families, the usual crap.  But then he cut to the chase and reminded the interviewer that we didn’t need any new gun laws, we just needed to enforce the laws we already have.  And in case anyone was wondering who would do the enforcing, I’ll let Bridgegate tell you himself: “New Jersey has a Governor who enforces the law.”  Christie enforces laws so well that the only person who didn’t get fired after millions of commuters were unable to get to work was the guy who should have been fired – Christie himself.

When it comes to your 2A rights, you’ll have nothing to fear from Kasich, Walker or Chris.  As for the cities withgun violence rates through the roof, let’s not worry about a few bodies here and there when the Constitution will be defended by all those armed citizens and their guns.

What Does Gun Safety Really Mean?

1 Comment

It’s been a bit more than twenty years since the debate over guns really heated up.  Much of the noise was due to the 1994 Clinton gun bills which the NRA and other gun-owning organizations vigorously opposed, but it also reflected a genuine concern that gun crimes and gun violence were out of control.  And even though crime and gun violence rates then dropped by nearly 50% before the 21st Millennia and continue at historic lows, the argument over what I call the social utility of guns continues to grow.

The social utility of guns from a negative and a positive can be summarized as follows.  On the one hand, public health researchers and gun-control advocates believe that the risks of gun ownership outweigh the gains; i.e., if you own or carry a gun sooner or later someone will get shot and the victim won’t be that bad guy trying to break down your back door.  On the other hand we have the gun makers and gun-owning organizations like the NRA who just as firmly believe that virtually all gun violence is caused by bad guys with guns, and that the level of violent crime would be much higher if we didn’t have the 2nd Amendment right to own or carry a gun.

safe                I happen to believe that the public health research on gun risk is valid.  I also happen to believe that most people who keep a gun around to protect themselves would have absolutely no idea what to do if they found themselves in a position where their physical security depended on their ability to use a gun.  It also doesn’t matter what I happen to believe. We accept all kinds of risks in our lives – smoking, obesity, drinking – for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with our ability or willingness to deal with the risk itself.  So who am I to say that one person’s perception of risk shouldn’t be another person’s equally valid perception of gain?

The fact is that virtually every single gun that is used in an actual or threatened shooting of another human being started out as a legal gun.  And while the recent video about gun histories posted by States United was a clever way to link guns with their use in murders and assaults, the history of every single gun in that faux gun shop started off in the same, legal way. Now I can’t imagine that there’s one law-abiding gun owner out there who consciously would want one of his guns to be used to injure or kill someone else.  Thanks to the NICS, I also don’t think that anything but a small percentage of guns are initially sold to someone who doesn’t legally deserve to own a gun.  But if 11,000 guns are used in homicides, 140,000 in assaults and another 120,000 in robberies, then we can say with some degree of assurance that every year at least 270,000 guns fall into the wrong hands.

It’s all well and good to talk about extending background checks on the one hand, or telling kids to STOP – don’t touch – leave the area – tell an adult- on the other.  But I got news for you.  If 200,000 guns are stolen every year, and that’s a minimum figure, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how easy it is for guns to get into the ‘wrong’ hands. And if anyone out there believes that the five-dollar cable locks you can pick up at your local police station courtesy of the NSSF is going to stop someone from  stealing your guns, think again.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, thefts of guns are nearly twice as likely to be reported than thefts of other household items of comparable value.  Which means that gun owners understand the consequences of losing their guns.  All the more reason why both sides should be talking about gun safety in terms of theft control, and not just arguing about the social risks versus the social benefits of owning guns.

What’s The Real Connection Between Violence And Guns? I’m Not Sure.

Leave a comment

One of the axioms of the gun control movement, if not the foundation on which the entire movement rests, is the idea that we have a much higher rate of gun violence than other countries because we have a much greater number of privately-owned guns.  This is particularly true in the case of homicide, where other advanced, Western societies often experience the same degree of random violence, but no other country experiences violence that is as deadly as ours.

Over the last several years, our intentional homicide rate has run around 5 per 100,000.  The average rate for other OECD countries (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, aka, the rich countries) is between 1 and 2 per 100,000. For those numbers I randomly chose Switzerland, Sweden. France, Canada, Austria, New Zealand, Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg.  Now let’s look at the per capita private ownership per 100,00 of guns in those same countries:

United States 90,000
Switzerland 45,000
Sweden 31,000
France 31,000
Canada 30,000
Austria 30,000
New Zealand 22,000
Greece 22,000
Berlgium 17,000
Luxembourg 15,000


We have twice as many guns as Switzerland but five times as many murders.  We have three times as many guns as Sweden or France but also five times as many murders and so forth.  But what if we turn it around and assume that these other, relatively non-violent countries had as many guns in private hands as we do?  After all, the argument is that our homicide rate is a function of how many guns are in private hands. Which means that we are assuming a causal relationship between gun ownership and intentional deaths.  Wouldn’t this relationship therefore hold true no matter how many guns exist in private hands?

gun homicides                Triple the per capita gun ownership and homicide rates in Sweden, France or Canada, and their homicide rates which are now between 1 and 2 persons per 100,000 would move up to 4 to 6 homicide victims per 100,000, which is higher than the current murder rate in the United States.  If we were to quadruple the per capita gun ownership in Belgium, which would still leave them short of the U.S. ownership rate, wouldn’t we also have to quadruple their homicide rate which would bring Belgium’s murder rate per 100,000 up to slightly less than 10?  That’s twice the current U.S. rate for intentional deaths.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not just playing Peck’s bad boy with the data.  I have been attacking the NRA sans cesse for their “more guns less crime” strategy.  I think it’s based on bogus research, false data and worse, is actually dangerous because it makes people believe that carrying a gun will protect them from crime.  The truth is that it usually ends up escalating an argument into a much worse, even fatal event.  But I must point out to my friends in the gun-control community that perhaps the opposite assumption that more guns equals more violence may not necessarily be true.  Australia is the only advanced country where we can analyze homicide rates before and after government intervention that led to a significant decline in civilian guns, and while the gun buy-back program appears to have made a difference in suicide rates, the evidence on homicide is somewhat mixed.  Not that there hasn’t been a decline in Australian homicide after the gun buyback program in 1996-1997, but that same decline has occurred to an even greater degree in the U.S.A. without any guns being turned over to the police.

Violence is injury and guns are the most harmful way to injure someone else.  We know the epidemiology of violence but somehow when we connect violence to guns, we fall back on arguments about causality that don’t seem to get us past first base.  It’s a fact that Americans own more guns than anyone else and it’s a fact that’s not going to change.  But gun ownership doesn’t make us more violent in and of itself and I’m not sure we yet understand how and why violence here and elsewhere is connected to using a gun.


Watch Out Gun Owners: Bloomberg’s Out To Get Your Guns!


I can see it now.  The NRA annual meeting is about to kick off in Indianapolis and I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts that every speaker at the banquet and other public events will be told to say something nasty about Mike Bloomberg’s new campaign to “get rid” of guns.  What’s going on is that Bloomberg has announced that he’s going to spend 50 million bucks to bankroll a new organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, to build a grass-roots movement across the country that will mobilize voters to enact background checks at the state level to counteract the NRA whose power at the federal level has prevented an expansion of national background checks from taking place.

Bloomberg and many other gun-control activists are convinced that the key to cutting down the rate of gun violence is the ability of the government to keep guns out of the hands of disqualified individuals (felons, mentally ill, etc.) by requiring pre-transfer clearance for anyone who wants to acquire a handgun regardless of whether the transfer occurs in a retail store, a gun show, or two people simply standing in the street.  The evidence supporting this argument can be found on the Everytown website, and it goes like this.

bloomAccording to Bloomberg’s organization, in 2010 there were 14 states plus DC that required background checks for all handgun sales, and together these states had a 3.17 rate (per 100,000) for gun deaths, whereas the remaining 34 states (CO and DE were excluded due to new laws) registered a gun homicide rate of 5.09; a difference between the two groups of 38%.  If Bloomberg’s group is correct in asserting that universal background checks would bring the gun homicide rate in the country as a whole down to 3.17, we would be talking about at least several thousand less gun deaths each year, and that ain’t chopped liver, even if you’re the former Mayor of New York.

But the moment that anyone come up with a plan to curb gun violence, I always try to figure out whether the plan really aligns itself with the data that is used to explain how and why it’s going to work. Or are we looking at what we often encounter in the gun debate, namely, a confusion between coincidence and causality which has a way of somehow obscuring the facts?  I’m afraid that in the case of Bloomberg’s continued love affair with background checks, it may be a little of both. Here’s what I mean.

Of the 14 states that required background checks for all handgun transfers, nine of them had rates of gun homicides lower than the national average going back to 1970 and before.  The fact that many of these states at some point instituted background checks at the state level wasn’t necessarily the cause of lower gun homicide rates because most of these states had lower homicide rates before any gun control laws were put into effect. For that matter, Mike Bloomberg’s own city, New York, had the most severe background check system,, the Sullivan Law, on the books since 1908.  But the city experienced a severe increase in gun homicide between 1988 and 1993, and then saw the greatest drop in gun violence of any major city in the United States over the next twenty years, a trend that started under Rudy Giuliani but increased even more during Bloomberg’s stint in City Hall.

Don’t get me wrong. Study after study has shown that when you pass gun control laws, the number of gun owners goes down, which no doubt leads to less guns, which probably results in less crime.  But Mike Bloomberg’s successful effort to make New York City safe from gun violence was not, according to his own testimony, due to any change in the laws.  It was the result of smart and aggressive policing and his 50 million bucks wouldn’t cover the costs of such a strategy across the river in Hoboken, never mind across the United States.