Once more there is tragedy in America, and most everyone seems to want a quick and simple solution. The response after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in 1995 was to turn our federal buildings into fortresses accessible to the citizenry only after body-scanning examinations. The response after the 9/11 terrorists attacks in 2001 was to create a vast and expensive new federal bureaucracy to patrol the nation's airports.
And now the issue is about guns.
Twenty-seven people, 20 of them children, are horribly and tragically dead as the result of a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Dec. 14. The issue has hit hard at the America psyche for the same reason Oklahoma City and 9/11 did, because death came in a place it wasn't supposed to visit in a way it wasn't supposed to come.
The U.S. government kills about 20 children per year in drone strikes in Afghanistan an Pakistan. They are "collateral damage' in the hunt for potential terrorists. We have been killling them at near this rate for almost a decade. Their deaths go as unnoticed as those of the hundreds of black children killed in are major cities every year.
Newtown was different because it happened in a place that was supposed to be safe.
Many, from President Barack Obama down to local PTA chapters across the country, now want something done. There are those like Huffington Post publisher Arianna Huffington who seem to think another simple solution is in order now:
More lives are going to be destroyed as more and more states make owning and carrying a gun easier. Eight states now allow guns in bars. Louisiana allows them in churches. In Missouri it's legal to carry a gun while you're drunk. In Kansas, you can carry your weapon in K-12 schools. And the day before the Newtown shooting, Michigan's legislature passed a law allowing people to bring guns into schools, classes, dorms, and stadiums.
From what she wrote there, one would think her observations black-and-white facts, but they are far more grey. Only a month ago, the U.S. Justice Department published a national study titled
"Homicide Trends in the United States, 1980-2008 (Annual rates for 2009 and 2010)." It attracted little attention at the time, but should now be required reading for anyone with a desire to involve themselves in what appears to have become a national debate about gun control.
Facebook is alive with people going at each other on this subject. There are some screaming for gun control even as others swarm gun dealers to buy arms and ammunition. The politics surrounding the issue seem, as with so many political issues in this country today, to be rapidly polarizing. The name calling is already rampant, and it is sad because at the root level, everyone wants the same thing.
Everyone from gun-control-pushing, uber-rich New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who can afford to surround himself with more armed security than some poor working stiff can imagine, to assault-rifle-toting, Second Amendment-quoting members of the National Rifle Association want a country that is as safe as it can be.
We don't want to have to worry about dying. We particularly don't want to have to think about children dying in shootings. The question is how to get to that world given the realities of nature because, at the end of the day, the reality of nature is that there is a grand conspiracy to kill us all. We cannot remove death from the picture. We cannot make our world perfectly safe. We can only minimize the odds of dying. And that's where it gets interesting, because according to the Justice Department's recent study, the odds of being killed in a homicide in this country have been going down for years.
Violence rips our social fabric, but crime's down
The homicide rate peaked in 1991 at 9.8 deaths per 100,000 people. It has fallen steadily since. It was down to 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010, the last year for which complete numbers are available. About 11,000 of these approximately 16,000 murders are committed with firearms. The federal ban on so-called "assault weapons'' -- semi-automatic rifles the appearance of which is scary to many even if the workings are the same as for all semi-automatic rifles -- passed in 1994 and expired in 2004.
By the time the ban passed, the homicide rate was already falling. But it kept dropping. It was down to about 6 per 100,000 when the ban expired. It continued to drop after. The statistical evidence, if people want to argue facts instead of emotions, can be argued either way here. It is possible the ban helped make the country safer; it is possible it made no difference.
As the Justice study notes, the homicide rate between 1999 and 2008 "remained relatively constant ... these homicide numbers were still below those reported in the 1970s, when the number of reported homicides first rose about 20,000."
I graduated from high school in 1970. I was in college through the early 1970s. I did not think of it as a particularly violent time.
But then, there was no Internet then, no wired world with instant information. News I read in the newspaper was from places far away. In those days, Newtown, Conn., was farther from my Minnesota home than it now is from my Alaska home. Much, much farther. Not to mention that tragic events like what happened there just didn't seem so intense back then.
Maybe that's because the media spotlight shown dimmer.
I admit to being more than a little shocked to now learn the 1970s was a significantly more violent time than today, which I think of as a violent time.
In that regard, the Justice study underlines the differences between perceptions and realities. The homicide rate in this country today is down to near what it was in the 1950s and 1960s when the memories of World War II were still fresh in the minds of many Americans. A legitimate argument can be made that we were a far less violent society then. The country was full of people who'd seen too much death and hardship during the war. There is a good argument to be made it influenced the culture.
Conditioned for feeling everything but killings
Who knows but how many of the most violent and aggressive among us -- males tend to predominate there -- were killed in the war because of those very traits of violence or aggression, and how many others were changed by the war? Since the 1950s, we've learned a lot about how environment shapes the human brain, how it can change behavior. The National Institutes of Health now contend "there is ample evidence that ... behavior acts in concert with the environment to establish structural changes in the brain that last a lifetime. Perhaps most surprisingly, there is now evidence that social behavior can cause changes in the brain in adult animals and that these changes are reversible."
What changes in behavior have come in this country in the past decade would seem worthy of a whole lot of discussion at this moment because there are, in some cases, as strong an argument to be made for the NRA belief that an "armed society is a polite society'' as for Arianna Huffington's contention that making guns easier to carry will get people killed. The only place Huffington's argument really seems to apply today is in the inner cities of urban America, and yet even there maybe not.
Where is outrage at inner-city violence?
It is a sad and disturbing fact that while many Americans today worry about the deaths of predominately white children in a school in Connecticut, the real threat of violent death is to black children in inner cities everywhere.
The Newtown massacre was a horrible aberration. Death of children in the inner city is a daily reality. Is it because there are too many guns there or because only the wrong people have guns? I don't know, but I know I wouldn't want to be an inner city black man counting on the police to protect me because that clearly isn't work.
The homicide death rate for blacks in this country is, in general, six times greater than for whites, according to that Justice study. The death rate for black children under age 5 stands at 7.2 per 100,000 -- significantly higher than the rate for any other children, and more than double the 2.3 per 100,000 homicide rate for white children.
Most of these kids live in major urban areas -- like Bloomberg's New York City -- where gun control is already stringent, according to the study. A strong argument can be made there that gun control has done nothing to save them.
Then again, the opposite argument can also be made. The homicide rate in cities over 1 million population has dropped from a staggering 45 per 100,000 residents in 1991 to 12 per 100,000 in the last analysis. The latter is still more than double the national rate on the whole., but the drop is staggering.
Did the rate fall because of gun control or in spite of it or for other reasons?
Some cities have launched major crackdowns on gangs. It is hard to argue against getting guns out of the hand of those who believe there is glory in shooting other people. Then again, urban gun control doesn't seem to have done much to disarm gang members. There is even an argument to be made it has done the opposite It has helped to boost the gun as a status symbol.
From 1980-2008, the Justice Department study notes, "the majority of all drug-related (67.4 percent) and gang-related (69.6 percent) killings took place in large cities.'' These are, by and large, the same cities that have homicide rates twice the national average. Efforts to curb gangs and gang killings in U.S. urban areas appear not to have worked all that well despite the huge efforts thrown at law enforcement in some places, which is not to say that they can't work.
The Justice study, in fact, points to one area in which a focused effort to eliminate murders has worked.
"Homicides for which the offender was known to be an intimate (domestic violence cases) have declined in cities of all sizes and types,'' the report said. In large cities, the rate has been more than halved. In smaller cities, it is down by more than 43 percent. As it has fallen, so too has the death rate by firearm in DV cases. Guns were involved in 69 percent of the cases in 1980. The percentage was down to 42 percent by 2008.
The courts are now active in the quick separation of battling intimates, and police are more aggressive in getting firearms out of the hands of people involved in disagreements wherein domestic violence has been raised as a possibility. The DV data presents the best argument for gun control. Men, and most of the murderers in these cases are men, deprived of guns are less likely to shoot their intimates, though they still beat or stab to death far too many.
Proof that outlawed guns leave only outlaws with guns?
There is also a sound argument to be made that social efforts to discourage violence against women have also helped. Behaviors can be changed. The million dollar question is how to go about changing them.
The NRA would, of course, argue that gun control is not the best way to do so. Personally, I should confess, I once told a woman in a very dangerous situation like this to get a gun and learn how to use it. A gun can kill you. It can also save you, which is why some people are unlikely to give up theirs. It is one of the reasons the NRA likes to argue "that if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns."
It is one valid argument against gun control. Without doubt, there are people of no threat to anyone who would refuse to give up their guns if gun control was implemented. I know some of them. By refusing to disarm, they would become criminals. Then the government could spend time and money trying to catch them. For what purpose? The "War on Drugs'' has illustrated how quickly the country can fill up prisons with people of little threat to others. One has to question whether the nation could afford a "War on Guns'' to go with the war on drugs.
But there even bigger issues to wrestle with here.
Despite the efforts of the intelligentsia in this country to dismiss NRA claims that the use of firearms for self-defense is a red herring, the data would appear to indicate otherwise. While the homicide rate has fallen steadily since 2000, the Justice study says, the rate of justifiable homicides -- so-called "self-defense shootings'' -- increased by 25 percent from 1999-2008. The numbers of these shootings are, thankfully, small. No right minded person wants to shoot and kill anyone for any reason.
But the thankfully small numbers of dead might have a far larger influence on deterrence than many would like to think. Criminals are not unlike natural predators; all prey on the weak. Increasing the potential danger of victims, not to mention making it harder to discern the vulnerable, might have a lot larger affect than we think on making the miscreants among us think twice before trying to victimize someone. It is a possibility that warrants some thought.
The Justice Department study makes for interesting reading in this regard as in many others. There are all kinds of conclusions that can be drawn. It might be a good place to start an intelligent national discussion about gun control as opposed to the emotional discussion now under way. I'm already tired of the name calling on both sides.
Many seem to have lost sight of the common goal: How to make the nation as safe as possible.
I confess I don't have the answer as to how to do that. Personally, I am, all for gun control if, of course, I am allowed to keep my guns.
I once had to use a gun in self defense. I cannot say definitively that the weapon saved my life, but I'm pretty confident that lacking the gun the grizzly bear that had me by the legs would likely have rendered me even more ugly than I am now. The gun was on that day a tool for which I was thankful. Another gun was on another day in Newtown a horror for me as for most other Americans. A lot of them now want do something, anything.
I keep wondering where we are if the responsible answer to the question of what to do is to do nothing. What if Newtown was really just an aberration about which nothing effective can be done by law.
What if trying to do something about it only makes the country's gun problem worse? What if cracking down on guns because of Newtown emboldens criminals and starts that homicide rate climbing upward again? What if cracking down on guns because of Newtown causes the next lunatic to go after a school with a bomb instead of a gun?
America has known that scenario before. Newtown, as horrible as it might be, is not our worst school massacre. Forty-five people died, 35 of them children, in the Bath School Disaster in Michigan in 1927. We are a nation with a sad, sad history of violence.
Anyone who thinks that is something easy to change best look around. Go on Facebook and gauge the demeanor of many of the people arguing the gun issue in the wake of the Newtown massacre. I have. The rage in some of the people now proselytizing for gun control leaves me cold. There seem more than a few who would happily kill their gun-owning neighbor to ensure there were no weapons around.
It's not a good way to have an intelligent national discussion about how to make the country as safe as possible for everyone.
Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com