Monday, October 12, 2015

Guns and Laws, or Laws and Guns

Disclaimer:  I believe understanding firearms is a valuable point of education whether or not you choose to own a gun.  I was fortunate enough to have had that education when I was younger.  I also believe the right to maintain arms is specified in the Constitution’s Second Amendment, and if we want to outlaw all firearms it will require a correction to the Constitution.  In other words guns cannot be outlawed through law or executive order, but having said that, is there sensible regulation, beyond what we have today, that could be effective in reducing gun related injuries or death?
Agenda:  Every time I hear someone say there should be something based on “common sense” I cringe.  Saying something should be based on common sense is saying something should be the way you want it, for you clearly have common sense.  This piece is driven by the current debate between the left and the right, and the President’s decision to again interject his office into the middle of a tragedy and push his long-standing agenda of outlawing guns in America.  I realize it will change no ones mind and those with strong views either way will continue to believe as they chose and spout the half-truths they are so fond in hurdling around.  Those on the public stage will continue to feed those willing idiots with the propaganda they clamor for.
My purpose here is to attempt to understand what is real and what is BS in all the propaganda, and document my findings in the event my grandchildren ever wonder about this time in America and what I thought.  If you are reading this you can choose to accept or disagree with anything I have to say.  
Let’s start with a basic question, are we concerned with guns and gun violence because they are used to kill other people (homicides), are used in self-destruction (suicides), or present a risk of accidental use?  As you will see, deciding that question is essential in understanding the problem and how it should be dealt with.
Within hours of the shootings at Roseburg, Oregon, the President[i] came forward with a public statement calling for action to reduce the availability of guns and establish “common sense gun safety laws,” noting that those states with the strictest laws have the fewest deaths.  He closed with a recommendation that gun owners should reject the position of the National Rifle Association. Of course the political opposition came out strongly to condemn the President, and the mainstream media leaped to his defense.  In checking his comments Politifact said his comments were “mostly true.” I am struck by the number times Politifact cite studies that did not support his specific statements or look at the context they were made in, but still at the end of the day felt rather than a neutral rating the President was correct.  Among the discordant facts noted were simple things like the study he based his statements on failed to point out that suicide accounts for over half the deaths, or that once you get beyond the top five states with the strictness of the laws does not seem to be the distinguishing variable, leaving unanswered the question, what is the driving consideration?

As Ms. Carroll of Politifact[ii] notes:

The problem is, however, that this is an overly general statement. The research doesn’t prove a universal cause-and-effect relationship between gun laws and fewer gun deaths; it might just be a correlation. Some laws are more effective than others, and other cultural, demographic or socioeconomic factors might be the driving force behind the number of gun deaths in different states.”

So even with the obvious overreach in pushing fewer laws as causation Ms. Carroll gives the President a “Mostly True.”  I believe there is a personal bias involved in this assessment.  Especially in light of criticism of the original National Journal Report the President and Ms. Carroll cite as the source of the position.
Now let's look at the National Journal[iii] article that both the President and Ms. Carroll use as the basis for their statements.  In this 28 August article, Ms. Libby Isenstein shows data compiled from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Center for Disease Control, NRA-Institute for Legislative Action, and staff reports.  The article was written as a response to the murders of Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, from WDBJ.  In her analysis Ms. Isenstein asserts, “states that impose the most restrictions on gun users also have the lowest rates of gun-related deaths.”  She shows legal restrictions like requiring a permit to purchase, a universal background check, must hand guns be registered, waiting period between purchase and possession, difficulty in obtaining concealed carry and of course the always popular “stand your ground” law. In her article she speculates that the five states with the lowest gun-related death rate per 100,000 (Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and Road Island) also have the most restrictive laws and the five states with the least restrictions (Wyoming, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Alaska) have the highest.  Of course in this she blends all gun deaths except for “legal interventions involving firearms.”
Her article then goes on to show three tables to demonstrate the impacts of the laws.  Her table on background checks shows a comparative difference of .76 deaths/100,000 between those with and those without.  She does note that 11 states had too few homicides to provide statistically reliable numbers.  Nine of those states were in the no background check required, so if they had been counted would the comparative difference been significant?   For that matter is the .76/100,000 outside the margin of error statistically?
So, what do others say in rebuttal?
From[iv] we see the following:
"According to National Journal, the six states with the lowest rates of gun-related deaths in 2013, ranging from 2.6 to 5.7 per 100,000, were Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, which do indeed have relatively strict gun policies as measured by requirements for buying and carrying handguns. National Journal also considered whether states impose a duty to retreat on people attacked in public places, which all six of these states do.

Once you get past those six states, the hypothesis that low gun death rates go hand in hand with strict gun control starts to break down. New Hampshire, with a gun death rate just a little higher than New Jersey's, has permissive gun policies. Likewise Minnesota, Washington, Vermont, Wisconsin, and South Dakota, all of which have gun death rates of 10 or less per 100,000. New Hampshire and Minnesota have lower rates than California, Illinois, the District of Columbia, and Maryland, all of which have substantially stricter gun rules.

At the other end of the list, Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Wyoming have both permissive gun policies and high gun death rates, ranging from around 17 to nearly 20 per 100,000. But of these six states, only Louisiana has a very high gun murder rate (based on 2010 data). The rate in Mississippi is fairly high but still lower than in D.C. or Maryland, which have much stricter gun laws. Alaska, Wyoming, Alabama, and Arkansas have lower gun murder rates than California, which has more gun restrictions."

From the NRA[v]
"Mere correlation, even if one existed, wouldn’t necessarily mean causation. Isenstein claimed that there is a “correlation” between gun control laws and firearm-related death rates. However, even if there were such a correlation, it wouldn’t necessarily mean that gun control reduces deaths. If it were that simple, it could be claimed that roosters crowing at dawn proves that crowing causes the sun to rise"
Clearly we would expect critical comments from the NRA, and you can make your own determination about the organization, but if you read the review I believe it offers substantive rational to support its assessment that Isenstein’s analysis is deeply flawed and agenda driven.
The NRA uses its own tables to show the District of Columbia, with the most restrictive laws in the nation far exceeds the rest of the nation in murder rates, and that states with right to carry laws in place are 20% low than the national average. 
There is an old saying, you can make statistics prove anything; you just need to use the right statistics.  This was wonderfully illustrated this week (Oct 5-13) with competing headlines from CNN and FOX.  Using the same data from the same poll we saw “Hillary Continues to Lead Sanders” and “Sanders Closes the Gap.”
There is a website called Gun Violence Archive[vi] whose mission in their words “is to document incidents of gun violence and gun crime to provide raw, verified data to those who need to use it in their research, advocacy or writing.” It offers a number of statistical databases that reflect the totality of “gun-violence” in America.   It too combines suicides, accidental incidents and assault/murder in one conglomeration. It shows that so far in 2015 (as of Oct 11) there have been 40,666 incidents, 10,262 deaths, 20,825 injuries, 561 children killed/injured, 2,037 teens (12-17) killed/injured, etc.  As compelling as these numbers are, for a population of 350,000,000 how does this compare to the lethality of other tools?
Looking at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety[vii] for 2013, the last year data is available, there were 30,057 fatal accidents resulting in 32,719 deaths.  The rate per 100,000 ranged from a low 3.1 in the District of Columbia to a high of 22.6 in Montana.  So in simple terms the rates are actually slightly higher for vehicular death than from gun violence.  We have seen over the past 75 years the federal government impose a number of measures to improve vehicle safety, but as of yet there has not been a huge outcry to make all vehicle regulation a federal issue. Why not?
So, to summarize, by most reasonable measures gun deaths in America amount to roughly 10,000 annually, and of these over half occur from self-inflicted, either through accident or suicide.[viii][ix]While these are tragically high numbers, they are not greatly different from the numbers of American’s killed each year in private business[x] where 4, 251 individuals died in 2014.
If we are concerned the availability of guns encourages their use in suicides,[xi] then the question is what regulations can we write to effectively determine the mental state of the person when they purchase a gun, and ensure that mental state will not change in the passing years?  The curious thing in my mind is that a lot of people who demand the removal of access to guns are also the same ones who support assisted suicide and the right to choose to end a pregnancy at will.  Perhaps I am simplistic in my view but these seem contradictory positions.

Then we have the issue of accidental discharge or misuse by children.  If that were really a concern then why don't we teach our children rather than make guns the forbidden fruit and entice them to try something they've been warned not to do?  Either we fail to recognize the human nature of children or we really don't care because it serves a greater agenda.
So what should we do?  Those who wish for greater gun control claim we need new laws.  Those who oppose new laws claim federal over-reach, and point out that no matter what laws we impose, they will have little affect on those who would break them.  On this last point I’ve got to agree.  We have laws outlawing a hundred thousand different things, and those laws are ignored on a daily basis.  Whether it is distilling alcohol, driving drunk, or even employees washing their hands before leaving the rest rooms, having a law, regulation or executive order and truly protecting the innocent are not the same thing.
If we actually wanted to reduce the homicide rates in this country then we would have an open, not politically correct debate on society, that did not start with the polarizing issue of guns, but rather debate the influences that are causing this apparent escalation of violence.  I don’t hear those who propose new laws coming out in condemnation of the violence in the movies, or the indoctrination of our young through violent video games.  Why is that?
How about concern for our minorities?  The President willingly interjects when race is an issue and blacks are killed, but how about the overwhelming intra-racial violence?[xii]  Within the inner cities crime and violence most often affect those who are at the greatest disadvantage and only rarely is it one race against another. Where is the President's concern on this issue?
Finally, we come to the role of Government in establishing morality.  When we became a nation the vast majority of our citizens share a common understanding of morality and the consequences of immoral acts.  As we move further and further from those original unifying concepts the question then becomes what replaces them?  Those who reject the Judeo-Christian principles, or who believe that Science becomes their morality what now serves as the bedrock for law and common principles of social behavior?  As we see in our laws, we can write any law, we can hire sufficient numbers of individuals to impose that law, but unless the population as a significant majority accept the premise and moral basis for that law it will be avoided and circumvented.  Prohibition should stand as a lesson learned. 
It is my position the Government has no role in morality; it is a social construct brought to being by parents teaching their children, and can only be reinforced or destroyed by the public and church institutions.  When parents abandon that role, or when society condemns those values, we will lose the basis for self-governance as self-interest overwhelms the value of common-good.
So in conclusion, without that common sense of morality; there can be no effective common-sense laws in gun control with an actual chance to save the unwilling victims of gun violence.

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