Firearms

One the One Hand, On the Other Hand: Do We Want One-Armed Social Scientists?

Fed up with hearing his economic advisers tell him, “One the one hand. . . But on the other hand,” legend has it that President Harry Truman declared, “What I want is a one-armed economist.”

I often think about Truman’s statement when I try to wrap my head around America’s gun cultures and find myself saying, “On the one hand, but on the other hand…” In the end, though, I think this is the appropriate response to the complex reality of guns in American society. We don’t want one-armed social scientists in this case.

Harry_S_Truman_-_NARA_-_530677_(2)

One occasional conversation partner in my pursuit of understanding is Chris Knox of the Firearms Coalition. Chris reached out to me a while ago when he saw this project and generously sent me a copy of a collection of his father’s writings, The Gun Rights War by Neal Knox. The collection includes dozens of essays by Neal Knox and extensive annotations and essays by Chris himself. As I delve further into the complex history of the NRA and the modern battle over guns in America, this will be high on my reading list.

Chris has been particularly persistent in encouraging me not to use the term “gun” to modify phenomena like “crime” or “violence.” He insists that we ought to be concerned about crime and violence not the mechanism by which it is committed. Recently he used the analogy of drowning to make this point. We don’t commonly talk about “pool drowning” or “lake drowning” or “ocean drowning.” What matters is the drowning.

ON THE ONE HAND, I agree with Chris’s point here. If we are interested in violent crime, for example, it doesn’t really matter whether someone is victimized by a gun, knife, fist, foot, bat, book, or any other object a criminal might creatively employ. How much more progress could be made in addressing violence both from public health and criminological perspectives if scholars working in these fields would focus intently on addressing violent persons and behaviors rather than alienating people by focusing obsessively on the objects employed?

As I have previously observed, the public health approach embodied in the “Cure Violence” model sometimes addresses violence without explicit reference to guns. The problem is violence; the fact that some people enact that violence with guns is in a sense incidental. There is a chilling scene in a documentary film about “Cure Violence” called “The Interrupters” that highlights this point. It shows video of Derrion Albert, a 16-year-old honors student in Chicago, who was killed by being stomped and hit over the head with a wooden plank. Of course, this does not get coded as an instance of “blunt object violence.” In England, where a leading instrument of homicide is knives, they don’t lament their problem of “knife violence.” And so on.

The same is true of the work of criminologist David Kennedy, who I have also previously mentioned here. Kennedy is author of Don’t Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner City America (St. Martin’s Press, 2011) and director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He gave a fascinating interview a while ago to Dave Davies on NPR’s Fresh Air. When Davies noted that there is nothing about gun laws in Kennedy’s book and asks him whether restrictions on access to guns would help address the problem, Kennedy answers emphatically no. Actually he says, laughing because it is ludicrous, “How’s that working for you?”  Kennedy says he began his work with the idea that eliminating illegal gun markets was the key solution, but changed his mind.

Similarly, Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos’s recent work on injury and homicide involving guns in Chicago shows how most of the problem revolves around a small number of individuals whose behavior needs to be controlled.

ON THE OTHER HAND, if we knew that the majority of drownings came in swimming pools (as opposed to other bodies of water), or if swimming pools were more lethal than other bodies of water, then in terms of assessing relative risks, we might want in some cases to talk about “pool drowning” as a type of drowning.

We know that the vast majority of homicides in the United States are by firearms, and of those, by handgun. So, in addition to attempting to control the behaviors of people who want to harm others, figuring out how to keep firearms out of the hands of those with bad intentions could be an efficient means to the end of reducing homicide. (This need not involve any general prohibition on firearms.)

The common response to this, of course, is to say, “Yeah, but if you take that person’s gun away, then they will just use a knife or bat or some other weapon.” Granted. Where there is a will (to kill), there is a way. But most people would rather confront an attacker with a bat or knife than a gun. There is a reason you don’t want to bring a knife to a gunfight.

Indeed, there is much within gun culture itself recognizing the superior efficiency and lethality of firearms. There is plenty of talk about “superior stopping power” and “terminal ballistics.” About the necessity of 30 round magazines and carrying spare mags. About putting two to the heart and one to the head in 1.4 seconds. And all that.

Handgun Bullet Energy Transfer from http://blog.cheaperthandirt.com/terminal-ballistics/

Handgun Bullet Energy Transfer from http://blog.cheaperthandirt.com/terminal-ballistics/

So, with apologies to President Truman: On the one hand, I do agree with Chris Knox that the “gun” modifier in “gun crime” and “gun violence” is often both unnecessary and reflects a political agenda of gun control. But on the other hand, there may be times when attention to guns in connection with crime and violence is appropriate because guns do rank fairly high in the hierarchy of lethality among the weapons commonly available to human beings.

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7 thoughts on “One the One Hand, On the Other Hand: Do We Want One-Armed Social Scientists?

  1. I have to respectfully ask you to reconsider some of your comments.

    1. David Kennedy is not a criminologist. He’s a community organizer who while he was a student at Harvard got involved in a community organizing gig in South Boston which morphed into an effort to disarm gang members by trading off giving up their guns in return for not being prosecuted for minor, non-violent offenses. He took that approach and now designs similar programs for major cities with money from DOJ. He’s a good friend of mine and I doubt if he would want to be known as a criminologist.

    2. I’m sure Chris Knox is a bright young man but when he opines about ‘violence’ as opposed to ‘gun violence’ he not only doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he’s just repeating the same, tired old NRA bullshit about how the protection we get from guns outweighs the slight risk. You mention England as a counterpoint so let’s look at England. England has the same rate of violent assaults as we do. But because they use knives (since they don’t have guns), their homicide rate is 1/20th of ours. Nobody is disputing the fact that if you decide to use violence for whatever end, the problem is the violence. But the result of the violence charges dramatically depending on the way in which you carry it out. Don’t get me wrong David. Believe it or not, I don’t really give a rat’s damn whether everyone with a gun goes out tomorrow and blows their own head off or someone else’s head off, as long as my head isn’t one of the heads that is blown off. I have published more than 400,000 words about guns in 250 blogs and 5 books, and I have never, ever advocated a single public policy or law to do anything about gun ‘violence.’ But I do have an allergy to stupidity. And when someone says that guns really protedct us from crime so what does it matter if here and there someone gets shot, then they’re just being stupid.

    3. You mention drowning. In fact most drownings do take place in backyard pools. And because of the research on this by the CDC, the result is that all 50 states now require that if you have an in-ground pool and a minor in your home, you must have a fence around the pool. Has it eliminated backyard drownings? Of course not. Has it reduced the number of backyard drownings? Yes. But ask your friends in the NRA whether we should have mandatory gun safe-storage laws and they’ll say oh no, you can’t do that. That’s a violation of my 2nd Amendment rights.

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    • Thanks as always for your input. I see Kennedy’s work published in criminology journals, I see him at the criminology meetings, I see he works at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, so that’s where I get his identification from. I can accept if he doesn’t self-identify that way, no problem. His work is used in the field of criminology, and criminologists are the group of social scientists who work most on this issue, so that’s the relevance there.

      Your second point basically elaborates some ideas I bring up in my “but on the other hand” point: the lethality of guns relative to other mechanisms of violence. So we do not disagree there.

      (BTW, what was the homicide rate in England compared to the United States before they banned guns? That is an important piece of information I do not have at my fingertips.)

      In terms of “tired old NRA bullshit” about protective benefits of guns, my “on the one hand” point has nothing to do with protective benefits of guns. It has everything to do with thinking about trying to find the best way to solve a problem that many people agree is a problem — violence. And the fact that there are both good public health and criminological approaches to the issue of violence (including violence with guns) that do not require controlling guns is a point that too often gets lost in my opinion.

      Now, you may in fact be anticipating an argument that Chris Knox would make about protective benefits of guns, but his point about using “gun” as a modifier seems separate from that to me.

      Interesting thoughts on regulation of swimming pools. Thanks for raising that caveat to the analogy!

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  2. ON THE OTHER HAND, if we knew that the majority of drownings came in swimming pools (as opposed to other bodies of water), or if swimming pools were more lethal than other bodies of water, then in terms of assessing relative risks, we might want in some cases to talk about “pool drowning” as a type of drowning.

    We know that the vast majority of homicides in the United States are by firearms, and of those, by handgun. So, in addition to attempting to control the behaviors of people who want to harm others, figuring out how to keep firearms out of the hands of those with bad intentions could be an efficient means to the end of reducing homicide.

    David,

    I think this is a case of mixed metaphors. You take location and confuse it with the mechanism – pool drowning versus the firearm. If we wanted to do that analysis, we would have to look at why the people drowned versus why the committed the crime. And since suicide is a crime, that analogy is accurate.

    Do more people drown in pools because they are untrained, bad parenting (unsupervised children), chose to commit suicide versus lake drowning where undertow or wind (moving boats away from swimmer) contributed.

    figuring out how to keep firearms out of the hands of those with bad intentions could be an efficient means to the end of reducing homicide. (This need not involve any general prohibition on firearms.)

    Shouldn’t we spend more time figuring out how to stop the bad intentions? This is the reason to focus on ‘violent crime’ — because if we can figure out how to stop the cycle, we reduce crime, death, injury all around. Firearm related violent crime is approximately 8 to 12% of all violent crime. Even if we eliminated it completely we would only marginally affect the total amount.
    And here is the kicker — most people who have commit homicide usually have a violent crime arrest, often a felony conviction on their records (source Bureau of Justice Statistics) – so by reducing violent crime; we reduce the pool of potential murderers also.

    I agree with Chris Knox – by focusing on the firearms and ways to prevent access; we completely miss the need to focus on and reduce the causes of crime.

    Bob S.

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    • Thanks for your thoughts, Bob. Here is how I think of it. In terms of explanation of injury or death, there can be many different WHYs:

      -Mechanism (bullet, water, blunt object)
      -Circumstances (unsupervised children, drunk boating, criminal activity)
      -Intention (suicide, accident, homicide)

      And there may be other categories of explanation. On the one hand, I agree with you and Chris that in terms of causal explanation, the mechanism is the weakest factor. On the other hand, I do not believe it is a NON-factor, because some mechanisms are more lethal than others.

      On the one hand, I also agree that we should try to reduce bad intentions and circumstances. On the other hand, I don’t think we can entirely eliminate those – hence my conclusion regarding the need to prevent those with bad intentions or who are in bad circumstances from accessing firearms.

      Complex and hierarchical causes requires similar solutions. I don’t think we disagree on that for sure.

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      • David,

        I think we agree on the many whys. I was just objecting to your ‘pool drowning’ versus firearm death comparison. I think a better comparison would have been pool drowning versus ‘home firearm related death’. Or homicide by drowning in pool versus homicides in the home.

        On the other hand, I do not believe it is a NON-factor, because some mechanisms are more lethal than others.

        I think that really depends on the intentions; if someone really wants to murder someone, it doesn’t matter how lethal an object is, they will work at it until the deed is done. Maybe instead of focusing on the ‘lethality’ of the mechanism, we should focus on the ease of access or operation.
        I find it hypocritical that people say children shouldn’t be taught how to use firearms safely while advocating that we ‘drownproof’ our children by teaching them to swim. We teach children how to open doors and gates; which is often how many children gain access to private pools. While we advocate for fencing around pools, we don’t see anyone calling for childproof locks on outer doors, on gate access to pools, or requirements for ‘smart doors’ preventing unauthorized access like they do for firearms.

        hence my conclusion regarding the need to prevent those with bad intentions or who are in bad circumstances from accessing firearms.
        Like preventing those with bad intentions from accessing prescription drugs or motor vehicles or razor blades? Oh wait. We don’t really focus on preventing those with bad intentions on gaining access to any other mechanism. The mechanism is a distraction; it really doesn’t matter to me if someone robs me with a knife, a baseball bat or a firearm. I’ve still been robbed.

        What would you rather have — an incredible effort that might reduce 10 to 20% of firearm related deaths/injuries/crimes while restricting our rights greatly or an effort that reduces all violent crime by 10 to 20% by addressing the causes of the crime and NOT restricting our rights ?

        The only way we can prevent those with bad intentions from accessing firearms is to make it vastly more difficult for everyone to access firearms. If you know of any other way, please let me know.

        Bob S.

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