FLOTSAM & JETSAM: Talking guns

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Talking guns

Sam Smith -Barack Obama was fortunate that the Newtown massacre occurred in December rather than, say, in September, since the reaction to it by his liberal supporters might easily have alienated enough voters to lose his election.
Once again, liberal leaders have responded to a problem by demonizing large numbers of citizens whose support they need for all sorts of other issues. If you own a gun, oppose abortion or take the Bible literally, you are beyond redemption even if you are a registered Democrat, have just been fired, can't afford your health bills or are facing foreclosure.
This isn't politics, it's religion. And it's not even evangelical religion seeking to convert, but rather just narcissistic self-righteousness. As long as one believes the right thing, that's all that matters. The Maybes, Don't Knows and Can't Figure It Outs aren't worth the bother.
In real politics you try to win over the other folks. Today's liberals just make them angry.
Of course, liberals are not alone in this. Much as popular music has reduced itself to the most simplistic chords, rhythms, dynamics, and melodies, so we seem to have developed a sort of three chord politics in which performers rely on exaggerated moves, screams, exploding smoke and flashing lights to replace what was once a tune. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity play to their fans and to hell with those not present and cheering in the audience.
The problem with this, for liberals, is that, according to Gallup, only about 21% of Americans call themselves such and, of these, only six percent describe themselves as very liberal. Perhaps most stunning is that only 28% of those under 30 call themselves liberal, just 12 points more than among those 65 and older.
This is the modern America that liberals helped to build as they deserted the economics based policies of the New Deal and Great Society. This drift allowed for the creation of a bipolar subset known as Reagan Democrats. In fact, neither party was helping the working class but Reagan at least pretended that he was.
Puritans vs. libertarians

As liberals became more of an elite demographic rather than a political movement, their contempt for the lower end of their former base grew. Increasingly, their view of liberty also became more the one that has its roots in Puritanism. As Albion's Seedlings notes,

[Historian David Hackett Fisher in his examination of the differences between early American settlers] calls the New England idea "ordered liberty" (freedom to determine the course of one's own society), at worst exemplified in the stifling, moralistic conformism that we still associate with the word "Puritan", at best in the strong town-based democracies (and suspicion of anything but local power) still evident in parts of northern New England. The Virginia idea was that of "hegemonic liberty" (freedom to rule and not be ruled), at worst exemplified in the hierarchical "slaveocracy" that valued freedom for those at the top but not for poor white trash or black slaves, at best in the aristocratic excellence of men such as George Washington. The Quaker idea was that of "reciprocal liberty" (freedom for me and for thou), at worst exemplified in the pacifistic pursuit of commerce without regard for nation or principle, at best in a quite modern-sounding respect for all human beings to pursue their own fulfillment. The frontier idea was that of "natural liberty" (a freedom without restraints of law or custom), at worst exemplified in the violent and often-emotionalistic chaos of life beyond the reach of civilized norms, at best in eternal vigilance with regard to the sovereignty of the individual.
To understand what is going on in the current debate, it helps to see how the conflict is between the puritanism of the gun control advocates and the natural liberty of the gun advocates.
In easing the strains between these views of liberty, it is the approach of reciprocal liberty - I can't have my liberty unless you have yours - that offers the most hope of resolving the most conflict.
As the product of a Quaker education, I have little problem with reciprocal liberty, but have also learned how increasingly alien it is to many Americans on both the left and right. The liberals want guns abolished as fiercely as the conservatives want abortion done away with and so forth.
And, of course, you do this through laws. In an article in Huffington Post, Amanda Terkel spells out a revealing liberal assumption:

As 2012 comes to a close, the 112th Congress is set to go down in American history as the most unproductive session since the 1940s. . . .The 104th Congress (1995-1996) currently holds the ignominious distinction of being the least productive session of Congress… Just 333 bills became law during that two-year period, meaning the 112th Congress needs to send nearly 100 more bills to Obama's desk in the next few days if it wants to avoid going down in history.
The idea that progress is measured by the number of laws passed not only ignores the conflict between good and bad laws, but puritanically assumes that the quality of life is caused by regulation rather than what we fund, create, value and encourage.

Consider that Harpers recently noted that Congress created an average of 56 new federal crimes a year. If that had been true over the past century, it would mean there would be over 5,000 things we can't do today that were perfectly legal in 1912.

Or consider that in the back of my car is a plastic mail box I have to return to the post office that states in large print that any misuse of this box could result in a $1000 fine or three months in prison. The box is probably worth less than five bucks.
The liberal and conservative puritan approach is also not a healthy one in a diverse land that claims to honor freedom.
This doesn't mean that there isn't a difference in the sort of issues that come up. For example, whether someone has an abortion or marries a gay is not only none of my business but doesn't affect me one way or another.
Guns are different. Guns kill quite a few people and while the right to own a gun is embedded in our constitution that doesn't mean there isn't a need for all to be involved in the problems that guns create.
At the same time, both the data and the politics of the situation strongly suggest that these issues could be resolved better in a spirit of civil discussion rather than self-righteous puritanism or indifferent libertarianism.

Further, any discussion needs to be based on a clear understanding that, while part of a social problem, guns are only one manifestation of that problem. Thus making the guns and their owners the villains makes no more sense than blaming climate change only on a few easy to spot problems, such inefficient lighting and heating, while ignoring the much larger factor of population growth.

Factors that get downplayed

Here are a few items that deserve at least as much attention as guns:

  • Noah Smith, writing in the Atlantic notes: "A 1994 Department of Justice report suggested that between a third and a half of U.S. homicides were drug-related, while a recent Center for Disease Control study found that the rate varied between 5% and 25% (a 2002 Bureau of Justice report splits the difference). . . Ending the drug war would involve reducing all of these incentives to murder. Treating addicts in hospitals and rehab centers, instead of sticking them in prisons, would reduce demand for drugs, lowering the price and starving gangs of income while reducing their incentive to wage turf wars. Decriminalization would relieve pressure on our prison system, allowing us to focus on keeping violent people off the streets instead of pointlessly punishing drug users for destroying their own health. And full legalization of recreational marijuana -- which is already proceeding quickly among the states, but is still foolishly opposed by the Obama administration -- is an obvious first step."

  • According to the FBI, 37% of female victims (where the relationship was known) are killed by their husbands or boyfriends. Obviously, a fantasized elimination of 300 million guns might reduce that number, but knives, bats, and strangulation would still be readily at hand. Similarly 53% of victims in murders (where the relationship was known) are killed by someone they knew and 25% of victims were killed by family members. Even now, 32% of murders don't involve guns, a number bound to increase if guns are less common.

  • Our perfectly legal culture of violence has grown dramatically in recent decades. For example, thirty years ago baseball and football were virtually tied in popularity. Today the much more violent football is far ahead. Where before TV, the young read comic books and listened to radio programs in which reality turned into fantasy, our advanced technology in video games and movies has allowed fantasy to be turned into extreme realism. Or consider childrens' books like the Hunger Games in which one character says, "The real sport of the Hunger Games is watching the tributes kill one another." And later: "About a dozen or so tributes are hacking away at one another at the horn. Several lie dead already on the ground. . . .I can see the muscles ripple in Cato's arms as he sharply jerks the boy's head to the side. It's that quick." The choice to use a gun violently comes from someplace and such are some of the places.

  • Violence is a major priority of our government policies including pointless wars, torture, drone attacks, record expenditures for government violence, military style police attacks on public demonstrations, mass solitary confinement and incarceration of citizens for minor offenses such as drug possession. Our governments celebrate violence as a solution to problems. What do citizens learn from that?

  • Our concern over violence is dramatically affected by class. For example, over 200 children, at some point under prior care by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, were slain between 2000 and 2011. That is almost precisely the equivalent in annual child deaths as occurred one time in Newtown. As the Chicago Tribune reported, "their family histories [were] darkened by poverty, mental illness, violence and drugs. They had something else in common, too. The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services had been warned about possible abuse and neglect, but the staff assigned to protect them ultimately failed, according to state officials and records obtained by the Tribune… The facts rarely were made public, largely because of confidentiality laws. Meanwhile, the median family income in Newtown is about $119,000, more than double the national average. In Columbine, the family median income is about 70% greater than the national average. Columbine and Newtown shock us; Chicago gets ignored.

  • Mental health services have been been badly hit by the squeeze on public spending. For example state funding for mental health outpatient facilities has declined $1.6 billion since 2009. According to the Alliance for Health Reform there are 11 million adults who lack adqueate mental health services.

  • For all the talk about ending violence,experts in non-violence - mediators, alternative court systems and so forth - get short shrift. Just as violence is the product of formal and informal education, so its opposite requires serious conscious attention to have an effect. How many classes has your child had in dispute resolution and conflict avoidance? It's a question we don't even ask.
So while guns clearly play a role in violence, to perceive the solution overwhelmingly as a matter of prohibition is naïve at best, deadly at worst.

A plan that doesn't work
Then there is also the problem that gun prohibition - like other such attempts with alcohol and drugs - often doesn't work. A few reasons:

  • The legal system goes under the table. Already some forty percent of guns are not purchased from gun stores. This figure would soar with excessive prohibition.

  • As the Economic Policy Journal points out, "There are not many murders in the United States that are committed with rifles or shotguns. Combined, it is under 1,000 per year---more people are murdered with knives. FBI data shows that most murders are done with handguns. Random killings are very rare, most are between people who know each or rival gang members.

  • DC offers a striking history of how murders are independent of gun laws. From less 100 such deaths a year in the 1960s, as the 1968 riots approached, annual murders soared to nearly 300, without any new access to fire arms. In the mid 1970s, after the murder rate had already dropped back under 200, a strict gun law was imposed and for the next few years nothing much happened one way or the other. Then Reagan escalated the drug war and in about five years - despite the new gun restrictions - murders climbed to nearly 500. As the drug market became less anarchistic (many killings had involved a conflict over turf), as the population of young men declined and with better policing, over the next twenty years the murder rate declined until it was close to the 1960s level. . More recently, the rate has fallen even lower yet when the Washington Post offered an explanation, strikingly absent was change in gun laws.

  • Also missing from many analyses of urban crime: the effects of gentrification. As gentrifier-in-chief Richard Florida wrote recently: "My analysis found gun-related homicides to be lower in metros with higher levels of human capital, more knowledge-based economies, and greater concentrations of high-tech industry. On the flip side, I found gun-related murders to be higher in metros with higher poverty levels, higher levels of inequality, more blue-collar working class economies…" In other words, get the poor and minorities out of town.

  • Culture play a huge role in all of this, hence the far lower murder rates in high gun owning New Hampshire compared to, say, Chicago. This is true throughout the country as shown in this chart comparing states with right to carry laws compared to other

What do we do about it all?

To change things we have to turn our national values in a direction, opposite to ones in which the abuse of guns is only a marker not the cause,opposite to one that generically celebrates violence.

Until we make nonviolent resolution of problems - from the international to the intramarital - a major priority, we're just kidding ourselves. There are simply too many other ways to kill people even if you don't have a gun.

We also need to avoid the very sort of simplistic categorizations of others that makes such a change possible. A good place for liberals to start is to take another look at gun owners.

While they rage against the NRA, it would be more helpful to understand, for example, that, according to a recent Luntz poll, 74% of its members support criminal background checks before the purchase of a gun.

Further, gun owners do not fit the liberal stereotype, as John Sides in the Washington Post recently reported:

In December, 2011, the survey firm YouGov interviewed 45,000 Americans and asked whether they or someone in their household owned a gun and whether they were members of the NRA. About 22 percent of the sample reported owning a gun, 13 percent said that someone else in their household owned a gun, and 59 percent reported not owning a gun. The remaining 6 percent were not sure. Thus, about 35 percent of Americans had a gun in their house-a number, incidentally, much lower than in an October, 2011 Gallup poll [Gallup says 47% are owners] but more in line with data from the General Social Survey.
About 7 percent of this sample reported being an NRA member. Among gun owners, the number was 24 percent. Among those who lived in a household with a gun, it was 4 percent. Among those without a gun, it was 1 percent.
NRA members were also different politically even from gun owners who weren't in the NRA. For example, 70 percent of gun owners who were NRA members called themselves "conservative" or "very conservative." Only 44 percent of gun owners who weren't NRA members said that. And while gun ownership has become increasingly confined to Republicans, there are still big differences in terms of party identification even among gun owners. The vast majority of NRA members (73 percent) identified with or leaned toward the Republican Party. But among gun owners who weren't in the NRA, only 49 percent were Republicans; more than a third (35 percent) were actually Democrats.
Consider ...the standard survey question asking whether gun laws should be more strict, less strict, or unchanged. A majority, 54 percent, of those who did not own a gun or belong to the NRA said "more strict." ... But while most NRA members (54 percent) wanted to make gun laws less strict, only 25 percent of gun owners who were not NRA members felt this way. The plurality of them (45 percent) wanted no change; 25 percent even supported stricter laws.
Some measures attracted nearly universal support (keeping guns from the mentally ill) or opposition (banning the sale of handguns). Requiring a five-day waiting period was also very popular. Even half of NRA members supported that.
What these poll results show is that the coalitional politics of gun control is more complex than you might think ...This is not a world with gun owners on one side and those who do not own guns on the other. Two of the policies most discussed in the wake of the Newtown shootings-a ban on assault weapons and a limit on the size of magazines-will attract support not only from those who don't have a gun in their house but from those who do, especially if the gun isn't theirs and also if the gun is theirs but they are not NRA members.
Gun owners do not speak with one voice about gun control...
What this means is that if liberal political and media leaders would step outside of their gated cultural communities they would find allies in many more ways than they presently can imagine. And perhaps could begin to rebuild a politics that crosses cultural and economic boundaries and thus can actually work.