09 September 2015

The Oft Repeated American Tragedy

NOTE: I'm sharing this on social media on 13 September 2015. There is, being reported by the news as I type, an active shooter event occurring on the campus of MIT. That is less than a month since the shocking North Carolina shootings that inspired the blog in the first place. No doubt there have been more such active shooter events between then and today. NOTE to my NOTE: MIT has since called off the active shooter warning and reported that a single person was shot.

One of the hallmarks of dramatic tragedy is that we all see it coming. We’d love to pull Hamlet aside and warn him that his course can’t end well. “Othello,” I wanted to say, “Just go talk to Desdemona, ask her what is going on.” We can’t intervene in these tales. We aren’t the gods of The Iliad, or The Odyssey. All we can do is watch as the characters careen toward their fates. The principals in these stories, that is to say our protaganists, and antagonists don’t always see their doom bearing down on them like a runaway train. Or, if they do, they see the train too late to do much about it.  Sometimes, of course, the various heroes and villians do see the preventable tragedy ahead, but accept that it is as inevitable as the sunrise. Achilles understands fully that the war with Troy is unjust, that Agemmemnon has a certain economic interest in war with Troy that far outweighs any worries he may have about Meneleus’ lost honor. Knowing doesn’t necessarily lead to actions consistent with that knowledge. The question before us in the US is will we continue to be like Achilles, and Hector and countless other protagonists down through the ages, and merely accept as inevitable the thoroughly evitable.

On the 26th of August, in the year 2015, a fresh mass shooting in the news nearly before sun had even risen, it is hard to tell what we, the protaganists in this American tragedy, see or don’t see.  Obviously we won't all see the same writing on the wall. It is likely the case that we as Americans are not even looking at the same wall. The media dialogue to follow, social and traditional, will be predictable and nearly rote as news organizations tackle the twin murders of two Virginia reporters. Social media will be abuzz with links and memes. The murders were partially captured on live TV. This will add a lot of zip to the next news cycle. Talking heads will talk in platitudes. Wayne La Pierre or one of his indistinguishable ideological clones will be trotted out to remind viewers that “…the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Whole news stations will take sides in what has sadly become an ideological battle over guns in our society. FoxNews and other news organizations will lever the fiction that advocates for greater and stricter gun control legislation are actually trying to see to it that the government will be taking all the guns. MSNBC will have plenty of commentators and journalists arguing that it is time for increased gun control legislation.  The Daily Kos will say a suite of predictable things about this latest set of very public murders. They won’t be alone among liberal news sources.

In such an intellectually polarized environment, entrenchment seems to be the most common and least helpful strategy. Broadly adopted, it can make people sitting on the fence think there are no real solutions, or imagine there is a dialectical solution that neatly finds the middle ground between two opposite sides. Perhaps that is the case with gun policy. If that is the case, so far the evidence doesn’t support such a scenario. There actually aren’t two sides, equally valid in the discussion, at least currently, the evidence simply doesn’t admit of this possibility. Our current gun laws are inadequate and they need to be strengthened. In the United States, in 2013, there were a total of 33,169 firearms related deaths. Among economically advanced, industrialized democracies that number stands out. In Japan (averaging several years worth of data), the average number of firearms related deaths is about 76 (not many of these will be homicide). Compare the US with any other financially stable, wealthy democracy and the pattern repeats. The US stands out. But more about that below.

If you are an honest fence sitter, with data, and argument, I hope I can convince you of at least a few things. To the ideologically entrenched, I hope at least you will come along for the ride. I would urge you to put aside the ideological lenses for a bit. Forget about what you think the second amendment says. Lets examine the data, and see what it tells us about risk, guns and safety.

Do more guns really make safer spaces?

To begin simply, based on empirical data, raw and barely analyzed, we can see that the hypothesis and would-be axiom, “more guns make us safer,” has been roundly falsified. We cannot, in an intellectually honest way, reject the null hypothesis which is, specifically, “More guns make us unsafe.”

The United States has more privately held guns per capita than any other country in the world.1 That is not to we just have more than any Western industrialized democracy, but more than any country in the world. But comparing our safety with other wealthy, western democracies will be more useful than with countries characterized by dictatorships, or civil war, or that find themselves stricken by other forms of strife and unrest.

As the United States has the most guns per capita than other country in the world, it seems that it should be one of the safest places in the world. The relationship, number of guns vs. safety (number of people killed by firearms) is exactly the opposite of what the hypothesis that “more guns= increased safety” would predict.2 The United States has the most firearms related deaths, while Japan, which has the fewest guns per capita also had the fewest firearms related deaths.3 In 2013, Sripal Bangalore and Franz H. Messerli looked at two possible predictors of firearms death, across 27 developed countries, mental health and number of firearms per 100,000 people. Mental illness was only a very weak predictor of gun violence. However, simple number of guns owned was reliably predictable. If a country had more guns it was statistically less safe than a country with fewer.4

From their conclusion:

The number of guns per capita per country was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death in a given country, whereas the predictive power of the mental illness burden was of borderline significance in a multivariable model. Regardless of exact cause and effect, however, the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer.”5

That seems fairly definitive. But some may argue that more guns also have some effect on crime rate. If there is a correlation, it eluded Bangalore and Messerli. They found that the number of guns wasn’t a good overall predictor of crime rate.6

There are obviously some cultural things going on here as the relationship isn’t clean, but it is consistent. More firearms=more firearms related deaths. Gun ownership wasn't a good predictor of crime rates in their study. It should be if what many gun advocates say is true. More guns should be associated with decreased levels of crime. 

The numbers below are sobering:

TableGun Ownership, Mental Illness Burden, and Firearm-related Deaths and Crime Rate
CountryGuns per 100Total Firearm-related Deaths per 100,000Crime Rates per 100,000Mental Illness per 100,000
New Zealand22.62.6610,344.73851.07
South Africa12.79.415674.10725.77
United States88.810.23811.871454.74
United Kingdom6.20.258972.35960.62
Average civilian firearms per 100 people; data from The Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City.3
Firearm-related deaths per 100,000 population; data from a European detailed mortality database based on International Classification of Diseases codes (ICD-10): W32-W34,X72-X74,X93-X95,Y22-Y24 and others.4
Crime rate data were obtained from the United Nations Surveys of Crime Trends and Operations of Criminal Justice Systems.7
§Mental illness defined as age-standardized http://data.euro.who.int/dmdb/ rates due to major depressive disorder per 100,000 inhabitants with data obtained from the World Health Organization.8
From Bangalore and Messerli 2013

Good guys with Guns.
Lets begin with what I will hereafter refer to as the LaPierre Hypothesis.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun."
-Wayne Lapierre, NRA Executive Vice President

This is a popular mantra among gun advocates. An armed citizen is a benefit to a society. Good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns. The idea possess a certain plausibility. It certainly appeals to our human psychology, primed as it is to esteem honor, courage, physical strength and even fighting prowess. It is no accident that stories about men and women of action have almost always dominated the landscape of popular fiction. But there are unavoidable problems with the idea, and they begin right away.

To begin with, the idea is simply untrue. For a recent falisification of the LaPierre Hypothesis, we need look no further than three, unarmed, US serviceman, and a bystander on a French train who, unarmed, took down a would be mass murder armed to the teeth. 
Unquestionably Good Guys

They used Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and courage to swarm, disarm and put the terrorist to sleep. Their story isn’t uncommon. According to the FBI, about 13% of mass/active shootings are stopped because of intervention by unarmed civilians. The rest of these are stopped because the shooter took their own life, ran out of ammo, or otherwise fled the scene (56%). In 26% of active shooter incidences, a traditional stand off with police ensued and left the shooter dead or wounded. Only 3% of mass shooter incidences were stopped by armed citizens, who also happened to be security personnel on duty, or otherwise highly trained.5 Instances in which average citizens with above or below average training have not achieved stellar results.

Another problem we must have with the idea is with its embedded notion of good. For instance, is a good guy with a gun always going to be a good guy with a gun. The human capacity to be carried away by emotion and thus across normal bounds of typical behavior is great. Many people, no doubt, consider George Zimmerman to have been a good guy with a gun when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. I will not, herein, essay any case one way or the other for or against the criminality of his actions on that shooting. I will however look at how good can change in a single person.

Zimmerman owned his guns legally. He participated in neighborhood watches, and by many accounts tried to be a good and faithful member of his community. However, he has twice been arrested on domestic violence charges, and in at least one instance brandished a loaded weapon at his significant other. Two different women romantically involved with Zimmerman have frantically called 911, with similar stories, of violent outbursts and the threatening presence of a firearm.
From the AP accounts:
He was arrested on charges of aggravated assault, battery and criminal mischief after his then-girlfriend said he pointed a gun at her face during an argument, smashed her coffee table and pushed her out of the house they shared. Samantha Scheibe decided not to cooperate with detectives and prosecutors didn’t pursue the case.”

Associated Press description of the second incident: 

“Zimmerman was accused by his estranged wife of smashing an iPad during an argument at the home they had shared. Shellie Zimmerman initially told a dispatcher her husband had a gun, though she later said he was unarmed. No charges were ever filed because of a lack of evidence. The dispute occurred days after Shellie Zimmerman filed divorce papers."

Was he still a good guy in those moments? It seems unlikely that anyone would make that case. Doesn’t that reveal a deep problem with the notion of the good guy with a gun? Human beings aren’t always good, or bad as another example will show.

Here is an example from my hometown. It is a sad story about a guy I know, and once considered a friend, indeed I considered him enough of a friend to maintain a Facebook friendship with him right up until...well, I'm getting ahead of myself. 

On Monday May 18th, Danny Watson went to talk to his future ex-wife. They were scheduled for a divorce hearing the next day. There was no history of domestic violence, no calls, and by all accounts Danny adored his wife, and mother of their several children. During their discussion, one that grew heated, he pulled out his gun and shot her. When the police arrived on the scene, his wife was on the ground and he was holding his gun to his head. The police managed to talk him into putting his gun down before he could complete this sad, American tradition.. They arrested him on felony attempted murder charges.6 His wife survived. And, lucky for Danny, didn’t want to press charges. “He didn’t mean to shoot me.”7 Danny had himself told police he had intended to harm himself with the gun and not his wife. Leaving the aside the implausibility of both the wife and husband’s account of the incident, perhaps pausing to note that the incident hews a bit too closely to the spouse murder-suicide scenario, whatever are we to do with the notion of the good guy?

Its painful to write about Danny in this article. I like Danny. I’ve always thought he was far too cavalier with his firearms (he once almost shot a friend of ours while showing off his latest rifle). For all that though, I always thought he was generous, friendly and kind. His example though indicates that our notion of good must be carefully considered. It just isn’t a constant character trait. It may be fairly constant, but when guns are present even short deviations from the good are apt to lead to massive tragedy. It is also true that people aren’t universally good. Maybe a gun owner wouldn’t shoot anyone over a verbal slight, or being cut off in traffic, but might shoot a lover in a jealous rage, or someone who kicked their dog, or, well, you get the idea.

I personally know at least four people, generally good who have owned guns legally in this country, and at least once behaved in ways we can only describe as un-good. I won’t bother describing the ways they were momentarily un-good. Anecdotes aren’t that useful, but I do hope that that the anecdotes can at least shake some of the confidence in the idea of the good guy. For the LaPierre Hypothesis to hold, it seems that good must be a stable and constant psychological property, and must pervade every aspect of an individual. Anyone who has seen a particularly conservative, soft spoken grandma, give someone the finger while in a minor fit of road rage can see problems with this idea. 
from Richmond Palladium Item

Are you safer with a firearm?

Unless you are defending property, the answer appears to be no.

From a perspective of self-defense alone a person carrying a firearm is actually about 4.2 times more likely to be killed during an attack than a person who is unarmed.8 There are many factors that lead to this number, but the fact remains carrying a gun is awfully good predictor of whether or not you are likely to be killed by one. Counter intuitively, Charles Branas, professor of epidemiology at the Perlman School of Medicine, found that where victims had more time to engage with an attacker, time to defend themselves, they were even more likely to end up dead.9

The same work by Branas et al found that other forms of self defense, hand to hand, mace etc were not associated with increased risk of death, and that mace, and other interventions were equally effective as guns at deterring property crime.10

This should be troubling for people who purchase guns a primary self defense strategy. It gets a little worse. Guns in the home are a big risk factor for female spouses and children.

Research David Hemenway (2011) analyzed and summarized a vast literature on firearms in the medical literature and came away with the following conclusion (from his abstract):

For most contemporary Americans, scientific studies indicate that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit. The evidence is overwhelming for the fact that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns. There is compelling evidence that a gun in the home is a risk factor for intimidation and for killing women in their homes. On the benefit side, there are fewer studies, and there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in. Thus, groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics urge parents not to have guns in the home.”11

If you read this literature for very long, you will see his findings repeat, over and over again.


Maybe we need guns. I don't know. Maybe we require the unfettered access to them that we currently have. I don't know. I do know that we shouldn't kid ourselves about the risks of having firearms. Nor should we delude ourselves with the fiction that guns make for safer spaces. They simply don't. Guns manufacture risk.

Some principles require sacrifices. Perhaps the right to keep and bear arms is a right principle that requires that we sacrifice 30,000+ lives a year on the altar of gun rights. Make no mistake, we are trading 30,000+ lives a year for unfettered access to guns. Some people think there is a good reason for this sacrifice. I don't think their reasons are well supported by the evidence. More and more it looks to me as if the main reason we hold this annual sacrifice is in the maintenance of the hero fantasy too many gun owners have. 

Somehow I doubt that the framers of our Second Amendment envisioned the amount of gun violence we see in this day and age. Its also unclear to me if the Second Amendment even has a clear context anymore given that we no longer use militias to defend the country, but have adopted a standing, if volunteer, military force. So the old rationale for guns, as a means to oppose government tyranny is over. 

Perhaps in a future post I will essay what I think might be useful policy ideas. In this post my main goal has been simply to shake any readers from the notion that guns make people, and places safe. They don't seem to. 

References to footnotes

1,2,3,4…..Bangalore, S. and Messerli, F.H. 2013. Gun Ownership and Firearm-related Deaths. The American Journal of Medicine. 126:10:873-876.




8,9, 10, 11…https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17922-carrying-a-gun-increases-risk-of-getting-shot-and-killed


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At 8:56 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Superbly researched and very well argued. I sadly suspect that your fine words won't be able to penetrate the thick skulls of the 'guns whatever!' faction. Excellent effort, though. When the U.S. gives up its crazed obsession with guns, it might begin to reach towards its true height. Judo and Krav Maga are waiting for a post-pistol era.

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