Thursday, June 12, 2014

America Doesn't Have a Gun Violence Epidemic- We Have a Poverty Epidemic and an Outbreak of School Shootings

Many people are talking about a gun violence epidemic.  This is understandable, in light of what seems like a never-ending stream of horrific school shootings.  Sandy Hook Elementary School, Santa Monica Community College, Arapahoe High School, UC Santa Barbara- the list goes on and on.

Those with more liberal views are responding to all this chaos and violence by going so far as to call for a repeal of the 2nd Amendment.  As you can imagine, this has predictably gone over quite well with the NRA and it's allies.  These are the folks who, in the immortal and inconceivably badly phrased words of President Obama, "cling to their guns and religion."  Matching the President's lack of tact with an insensitivity that borders on psychopathy, Joe the Plumber addressed the parents of the kids killed at UCSB by declaring, "your dead kids don't trump my constitutional rights."

Amidst all this back and forth between right and left is a shared delusion:  There IS NO gun violence epidemic.  There IS a school shooting epidemic.  These two problems are not the same.  And the solutions that can actually save hundreds if not thousands of lives become clear once the problems have been elicited and defined

The (Absence of a) Gun Violence Epidemic

Let's start by talking about what is not going on.  The rate of gun violence is at it's lowest in over 50 years.  It's fallen more than 50% since it's peak in 1993.  This is utterly extraordinary, and comes at the same time as a massive proliferation of guns and concealed carry laws.  I am not saying they are in any way causally related, but this temporal association suggests at least that the massive increase in gun ownership is probably not responsible for a massive increase in gun violence.  In fact, the sad part is this: media coverage has so played up gun violence that a plurality of Americans think it's skyrocketed.  Which, of course, leads them to buy more guns and ammo.

So if gun violence has been declining for 2 decades, why is gun violence a problem?  A frequent counter argument presented is, look at Japan, the UK, France, Germany, Iceland, Australia: they don't have as many guns, they're industrialized, Western countries like us, and their murder rate is less than 5 percent of ours!

From the vox link that's cited above:

How does this relate to homicide rates? Not simply. For instance, the United States has over 12 times as many guns per person as Honduras, but the 2012 US gun homicide rate per 100,000 people (2.97) is 1/22 of Honduras' (68.43). That's because, while guns make murder easier, wealthy industrialized countries generally have significantly lower rates of violent crime than comparatively impoverished ones.
But when you compare the United States to nations like Britain and Japan, it becomes clear that firearm ownership contributes to America's murder problem. The American firearm homicide rate is about 20 times the average among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (excluding Mexico).

Let's show this graphically.  Here's a map of countries by gun ownership per capita (originally from a reddit user going off of the Guardian's data):

Here's a map of countries by "gun violence" per capita. (From the Guardian's Data Blog by Simon Rogers) 

The US looks a lot closer to South America than to Europe and the "developed world" when it comes to gun ownership and to murders, doesn't it?  Do these two maps seem like pretty good evidence that gun ownership leads to gun violence?

Not so fast.  Check out this map of Child Poverty.  (From UNICEF via the Washington Post)

The US has a child poverty rate significantly higher than almost all of those developed countries-only beating Romania.  In effect, the US' society is closer to those "comparatively impoverished" countries than any European country.  To be clear: around the world, there exist countries like Honduras, Mexico, and many others where their gun homicide rate is 10x greater than the US's- despite practically banning guns and having a low "official" gun ownership rate.  Proponents of gun control explain this away by declaring that Honduras and Mexico are impoverished- and that poor countries have high crime and murder rates no matter what policies they espouse.  They claim that the US should be compared to richer, western countries like the UK and Australia.  But, they miss a point that is fatal to their argument: the US has many areas that are just as impoverished as Honduras and Mexico- to a greater degree than any other western, developed country.  In other words, the US' gun violence rate can be explained by poverty alone.

What does this mean?  For over a century the US has concentrated African-American and now Hispanic people into urban ghettos and left them to slaughter each other.  When there is little hope, when the police are the enemies, when your family members are constantly being murdered before your eyes, when the only ones with money and "success" are drug dealers on the street corner, when you walk home every day knowing you might be killed- how can we expect anything different?  America's original sin of enslaving millions of Africans has festered, unhealed, untreated, and uncompensated for four centuries.  And now, it is the source of an epidemic of poverty that fuels gun violence.

Just an aside: the Europeans largely did their enslaving and murdering in the countries they conquered.  You want to see the results of the sins of Great Britain, France, and the rest of Imperial Europe?  They're found in Iraq, in Syria, and in far too much of Africa.  European powers conquered and forced tribes with widely varying cultures and religions to live together in artificial countries.  Is it any wonder that the edifices built by the retreating imperialist powers all seem to keep falling apart in orgies of violence?

Now, you might point out that while gun homicides are at an all-time low, gun suicides haven't really fallen all that much- they're still up there at ~20,000 per year, and higher than any other country.  Here's the thing: suicide is an act that is to a large degree independent of the method.  Japan, with it's firearm ownership rate of pretty much zero, has a suicide rate more than double that of the US.  France also has a higher rate than us, as does Russia and South Korea.  Again, banning guns might drop the suicide rate next year, but experience suggests it'll be back up pretty quickly.  Per the WHO's research, 20% to 30% of suicides MIGHT be preventable by banning guns, because they are impulse suicides that could in theory be stopped if less certain means of killing oneself are available-.  But per the WHO, hanging is a fallback option for suicide in the absence of other methods that can't be banned, and that can be just as fatal.

And another consideration comes in here: might the high level of guns actually be tamping down somewhat on the violence?  Consider this: Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are awfully close to Mexico- which by the way practically bans gun ownership and still has a gun homicide rate more than double that of the US.  The three states mentioned above happen to share an awfully porous border with Mexico- why aren't they ravaged by kidnapping and blatant murders by Cartel members?  Perhaps because Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are armed the teeth and eager to prove it.  Meanwhile, what's happening in Mexico?  Violence levels are dropping precipitously in several states as armed militias formed in defiance of the Mexican government.  These militias proceeded to take the fight to the cartels as only an armed population can.  Of course, the picture is not always clear- with the government accusing the militias of being vigilantes who are being corrupted by rival cartel members.

So in short, what's the true source of violence?  An epidemic of poverty that leads to violence.  What don't we have?  A gun violence epidemic.  That leads to some differing ideas on how to address the root problem, which I cover later on.

The School Shootings Outbreak

Now let's talk about what we do have.  An outbreak of copycat school shootings.

We know remarkably little about what drives school/mass shooters.  Every single one seems to be unique.  The secret service has concluded that there literally is no "profile" of a typical school shooter- every one does it for different reasons, and does different things.  But we do know this.  Suicides, especially in young people, happen in outbreaks.  For an unknown reason, if one person commits suicide, a lot of people will do the same thing.  Perhaps it's psychologically vulnerable people starting at images of the killed on news channels 24/7.  Perhaps it's just hearing other people talk about it.  Whatever the reason, examples abound.  Cornell had no suicides for years, before seeing 6 in the 2009-2010 academic year.  More tellingly, Malcolm Gladwell relates the story of Micronesia, where a single suicide of a famous individual rapidly led to Micronesia having a teen suicide rate 10 times higher than anywhere else in the world- for seemingly no reason at all.  More examples, such as 23 suicides from eating oleander leaves in Sri Lanka, have led Psychologists to confirm the existence of the copycat suicide/suicide cluster effect.

What does all this suggest?  That the media should NOT widely spread and talk about incidents of mass violence.  Indeed, a recent study in the Lancet confirmed the effect: suicides are provoked by newspaper reporting.  For some reason this standard- accepted abroad in Australia, Norway, Canada, and increasingly the UK- is not even considered in the United States.  It is certainly not impossible- an example of a voluntary press code is the a wide agreement on not publishing the names or identifying info about rape victims.  But, for whatever reason, the standard that media outlets should not glorify/provide 24/7 coverage to the perpetrators of mass shootings has not caught on.

Now, one might suggest: why not do both?  Cut access to guns and we reduce the lethality of anyone who does decide to go on a spree killing.  After all, spree knife attacks in China generally kill a lot fewer people than mass shootings in the US, though not always.  But that's not the right comparison.  What is the alternative to a gun that will get you attention in the US?  A bombing- specifically, something like the Boston Bombing.  Was the bomb created by hardened and experienced terrorists?  No- it was created by two college-age individuals who apparently got the info off of Al Qaeda's online English-language magazine and bought everything they needed at Home Depot.  

As it happened, only 3 people died.  Why?  Because Boston has the most medically wasteful concentration of hospitals in the United States, and that doesn't account for the fact that half of Boston EMS and Fire were set up 30 feet away from the finish line, waiting for a medical disaster.  The absurd over-concentration of resources (5 level I trauma centers in a 5 mile radius) that costs Massachusetts billions of dollars in wasteful spending per year stepped up and saved dozens of lives in the best tradition of American Medicine.  Hundreds of Surgeons and other Healthcare personnel forged in the crucible of America's two Middle Eastern wars did their duty with calm and precision.  But those resources would not be available to all.  Imagine if Elliott Rodger had instead set off a car bomb in front of that sorority house.  How long do you think Isla Vista's EMS and Fire would have taken to respond, let alone clear rubble and get the 20-30 victims to the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, which barely coped with 3 victims?  It is no accident that the deadliest American school massacre of all time was not a shooting, but took place more than 80 years ago in Bath, Michigan.  38 children and 7 adult teachers were killed- with a bomb.  Banning guns might very well lead to an end to school shootings, but it might also cause the rise of a wave of school bombings.  The sickness that needs to be addressed is in the human soul- not in access to any one device.

So, where should we go from here?  The solutions are quite frankly pretty obvious once the problem is recognized.  

1) We get the media to stop talking about school shootings.

The shooter at Seattle Pacific University was obsessed with Columbine.  In Isla Vista, would Elliott Rodger have done what he did if he'd known that his face and manifesto would be deleted rapidly off of youtube, and no news coverage would be coming?  That he would get zero attention to his manifesto with his acts of mass horror?  It's impossible to know, but what we do know about youth psychology suggests that we can reduce the frequency of attacks by denying attention to attacks that are carried out.  Can we develop a media code to stop talking about violence, and thereby stop inspiring more Sandy Hooks, UCSBs, and Seattle Pacifics?  I hope so.

There's no reason not to improve mental health outreach, combat misogyny in our society, and perhaps even give some reasonable tools to families convinced their loved one is about to commit mass murder.  But, I don't think any of it will have nearly the same effect as keeping the people who commit rampages from making the front pages of every newspaper and the primetime broadcast of every network station.

2) We intensively focus on urban poverty.  

(Please read this section to the end- I'm not making the point you probably think I'm making)

Under Bloomberg, the NYPD tried to address the roots of violence in urban poverty- it was called Stop and Frisk.  In one of the most openly racist policies in memory, the NYPD would literally stop and search African American and Hispanic men, for dressing the wrong way and for being in impoverished neighborhoods.  But, there's a lot of evidence that it worked.  Certainly, the fact that NYC has half the murder rate of LA or Chicago despite identical gun laws and similar economic trends points in that direction (though it must be said that the latter two cities also adapted somewhat similar tactics).
And it makes intuitive sense- Let's say we have Gang #1 member A and Gang #2 member B.  A is carrying around a gun because he knows that B is probably carrying around a gun (and vice versa).  A wants to protect himself from B, and B wants to protect himself from A.  So, A sees B walking to the corner store in A's 'hood'.  What does A do?  He takes out a gun and shoots at B for intruding.  If he kills or injures B, all of a sudden B's gang have to attack A- or else they'll look weak in front of Gangs C, D, and E.

How do you attack this cycle at it's root?  The police go out in force, and 'randomly' stop and frisk A and B for being young, black, and in a bad neighborhood.  They find the guns that A and B are carrying.  The cops get the guns, and A and B go to jail.  Soon, game theory kicks in.  A knows that the cops will stop and search him for no reason at all.  So, why carry a gun?  All it gets him now is a trip to jail.  And A knows that B won't carry a gun for the same reason.

In this way, the NYPD's incredibly racist policies were incredibly effective- they targeted poor, minority men, and kept them from carrying guns around.  Now NYC's gun murders are rare enough that there's some concern that New York City trained surgical and EM residents are no longer getting adequate experience in dealing with them.

But that is the exact wrong approach to use.  It alienates the very people you're trying to protect, further reinforcing the stigma against them.  Instead, why not put a patrolman on every street corner?  For that matter, why not get the 101st Airborne Division out of Afghanistan, and put them to work in Brooklyn?  They shouldn't have search or arrest powers (they actually can't have them, per the constitution).  But, they should have their body armor, their rifles, and a camera videotaping all interactions with the public.  Again- going back to Gang member A and B- their calculus is still changed.  If A carries a gun, it won't get taken away in a racist search.  But, there will be soldiers in body armor nearby, ready, and willing to shoot back at the instigator of any violence- be it them OR the other gang member.  Once we provide security -by any fair and just means necessary- violence will reflexively drop in our inner cities.  Then we can start focusing on economic opportunity, jobs, and support on an unprecedented level to at last right the wrongs of the past.