Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gun Control Debate, Part III: Is it time to Amend the Second Amendment?

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, 
the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

It may surprise some of you, but in the two hundred and twenty one years the Second Amendment has been part of our Constitution, the Supreme Court has delivered only six decisions dealing directly with the Amendment. While there have been numerous lower court rulings, as well as a number of cases where the Second Amendment was referenced, only six cases form the basis of how this law is interpreted directly by the highest court in the nation. A seventh case, Miller v. Texas (1894) was dismissed due to a lack of a Federal Question. A third of these cases have been decided in the last five years. Prior to 2008, you have to go back to 1939 to find a case that directly questioned the Second Amendment. Here are the cases:
United States v. Cruikshank (1875)
Presser v. Illinois (1886)
Robertson v. Baldwin (1897)
United States v. Miller (1939)
District of Columbia v. Heller (2008)
McDonald v. Chicago (2010)
 In the first case, US v. Cruikshank, the court found that:
The Second Amendments means no more than that it shall not be infringed by Congress, and has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the National Government.
In Presser v. Illinois, the court said the Second Amendment:
is a limitation only on the power of Congress and the national government, and not of the states. But in view of the fact that all citizens capable of bearing arms constitute the reserved military force of the national government as well as in view of its general powers, the states cannot prohibit the people from keeping and bearing arms so as to deprive the United States of their rightful resource for maintaining the public security.
But that:
It shall not be lawful for any body of men whatever other than the regular organized volunteer militia of this state and the troops of the United States to associate themselves together as a military company or organization, or to drill or parade with arms in any city or town of this state without the license of the Governor thereof, which license may at any time be revoked
In Robertson v. Baldwin, the Court found:
the right of the people to keep and bear arms (Art. II) is not infringed by laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons
And in the only case of the 20th Century, United States v. Miller, the court said:
 In the absence of any evidence tending to show that possession or use of a "shotgun having a barrel of less than eighteen inches in length" at this time has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument. Certainly it is not within judicial notice that this weapon is any part of the ordinary military equipment, or that its use could contribute to the common defense.
Up to this point, the court had said, in regard to the Second Amendment, that the Federal Government can't infringe the rights of the States, that the states can not prohibit bearing arms for public safety, that only the State organized militia can drill or parade with arms without the license of the Governor, that prohibiting concealed weapons did not infringe upon one's Second Amendment Right, and that weapons not used in the militia are not protected under the Amendment.

I find a few things interesting here. First, that of these first four cases, two address the Second Amendment in regard to how it relates to the militia. The first clause of the Amendment is directly related to the second. Secondly, two of the cases speak to restrictions on arms that do NOT infringe on the rights provided within the Amendment. So, according to these rulings, bearing arms was considered in direct relation to the primary purpose of serving the militia. A right to bear arms was not guaranteed, except in service of the militia.

In United States v. Miller (1939) the decision goes on to say:
The Constitution, as originally adopted, granted to the Congress power --
"To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress."
With obvious purpose to assure the continuation and render possible the effectiveness of such forces, the declaration and guarantee of the Second Amendment were made. It must be interpreted and applied with that end in view.
The Militia which the States were expected to maintain and train is set in contrast with Troops which they were forbidden to keep without the consent of Congress. The sentiment of the time strongly disfavored standing armies; the common view was that adequate defense of country and laws could be secured through the Militia -- civilians primarily, soldiers on occasion.
This speaks directly to what we now call the National Guard, Citizen Soldiers. A citizen may possess a firearm that can be used for the common defense, but if the common defenders (militia) don't use such a weapon, there is no reason for it to be protected within the Second Amendment.

It is important to note that US v. Miller was a direct result of the National Firearms Act of 1934 that, rather than attempting to ban certain types of weapons, levied a $200 tax on each firearm named in the Act, in this case, sawed off shotguns and machine guns, and required owners or anyone transferring such a weapon to register and pay the tax. Failure to comply with this tax could result in a $2,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

When the Court ruled unanimously in US v. Miller, they provided an out around this taxation end-run around the Second Amendment. You might be interested to know that the $200 tax amount has not changed since 1934. So, if you file the necessary paperwork with the ATF, register, and pay the tax, you can own a machine gun, made prior to May 19, 1986, when the Firearm Owners Protection Act finally outlawed civilian ownership of these weapons. You will hear many people say that owning a machine gun is illegal. This is only the case where states have specifically outlawed it, and for guns made after May 1986. Currently, only five states, California, Delaware, Hawaii, New York, and Washington have bans, as well as the District of Columbia. So, if you find yourself an owner of a pre '86 machine gun willing to transfer ownership to you, and you don't live in one of those states, you are good to go. What was I saying in my last post about the problem of grandfather clauses?

Now let's jump to a more recent Supreme Court Case, District of Columbia v. Heller. Here is the court's summary of the case presented:
District of Columbia law bans handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns; provides separately that no person may carry an unlicensed handgun, but authorizes the police chief to issue 1-year licenses; and requires residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device. Respondent Heller, a D. C. special policeman, applied to register a handgun he wished to keep at home, but the District refused. He filed this suit seeking, on Second Amendment grounds, to enjoin the city from enforcing the bar on handgun registration, the licensing requirement insofar as it prohibits carrying an unlicensed firearm in the home, and the trigger-lock requirement insofar as it prohibits the use of functional firearms in the home. The District Court dismissed the suit, but the D. C. Circuit reversed, holding that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms and that the city’s total ban on handguns, as well as its requirement that firearms in the home be kept nonfunctional even when necessary for self-defense, violated that right.
And this was their 5-4 decision:
The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home. (a) The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms. (b) The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation of the operative clause. The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved. (c) The Court’s interpretation is confirmed by analogous arms- bearing rights in state constitutions that preceded and immediately followed the Second Amendment. (d) The Second Amendment’s drafting history, while of dubious interpretive worth, reveals three state Second Amendment proposals that unequivocally referred to an individual right to bear arms. (e) Interpretation of the Second Amendment by scholars, courts and legislators, from immediately after its ratification through the late 19th century also supports the Court’s conclusion. (f) None of the Court’s precedents forecloses the Court’s interpre- tation. Neither United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U. S. 542, 553, nor Presser v. Illinois, 116 U. S. 252, 264–265, refutes the individual- rights interpretation. United States v. Miller, 307 U. S. 174, does not limit the right to keep and bear arms to militia purposes, but rather limits the type of weapon to which the right applies to those used by the militia, i.e., those in common use for lawful purposes.
 The court appears to be saying that even though the Second Amendment has two clauses, they are independent of one another and then goes on to attempt a justification of this reasoning. Also note that the Court uses the term "individual" not "people". My question is, if this is the case, why are the clauses not their own sentences? Why are they connected? Just as US v. Miller's justification, cited in this ruling, was quite thin, so too is this justification of a separation of the clauses.

I guess I am not surprised at the Court's ruling. It seems that this interpretation, that the Second Amendment means an individual has a right to bear arms, independent of any need of the common defense, has been growing in popularity over the past several decades. In fact, this interpretation is likely the most common one you will hear from anyone lobbying against gun control.

If this is the case, then an individual should also have the right to bear whatever weapon they so choose. Strangely though, immediately following the above ruling, the Court added this:
Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of fire- arms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.
They seem to want it both ways. Unlimited individual freedom, yet limited by some precedence. In McDonald v. Chicago (2010), the court found that the individual right in the Heller case also applies to the states. States may not bar an individual from owning a firearm either, though one presumes that whatever limits exist do apply to the states as well. Whatever those might be.

It seems clear that the current court, with these 5-4 decisions, thinks that individuals, aside from convicted felons and the mentally ill, have the right to bear arms regardless of Federal or State restrictions. And while they acknowledge certain limits, those limits seem very nebulous. I wonder how long they will stand. In this regard, the final line above is rather disturbing: 'the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.' In common use at what time? At the time the Amendment was ratified? At the time of the decision? Now? Weapons in common use in 1939 are certainly not the same as they are now. How can we have this both ways? If the Court means whatever is common now, then how do we define common? Common in the militia and military? Common in civilian use? And why isn't this set? Won't feature creep, as manufacturers add new weapons, redefine what is common over time? And what constitutes dangerous and unusual? I am not a lawyer, but if this is the basis of the restrictions, I'm fairly certain I can make a good case for why I should be able to own and bear any weapon my local National Guard has in common use in their arsenal.

And so, this is where I stand. If the two clauses are really independent of one another, if the first part is just a preface that has no limit or bearing upon the later, as the current court suggests, then there is really no need for the prefatory clause. Why doesn't the amendment simply read "The right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed"? Why do we have a preface at all? Ultimately, if the individual's rights are what is important, then I should be able to own whatever arms I want.

Because of this slippery slope, and because I think it is clear that the Second Amendment was poorly written, I think it is time we examine what it should mean and make it clearer. I think it is likely that the Supreme Court has so few rulings on the Second Amendment, not because there aren't questions about it, but because they saw how nebulous it was and avoided it at all costs. We should have a conversation about what it means, what it should mean, and then amend it to be perfectly clear. If we want to ensure that we have militias AND individual rights, but with limitations, we can do that.  What should those limits be? If the NRA had its way, we would not have individual limits, but it is clear that most Americans feel some limits are necessary.

Here are the results of a recent Pew Center Poll about Gun Control.  I was quite surprised by the results of this poll. The NRA would have us believe that the public does not support any gun restrictions, yet this clearly indicates that a vast majority favor most of the current proposals made by the Obama Administration, and even more surprising to me is that nearly 60% of the respondents favor a ban on Semi-Automatic weapons.

These results are largely supported by this Washington Post / ABC Poll though the number slips to 51% when asked specifically about banning semi-automatic handguns.

If these numbers can be trusted, then I think we have reached a true tipping point toward the eradication of civilian semi-automatic weapons. In this regard, we can learn something from how Australia did exactly this in 1996.

After a massacre in Port Arthur, Tasmania, in April 1996, where 35 people were killed and 23 wounded, the Australians passed a comprehensive gun control law titled the National Firearms Agreement. The law covered nearly every aspect of gun control, expressly banning all semi-automatic rifles, and created a nationally integrated licensing and registration system. After shootings in 2002 involving handguns, that had not been banned in 1996, they passed an additional bill that placed severe restrictions on handguns, banning all semi-automatic handguns with barrels shorter than 120mm and limiting all handguns to .38 caliber.

Such wide reforms met with some resistance, particularly within a few provinces. The pro-gun lobby exerted considerable force against the bills, but then a funny thing happened, citizens in favor of the controls discovered that two USA groups were funneling resources into the campaign to kill the legislation: The Christian Coalition and the NRA. Once this information was disclosed to the public, opposition to the controls dried up and the bills were passed.

The Australians helped solidify the new law by embarking on a massive weapons buy back program. In one year, from the fall of 1996 to the fall of 1997, the Australian Government bought back about 640,000 weapons. Part of the program also compensated gun shop owners for loss in revenue. You will notice that there was no grandfather clause in the 1996 ban either. The people were given one year to comply and use the buy back program to dispose of their banned weapons.

The homicide rate in Australia peaked in the 70's and has been declining since then. They had a rate of 1.9 total homicides per 100,000 people in 1990-91 and a rate of 1.2 in 2010.

Looking at homicides from firearms presents an even more drastic picture.  The year prior to the 1996 massacre, there were .37 gun related homicides per 100,000 people, and since the 1996-1997 gun buy back, the rate has plummeted, and was only a third of the 1995 rate in 2010, just .13 per 100,000. In 2004-2005, it was even less.

I have no illusions that such a program has much of a chance in the United States, but if the goal is actually to reduce gun related deaths, this is the model to use. Our country has changed a great deal since the drafting of the Second Amendment. We have the most skilled and capable Armed Forces in the world. We have proud and capable citizen soldiers in every state, and arguably the most extensive police force in the world. Banning semi-automatic weapons from civilian use will neither threaten our national or state security, nor prevent hunters like me from tromping through the woods with my rifle.

I'm sure many will argue that individuals need to have the ability to bear arms to prevent a tyrannical government from suppressing the people. I have attempted to use this argument myself and found that it simply does not hold water. Our military, militia, and police forces have far more powerful arsenals than any individuals ever will. If you want to take your AR-15 up against an apache helicopter, well, I guess you can try. Just remember that Red Dawn is a fictitious movie, not a documentary.

In researching the information about Australia's Gun Control Policies, I was surprised to find that a certain Rupert Murdoch agrees with me on this. Yes, that Rupert Murdoch. On the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, he tweeted this:

Terrible news today. When will politicians find courage to ban automatic weapons? As in Oz after similar tragedy.

Perhaps we'll be seeing pro gun control material on Fox News.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gun Control Debate, Part II: Why the Assault Weapons Ban will not succeed

This is the second in a series of posts in regards to the current Gun Control Debate. I began writing, and found I had quite a lot to say, so I have broken it into multiple parts.

On the pro gun control side of this issue, there is a lot of talk about banning assault weapons and it seems likely that at least some legislation is forthcoming. It is unclear what will be in the proposed legislation, but it will most likely be a rehashing of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban which limited the manufacture, sale, and transfer of certain types of weapons, along with limiting the manufacture and sale of large capacity magazines. There are also rumblings of closing the Gun Show Loophole which typically allows private sales of guns without any record of the transaction and does not require a background check of the buyer.

Proponents of the ban, such as California Senator Dianne Feinstein, want to ban assault weapons because they are made with one purpose: "to kill in close combat." Well, that isn't necessarily the case. In regard to most assault weapons, they were designed for military purposes and then modified over the years for civilian use. Some people do, in fact, hunt with the AR-15. Others use it for personal defense of their homes and property. Some just enjoy shooting it. We can question why someone would need an AR-15, or other assault rifle, for those purposes, but let's not pretend that the only reason someone would own an assault rifle would be to kill other human beings.

If new legislation looks anything like the 1994 legislation, here is some of what we will get:
  • No semi-automatic rifles with a detachable magazine and two or more of the following features:
    • Folding or Telescopic Stock
    • Pistol Grip
    • Bayonet mount
    • Flash supressor
    • Grenade Launcher
  • Naming of certain models that are specifically banned, regardless of feature set. (AR-15, for example)
  • Limit on the number of rounds a magazine can hold (10 seems to be the magic number) 
I had the pleasure of firing a friend's AR-15 over a year ago, and it is, in fact, a fun gun to shoot. It is light weight, responsive, and very accurate. I had not fired a rifle in some time, but was able to hit targets at 300 yards (mostly). The AR-15 was first developed by ArmaLite for the US Military. It was bought by Colt and went into service as the M-16. A semi-automatic version was later marketed and sold to civilians as the AR-15 we know today, though various versions are sold by different manufacturers now. It fires a .223 bullet with a muzzle velocity of about 3,200 feet per second.

I am a gun owner, for whatever that's worth. I hate the idea that, in order to have a respected voice in this debate, you have to own or have owned guns. Every time I hear a politician say, "I'm a gun owner," I'm fairly certain that they haven't actually used the gun in a long time, if ever, and I wish that our culture could find value in people that have no need of guns as much as those that do. So, yes, I am a gun owner, but, to be honest, I only own one gun: a .308 bolt action hunting rifle, and just purchased that last year. I've been hunting for a few years and have either bow hunted or borrowed a rifle from a friend for years prior. My grandfather taught me how to shoot in my pre-teen years. He was a thirty year Army veteran and owned quite a large personal arsenal. Had his brothers not come and taken all of his guns a few years before he passed, I'd probably own a few of those. That said, I have no need or desire for more than this one rifle. I've considered buying a handgun as a sidearm when I am bow hunting, but if I ever feel that is warranted, I'll probably just borrow one from a friend.

While there are people that use the AR-15, and similar assault rifles, to hunt varmints, coyotes, etc. It is not suitable for big game hunting. The .223 is too small to bring down even a modest sized deer with a single shot, save maybe a head shot. In fact, most any rifle, smaller than .243 will not be sufficient for big game. So, when we talk about how deadly assault weapons are, it is not so much about the stopping power of the weapon, generally, as it is with the ability of these weapons to fire many shots in short succession and with a high amount of accuracy. In fact, some have suggested that the reason the military uses this particular weapon is because their goal isn't necessarily to kill, but to incapacitate. If we are talking just in terms of destructive force of a single round, my .308 is far more deadly than an AR-15, inside 300 yards. The AR attempts to make up for this in quantity.

The AR-15 I fired, even if it was not specifically named as banned, would be banned under that legislation because it had two of the characteristics named above (in addition to having a detachable magazine): a collapsible stock, and a pistol grip.

Here is where the ban begins to fall apart. Remove just one of those features, just one, and suddenly the rifle is no longer banned. So, instead of a collapsible stock, replace it with a standard stock, and voila, it's no longer an assault rifle! While the AR-15 was named specifically in the prior ban, manufacturers will quickly create new rifles that, for all intents and purposes, are nearly identical to banned rifles, save a few minor modifications, and with new names, of course.

To further complicate the idea of banning these weapons, even Dianne Feinstein admits that any existing guns will have to be grandfathered in. Any guns or magazines purchased prior to the effective date of the legislation will be exempt. Anyone that has been paying attention to the news since Sandy Hook knows that gun sales have been through the roof, and, should a ban be eminent, expect it to get worse. While this legislation seems like a step in the right direction, it will ultimately fail to affect any significant change in mass shooting deaths, because it leaves too many loopholes for future exploitation and leaves all of the existing weapons in use, not to mention all of the weapons, just as deadly, that do not fall under the ban. The ban may make the politicians feel like they are doing something, but if the goal is to get rid of assault weapons, so called, it will not be enough.

In time, the ban may reduce the number of available weapons that meet the criteria outlined above, but it will not stem the tide of available guns that are, save a few cosmetic differences, identical to the guns it aims to ban. It will take decades for the current grandfathered arsenal to diminish, probably more, and even if all of those guns are removed from circulation, others will take their place.

So what are we to do? If the ban will ultimately be ineffective, how do we help prevent future shootings?

Firstly, and, I think, most importantly, we must address the mental health component in these shootings. Most of the shooters, if not all, suffered from severe mental health diseases. According to an investigation conducted by Mother Jones Magazine, more than 60% of the shooters involved in mass shootings over the past thirty years have displayed mental health problems before the shooting. If we can not adequately address the mental health needs of these individuals, how can we hope to ever limit casualties?

Unfortunately, mental health is often stigmatized in the United States and avenues to care are rarely easy or accessible. We are an independent people, and as such, I think we don't like to be perceived as sticking our noses into other people's business. Because of this, even if we suspect that our friends or neighbors are struggling, we usually don't step in for fear of over-stepping social norms. Individually, this independent nature also tends to make us think we can cope with any problem ourselves and are, consequently, less likely to seek care, even if we think we need it.

A decade ago, my family lived in a great, established neighborhood in North Portland. We had strong relationships with all of our neighbors, and frequently spent time at each others homes for barbeques and sometimes to just hang out. We had one neighbor, however, that we rarely saw, just behind our house. When we first moved in, he and his wife came over one time, but then they separated, and we rarely saw him after that. A year or so before we moved to our current home, this neighbor killed himself with a rifle. I don't know that we could have done anything to prevent it, but I certainly regret not making more of an effort to reach out to him, especially after his wife left. It is these, seemingly unimportant, connections that are the first line of defense.

Aside from taking better care of our neighbors, we must improve the availability of mental health care. Most health insurance has very limited mental health coverage, if any, and the availability of mental health care givers is quite limited. A few months ago, someone I know required emergency mental health services. 911 first responders felt he needed to be admitted for observation and treatment, unfortunately, all available emergency beds at St. Vincent were taken with other patients, due to a high volume of mental health patients. I'd like to think this is uncommon, but I know it's not. And this is how most mental health patients receive care: in the emergency room. This is not only expensive, but dangerous. We must have a care system that is far more proactive and responsive to the unique needs of these patients.

Aside from better mental health services, it would help if we did not give these shootings such a high media profile, though, to be honest, I don't know how that is possible, other than not buying what they are selling. If no one watches or reads these predatory journalists, will they dry up and go away? I don't know. I watch very little television news coverage, but it is still there.

On the afternoon of the Clackamas Town Center shooting, it was my brother, on the other side of the country that called me to tell me about it. That evening, when I went home from work, several local news helicopters were still circling the mall, some five hours after the shooting. What useful purpose were they serving up there? What additional information could they possibly provide?

We are a violent society. We tend to choose violence over all other forms of problem solving. This tendency is reflected in all aspects of our society, from sports, to art, and even to politics. Our base instinct appears to be violence as a primary means of responding to a confrontation. This is most dramatically illustrated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps this is just the way we are. Given this, and the constant media regurgitation of these horrible shootings, and even with the on going war, it is sometimes hard to understand that we are actually living in one of the least violent times in human history. That does not make these shootings easier to take, however.

By our nature, and for all our violent tendencies, we still strive to protect innocence, which is the root of everyone's efforts to find some answers here. So, regardless of where one stands on how to get there, it's important to note that all sides are actually striving for the same goal. We may disagree on which path will lead us there, but we are all trying to get to the same place.

With this in mind, I will examine an even harder question in my next post: Is it time to Amend the Second Amendment?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Gun Control Debate, Part I: Guns, and Violence, and Statistics! Oh My!

This is the first in a series of posts in regards to the current Gun Control Debate. I began writing, and found I had quite a lot to say, so I have broken it into multiple parts.

On Tuesday, December 11th, 2012, a man entered Clackamas Town Center Mall armed with an AR-15 and opened fire. He killed two people and wounded a third before killing himself. Reports were that he fired in excess of 60 rounds. I live less than two miles from that mall. My daughter's middle school band had a performance there just hours before the shooting. It was shocking, but we were thankful that there were not more victims. It could have been much, much worse: a shooter in a crowded mall two weeks before Christmas.

The following evening, I went out with a close friend for dinner and some drinks and I commented to him that even though this shooting was so close to home it felt just like all of the other shootings. It felt distant, as if it didn't affect me. And in that recognition, I knew that this would ultimately be just another shooting, that it would not change anything within us. Regardless of what the root causes are for these shootings, not this shooting, nor the cumulative effect of the prior shootings was enough to force us to have a conversation about how we might prevent such horrible events, not a thoughtful or productive conversation at least. That bothered me: That I could feel so apathetic to a tragedy so close to home and that my apathy was likely quite common. I thought about that for two days, until December 14th and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

As I learned about the casualties: Twenty first graders. Seven Adults. I stood at my desk and began to feel nauseous. Physically ill. It was horrific. Whatever apathy I had in the days before was quickly replaced by the realization that those could have been my children. For any parent, that is a sobering thought. My heart aches for those families.

My reaction was not unique, and in the days that followed, it became apparent that we were finally moving. As a nation, we were finally asking hard questions and preparing ourselves to have that conversation. A conversation too often started but never finished. We were finally going to talk about the place of firearms in our culture, and, possibly, hopefully, find some solutions to help prevent future shootings.

It has been nearly a month since the Sandy Hook Shooting and what I had hope would be a thoughtful conversation has already devolved into a shouting match. Politicians and Pundits on both sides of the debate are pointing fingers and trying to talk over their opponents. As the volume increases, not only can each side not hear each other, but those of us observing can't make sense of the cacophony either, or, we grow weary of the noise and stop paying attention all together.

One side is saying we should re-institute the assault weapons ban, close the gun show loop hole, and ban the sale of large capacity magazines. The other side says we should arm the schools and get rid of gun free zones so there will be more "good guys" armed and ready to respond to a shooter. I think both of these positions are a poor compromise and don't begin to address the problem adequately. We might institute either of these, or even both, and we will still have the same end result: too many dead.

I will get to my thoughts on what really needs to happen, but first, we need to address some of the wide spread misinformation that is occurring in this shouting fest. I continue to hear gun proponents cite that countries like the UK with strict gun laws have a higher violent crime rate than the US, or that violence in such countries skyrocketed after they banned guns.

On Piers Morgan's show earlier in the week, Piers, who is unabashedly anti-gun, had on Talk Show host Alex Jones who screamed and shouted and continually waived his papers with statistics that show the UK's violent crime rate skyrocketed after banning guns, whereas the violent crime rate in the US has steadily declined over the past 20 years.

Former Marine, Joshua Boston on Fox & Friends cites similar statistics in regards to the UK, and says that banning guns led to the rise of Stalin and the Third Reich.

And at the end of December, the group calling themselves Amidst the Noise released this slick video in which they say they want to get to the bottom of everything by actually examining the data. That's right, set aside all the rhetoric and look at this from a scientific point of view. The information is presented with high production values and has all the appearance of fact. Too bad it is also completely incorrect.

Each of these people, as well as a number of others I've heard cite similar statistics, are ignoring the details of the data and hoping that if they repeat it enough we will believe it. Either that, or they haven't really looked at the numbers. I'll leave it up to you to decide which. If you do a search for Violent Crime UK vs US, most of the top results will indicate their premise is true. There are even several news articles that say the UK is the violent crime capital of Europe. This is absurd. If you look closely at the data, you'll understand why.

First, let's look at the crime statistics for the United States. Most national crime statistics are compiled by the FBI and can be found in their Uniform Crime Reports. If we look at the data for 2011, the most recent reporting year, and drill down to the Violent Crime statistics, we see that there were just over 1.2 million violent crimes in the US that year. With a population of over 311 million, that gives us a Violent Crime Rate of 386.3 instances per 100,000 people.

Now, if we jump over to the UK Home Office Crime Statistics and find our way into the Recorded Crime Datasets Summary for 2011 (The UK also does an extensive Crime Survey, not based on police records,) we discover that the total number of violent crimes in 2011 was 762,515.

In a country (England and Wales) who's total population was 65.1 million in 2011, that gives us a rate of 1,171.29 per 100,000 people! I guess I should rethink my desire to visit the UK.

This is the extent of the statistical analysis being done by these pundits. And by this measure, which, incidentally, is replicated in the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime Reporting, because they draw their data from the statistics provided by each nation, everyone should avoid the UK at all costs. It's total anarchy across the pond. God Save the Queen!

So, is someone in the UK really nearly three times as likely to be the victim of a violent crime? It turns out that the definition of violent crime is vastly different between the UK and the US. The observant among you will have already noticed that the UK numbers show a sub-total of 424,070 incidents of violence without injury in 2011. Perhaps we need to look more closely at what the FBI data considers violent:
violent crime is composed of four offenses: murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
So, by this definition crimes that don't result in an injury are not violent in the US and are not included in their statistics. If we apply this to the UK data, this leaves us with 338,445 incidents of violence with injury in the UK in 2011, which gives us an adjusted rate of violence of 519.88 per 100,000 people. We are still almost twice as likely to be a victim of a violent crime in the UK. Well. Maybe not. If we look more closely at the crimes listed in the category of violence with injury in the UK, along with Murder, Manslaughter, and Inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm, we also find Actual Bodily Harm and Other Injury (simple assault) which makes up the majority of this category: 301,216 incidents in 2011. Remember, the FBI only considers Aggravated Assault, what the Brits call Grievous Bodily Harm.

Suddenly we are down to 37,229 incidents of Violent Crime that are included in the US Statistics, but because of the granular nature of the UK reporting, they have excluded Robbery and Rape from the violence reporting. If we add in the total number of Rapes (18,314) and the total number of Robberies (74,690) we reach a total of 130,233 incidents for a rate of 200.05 per 100,000 people, almost half the US rate. But even this is not an apples to apples comparison. According to the FBI Forcible Rape is
 the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will
Presumably, rape of a male is not a violent crime in America. Sorry fellas. Man up!

As you can see, comparing Violent Crime Statistics by categories between countries is a tricky business and completely misleading. Different governments evaluate crime by different methods. Because of this, looking at specific crimes is a far more instructive method of comparison, something, you will note, that those citing these inflated violent crime statistics don't want you to do.
    • USA 14,612 : 4.7 per 100,000
    • UK 550 : 0.84 per 100,000
Of developed nations, only Russia has a higher murder rate than the United States, and some would argue that Russia is no longer a developed nation. There are more dangerous countries on that list, to be sure: Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, just about any African Nation, but among developed, democratic nations, we are all by ourselves. If we break this down even further, to look at just murders from firearms, it gets even worse. Consider: 

Source: Washington Post

One last note about the UK statistics before I move on. Alex Jones, among others, says that the crime rate in the UK exploded after they banned firearms. If you look at the data for 1998 / 99 you will notice that there are two rows of data for the same year. They modified their reporting that year to include things such as common assault so that the number of reported crime appears to more than double in a single year. A similar, though less dramatic adjustment was made in 2002. There is no easy way to compare the old numbers with the new numbers if you only look at the categories of crimes. Looking just at the murder rate in the UK, it grew steadily through the 90's and spiked in 2002 at 1,047 and has since steadily dropped. The current murder rate is the lowest it has been since 1983.

Another aspect of this misinformation campaign is the citing of one Study published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy that suggest that there is no correlation between the number of guns in a society and the rate of gun violence. This study pins much of its reasoning to the fact that Russia has much more stringent gun laws, yet five times the murder rate of the US. As I mentioned before, I'm not sure we can call a nation, ruled by an oligarchy and riddled with corruption, a developed country. The murder rate in Russia might say something more about the lawless nature of the country than it does about the number of registered guns. The study also uses the same aforementioned statistical trickery in the UK as one of its basic pillars, trying to tie the the astronomical jump in violent crime to the ever harsher gun laws. But, as we know, no such jump occurred.

The NRA is continually posting videos to their website that reportedly discuss "Media Misinformation," among other things, some of which attempt to address the relationship between gun ownership and gun violence, similar to the study above, even implying that the small town of Minot, North Dakota should be more violent than the South Side of Chicago, based on the rate of gun ownership.

And here is the hole in this logic: While, statistically speaking, there is no relationship between the rate of gun ownership and gun violence, how many guns are owned illegally or are not registered in these locations? How do we measure those numbers to look at this correlation? The short answer is we don't. We are only tracking the number of people who have registered their gun. There is no way to account for unregistered and / or illegally purchased firearms, and therefore, no real means to draw direct relationships. I'll wager that the ratio of gun owners who register their guns in Minot is considerably higher than Chicago's South side.

There are certainly instances of data manipulation and cherry picking numbers on the other side of this issue as well, and I will get into some of that in my next post. The bottom line here is that if we are going to use statistics to back up our arguments, one way or another, then we need to be far more thorough and skeptical about what is presented. It would be particularly helpful if so called reporters would ask people to back up at least some of the wild claims they make on air.

Look for my next post soon: Why the Assault Weapons Ban won't work.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I'm back...

After deleting this blog a few years ago, intending to never blog again, I recently found myself digging into some news stories and suddenly felt compelled to BLOG. That is an odd sensation. I forgot what that felt like. I don't know if it is a good thing or not, but it is what it is, and so I am here and will soon write at least one post to discuss some recent political issues. Stay tuned.