A few years ago, it was all the rage to blame spree killings and mass murder on “the mentally ill”, as if the fact that someone shot up a church or a Denny’s qualified as a diagnosis. In the last few months, that line has seen less use, as the facts come out that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. We know that the people who most often do these things are white men from what now count as middle class homes, many of whom are simply angry at the loss of privilege and status that their fathers had. They want to strike out at someone in protest, and those targets are often politically chosen, not for the number of dead or the assumed presence or absence of firearms in the possession of others, but because the shooter is striking at some group he blames for the fact that his life is harder than he thinks it should be.
The new argument that has started to take over is, not unfairly, that we have a cultural problem, and that banning guns isn’t going to change anything. People are mad, and they believe violence is a viable way to express their anger. Drivers shoot each other on the highway, but children fight viciously on school grounds, too. The problem is one that is part of how people think, and some people own guns because they want to feel powerful; others own guns because they are afraid.
The thing that is missing from this argument requires one to think a little harder. It requires one to plan ahead 20 years, rather than thinking only about the next few. The idea that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” isn’t a solution to our cultural disease. That is a symptom and even a cause. The idea that a person has the right to inflict his will on others in public, that violence and death are valid solutions to interpersonal disputes is the thing that people are claiming to be the illness, even as they claim that the cure is more of the same. This is the short term thinking of an addict, who knows that the habit is killing them but can’t face withdrawal. “We can’t change society,” they say, “so we have to protect ourselves from it.” If you can’t beat them, join them. Only, “them” in this case is a class of person no one wants to admit they are siding with.
The thing this whole line of thinking ignores, though, is that policy change can herald cultural change. We can make something not only illegal, but unpopular and even repulsive. We can turn the wheel of justice, and it turns the wheel of education and public opinion. Where racism was once enshrined in the governments of certain states, politicians will angrily defend themselves against any public accusation of it now. We can do the same for violence, if we are willing to put away the weapons.
I bring up racism not just because it is an example of measurable, if incomplete, success in doing just this sort of thing. I bring it up because this same argument, that we have a cultural problem that laws cannot fix, was lobbed at the civil rights leaders of half a century ago. So, I will close this with a quote from the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr in a speech given at Cornell College and many other institutions of higher learning in 1962 and ’63. If you swap the word “lynching” for the word “shooting” in this excerpt, you can apply it directly to the debate we are having today:
There is another myth that has circulated a great deal. I call it, for lack of a better phrase, the myth of educational determinism. I am sure you have heard this: “Legislation can’t solve this problem, only education can solve it.” Judicial decrees can’t solve it, executive orders from the President can’t solve it. Only with education and changing attitudes through education will we be able to come to a solution to this problem. Now there is a partial truth here, for education does have a great role to play in this period of transition. But it is not either education or legislation; it is both education and legislation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless…
I am not a Mexican. I have ever even been to Mexico. If you were to ask me about the authenticity of a particular restaurant, I couldn’t help you. What if, on the other hand, you asked 20 Mexicans, and 10 of them said “Absolutely authentic,” and 5 said “Pretty close,” and 4 said “Well, not from my part of the country,” and one said “No”? I would trust that it is authentic, wouldn’t you?
I am not a coder. All code looks a little random to me. If you asked me if a bit of code were efficient or well done, I could not answer you. I would ask a few friends. If I asked 50 friends to evaluate it, and 25 of them said it looked great, 15 of them said “I think it looks good, but that’s not a language I am really skilled at, so maybe it could have been done better,” 7 of them said “It will defintely get the job done, but it could be more efficient,” and the last three said, more or less “No”. I will still use that code with confidence.
Like so many members of Congress, I am not a scientist. Like members of congress, I have not really studied the issue of climate change and I could not hope to make reasonable predictions about the effects of greenhouse gasses and global temperature shifts. Like Congress, I am not ashamed to say that I don’t have the expertise to make predictions or reasonable hypotheses about the effects of energy or economic policy on the atmosphere and how that will change the habitability of the planet. That isn’t my job.
Honestly, that is what should be great about having career politicians; we should elect people who know about policy and law and economics to handle those things for us because we can’t all be experts in all things. Like us, politicians call for plumbers when they have a leak or doctors when they are ill because, like us, their job focuses on a different skill set and knowledge base. Like us, they shouldn’t all be scientists, because they need to know the legal system, the financial system, how our highways are built and repaired, and many other aspects of creating policy to make the country run better.
The problem is that many of these politicians are looking at the science, reading the conclusions of scientists, and, not understanding it for themselves, they are ignoring what the professionals are trying to tell them because the truth is comfortable.
The federal government has several divisions that are paid to do research and make predictions. Those divisions have helped us prepare for tornadoes and hurricanes. They have helped us target missiles and fly aircraft into dangerous situations. They have taken us to the moon and landed a robot the size of a small SUV on Mars. They have proven that they are good at science, and they warn us that climate change is real, and that humans are impacting it in a substantial way. That means that we could change our actions and have an impact on the course and rate at which this change is happening, and that certain actions will improve the stability of the countries and infrastructures currently in place.
When it comes to war, the Republicans are on the record saying that the government, and especially the current president, should trust the generals. They believe that the people who have fought in and risen to lead our military are trustworthy on issues of national security. The Pentagon has had military scientists looking at this, and the US military has concluded that Climate Change is a threat and that renewable energy needs to be a priority in national security. Why aren’t we listening?
When it comes to atmospheric science and the ability to look at the big picture here on Earth, few human institutions come close to the resources of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They put most of our satellites in orbit, and they track weather patterns and changed to geography. We pay them to do it, because we need that information. Their mission is the advancement of science with the intent to “benefit all humankind“. They have been tasked with the non-partisan job of making the world a better place for people. They warn that climate change is a real threat to human civilization as we know it.
More importantly, as with the examples I opened with, we can trust that the people who know what they are talking about agree that human activities, especially the release of carbon that had previously been trapped underground in fossil fuels like oil and coal, back into the atmosphere, are making the problem much worse. Scientists who are working in the field of climate change overwhelmingly agree that it is a problem, and that we can make changes that will lessen its impact.
Now, of course there are some who look at the same facts and come to different conclusions. That happens in every field. Literary scholars argue about author intent. Music scholars may argue about the historical value of certain composers. Biblical scholars are the reason that there are over 40,000 different denominations of Christianity. And, this is a really good thing in science, as the point of peer review is to be skeptical and make sure that the facts point to the conclusion reached. We need curmudgeons and malcontents to keep everyone on their toes and honest. Sometimes, the facts available require a change to the conclusions that science has been working from. That is how we discovered climate change to begin with.
What we see here, though, isn’t scientists arguing about methodology or conclusions. What we see here is an overwhelming consensus of professionals who are being ignored anyway because what they have to say is inconvenient. We have lawmakers admitting that they are not scientists, in the same way that the President of the United States is not a general, and instead of listening to the experts and taking the advice of the majority, they are choosing to do nothing on an issue that threatens us all.
“I am not a scientist” should be a bold statement of ignorance and willingness to listen to professionals. Instead, it is being used as a smoke screen to dishonestly claim that no one knows what the facts are. The folks doing so should be ashamed of their hubris.
Below is a sourced version of a letter I wrote to the editors or the Denton Record Chronicle. Not knowing if it will be published, and knowing that the facts will be questioned, I invite you to share this with anyone who still has questions about the drilling ban. We can always revoke the ban if the slogan of “Responsible Drilling” is ever more than a campaign promise. We cannot undo some of the damage that will be done if we allow things to continue as they are. Additionally, I feel that I must point out the foolishness of shouting about “energy independence” while stumping for fossil fuels that are rapidly running out rather than backing the development of renewable and, preferably, non-centralized sources of energy like residential solar and wind power. We need better than status quo if we are going to prepare for a bright and healthy future for Denton.
The “Vote No” campaign against the ban of hydraulic fracture gas mining in the City of Denton uses the word “Responsible” without any context or meaning.
How can “responsible drilling” not include new regulations, oversight, or accountability? They say they want support for “Responsible Drilling”, but that is not what they offer as the alternative to the ban. If it were, the ban might not be needed.
Rachael Rawlins, of UT’s School of Architecture, as published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal, shows that state and federal regulatory programs fail to effectively address emissions, the risk of malfunctions, encroaching land uses, or the potential interactive effects of fracking chemicals. Her studies show that “rates of childhood leukemia and lymphoma in Flower Mound are significantly higher than expected”, tying these findings to the exploitation of the Barnett Shale.
If health risks aren’t enough of a concern, there is considerable risk to the local economy. Fracking sites provide lower tax revenue than most other land use; their equipment taxes our roads, our water supply, and other resources. Worse than that, fracking presents an imminent risk to Americans’ most important financial investment: their home. Scientists across the country collaborated on a geological study, finding “fluid migration from high-rate disposal wells in Oklahoma is potentially responsible for the largest swarm” of otherwise unexplained earthquakes 3 hours north of us. Add the fact that pollution fears are driving home prices down already, according to Forbes, and oil companies seem like very irresponsible neighbors to have.
American conservatives feel that they have to cut off benefits to the unemployed and the poor because they think very little of people, in general. They believe that many, possibly even most people would rather sit at home and watch television than work. They don’t care that there aren’t jobs (as evidenced by their failure to do anything about creating them). They don’t care that there are mothers receiving assistance because it would cost more to put kids in daycare than you can make at a minimum wage job. They honestly don’t care about the facts on the ground, as it were, because they believe people are making excuses to not work.
Now, they may, in fact, understand otherwise. They might just be playing to a base that like to hear such things, but this is too cynical, even for my blog, and I have to assume that they are acting in the best interest of the country as they see it. I will try, then, to educate the conservatives who find their way here.
The fact is that there is very little evidence of what people in a country with western culture would do if they didn’t have to work. What we do know is that there are a lot of mothers receiving government support for their families. According to the Census Bureau, SNAP kept 4 million people out of poverty last year. Two thirds of those people are children, elderly, or disabled, which is to say people who are not expected to work. Indeed, the GOP has made noise about rolling back child labor standards, but that is another post.
In fact, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities tell us “Contrary to “Entitlement Society” Rhetoric, Over Nine-Tenths of Entitlement Benefits Go to Elderly, Disabled, or Working Households“. 90%, for those who like numerical notation, of the money spent on entitlement programs in the USA goes to people who are working or who cannot work a full-time job because of age or disability. There is very little fraud, and most of these people are doing exactly what is expected of them.
So, what about those few people who are “gaming the system?” That surfer from California, for instance? Yeah… every system has some flaws and every program will be abused in some way. Isn’t it worth knowing that in the greatest country in the world, people aren’t starving to death? Is that really something to be ashamed of?
Finally, I did say that there was little evidence to show what might happen if people didn’t have to work; how society would look if people knew they would be fed and housed and that no entrepreneurial, educational, or artistic risk would leave them destitute. There is exactly one case that could be of real interest to us in the USA.
In Canada, in the 1970s, there was an experiment conducted by Canada’s elected liberals in Dauphin, Manitoba. They made sure that no one in that jurisdiction was poor. Called “Mincome”, every poor adult in the area was paid by the national and Provincial governments, to insure that no one lived below the poverty line. The participants were encouraged to work and earn for themselves, having their supplement reduced only 50 cents for every dollar they earned. The government wondered if people would keep working. Most did. Employment went down in 2 areas: New mothers and teenagers. New mothers spent more time with their children. Teenagers spent more time in school, as evidenced by higher graduation rates.
It allowed people to take the jobs that were available, based on whether they thought it would be good for them, rather than if it made the most money. People could wait for the opening they really wanted. It meant a lot more than simple employment, though. According to Dr. Evelyn Forget, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who is looking at the recently unsealed documents from the 4 year experiment, “We already know that hospitalizations went down and people stayed in school longer.” Hospitalizations went down? “When you walk around a hospital, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the time what we’re treating are the consequences of poverty,” she says.
Her research shows that “In the period that Mincome was administered, hospital visits dropped 8.5 per cent. Fewer people went to the hospital with work-related injuries and there were fewer emergency room visits from car accidents and domestic abuse. There were also far fewer mental health visits.” Those are some pretty impressive results.
In short, this program only applied to 1000 families, about 30% of the population of the rural town. It ultimately cost more than $17 million. It also resulted in an 8.5 per cent decrease in healthcare costs, which was be substantial savings in a country with nationalized health care. In short, people were happier, healthier and, at least arguably, more productive, not less.
Given the limited facts available on the issue, it is unconscionable to let people live in fear for their homes, their families, and their health. It is within the power of the American Government to create a country where every person is permitted to educate themselves to the full extent of their desire to learn. We could be funding the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs by letting even those born to poverty take the risks that the rich take for granted. We could live up to our presumption of superiority by funneling our resources into our people, all of them, to see what Americans can achieve when they live in hope instead of worry. There is a loud, but well funded, minority working to ensure that we do not. That is the privileged class, trying to hang on to their advantage. It isn’t American, and we need to put an end to it. It is fine to reward success, even to the 7th generation, but we need to equalize the opportunity and institutionalize mobility. Only then can we return to our history of advancement and leadership and pull out of the political and cultural nose dive we currently face.
Last week, I published a post about popular fallacies being used as debate points in the current, and hopefully unrelenting, effort by the American majority to change our laws and our culture relating to firearms and their accessories. It racked up several comments, and it was taken by one person as an invite to feed me even more such misguided wisdom. That post has been very popular reading, though I don’t know if anyone has read it and learned anything new.
Today, I would like to address a few more of the red herrings and strawmen that keep showing up on the side of people who just don’t want things to change for reasons that, generally, have nothing to do with the arguments being proffered.
First off, let’s talk about things that do not actually cause gun violence.
Television and movies do not create killers. They do desensitize people to some degree, and they do glamorize guns. These are problems, but no more so now than in the 50s, when television shows with titles like Gun Smoke and The Rifleman were on the air. The Lone Ranger was a vigilante with a gun before there were moving pictures in the living room. Clearly, then, the problem isn’t just the visibility of firearms in entertainment.
(Edit to add: Wouldn’t reducing the number of guns also mean fewer guns on television and in movies? The British version of “Law & Order” has to take in to account that the police in London don’t generally carry firearms. That is how they make it look believable.)
Similarly, we cannot blame video games. Certainly, many gamers develop certain skills in coordination and tactics. almost none of these skills would be applicable to a mass shooting attempt. The controls for an X-Box are nothing like the trigger and sight of a real firearm. Gamers aren’t even shown the actual loading of a weapon as the magazine is slapped into place. The people who commit insane crimes have access to real weapons and time to practice with them. Their time with the video game might exacerbate some instability in their brain, but it does not train them to kill in the real world any more than World of Warcraft trains you to wield a sword or axe. The skills are far more applicable to piloting a killer drone than to firing the weapons simulated in First Person Shooters. For further proof that games don’t create crime: the Japanese spend fully 10% more on video games per year than Americans, despite the US having nearly 250% of Japan’s population. Japan has 1% of the gun homicides that the US does, along with a stronger sense of civics and 87% fewer guns per person. Clearly the guns are a factor.
Let me be clear: the Second Amendment is not more important to American freedom than the First Amendment.
Even after I dismiss violent entertainment as a major contributor to gun violence, I will give you a remedy for the impact it does have: civics and empathy. We need to instill in our kids the sense that they are part of a community and that they have responsibilities to that community, and the community has responsibilities to them, too. We tell them that they are not alone, and we teach them that people are not superior or inferior to others except through their choices and actions.
We absolutely need to address the problems with our mental health system, but we just had a huge fight over healthcare reform, and it didn’t exactly come down on the side of massive expansion in services to the poor or in the area of metal health and treatment. Now seems a strange time to take on healthcare again, but I am in favor of doing more for those in need.
I purposely avoided one point in my last post: the seemingly ancient trope that “Guns don’t kill people.” To that, I have to ask: What is the purpose of a gun? If not to injure and kill, then what is the point? To look threatening? That comes from the knowledge that since the invention of the single shot Chinese fire lance, which was invented in the 10th century, people have been refining firearms to be more accurate, more lethal, and more efficient at killing, or at least seriously injuring, other living things. Sure, there are other ways to do that, but there are few things currently available to the public that are more capable of killing large numbers of people, and the things that are, like explosives, don’t have the same mythology. That is why we don’t see people emulating Timothy McVeigh: these crazy people and gang members and vigilantes don’t want to kill people, they want to shoot people.
“Criminals are criminals, and they aren’t going to care what the laws are”, I hear over and over, but we all know this to be untrue. Most criminals work pretty hard to not get caught. They care a great deal about the laws, and they do the things that get them the greatest reward for the least risk. If we make it harder to get guns, then fewer of them will have guns. If we threaten higher penalties for illegally obtaining a gun, then fewer people will be willing to risk it. If we start prosecuting straw purchasers and shutting down the small number of dealers who “loose” to criminals over half of the guns used in violent crime in the US, then we will have less violent crime. We aren’t, generally, talking about terrorists and anarchists trying to bring down western civilization. Sure, those people are out there, and they make headlines, but they are not the biggest contributors to gun crime.
Plenty of people with some grasp of history ask about how prohibition only led to more illegal activity in the 1920, and that smuggling would keep up the supply of guns. First, 78%of the guns used in criminal activity in 1994 that could be traced originated in the United States. Smuggling could not supply those numbers, and would increase the prices drastically. Similarly, most of the illegal alcohol consumed in the 1920s was illegally produced in the US, which is a difficult process requiring leaving the orange juice in the fridge too long. There is no correlation to be drawn between alcohol prohibition and firearms.
“People will just use another weapon, though,” you might be thinking. Certainly, there are those who will. That isn’t really the important part of the question, though. The question is what will changing weapons do to the victims. Gun violence is 5 times more deadly than knives. You cannot have a drive-by knifing. Just this week, a man went on a stabbing rampage through a college here in Texas. He stabbed 14 people, 2 were critically injured. No one was killed. He was stopped simply by one brave young man tackling him. This was a disturbed individual by all reports, having thought about a stabbing rampage for years. He killed no one.
Along with all of the crimes that would either be less deadly or outright impossible to commit with another weapon, we need to look at the incidents of where the ease of access to a gun makes a situation deadly when it would have only been violent, or the many that would never have happened at all. Domestic violence with a gun in the house is 5 times more likely to result in a murder; so much so that half of the women murdered with guns in the U.S. in 2010 were killed at the hands of their intimate partners.
In 2008, the last year for which I can find numbers, there were 680 accidental shooting deaths in the United States. More than 15,500 additional shooting injuries. Each day approximately five children were injured or killed on a nationwide basis as a result of handguns. Most of these were accidents, and not targeted shootings.
Finally, we need to address one of the most difficult areas of gun violence in the US: Gun suicides are almost twice as common as homicides (19,392 to 11,078 in 2010). Gun ownership makes you more likely to commit suicide. Again, the argument that comes up is that these people will just find another way to kill themselves. The fact, though, is that a great many people who attempt suicide aren’t addicts, terminally ill, or clinically mentally ill. A great many suicides are, more or less, spontaneous and unplanned. As the link tells it, proof of this exists in the history of England, where the switch from deadly coal gas being piped to residential ovens to less lethal and more sickening (thus less comfortable to breath long enough to be fatal) natural gas. In making the switch, the rate of successful suicide went down by about 1/3, or exactly the percentage that had resulted from people sticking their heads in the oven in the first pace. Similarly, would-be jumpers who were stopped by the police from jumping off the Golden Gate between 1937 and 1971, which was 515 individuals in all, were researched for the book “Where are They Now” by Richard Seiden. He found that just 6 percent of those pulled off the bridge went on to kill themselves. The overwhelming majority weren’t acting out some careful plan to end unendurable suffering. Similarly, then, by making guns less available to people in general, and not just criminals and the certifiably mentally ill, we can reduce the number of suicides.
One fact that is on the side of the gun lobby that you hear almost endlessly is that gun homicides are down, and down drastically, in the last few years. Many of the people touting that fact claim that the rise in gun ownership is responsible. That is odd, sense the rise in gun ownership is due almost entirely to the decreasing number of gun owners buying more and more gun, to the point that 20 percent of gun owners own 65 percent of the guns. The fact is that assault rates are up, as are property crimes in many “right to carry” states. So-called “Stand-Your-Ground” laws can be traced to several incidents where an armed individual seemed to provoke others, in one case leading to the aggressor actually being convicted of murder in Texas. It seems unlikely that he would have been this brazen if he hadn’t convinced himself that the law was on his side.
The fact is that guns do kill people. They make it possible for 5 and 6 year olds to kill. The NRA brags that tweens can handle an AR-51. They make it possible for a person in a car to kill 2 or 12 or 20 people without ever slowing down. They make death easy, and they kill people who would not otherwise be in any danger from the person with the gun. There is no other class of weapons that this is true for, because that is the intent of the gun maker: a tool designed to make killing so easy that an unlucky toddler can become a killer.
There are certainly other factors, but the gun is the common denominator in these suicides, infant deaths, drive-by shootings, and mass murders that no other weapon will replace. It is proven by history, mathematics, and the obvious evidence of the daily news. There are other avenues that might each address some of these circumstances, but none that will be more effective or less controversial. In short, real reform on gun ownership and accessories could make a difference in all of these areas and is much simpler than trying to implement changes to the mental health system, the education system, and censoring movies, television, and video games.