Understanding after Tragedy

When I realized the scope of what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, I posted the news to my Facebook feed to get the word out and called for people to hold off on the political debate out of respect for the tragedy. That’s not what happened, and even after getting used to the fairly rapid news-cycle in the wake of the Virginia Tech and Aurora shootings, I was shocked and dismayed at how quickly the two sides squared off and began attacking each other. 

It did nothing to honor the memory of the little children who lost their lives or their family and community who must now wrestle with the loss, and so I simply refused to engage. I spent nearly 48 hours without posting a single thing on Facebook.

And yet a discussion of gun control, health policy, and violence in our society is as inevitable as it is essential. We need to have the discussion, I just wish that it could be had in a context of mutual understanding and respect. Asking too much? Aiming too high? Maybe, but could we really be satisfied with settling for less?

To that end, there are two things I’d like for people to understand.

  1. The gun-control advocates who immediately lept on this tragedy to renew their calls for legislation–often in the context of spiteful and vitriolic attacks on those they saw as ennabling the slaughter–were acting out of earnest love and anguish. I was angry at first, but that anger has completely dissipated as I realized that passionate language as a reflection of their very sincere and very noble motivations.
  2. The gun community, especially those interested in self-defense as opposed to hunting, believe first and foremost in the defense of others. Most people who get concealed carry permits do so at least in part because they believe they are taking upon themselves a solemn responsibility to defend everyone around them at any time. Their motivations to help save the loss of innocent life are no less sincere or noble.

Having said that: good intentions aren’t sufficient for good policy. The point of mutual understanding is not to short circuit an argument by saying “everybody is right in their own special way”, but just to try and set the initial tone as one of unity–even if fractious unity–rather than one of us-vs-them contention. Neither the gun community nor the gun control advocates are the enemy. We have common objectives, and though one or both sides will certainly lose or gain in the coming months, it’s more important to have a society that understands our essential unity than for either faction to gain the upperhand.

In that spirit, this is the first article I want to post about this tragedy: 4 Awful Reactions to Sandy Hook School Shooting – And Thoughts on a Better Response.

For now, I just want to make this policy observation. Over the last 20 years, gun violence has dropped enormously in the United States:

In 1992, for instance, the violent crime rate per 100,000 residents was 758. In 2012, it was 386.Between 2000 and 2009 (the latest year for which I could easily find data) use of firearms in violent crime had decreased from a rate of 2.4 per 1,000 to 1.4 per 1,000.

And yet during that time, the incidence of mass shootings has increased just as dramatically:

While aggregate gun violence plummets, horrific mass shootings soar.

I believe this indicates that the problem doesn’t have very much to do with gun laws. After all, we’re saying that the rate of gun violence has been cut almost in half while the laws were being liberalized nation-wide and meanwhile Connecticut has some of the strictest laws in the nation. And yet at the same time we get these terrible shootings.

My hunch, and it is only a hunch, is that the shootings have little to do with gun laws and much more to do with the way the media reacts to these killings. I happened to read the names of the Columbine shooters and it was with a jolt of shock that I realized I recognized them perfectly, all these years later. And now another young killer’s name and face have been immortalized in a veritable Hall of Fame. Immortality is a prize that many of our best artists, scientists, and philosophers can only dream of, but we’re handing it out for the low, low cost of some stolen guns, a few hundred rounds of ammunition and your soul?

I don’t mean to imply there’s a simple solution, and I’m absolutely not trying to take gun control pre-emptively off the table. My initial thought, however, is that we might be looking in the wrong place.

5 thoughts on “Understanding after Tragedy”

  1. Great post. I’d be wary, though, of those FBI stats. Fact is, we know how many people are killed every year, but we just don’t know how many are being shot. As with casuality count comparisons between Vietnam versus Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s some evidence to indicate that far more people are being shot today than they were 20 years ago, but medical advances are papering over the difference in crime statistics reporting: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324712504578131360684277812.html

    In a review of Gus Van Zant’s “Elefant”, Roger Ebert wrote this:
    “Let me tell you a story. The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that. “But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure 1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

    The reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

    In short, I said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was happy.”
    (whole thing’s worth a read: http://bit.ly/yqAvsP)

    I think there is something to this critique. On the other hand, it fails to address the demand-side. Perhaps that’s because the demand-side is just too complicated to address, but I do not know that coverage will ever change without audiences leading the way.

    What a bizarre, heartbreaking, tragic, stupid cycle of death we’ve gotten ourselves into. The causes are so multifaceted, and there are so many entangled, pernicious cofactors, that breaking this cycle will only happen with steady and sustained effort over a long arch of time. Sadly, I’m not sure we have it in us as a people to change the things that need changing.

  2. Also, a part of me hates that these kinds of tragedies are the only time we talk seriously and openly about the often dovetailing issues of mental illness and gun violence. Far more than 20 kids a day are erased from existence, but they do not have a voice and their deaths are lost in the churn of news that people care about.

  3. Well, the WSJ won’t let me through their paywall atm so I can’t give you the verbatim quote, but I read the article at work and noted that the impact of improved medical care lessens the declining violence trend but doesn’t completely offset it. So, while I think it’s a valid point, I think the overall trend towards less gun violence juxtaposed with more mass shootings still holds. It’s also worth pointing out that the criminologists I’ve heard (e.g. interviewed NPR) even stated that there is no statistical increase in mass shootings either, but I think that one will depend on the time horizons one uses.

    In any case, I certainly think there is no clear evidence of an upward trend in violence linked to the liberalizing of gun laws. I just don’t see the connection. Just like I don’t see a connection with violent video games, although I’ve noticed that at least a couple of articles have referred to the killer playing them. (What teenage male doesn’t?)

    Your Roger Ebert quote, however, I love.

    Finally, I like what you have to say about poverty, and I want to add something to it in a post soon.

  4. Case in point: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1223193/Culture-violence-Gun-crime-goes-89-decade.html

    >>Gun crime has almost doubled since Labour came to power as a culture of extreme gang violence has taken hold.

    The latest Government figures show that the total number of firearm offences in England and Wales has increased from 5,209 in 1998/99 to 9,865 last year – a rise of 89 per cent.

    In some parts of the country, the number of offences has increased more than five-fold.

    In eighteen police areas, gun crime at least doubled. << Look, I'm not making the strong case that liberal gun laws reduce crime, or the strict gun laws increase crime. I just don't think the correlation is that strong at all. And yet to draw not only a general correlation but a highly specific link to specifically mass shootings? I just don't see how it can be done. What laws do you have in mind, that aren't already in place in Connecticut, that could have a real impact?

  5. “improved medical care lessens the declining violence trend but doesn’t completely offset it. So, while I think it’s a valid point, I think the overall trend towards less gun violence juxtaposed with more mass shootings still holds.”

    When reported in a single bucket, total violent crime rates (including murders, sexual assaults, armed robbery, etc) are down. The total aggravated assault rate (including non-fatal assaults committed with or without guns) is down as well, though not as dramatically as with murder. Gun violence by itself, as far as I am aware, isn’t tracked in the FBI’s UCR, and I’m not aware of any other national database that collects this information.

    I often hear declining violent crime rates and declining murder rates conflated with declining gun violence rates, but the CDC’s sample-based estimates paint a different picture.

    The WSJ piece had this handy graphic showing the relationship between increasing gun violence and declining gun-violence-related mortality:

    The 2004 estimate for Violence-Related Firearm/Gunshot Nonfatal Injuries and Rates per 100,000:

    The 2011 estimate:

    Here’s the database for you’re interested: tool:http://www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/nonfatal.html

    Maybe gun violence is declining, or maybe we’ve traded lower total assault rates via (in part) deterrence for a higher rate of gun violence?

    The UK stat is interesting, but problematic because of the time series in that a period of growth and robust social welfare spending is being compared with a period of austerity and double-dip recessions. Direct links between economic downturns and murders are tricky because there just aren’t that many data points, but we do know, for instance, that domestic violence goes up when the economy is down, so using this as a point of comparison is problematic.

    One other thing that we (might) know, is that while crime has been dropping, gun ownership has also been dropping. A “shy tory factor” could be distorting things, but while there are more guns in the US this year than last, and far more than 20 years ago, fewer and fewer people own a gun. If the numbers are to be believed, this is especially true when it comes to to pistols and shotguns.

    This is interesting, of course, because ~75% of homicides are committed with handguns. Which brings me to the point where I concede that abating gun violence by way of policies designed to prevent mass shootings isn’t the best approach. Sadly, since most of the victims of gun violence are poor minorities who live in communities that we’re not a part of, we’ve just stopped caring about the issue until something so heinous, so violent, and so “close to home” happens that we HAVE to pay attention. So, what are some laws that I think have a chance of passing that could have a real impact?

    -Criminal background checks of anyone purchasing a gun. No exception for private sale.
    -Revoke the right to own a gun from anyone convicted of violent misdemeanors, such as assault, and hold weapons of owners arrested for domestic violence until the case is adjudicated.
    -Ban high capacity magazines.

    Ok, that last one is kind of related to mass shootings. The Tuscon shooter was only stopped when he tried to reload one of his 30 round magazines and bystanders wrestled the gun away (who , ironically, came close to being shot themselves by a CW holder who burst on the scene).

    I don’t think these measures go far enough. Not by a long shot. But I think they’re a start.

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