Do We Understand Gun Violence?

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              Our friends at the Violence Policy Center (VPC) have just released a detailed report on Black homicide in 2016, which shows an overall increase from 2015 of roughly 10 percent.  The 2015 homicide rate for Blacks was 15 percent above 2014,  but the 2017 rate actually shows a slight decline from 2016.  According to the report, guns were the instrument of choice in 84 percent of all Black homicide events, whereas guns were used in 74 percent of all homicides, regardless of race.

              This report is based on a special collection of state-level data held by the FBI and referred to as the Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR.) The numbers confirm what we have always known about homicide, namely, that it occurs with much greater frequency among the African-American population than within the national population as a whole. In fact, the frequency is four times as great. 

              Unfortunately, while the SHR contains some interesting data on the some of the specific contexts in which Black homicide occurs, the FBI report may, in fact, significantly understate the number of Black homicides, both for events with and without the use of guns.  The VPC says that there were 7,756 Black homicide victims in 2016, of which 6,505 (87%) were killed with guns. The CDC, on the other hand, sets 2016 Black homicide for the entire country at 9,995, with 8,434 (84%) struck down with guns.

              How can two public agencies, both important (indeed essential) stakeholders in homicide, come up with numbers that differ by almost 25 percent?  After all, a dead body isn’t like a cut or a bruise where the patient may or may not want to tell either the doctors or the cops exactly what produced the wound. And while coroners make mistakes and sometimes data just doesn’t end up in the right place, the gap between FBI and CDC homicide reportage is simply too great to be ignored.

              Along with this fundamental discrepancy in the overall numbers themselves, the fact that the VPC report is based on homicides aggregated at the state level leaves us wondering about another major issue, namely, why some inner-city communities appear to have greater-than-average gun homicide numbers and other inner-city communities don’t. For example, the report lists Pennsylvania as the 10th highest state for homicide rates. But in 2016, Philadelphia County had a homicide rate of 18.4, Allegheny County, which is Pittsburgh, had a homicide rate of 8.7.  Meanwhile, the median household income in Philadelphia was $40,649, the median income in Pittsburgh was $56,333, and the poverty rate in Philadelphia was 25.3%, in Pittsburgh it was 11.3%. 

              Do these demographics explain the difference in homicides between the two cities, which between them counted more than half the 2016 Pennsylvania homicides as a whole?  Maybe yes, maybe no. The point is that the moment you aggregate state-level data to give us numbers on who killed who, or what kind of weapons were used, or whether the killing took place in the home or in the street, you lose the ability to really understand why certain kinds of people commit gun violence when most people with the same personal backgrounds and living in the same neighborhoods don’t settle violent arguments by picking up a gun.

              In Philadelphia, there were more than 23,000 felony assaults committed in 2016. There were 288 murders that year and 1,088 shootings where the victim didn’t die.  In other words, when someone wanted to really hurt someone else in the City of Brotherly Love, only six percent of those attacks involved the use of a gun. You can’t tell me that the other 22,000 people who committed a serious assault in Philadelphia couldn’t get their hands on a gun.

              The VPC report concludes with this sobering remark: “For the year 2016, blacks represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 51 percent of all homicide victims.”  What’s even more sobering is the fact that as bad as the numbers are, we still don’t know why those shootings occur.

A New VPC Report Helps Demolish The Argument That Guns Protect Us From Crime.

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The Violence Policy Center has just released its latest report that covers shootings by concealed-carry licensees since 2007. And while it’s impossible to come up with any kind of comprehensive number that tells us how many times legally-armed citizens yank out a piece and shoot themselves or someone else, the bottom line is that this project is a welcome antidote to the NRA-inspired nonsense about how people walking around with guns protect us from violence and crime.

If it were just the case that the pro-gun gang used the armed citizen la-la to sell more guns, it certainly wouldn’t upset me very much.  After all, every legal product deserves a good marketing scheme, even if it’s a scheme developed out of whole cloth.  But this year the virtue of an armed citizenry has been elevated to a new, almost sanctified level by the entire field of Republican Presidential candidates who are using the ‘more guns = less crime’ argument to make sure that sensible reforms like expanded background checks never get discussed at all.  “New laws won’t do anything at all,“ Donald Shlump tells us, while he preens about having a concealed-gun permit even though he won’t reveal if he actually carries or ever practices shooting a gun.

VPC cropped                According to the VPC report, at least 763 people have been shot to death by legally-armed citizens over the last eight years.  Now this is a pretty puny number when compared to the millions of crimes that are allegedly prevented because so many people are walking around with guns.  But if you think we have no idea about the accuracy of the VPC data, let me hasten to assure you that the pro-gun gang bases their claims about the value of an armed citizenry on no data at all.  The only thing they can point to is the 1994 article by Gary Kleck which has been discredited so many times that even the criticisms are getting a little stale.  And when Kleck went online earlier this year to defend his numbers, he backed away from his original claims.

Now you would think that if a national political party has designated  concealed-carry as its wedge issue in a Presidential year, the least they would do is conduct a survey to see if what they are claiming is really true.  If it turns out that the Kleck research is as bogus as I suspect, they just don’t have to tell anyone about a new poll.  On the other hand, were Kleck or someone else to do an updated study which shows that concealed-carry really was an effective and efficient way to defend against crime, just imagine what this would do for the Republicans if this information was injected into the Presidential campaign.  After all, the Democrats have clearly decided to use gun control as their wedge issue in the coming months, so all the more reason why the Republicans should try to outflank the opposition by proving once and for all that being armed is a good thing.

There’s only one little problem.  Armed citizens don’t protect us from crime.  And the reason is because crime and concealed-carry have nothing to do with each other.  Has there been a significant increase in CCW over the last few years?  Yes.  Do all these new CCW-holders live in localities where most crime occurs?  No.  The increase in concealed-carry applications has been most noticeable in places where legal gun-owners live which are, for the most part, white, small-town or smaller city localities – places where very little violent crime ever takes place.

In defending the recent spate of Republican gun-nuttery, the half-baked intellectual Thomas Sowell insisted it was reasonable to own a 30-shot rifle magazine in order to repel home invasions by three or more thugs.  Sowell might qualify his remarkable flight from reality by looking at what the BJS says are the odds of such events happening in neighborhoods where people own guns.  The odds are zero to none.


Is Gun Ownership A Risk Or A Benefit? The VPC Report Says It’s Definitely A Risk.

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If there is one issue which continues to define the gun debate, it’s whether the 30,000+ gun deaths and 60,000+ gun injuries that occur each year can be justified because guns also protect us from crime. Not surprisingly, the pro-gun community led by the NRA has not only embraced the notion that armed citizens protect us from crime, but use this notion to explain the decline in violent crime over the past twenty years.

While nobody would argue with the idea that a gun can be used as a protective device, the problem is trying to figure out just exactly how often what is called a Defensive Gun Use, or DGU, actually takes place.  Most of the DGU evidence is purely hypothetical, based on anecdotal accounts which total less than 100 DGU events per year.  For that matter, the DGU survey conducted by Gary Kleck, which claimed that DGU events totaled more than 2 million per year, was based on interviews with 213 respondents, at a time when, according to Kleck, most people with access to a gun that could be used defensively didn’t necessarily have the legal right to own a gun at all.  So if you’re trying to gauge how people behave with an object that they can’t necessarily tell you they actually possess, you have something of a problem validating anything they might say.

conference program pic                The issue of how often guns are used in self-defense is the point of a new study released by the Violence Policy Center, which studied data on DGUs for the period 2007 – 2012.  THE VPC study uses data from two sources to get at the number of DGUs that happen each year.  The first source is the FBI, which tabulates justifiable homicides, defined as “the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.”  In 2012 there were 259 justifiable homicides committed with a gun, and over the five-year period beginning in 2008, the yearly average was 221.

The other source for DGUs is the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) conducted each year by the Department of Justice, which shows an average of 47,140 DGUs each year.  The NCVS data doesn’t indicate whether a gun that was used in self-defense against a criminal was actually fired, but it does disclose that of all methods used by victims of violent crimes to defend themselves before or during the attack, a gun was the preferred method of defense less than 1% of the time.  What was the most frequent way in which crime victims defended themselves?  What you would expect, namely, by using their mouths to yell, scream or otherwise alerting either their attacker or others that something dangerous was going on.

Not surprisingly, pro-gun advocates have been taking pot-shots at the NVCS and other surveys which show minimal DGUs with guns.  Gary Kleck recently re-surfaced in Politico where he defended his 1994 estimate of 2.5 million yearly gun DGUs without advancing any new data, even though the extension of CCW to all 50 states has rendered his basic thesis (that most people could not admit to carrying a gun outside the home) basically invalid.

I buy the NVCS data about DGUs for one simple reason, namely, that the survey covers a large number of respondents – more than 90,000 households – and is conducted yearly so that trends can be developed and verified over time.  I also buy the FBI data because, when all is said and done, justifiable homicide is an objective definition for DGUs, rather than a subjective opinion about a criminal event that may or may not have taken place. In that regard, by comparing the scant number of gun DGUs to the 90,000+ gun mortalities and morbidities that occur each year, the VPC report represents a positive contribution to the gun debate.  And if the pro-gun folks don’t feel comfortable engaging in a debate using evidence-based data, so what else is new?

Is Gun Suicide A Form Of Gun Violence? You Betcha.


Gun suicide accounts for 2/3 of fatal gun violence every year.  Until recently I have always been somewhat uncomfortable lumping suicide and homicide together, if only because the nature of the event is so different, the ownership and access to the weapon is so different, hence one assumes that the mitigation strategies should be different. But following discussions with the expert suicide researchers at Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center and a review of peer-reviewed literature, I am persuaded that gun suicide is not only a fundamental gun violence problem, but understanding and responding to it might provide a map for mitigating gun homicides and gun assaults as well.

suicide foto               Gun suicides and gun homicides intersect In two basic ways: the lethality of the weapon and the motives and behavior of the shooter leading up to the incident itself.  As to the former, guns used in suicides result in a success rate of 95%.  No other suicide effort is half as effective in the final result.  As for homicide, obviously the “success” rate is only about 10%, but there is no other serious injury which comes close to generating the costs and trauma that results from being wounded with a gun.

As to behavior, the degree to which impulse governs the actions of everyone who shoots themselves or others with a gun should not be overlooked.  Less than 20% of all homicides occur during the commission of another, serious crime.  Most gun homicides grow out of a history of disputes between individuals who know each other and the incidence of domestic abuse in homicides where the victims are women is virtually 100%.  I recently discussed a report from the Violence Policy Center in which I noted that a random search of gun homicides committed by CCW-holders showed that virtually all of them grew out of arguments and fights, usually aggravated by too much to drink. Is there really a great difference between the guy who gets sick and tired of fighting with himself or sick and tired of arguing with his wife and reaches for his gun?  I don’t think so, and the research on suicide and homicide tends to bear me out.

What about mitigating strategies for both types of fatalities involving guns?  An article on suicide prevention among Israeli soldiers caught my eye because Israel is often touted by the pro-gun community as the model for giving civilians full access to guns with a consequent low rate of violent crime.  But the policy of allowing soldiers to keep their guns with them on weekend leave also resulted in an alarmingly high rate of suicide among these soldiers, which dropped by nearly 40% when soldiers had to leave their guns secured at their base while spending weekends at home.  Anyone who thinks there’s no connection between suicide and gun access needs to look honestly at what happened in Israel before and after access to guns was denied.

The pro-gun folks would like to believe that gun fatalities have nothing to do with guns and are all about crime.  There’s a simple logic to that argument except for the fact that every single gun involved in a criminal event first started out as a legal gun.  For that matter, most of the guns in suicides either were legally owned by the suicide victim or belonged to another family member who legally purchased the gun.

The usual response from the gun-safety community is to push for an expansion of CAP laws, and clearly such laws do have a mitigating effect when it comes to keeping kids away from guns.  But let me break the news to you gently – the big problem with such laws is that the only way that someone can use a gun is to unlock where the gun is stored or unlock the gun itself.  And the problem we face with both gun suicides and gun homicides is figuring out how to spot the impulsive, destructive behavior of certain people before they get their hands on a gun.


The VPC’s New Report On Gun Violence And A New Book On Murder Both Deserve To Be Read


Every year the Violence Policy Center issues a depressingly similar report on gun death rates in all 50 states.  Based on data from the CDC, the report appears to confirm a basic tenet of the gun-sense approach to gun violence, namely, that states with high rates of gun death rates have fewer gun violence prevention laws and tend to have higher per capita ownership of guns.  The report ranks all 50 states by the rate of gun violence, the highest being Alaska at 19.59 per 100,000, the lowest being Hawaii at 2.71. Of the 50 states, 31 rank at or above the national mean of 10.64 and the other 19 below, with the lowest 7 states being Hawaii and 6 Northeastern states which traditionally have the tightest laws and the lowest per-capita gun ownership rates.  A quick glance at the state-level chart appears to confirm the VPC’s basic argument about the connection between gun violence prevention laws, rates of gun ownership and death rates involving guns.

VPC croppedThis is all fine and well except for two little things.  First, the gun “violence” captured by the VPC is of two very different types.  In the case of the five states with the highest rates of gun deaths, two of them – Alaska and Wyoming – have extremely low homicide rates (according to the FBI,) the gun death rate in these two states reflecting abnormally high suicide.  Is gun suicide is a form of gun violence? Of course,  but laws restricting access to guns by persons considering suicide would have to be much different measures than laws that keep crime-prone individuals from getting their hands on a gun.

Second, states that have strong gun violence prevention laws and low per capita gun ownership are able to institute laws preventing gun violence precisely because gun owners don’t constitute a threat at the ballot box, the recent re-election of Connecticut’s Governor Dannell Malloy a case in point.  Do strong gun laws prevent gun violence or does the lack of gun violence and the lack of gun ownership make it easier to pass such laws? It’s a classic chicken-and-egg question but my state – Massachusetts – passed a very strong gun violence prevention law in 1998, and while the state now ranks near the bottom in gun violence rates today, it also ranked near the bottom before the 1998 law was passed.

ghettoDon’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to undermine or devalue in any way the important work of the Violence Policy Center on issues like gun violence or the other problems which Josh Sugarmann and his team tackle every day.  Nevertheless, I still believe a basic question is being overlooked.  And the question has just been addressed frontally in a new book, Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy, which takes the reader through a series of murder investigations conducted by detectives of the LAPD.

The bottom line is that for all the talk about America’s abnormally high gun violence rate, the fact is that one specific group – African-American males – constitutes 6 percent of the population but 40% of the people killed every year.  Pretend this group does not exist, pull their numbers out of the overall murder count, and America isn’t such a violent place. Leovy’s argument is that in terms of addressing this problem, Black homicide victims don’t exist. Her book is an attempt to “penetrate the mystery of disproportionate black homicide,” for which she offers some tentative but hardly compelling ideas.

When Leovy writes about events at the street level, her descriptions are remarkably vivid and clear.  When she brings a wider sociological perspective to the problem, the text becomes suffuse and vague.  To her credit, she admits that we simply don’t know why black-on-black homicide, even with today’s lowered numbers, remains so disproportionate when compared to violence levels experienced by any other race.  The same, for that matter, could be said about gun violence and in the face of such uncertain explanations, we might be a little more modest in assuming that we know how to bring gun murders down.

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Do Good Guys With Guns Stop Bad Guys? The Violence Policy Center Says No

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The Violence Policy Center has just released an update on its ongoing report about shootings committed by individuals with concealed-carry permits and the information deserves to be studied in detail.  The issuance of CCW has been a hot-button issue for the ‘gun-rights’ movement ever since Gary Kleck published a study in 1994 which claimed that more than 2.5 million crimes were prevented every year by Americans walking around with guns.  The gun industry and its allies like the NRA jumped on this still-unproven argument because, as Wayne-o said after Sandy Hook, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  And since anyone with a concealed-carry permit is, by definition, one of the good guys, the gun industry and its supporters work overtime trying to get concealed-carry accepted as the law of the land.

The CCW movement has made great strides over the past twenty years.  Back in 1990, less than 20 states gave residents concealed-carry permits except in response to applications which cited specific business need (security guards, carrying cash, etc.)  Since that time, most state legislatures have passed laws that make concealed-carry no more onerous than what is required legally to keep a gun in the home, and a majority of CCW permits are issued with little or no training required at all.  Not only is it easier to get CCW in most states, but a concealed gun can usually be carried into shopping malls, restaurants and bars.

vpc                Even though violent crime rates have tumbled by more than half over the last twenty years, there’s no necessary connection, despite what the gun-rights lobby says, between this trend and the expansion of CCW, for the simple reason that more than 90% of the decline in violent crime occurred between 1993 and 2002, whereas the expansion in CCW took place largely over the last ten years.  But what appears to have increased with the spread of CCW are the number of fatal shootings by individuals who were lawful CCW-holders at the time they committed these violent acts.

I’m not surprised if more CCW permits results in more gun shootings.  After all, as the novelist Walter Mosley says, “If you walk around with a gun, it’s going to go off sooner or later.”  Where the guns seem to go off sooner rather than later is in Florida, which recorded 68 killings by CCW-holders since 2007.  This represents 10% of all CCW killings that the VPC was able to document which took place in a state that holds 3% of the nation’s total population.  Admittedly the VPC numbers are incomplete, because like most efforts to understand gun violence, the data is fragmentary and based on partial media reports.  VPC’s analysis also ignores gun suicides committed by legal gun owners, many of whom no doubt also had CCW privileges before they died.

I know many pro-gun activists who wouldn’t dispute the VPC numbers but would argue that an average of 100 fatal shootings each year by CCW-holders is a small price to pay for the thousands of fatal gun assaults that are prevented because law-abiding Americans can walk around with guns.  I have been listening to this nonsense since 1994 when Kleck first published the results of his so-called research, but it was the VPC report that made me finally try and test whether this claim is true.

The FBI has been compiling data on justifiable homicides, defined as the killing of a felon during the commission of a felony, since 1994.  In fact, since 2007, the same time-period covered by the VPC report, American civilians committed 1,023 justifiable homicides with handguns which, if you were to add CCW suicides to CCW homicides at best the whole thing would be a wash.  The NRA and its allies have steadfastly refused to recognize the FBI data on justifiable homicide because the numbers, when compared to national CCW population, are pathetically small.  No matter which way you cut it, the good guys ain’t doing such an impressive job with their guns.

Do The CDC Numbers On Gun Violence Tell Us What We Think They Tell Us? I’m Not So Sure.

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The gun control community takes as a given the idea that there’s a correlation between more gun control laws and lower rates of gun violence.  And while we all assume that most people obey laws, and therefore if we pass a law prohibiting or controlling a particular kind of behavior (such as how people use guns), the law will have its desired effect.  Except in the case of gun violence I’m not so sure that this is correct, nor am I sure that the data which is proffered up to justify this argument says what the gun control folks believe it says.  Case in point:  a new report issued by the Violence Policy Center that finds higher rates of gun violence in states with fewer gun control laws.

The report, actually a press release, is based on the 2012 mortality data issued by the CDC and available for viewing/analysis online.  The CDC breaks down injuries by how they occurred, on both a regional and a state-by-state basis.  Which means you can see how many guns were used in homicides, suicides and plain old accidents, divide these numbers by each state or region’s population and – voila! – you have the data used by the VPC.

cdc logoWhen I used the CDC data to calculate gun violence, the raw numbers agreed with the numbers published by the VPC, but I found myself  asking questions that simply don’t fit into the neat more laws = less gun violence paradigm that the VPC and other gun control advocates firmly believe.  For example, the VPC correctly notes that overall gun deaths increased from 2011 to 2012.  But gun accidents declined a tiny bit, while homicides and suicides both moved slightly up.  The more alarming news is that gun suicides account for nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths, a percentage that has been steadily climbing each year as, until recently, gun homicides have come down.

One of the major reasons for the great distance between the two sides in the gun violence debate is that one side, the NRA side, refuses to admit that suicide has anything to do with gun violence at all.  Suicide is never mentioned in the phony safety campaigns they run in conjunction with the NSSF, and they are hard at work trying to gag physicians who want to talk to their patients about guns, even when patients exhibit obvious symptoms of mental distress.  But the reason why states like Wyoming and Montana rank in the top 6 states for gun violence has nothing to do with homicide, it’s a function of elevated suicide rates which are acts of gun violence that have little, if anything to do with gun control laws at all.  Does the fact that gun suicide rates in the Northeast are lowest of any region reflect stricter legal controls over guns?  Or does it say something about disparities in mental health treatment between various sections of the United States?

I’m also not sure that using state-level gun violence rates and then tying these rates to strict or lax gun laws gets us to where we want to be, namely, a society which experiences less gun violence.  For example, my state – Massachusetts – has the lowest rate of gun violence of all 50 states, and it is known as a state with fairly strong gun control laws.  But the city of Springfield recently recorded its 14th gun homicide for 2014, and if the killing continues at that pace for the remainder of the year, the city will end up with an annual gun homicide rate of about 16 per 100,000, higher than 44 of the 50 states.

Don’t get me wrong.  I support the efforts of the VPC and other like-minded folks to find ways to curb the awful carnage created by guns.  But if we are going to look for lawful solutions to this or any other problem we have to be sure that we really understand the problem that the law will try to correct.  In the case of gun violence, the problem is not as simple or obvious as it seems.

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