Sunday, August 4, 2019

Are We Looking At The Right Target (Redux)?

The last few days have seen several more horrific mass killings.

It is so sad and such a waste of life.

Unfortunately, we have seen this movie too many times before. What is it with disaffected single white men in their 20's who so often are guilty of these heinous acts of violence?

Predictably, many immediately want to politicize the tragedies for political purposes.

The smoke had barely cleared from the Walmart in El Paso and the mainstream media and Democrats were claiming that the perpetrator was a white nationalist who had a vendetta against Hispanics and was a follower of Donald Trump.

Several hours later another white man in his 20's was killing nine people in a bar area in Dayton, Ohio. The dead included his sister. However, it is being reported that he was a "pro-Satan leftist and Elizabeth Warren supporter" who hated President Trump.

Of course, all of that carnage made the earlier shootings at the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California almost an afterthought that were also perpetrated by another young disaffected white man in his 20's.

How do you make sense of it?

The Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal does a good a job as any of trying to identify the root cause. It is not guns. It is not politics. We are talking about disturbed young men who are alienated from society.

The mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend are horrifying assaults on peaceful communities by disturbed young men. American politics will try to simplify these events into a debate about guns or political rhetoric, but the common theme of these killings is the social alienation of young men that will be harder to address.

Take the El Paso shooter, who is suspected of writing a manifesto posted on the 8chan website before the rampage. He expressed sympathy for the racial motivations of the Christchurch killer and denounced Hispanic immigration, but he also raged against “unchecked corporations” who support immigration and pollute the land.

This is the rant of someone angry about a society he doesn’t feel a part of and doesn’t comprehend. It is all-too-typical of most of these young male killers who tend to be loners and marinate in notions they absorb in the hours they spend online. They are usually disconnected to family, neighborhood, church, colleagues at work, or anything apart from their online universe.

These men may draw inspiration from one another online, and any communication or common connection needs to be investigated. The FBI says it has made 100 arrests related to domestic terrorism in the last nine months. But blaming all this on one politician or ideology, left or right, without evidence of such a connection is disingenuous and counterproductive.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that we need to put renewed focus on mental health to combat this problem. However, it is not so much an issue of money as one of policy. There needs to be more resolve to get troubled people out of our midst.

The problem is identifying those with mental illness who are a threat, and then allowing society to intervene to prevent violence. Overwhelming evidence suggests that the de-institutionalization of the seriously mentally ill has had tragic results. Libertarians and mental-health advocates who resist such intervention need to do some soul-searching.

If you don't think this is an issue consider this chart that shows the gigantic reduction in the number of mentally ill people who used to be housed in inpatient institutions and have been released into the general population since the 1950's.

Credit: PBSFrontline

Bear in mind that the total population of the United States in the 1950's was only half of what it is today!

This is not to say that there is not a place for more stringent gun control laws. These young men should clearly not have been able to buy a firearm. However, how could they have been stopped unless they were first identified as having a mental issue? The laws should permit family members or the police in these cases to file some type of "red flag" to petition a court to disallow the possession of firearms to someone who might cause harm to themselves or others due to their mental state.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since I wrote the following post in 2013 shortly after the Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook killings perpetrated by another couple of disaffected twenty-something white men. Most of the facts and data has not changed materially in six years.

Those shootings resulted in similar outrage and calls to ban or limit the possession of firearms---particularly rifles.

Not much has changed. Consider, for example, that there were only 403 homicides in 2017 (the most recent year data was available ) by rifle. There were four times that many homicides caused by knives or cutting instruments. Is anyone suggesting we ban knives?

Number of murder victims by weapon, 2017

Six years later and I am still asking,

"Are we looking at the right target?"

Are We Looking At The Right Target?
(originally published January 17, 2013)

We barely avoided going over the fiscal cliff.

We are now heading straight for a collision with a mountain of federal debt.

However, all we hear the President talking about right now are guns, guns and guns.

Are we looking at the right target in all of this?  What should we really be focusing on?


There is little doubt that gun violence is a big problem and an important issue. However, is it the biggest problem we have right now?  After all, we are less than a month from hitting that debt limit ceiling. We continue to spend $1.00 for every .60 in revenues.  We are still looking at $1 trillion annual deficits. We still have a U.S. Senate that has not passed a budget in almost four years.

What will all of the talk, proposals and executive orders on guns actually accomplish?

First of all, I am not a gun nut.  I have used firearms and at one time had obtained the NRA Sharpshooter classification.  I respect guns and what they can do.  More importantly, I respect the U.S. Constitution.  I believe the 2nd Amendment is pretty clear.

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.

There is no doubt that the people have the right to keep and bear arms and that right is not to be infringed.  At the same type, it seems understood that some type of regulation is permitted with regard to that right.  The difficult question is at what point is the right to keep and bear arms infringed on by regulations?

For example, does an individual have the right to keep and bear arms such as a nuclear weapon, surface to air missile or bazooka?  I have not heard anyone with the NRA or anyone else make that argument.  Machine guns and other military types of automatic weapons are already illegal and have been since the 1930's.  In fact, the use of these weapons by gangsters such as Machine Gun Kelly, Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger led to the passage of the National Firearms Act in 1934 that made them illegal in the U.S.

If anything is going to be done that might infringe on that right in the Constitution it would seem that it should be clearly demonstrated to be a reasonable regulation.  To meet that standard government should have to show that vast numbers of the public are being killled (or could be killed) to outweigh the individual constitutional right.  This is clear with an atomic weapon, machine gun or SAM.  In other words, the public's interest to safety outweighs the individual rights to keep and bear arms.

Let's look at some surprising statistics that I found in researching this blog.   The following information on gun violence comes from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.  The other data is from research I did to put these deaths in context.

On average, over the three years 2008-2010, 31,537 people in America have died from gun violence. This is a shocking number.  However, over the same time period, an average of 34,651 people died in auto accidents. 25,000 people die annually in accidental falls.  There are 39,000 deaths each year by poisoning, most due to abusing drugs.  There were also almost 800,000 abortions  in the U.S. in 2009 according to the CDC.  120,000 abortions were done in New York alone.

What I found interesting in looking at the gun violence deaths is how they were caused.

Only 11,583 of the total were homicides.  That is only 37%.

18,783 of the total deaths by gun violence were the result of suicides!  That is 60% of total deaths.

Only 334 of all gun deaths were caused by police intervention and 584 were the result of people being killed accidentally by guns.

When you consider that 60% of gun violence deaths are caused by people committing suicide you begin to get an idea of how ridiculous all of this gun talk is.  How many people kill themselves using an assault rifle or with a magazine with over 10 rounds?  Will any of this do anything substantial on curbing gun violence deaths that would justify infringing on the rights of law abiding citizens.  I think not.

Further to this point, John Hinderaker cites another interesting statistic in PowerLine that adds additional context to all of this.  In 2010, there were only 358 homicides that involved rifles (all rifles, not just "assault weapons") in the U.S.  That means that only 1% of all deaths by gun violence involved rifles of any type.  Again, are we looking at the right target?

Handguns are clearly the cause of almost all gun violence in this country. However, standard handguns are not even being discussed. That is because the U.S. Supreme Court in D.C v. Heller ruled in 2008 that banning personal firearms possession is unconstitutional. The District of Columbia had banned the possession of all firearms by anyone but law enforcement officers beginning in 1976.  Of course, there are legitimate questions about how useful the ban on handguns in D.C was anyway as Jeffrey Scott Shapiro points out in this Wall Street Journal op-ed.  Murders in D.C. have actually declined by more than 50% in the four years since the handgun ban was repealed.

When I look at the statistics the obvious answer is that the primary target on gun violence needs to be focused first and foremost on the people firing the weapon. It seems to me we need to be focusing more on the mental health side than on the gun side. You start with the fact that suicides are the cause of 60% of gun deaths.  The recent mass shootings in Aurora, CO and Newtown, CT clearly seem to point to serious mental health issues being the primary reason for the killings.  The same was true with Jared Loughner in the Gabby Giffords shootings in Arizona last year.

Much more of this debate and discussion should be looking at the issue of mental health than the size of the magazines in firearms.  That debate should also include what effects (if any) video games and other entertainment might have on the mental state of mass killers like we saw in Aurora (Batman) and Newtown ("Call of Duty" video game).  It may be coincidental or circumstantial but it bears looking into in some depth.  We have introduced a lot of external factors and influences into our environment that were not present 20, 30, 50 or 200 years ago.

It should not be easy to infringe on individual constitutional rights. Should any of this be done by Executive Orders?  I know that is easy for the President. However, what happened to the idea of passing bills in the legislative branch first and having the President sign them into law?

As for the issue of gun violence, let's start where the numbers tell us the real underlying problem is. Mental health is being talked about but not with the same vigor and rigor that guns are being talked about. As a result, it seems that most of the focus in this debate is on the wrong target.  And we are also spending a lot of time talking about an issue that, while important, is far less critical than the looming debt and budget crisis that should be #1 on every person's mind in Washington right now.

We are not going to solve any part of the gun issue in this country in the next 60 days.  We have to solve some part of our debt and budget crisis in the next two months.  Time is wasting and the President is fiddling.  I just don't want all of us getting burned in the process.

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