US gun ownership and violence issues

2015 December 3
by Daniel Lakeland

I'm forbidden by my wife from commenting on Facebook posts regarding gun control. It's probably a good thing. Facebook is fast becoming an emotional outlet for meaningless political echo-chambering and responses are usually both uninformed and vitriolic.

But, hopefully at least on my blog I can say some things I've been thinking and avoid vitriol. In fact, to avoid an emotion fueled shitstorm I am going to put my opinion and some of the facts they are based on out here, but simply close the article to comments. I don't have the energy to carry on any kind of debate on this topic and I don't want it to be a major focus of my blog in any way. I'll allow trackbacks and pingbacks, so if you want to comment on this, post your own blog entry on your own blog and link to mine.

The US is in a pretty bad portion of the state-space with regards to gun ownership. We have about 1 gun per person in this country. But, we have a pretty long history (about 100 years) of strong attempts at gun control, most of which have begun to unravel as the aftermath of the Heller decision plays out.

All of this puts us in a position where if you are a law abiding citizen living in one of the larger metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, or many other similar areas, you have a decent chance of being able to purchase and OWN a firearm, but about zero chance of being able to have that firearm available to you in public to help you in case of violence. Furthermore, you live in a place where criminals have essentially no trouble acquiring firearms, and they do so principally through black markets, not legal sales.

On the other hand, if you are a person interested in committing violence, you have no qualms about whether you are technically violating a gun carrying ordinance or whatnot, and, you have relatively easy access as I linked above, principally via black markets.

There are basically two important categories of violent offender, and one additional important category:

  1. Criminals committing various criminal acts of which violence is a byproduct (drug dealers, burglars, gang turf wars etc).
  2. Mentally Unstable / Political / Mass shooters (basically suicide and political statement by public attack).
  3. Suicides (private / alone / involving no other victims).

Category 1 (~ 10,000 victims / yr) criminals tend to use illegally acquired weapons, often purchased from friends and acquaintances, and to a great extent entering this secondary market via purchases by people who can pass background checks and are then willing to pass the firearms to the criminals (see linked articles above). A typical case might be either a girlfriend, or a sibling or whatnot.

Category 2 (~ 100 victims / yr) criminals tend to buy weapons legally, though possibly they should have been denied the sale due to history of mental illness.

Category 3 (~ 20,000 victims / yr) suicides probably involve people using their own legally acquired guns which they acquired years before. They then become depressed due to whatever life circumstances, and commit suicide. This includes a certain number of soldiers with PTSD, and people who have other challenging life issues (loss of a family member, loss of economic livelihood, bankruptcy, chronic illness, addiction etc).

Clearly, although Category 2 in my experience seems to get the most media attention, with articles all over all the major media outlets nationally regardless of where the incident occurred... It is also the least important in terms of sheer numbers. For every person killed in a mass shooting there are more or less 100 people killed via violent inter-personal crime, and 200 people who commit suicide with a firearm.

What's different though is the background of the victims:

In Category 1 we're talking mostly about people who have criminal backgrounds, principally males between 15 and 25 years of age, committed mostly with handguns, and we're talking about 4 times as many black people as white people. (if links break, they're all from graphs at these wikipedia articles on Crime, and Gun Violence)

In Category 2 we're talking about a relatively much smaller number of people, but they are typically very different: employees at places where shooters work or used to work, children at elementary schools, people shopping at public stores and restaurants, adults studying at Universities, people at community functions, churches, synagogues, mosques, women's health clinics, etc etc. See the FBI study on "active shooters"

In Category 3 (suicides) the issue is very very clearly one of failure of our mental health care system. The Wiki article on epidemiology of suicide certainly seems to point to similar levels of suicide between countries with widely different gun ownership and access. Suicide seems to be something where gun access affects the choice of method, but does not particularly affect the overall rate within the country. For example: New Zealand, United States, and Netherlands all have similar rates but wildly different gun access, and from the same graph, Japan a country with virtually no citizen access to firearms has about 2x the rate of suicide. People commit suicide for various reasons, but not principally because they own a firearm.

What do we learn from all this? From the attention that mass shootings get, we conclude that people care much more about victims who are not criminals than they do about the gang, drug, poverty driven violence that is 100 times more prevalent in the US. Plus, we also conclude that sensationalism of the events drives media sales.

Typical response on the part of citizens who are not gun owners is to demonize gun ownership, and to call for increased restriction on legal gun purchases etc. But, public shootings is probably the area where increased possession of firearms by the general public in public places is likely to do the most good. Since the victims are more or less law abiding and going about their daily business, they are also the ones most likely under our current laws to be legally disarmed, particularly when the events occur specifically at locations where people are commonly disarmed by law: schools, universities, religious buildings, and shopping areas with posted no-concealed-carry-allowed signs (such as the case in Colorado in the shootings at the movie theater screening a Batman movie, where the shooter drove around looking for those signs).

Opponents of CCW (concealed carry) sometimes point to articles like this one from Mother Jones which they claim shows that no mass shootings in the last 30 years have been stopped by armed citizens but this article has a serious statistical problem, namely, it conditions on the outcome! If you look only at incidents in which multiple people were killed, you will find, unsurprisingly, that none of those incidents were stopped before multiple people were killed! There is no question that resisting an armed shooter who is intent on hurting people is dangerous. But, it's pretty clearly a lot more dangerous if you're unarmed. If you go looking for incidents where armed citizens stopped shootings, they aren't hard to find, such as those found by this article at the Washington Post. A clear issue is that when someone stops an attack early, we don't know what might have happened if the attack hadn't been stopped whereas when no-one stops an attack which goes on and 20 or 30 people are killed or injured, it's very clear what the intent was. This is an important statistical bias in any analysis.

FBI has a study on "active shooters" which gives a relatively clean view of important incidents in which people went into public with the explicit goal of killing people publicly. It is no surprise that the FBI data is a little less sensationalistic than typical media reports. It's worth a look, because it highlights the fact that the main targets of these events are typically places where people work or used to work, and places where you can expect to find relatively helpless people (mostly elementary and high schools).

Increased CCW on the other hand, is unlikely to result in any increase in crime from Category 1, because the criminals that commit these homicides are already easily getting their guns, and won't apply for CCW as they won't pass the required checks, just as they won't buy their firearms from the legal market. In fact, the general liberalization of CCW over the last 20 years or so has coincided with a time of general reductions in overall homicide (probably mostly unrelated to CCW rates and more related to economic conditions and a general decline in violence since the mid 1990's).

All of this is to say that the vast majority of what goes on post public-shooting is well-deserved indignation but not particularly helpful in terms of determining how best to respond to either the overall level of violence in the US, or the mass-shooting issue in particular.

In the us-vs-them political shitstorms that arise post sensationalistic shooting incident, one thing is clearly thrown out the window which I hope to make explicit here:

The common ground is that virtually NONE of us want to see public shootings. None of us want high levels of crime, and none of us want high levels of suicide. That is true on both "pro gun" and "anti gun" sides of the political spectrum. But, we're not in a situation where there are magic wands available to make those things go away. Since the issue is complex, it is entirely reasonable to have different views on what should be done with respect to gun laws even while having the SAME GOALS!

We're also in a situation where thankfully overall levels of violence are declining, and legal precedent is being set every day showing that the 2nd amendment protects an individual right, that the right extends to the states, and extends beyond simply owning and possessing firearms at home, and that ultimately many of the gun control laws passed during the period 1980-2000 at the peaks of criminal violence rates are going to be overturned on legal grounds. Where will we be at that point? Productive gun laws are going to have to come from a proper understanding of the rights that are protected, and how armed citizens can best be helpful, because we're going to see even wider spread CCW once the vast number of legal cases finally work their way through courts. Fortunately, the experience over the last decade or so clearly shows that increased CCW does not by itself lead to any significant increase in violent crime.

What we do to productively combat violence in the US while staying within the scope of constitutional law will not be decided by emotional Facebook posts. My personal feeling on the active-shooter issue is that we need to look hard at the motivating factors in these incidents, and the warning signs that might have been available to us to prevent them, and some of us will get CCW licenses, and will need to be responsible for using those safely. As for violent crime in general, reducing the criminalization and economic black-market gains from drug sales is going to be a key factor in reducing violence levels.

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