Some Thoughts on Gun Violence

(Note:  this blog was written by a friend who prefers to remain nameless, as he works in a sensitive job in a sensitive state. I may not agree with all of his points, but they are carefully considered and well written.  MB)

I’m a former law enforcement officer – both a National Park Ranger and a city cop.  That means that for a while I carried a firearm as part of my working toolkit (along with a radio, handcuffs, side-handle baton, expandable baton, and another firearm – a shotgun).

I hear many who would restrict gun ownership claim that firearms are seldom used to defend oneself, and more often lead to the death of innocent people.  There is truth to the fact that innocent people die from firearms, far too many of them.  But those who cite the recent study by the Violence Policy Center that in over 8,000 gun deaths, less than 260 were used in justifiable self-defense (approximately 3% of all gun-related deaths in 2012) are missing an important fact; the number of times a firearm was used to prevent a violent crime, but not fired!  This is a huge distinction.

In my several years as a law enforcement officer I drew my handgun or pointed my shotgun numerous times.  There was a stretch when it seemed I drew my pistol every day.  It was a very violent time to be a cop (the height of the violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s).  Despite this, I never, ever shot anybody.  What I did do, though, was stop them from committing a violent act, or stopped them from hurting me.

This is important.  Think about this for a moment. I used a firearm, legally numerous times, but never a shot was fired.  Nobody was ever hurt by my use of a firearm.

This is the same situation facing America now.  Since the increased allowance of concealed carry, there has been a movement away from violent crime, and one toward non-violent crimes (a hypothesis first postulated by Professor John Lott in his groundbreaking work, “More Guns, Less Crime”).  Murders are down from over 24,700 in 1991 (when I was a cop) to less than 15,000 today, even while the population rose more than 60 million, and the number of gun owners has risen to an estimated 270 million firearms held in approximately 47 percent of households.  As most gun owners are now reluctant to admit they own firearms, the true number is unknown, but probably higher.

Actually, violent crime overall is down, but you wouldn’t know that by listening to the talking heads or “if it bleeds it leads” reporters.  In the year I was born, there were 8,530 homicides and about 185 million people.  That’s about 5.1 homicides per 100,000 people.  At the height of the violent crime era in 1991, when there were over 252 million people, there were 24,700 homicides, a rate of 9.8 per 100,000 people.  In 2013 there were over 14,000 homicides and over 316 million people, a rate of 4.5 per 100,000.  Once again, more guns, more people, but the homicide rate has dropped.  You can see these same statistics on all violent crime – Rape went from 42.3 per 100,000 in 1991 down to 25.2 by 2013.  The same pattern exists for robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and larceny.

So, while we’re seeing a decline in crime, we’re also being deceived by the press, and by politicians and activists who wish to take advantage of every time some whackjob decides to commit a crime with a firearm.

But, despite the decline in violent crime, it still exists and people want things done to stop it, or lessen the carnage.  What to do?

First off, let’s look at the root causes of this violence.  It’s not just guns causing the deaths, it’s the person holding the gun.  Why?  Why are they doing it?  What is prompting Americans to kill their fellow citizens when we should be working together?   Here are a few of my thoughts.

First and foremost, we need to change the culture of violence in which we live.  Hollywood, the News Media, the general public and the Federal Government need to stop feeding the cycle.

Hollywood glorifies violence – the more noisy and gruesome it is, the better it is for their pocket book.  Look at the latest Jurassic Park and Terminator movies – lots of violence.   Numerous studies have shown that the more violent movies and TV shows that a child watches, the more violent they behave.  It’s a positive correlation.  While nobody will argue with Hollywood’s First Amendment Right to produce their products, perhaps it’s time to consider holding them accountable.

The news media is worse – they pick up on a mass murderer and hold 24/7 coverage on the whackjob.  I know, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  News media outlets are always trying to gain ratings, and they do so by putting out as much sensational material as possible.  Often when they do so, copycat killers emerge.

So, the question remains, how to get the news media to act like responsible adults?  My first recommendation is to stop focusing on the murderer and focus on the victims.  Don’t even mention the murderer’s name – call him “a nut job”, “a whackjob”, or something similarly denigrating, but don’t mention his name, his past, his manifesto, or anything about him.  Leave the audience with nothing more than the fact that some whackjob did something horrible to all these innocent victims.  Make it so that future murderers recognize that they will not get the notoriety that they crave.

Also, the media should start treating the Second Amendment like all other amendments to the Bill of Rights (ahem, First Amendment anyone?).  Rather than being against the one amendment that protects the amendment in which they make their living, they should become educated in it and firearms (see my third point below).

If the news media won’t act like mature adults, then maybe it’s time the public did.  Any time the news media broadcast information on the killer, turn off the TV or radio.  Contact the station and tell them exactly what you think about glorifying a whackjob, and tell them to grow up and do some constructive reporting.  Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper explaining how you will no longer watch a specific TV station because of how they glorify murderers.

Now, about the federal government.  I’m sure you’re surprised that I threw this in here.  Well, guess who does the most killing in the name of “national security”?  Yep, the federal government.  Doesn’t matter which of the two major parties is in control, they both wage war willy-nilly.  Did we really have to invade Iraq?  Twice?  Did we have to invade Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, etc.?  Did we really have to bomb Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc.?  How can we expect the public to put aside their violent actions when our federal government is constantly using force against foreign peoples in our name?  Here’s a tip to future administrations – look at the Swiss model of international relations as it relates to war.  Oh, yeah, the Swiss have one of the highest rates of firearms ownership in the world, with a murder rate lower than ours (which, by the way, is 111th according to Wikipedia).

Second, end the War on Drugs. As with Prohibition in the 1920s and ‘30s, it has led to violence and turf wars.  Most of these turf wars take place in minority communities, and guess what, it’s mostly minorities killing minorities. Half of all murder victims are black, and more than half of all murderers are black, despite constituting less than 15 percent of the population. By eliminating the War on Drugs, we take away the incentive for people to fight, kill, and die for what is really nothing more than economic purposes – making money.  Perhaps, just perhaps, people will turn to other venues of making money.

Toward this end I recommend providing amnesty to anyone convicted of a drug related crime, regardless of whether it was possession, distribution, or possession with intent to distribute (the amnesty would not apply to other crimes, though).  Wipe those convictions of their record and allow them to start life anew.  Provide them with the possibility of a real life, not the one they’ve wound up in.  Right now, if you’re convicted of a drug crime, you can forget about any possibility of getting financial aid for college.  What future does somebody like this have in this country without an education?

Another fact to consider in the War on Drugs is that it detracts from policing against other crimes, crimes that involve actual victims (unlike the victimless crime of using or selling illicit drugs).  Legalizing the drug trade will free up vast quantities of resources that are otherwise dedicated to fighting an endless, unwinnable war and direct them elsewhere in manners more suitable to protecting the public and the helping our country.  As Einstein once said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.”  Our War on Drugs is doing exactly that.

Third on my list (and it should probably be first) is education- if it’s good enough for sex ed and birth control, shouldn’t it be good enough for firearms safety?  When I was 11 I went through a NRA firearms safety course and my first sex ed class.  In the 9th grade, we were required to sit through a hunter safety course in our public high school, and, yet again, a sex ed class.  The lessons learned – mishandling firearms can lead to death or injury while mishandling other things could lead to an unwanted pregnancy.  My two children were also required to watch the Eddie Eagle video put out by the NRA on firearms safety (they also have had extensive sex ed classes).  My eldest passed the State hunter safety course at the age of 8! My youngest had no interest in hunting, but still handles a firearm safely (and shoots better than her karate black belt uncle).

It’s about time we brought firearms safety back into the schools, ramping it up each year (or every 2 or 3 years) to the point where it’s commonplace for students to say “watch where you’re pointing that thing” or “Is there a round in chamber?  Let me check.”  Rifle teams should be a part of school extracurricular activities.  Familiarity with firearms doesn’t breed contempt, rather it generally breeds respect.  Firearms are tools. They should be treated as such, not as toys or scary killing machines.

Fourth, let’s recognize that the Second Amendment is in the Bill of Rights for a reason.  Take some time to learn a bit about the history of the Second Amendment and read up on the recent Supreme Court decisions about the Second Amendment.  Face the fact that it recognizes the natural right that an individual may own firearms, and that those firearms may be used.  It is not a “National Guard” clause, so stop acting like it is. So, what is a natural right?  Well, it’s something that you are born with, that does not detract from another, and one that can only be taken away by the use of force against you.  The natural right inherent in firearms ownership is that of personal defense, and by extension, defense of the family, community, and state.  Notice how this natural right doesn’t take away from anybody, but actually enhances?

Now, here comes the crux of the matter.  According to the Supreme Court, the Second Amendment, much like the first, has some restrictions (despite the wording “shall not be infringed”).  This means that there is some wiggle room for regulations.  Most anti-gun people advocate background checks for all firearm transfers and waiting periods to purchase firearms.  There is no evidence to support their assertion that these measures do anything to prevent firearms violence, despite numerous studies, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show that waiting periods can lead to the deaths of innocent people.

Are background checks necessary? It’s debatable.  Do they work? Not really.  Criminals don’t go through background checks – they buy stolen guns. Doh!  So, the only thing a background check does is informs the government that one is exercising a recognized natural right.  Those that get caught violating the law are generally those unaware that they are barred from exercising their natural right.  So, stop all the gabbling about something that doesn’t work and let’s focus on things that do work to reduce violence or accidental deaths.  See my above points regarding this.

While I disagree with the Supreme Court (in my mind, a natural right is not something that can or should be regulated), in an effort to compromise in a manner that makes things safer, here are my thoughts.

Not only should education be about firearms, but it should be about recognizing and reporting those who might fit the profile of a mass murderer.  Clues and signs have abounded about all past mass murderers, so we’ve got a pretty good idea on what to look for (start with racial profiling – a young white male is the usual suspect).  We just need to make it public enough that people will know the red flags and respond accordingly.

While I’m opposed to any type of regulation regarding firearms, I’m willing to live with a modest amount.  If a state requires a permit to carry (in other words, if they wish to regulate your natural right), then the state should require adequate training to ensure the permitted person is aware of the rights and responsibilities, along with safe handling techniques and safe and proper use techniques, along with an annual refresher course.  The state should also pay for this.  The person requesting the permit should not.  Why?  Because every trained individual reduces crime (see my earlier reference to John Lott), and that, in turn, reduces the expense of the state (law enforcement, courts, and incarceration).

Stop limiting what type of firearms people can own, or how many rounds a magazine can hold! This has done little to prevent mass shootings. Repeal all current federal and state firearms laws and replace them with simpler laws that allow people to own what they want, but also require them to be responsible for their ownership.  This means that if you own a firearm, you should have (and use) some method to prevent others from having access to it without your permission.

We should eliminate gun free zones.  All they do is provide the opportunity for whackjobs to open fire on unarmed people who actually follow the law.  And when I say eliminate gun free zones, I also mean on every federal and state real property.  There is no reason why the federal government should restrict a law abiding citizen from exercising their constitutional rights.  Businesses should encourage concealed carry persons, rather than prohibit them – they’re a cheap form of insurance.

Consider the impact of certain prescription drugs on individuals and seek to restrict their access to firearms while on those drugs.  It appear many lone gunmen who enter soft target zones (er, I mean gun free zones) are also taking some type of medication.  Restricting can be as simple as ensuring that the family members living with the person on prescription drugs secure their firearms (see my third point above) or the individual voluntarily (or forcibly, if deemed such) surrender them while on the prescription and for a pre-determined time after the prescription period is over.  I recognize that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act pretty much makes everything private, but, like any law, it can be changed.  In this specific instance, to allow physicians, psychiatrists, or pharmacists to notify local law enforcement who can then do a safety check (but in a manner that doesn’t violate the patient’s constitutional rights).

People talk about common sense gun laws; a common saying, though is “common sense is not all that common.”  That applies to many of the proposed “common sense laws.”  I put forth Will Roger’s infamous line – “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”