Thoughts on Gun Violence

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From the “This is why we can’t have nice things” file: last month a new internet “challenge” broke, with copycat videos being posted of people licking ice cream and putting it back in the store fridge, inspired by a viral Twitter video of a girl doing the same.

With fears naturally high that this would turn into an epidemic, there are reports of some stores going to extreme lengths to protect their stocks of frozen deliciousness, including locking it up and requiring a store employee get involved, à la razor cartridges.

While some might see this as an over-reaction, it’s not that far off from the freak-out over Tide Pods, with many commentators calling for their ban due to the double digit figures of challenge-poisoning incidents. Never mind that over 12,000 people had already had harmful exposures to laundry pods the year before, mostly kids under five.

The fact is, we’re a nation that over-reacts to small things and under-reacts to big things. I have a background in the auto industry, and it bothers me that individual incidents of error in autonomous vehicles have completely wiped out their viability for widespread adoption in many people’s minds, something that even the current 40,000 vehicle-related deaths per year have not seemed to mitigate. In a professional sense I happen to believe that autonomous vehicles will offer an enormous leap in automotive safety, even though I concede that hearing about the details of an incident is naturally bound to activate our threat ganglia more than a stat from the CDC.

Speaking of strangely incongruous panic levels, and the figure 40,000, that’s also the number of gun deaths we have per year, and the ice cream security skeptics hyperbolically point out that it seems to be easier to get a gun than a pint of Chunky Monkey, according to this picture from Twitter.

In the wake of last weekend’s two mass shootings in the span of less than 24 hours, writing any point of view on the incidents seems fraught with the possibility of it disappearing into the wind of history, just as every other piece addressing this issue has seemed to do, with the conversation appearing to go in circles with no perceptible effect of helping the future to be any different from the past.

We continue to see mass shootings, and we continue to be unable to do much about it due to our deadlocked state. They appear to be getting more frequent, as the rapid succession of shootings this weekend certainly demonstrated. But the only effect this pattern seems to be having is to further desensitize us from the violence.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of those who are working overtime to try to get some traction on this issue. I’m grateful for the young leadership that has emerged on this issue, particularly since the Parkland shooting, with the students there displaying the leadership skills that can be gleaned from a high-quality public education. But the flurry of hope that stemmed from their activism seems to have dissolved into a resignation that we’re at loggerheads on this issue, and the breaking of this stalemate doesn’t seem to be in sight.

Indeed, even as most Americans agree that universal background checks should be in place, there’s disagreement over whether the nation’s gun laws should be generally more strict than they are now. If two people were to claim, contradictorily, that most Americans were both for and against banning semi-automatic assault rifles, they could each go to the very same Gallup web page to verify their assertion.

Either way, these shootings keep on happening, and when we keep doing the same thing over and over again, the result is about as predictable as whether or not a journalist will cite the definition of insanity to describe the whole mess.

(Since my initial draft of this article, a bi-partisan proposal to provide fiscal encouragement for state “red flag” laws, allowing authorities to temporarily remove weapons from those who show signs of danger to themselves or others, has been advancing in Congress. It’s certainly a vital step towards addressing the issue, but it has yet to get past Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has not endorsed it, and it would be just one part of the multi-aspect approach that is needed.)

As a blue, I’m frustrated with the Republican approach to the issue, which feels to me like denial of the most basic strategies for having a positive impact. But as a Better Angel, I’m frustrated with the blue approach to the issue, which feels like a denial of the fact that unless we honestly and directly address the concerns of conservatives on this issue, we will continue to be shut down in the legislative arena.

So let me say this: Conservatives are fearful of an overly aggressive approach to gun control, and I think I understand that fear to a certain extent, especially in the context of our historically poorly calibrated reactions to things. And as a progressive who believes in stricter gun control, I have to be sensitive to those concerns, because they have a genuine basis.

As blues, if we do want to put in place policies that can mitigate the harm being done, our approach to this issue needs to respect those concerns as well. So let me start with a question that seems foundational to everything else.

How can we put policies in place that are likely to address the issue head-on, without curtailing liberties for no proven reason, unless we know how policy actually affects gun violence? The fact, as it now stands, is that we don’t know nearly enough about this link.

In discussing the research available, David Hemenway, Director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center, wrote, “We know far too little about almost every subissue in the gun discussion. We don’t know whether the federal assault weapons ban—it only lasted 10 years, from 1994 to 2004—had any effect on mass killings. We don’t know the effect of most individual gun laws, in part because the effect is probably small, since the laws are often so minor or full of loopholes.”

He continued, “We lack good data on nonfatal shootings. We know very little about gun theft or gun training, about gun storage or gun shop practices, about the effect of guns on college campuses or guns at work. The list goes on and on.”

Much of this is due to the legacy of the Dickey Amendment, which banned the CDC from using research money to advocate for gun control. While it didn’t explicitly ban the research itself, it has had a major chilling effect on the gathering of data that would be helpful to have right now. A spending bill that President Trump signed last year does offer clarifying language that makes it more explicit that this sort of research by the CDC is not banned, and there’s hope that this is good news for those looking to bolster this area of study.

But this major challenge remains. As we advocate for more aggressive gun control measures, we must bring to the conversation a humility about our ability to predict the effectiveness of those measures. And we must also allow room for the concerns of those on the other side of the conversation, regarding the potential overstep of gun control measures where the gains in safety may not be in proportion to the curtailment of liberty.

The American Declaration of Independence specifies the rights with which we’re all naturally endowed as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One might reasonably posit that they’re enumerated in this order due to true priority, perhaps since each of the latter might not exist without those enumerated before it. Or, one might suggest that each is equal, and that life without liberty is no life at all.

It seems as though in this particular debate the blues take the former approach, while the reds take the latter. I think it would be helpful for blues to recognize that reds see threats to liberty as just as serious as we—and likely they—see threats to life.

With a more honest and open approach, we may find that the two sides are closer than they imagine, and we may finally see some movement on an issue that has become one of the most pressing of our time.

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Gun Violence”

  1. Justin Naylor

    Great article Randy. This seems like the crux to me:

    “How can we put policies in place that are likely to address the issue head-on, without curtailing liberties for no proven reason, unless we know how policy actually affects gun violence? The fact, as it now stands, is that we don’t know nearly enough about this link.”

    I lean conservative, though I have no personal skin in the game when it comes to guns. I live in a rural place and should have one for safety, but guns freak me out and so I don’t. I also know that statistically any gun I own is more likely to lead to an accident than to an incident of self-defense.

    Still, I understand why most of my conservative and some of my liberal friends own guns. And you certainly nailed the conservative anxiety: when progressives advocate a gun law which has no proven connection to reducing mass shootings, conservatives wonder whether there’s some other motivation. I don’t think there is. I think progressives just tend to be so desperate to do something that they cling to anything easy to latch onto, even if it won’t really help.

    You’re dead on right that we need data. It seems like the response to these tragedies then should be “We need data!” not “We need gun control!”

  2. David Iwinski

    Entire books have been written on this topic so I will in any way attempt to give a comprehensive comment on the article by Randy Lioz except to say that the proposed theory that we need more analytical data to determine the effect of gun control on gun violence is not likely to, in my opinion, create any sensible middle-ground amongst adherents on either side of this divide.
    Part of the challenge is that complex problems may be roughly categorized into problems that have convergent solutions or divergent solutions. In a convergent solution model, the problem can be broken down into many small unique parts and ultimately assembled into a single workable answer. The classic example of this is the Apollo program that put a human on the moon and brought him back safely. Extraordinarily challenging and devilishly complex, nonetheless it could be broken down into a series of problems and as each was solved could be assembled into a solution. Divergent problems, on the other hand, veer off wildly at the very philosophical core and no amount of research and data brings these positions back together. The class example of this kind of issue is the question “how do we best educate a child”. There are clearly very different approaches to this challenge and advocates of different models can all create data that seems to validate their approach and yet that data is unlikely to be persuasive to someone invested in a different model.
    This is the difficulty of using data and information to try to influence the gun control debate. You could eliminate 100% of the deaths by eliminating 100% of the guns, just as you could eliminate 100% of automobile deaths by eliminating 100% of the automobiles. Finding that “gun control legislation reduces killings” will be very persuasive to those who already are adherents of gun control. To Second Amendment supporters, this data will, I suggest, have little effect.
    At the divergent core of the gun control issue is the Second Amendment and the function and role of those 27 words. It is my belief and understanding that when the Founders authored this Amendments they did not contemplate the need of the Second Amendment based on hunting rights, protection from criminals, target shooting, sport or any other variety of activities where firearms are used. The clue is in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, where it is stated that “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it” and the Founders well understood that the exercise of this Right could not be accomplished absent the means available to the People, individual means accessible without permission of government.
    In essence, the Second Amendment was drafted with fear of one’s own sovereign government in mind and with the intention that the individual citizens, available to join together in a citizens militia, may require the means to alter or abolish the form of government destructive to their well-being.
    Most Second Amendment adherents I know are good people, true and sincere, and have genuine deep sympathy and compassion for victims of gun violence. They desire little more than a quiet and safe society where individuals are free to exercise their rights unmolested from any undue influence. And yet, they fear the overwhelming power of the sovereign government in sole possession of firearms as a greater threat to the longevity of the nationstate than the deranged acts, no matter how horrific or heinous, of an isolated few.
    This is not to suggest that the answer is to do nothing and to find middle ground will require a more complete understanding of the sincere and honorable intentions of both sides of this issue, rather than the media driven “compassionate Americans versus gun nuts” scenario so often played out.
    In my participation in Better Angels (I was recently a panelist in the online debate) I was thoroughly impressed with the intelligence, thoughtfulness and clarity with which participants from red and blue perspectives spoke and the willingness to sincerely strive to understand alternative points of view.
    When it comes to gun control issues, there is a long way to go but I believe our chances of a favorable resolution are increased if we can see the issue from the start as a philosophical divide rather than one of statistical analysis or getting a better definition of what constitutes an “assault rifle”.

    1. David,

      It is refreshing to see someone raise the liberty interests guaranteed the Constitution generally, and in the Second Amendment in particular, as the starting point to a good discussion of gun violence. I don’t think it is an accident of drafting that the Second Amendment comes immediately after the First Amendment. The freedoms of the First Amendment were protected by the Second and Third Amendments.
      That said, in the 21st century, there has to be a better way to protect the guarantees of liberty in the First Amendment than by recognizing an absolute right to arm ourselves against our government. In today’s world, anyone who even suggests that he owns a gun so he can use it against his government when it is needed would likely find himself projecting his historically sound constitutional argument through prison bars, even if he were part of a well-regulated militia.

    2. Thank you Randy and David for sharing your knowledge on this issue. I know we can not keep guns out of the hands of every unlawful violent person. I train with my gun shooting IDPA and USPSA and practice and take lessons every chance I get. I read as many books as l can find on self defense and what it is like to be in a self defense situation yet I do not know what I will do if I am involved in one. My only solution is to keep training and reading and hope I never find out what it is like to be in a situation where I have to use my gun. This world should not be a place where we have to worry about protecting ourselves, yet it is for me. I hope we can all find peace in our own way. Being able to offer our comments helps us find peace and I hope we can keep it up.

  3. David Ludescher

    Randy,

    Your analysis holds up for guns. But, on other issues, the advocates of life and liberty are flipped. For example, on abortion, conservatives value life, and liberals/progressives value liberty.

    1. Justin Naylor

      David,

      Maybe I’m being cynical, but I think your observation shows how so many of our positions are merely a reflection of tribe rather than reason or logic. It’s for this reason that parties can flip 180 degrees on issues and still retain their members. For example the great flip in the 1960s where Dems became the party of civil rights, which had always been a Republican issue. People make the arguments which suite their biases and reinforce the tribe.

      1. David Ludescher

        Justin,

        I have been thinking about your suggestion that our answers are a reflection of our tribe rather than reason or logic. I think that answer is too simplistic, at least on the national level. The Democratic and Republican parties are so powerful that politicians are apt to take the “tribal stance” to avoid being excluded from the party. To use reason or logic against a party stance is to risk being excluded, and not having any power to act. I see that attitude having filtered down into the general populace. It is not so much that people want to belong to one party or the other; it is more that people don’t want to not belong to one party or the other.
        Better Angels reflects this kind of either-or thinking. The purpose of Better Angels is to get reds and blues to listen to each other. Its purpose is not to apply reason and logic to complex social and governmental issues to arrive at a unified rational solution.

  4. Kathy Allen

    Mr. Lioz does not mention the fact that the states with the most lax gun laws have the highest rates of gun deaths; that most gun crimes in Chicago (often touted as an example of the failure of strict gun laws) are committed with guns from other states where gun laws are lax; and that the USA – with its enormously higher per capita ownership of guns than any other developed country – has a correspondingly higher rate of gun injuries and deaths than any other developed country. I believe there is a lot of evidence that more guns create more gun deaths, evidence which he chooses to ignore in the interest of not offending reds.

    1. I appreciate your thoughtful commentary but would like to suggest two alternative lines of thought, adjunct to your observations. The first is that while you correctly point out that many of the gun related homicides in Chicago come from firearms purchased outside of the city of Chicago or even the state of Illinois, the recently released Trace Report also shows that Chicago has an extraordinarily high volume of illegal gun transactions, demonstrating that the supply of these weapons did not typically come from criminal elements who traveled across state borders to legally purchase a firearm returning to Chicago to commit homicide, but were from purchases that were illegal for which further restrictions on legitimate buyers would have little effect. This raises a second point, that adherents of gun control often focus on the limitation of supply, but is there evidence that that actually works when demand is high? An analogous environment exists in the world of drugs. Nowhere in the entire United States is the manufacture, distribution or sale of heroin, cocaine, crack or meth legal, and yet they all can be found with ease and abundance in virtually every suburban neighborhood or school across the United States. In fact, according to the CDC, in 2016 there were 64,000 people killed by drug overdose as compared to 40,000 in motor vehicle fatalities and 39,000 firearm-related fatalities, which includes 63% directly attributable to suicide. Drug overdoses killed 12,000 more people in 2016 than motor vehicle deaths and non-suicide gun fatalities combined. In no way does this reduce the practical need for common sense limitations on gun sales to people of impaired capacity or with a history of violence – legislation in that regard should be undertaken with dispatch. However, to make a true dent in firearm-related fatalities we must address demand as well as supply or even an overall ban might simply create an enormous and powerful illicit underground traffic in firearms, just as occurred with alcohol during prohibition.

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