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.
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.
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.