After two mass shootings, Texas loosens gun laws

September 2, 2019 • 9:00 am

Granted, the brand-new looser gun laws in Texas, which are almost ludicrous in how widely they permit the possession and carrying of firearms, are part of a series of bills passed before June. But in view of the two recent mass shootings in Texas—making it the state with 4 of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history—the laws look especially ludicrous. Given that most of the American public wants stricter gun laws, but the Republicans (pressed by the NRA) apparently want every American to be armed with a semiautomatic rifle that they can carry to Starbucks, these laws make Texas look especially bad. I can only imagine how the rest of the world regards us now—now that we seem to have a mass shooting every two weeks.

And the solution to these murders? MORE GUNS, Texas tells us. CNN reports what the new laws are (click on screenshot):

Read and weep (from CNN).

House Bill 1143 says a school district cannot prohibit licensed gun owners, including school employees, from storing a firearm or ammunition in a locked vehicle on a school parking lot — provided they are not in plain view.

House Bill 1387 loosens restrictions on how many armed school marshals a school district can appoint.

House Bill 2363 allows some foster homes to store firearms and ammunition in a safe and secure place for personal protection. Proper storage must be followed, the bill says, including putting firearms and ammunition together in the same locked locations.

House Bill 302 bans homeowners or landlords of rental property from prohibiting residents from lawfully possessing, carrying, transporting or storing a firearm or ammunition in the property.

House Bill 1177 prohibits residents from being charged with a crime for carrying a handgun while evacuating from a state or local disaster area.

Senate Bill 535 clarifies the possession of firearms at churches, synagogues or other places of worship. It allows licensed handgun owners to legally carry their weapons in places of worship — and comes nearly two years after a gunman killed 26 people at Sutherland Springs church.

The news last night reported that, re the last bill, if a church chooses to prohibit the carrying of firearms, they can do so. Otherwise, we have to look forward to more guns in schools and churches, and even in Universities. Students at the University of Texas in Austin, for instance, can legally carry guns to class. What could go wrong with that?

The excuse for this shameful behavior is the usual: Americans need more guns to protect themselves against the bad guys. As CNN reports: “‘We have learned many times over that there is no such thing as a gun free zone. Those with evil intentions will violate the law and carry out their heinous acts no matter what,’ state Sen. Donna Campbell, co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. ‘It makes no sense to disarm the good guys and leave law-abiding citizens defenseless where violent offenders break the law to do great harm’.”

NBC News, in a press conference I watched, reports the Texas governor making the same justification:

In a press conference Sunday, Gov. Abbott insisted the new laws will protect Texans, pointing to the law which allows more school marshals to have guns in schools. “Some of these laws were enacted for the purpose of making our communities safer,” Abbott said.

That’s about as lame as you can get. Yes, perhaps the laws were enacted with that intention, but do they actually yield those results? Apparently not. It seems as if more innocent lives are lost when criminals use guns (many of them obtained legally) than when guns are used for self-defense. From the Violence Policy Center (VPC):

The main argument used to advance these policies is that guns are a common and effective tool for self-defense. This argument is false.

A series of VPC studies on guns and self-defense thoroughly disprove the NRA myth. These studies analyze national data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program’s Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Among the findings of the most recent edition of the study are the following:

  • In 2016, the FBI reports there were only 274 justifiable homicides involving a private citizen using a firearm. That same year, there were 10,341 criminal gun homicides. Guns were used in 37 criminal homicides for every justifiable homicide.
  • Intended victims of violent crimes engaged in self-protective behavior that involved a firearm in 1.1 percent of attempted and completed incidents between 2014 and 2016.
  • Intended victims of property crimes engaged in self-protective behavior that involved a firearm in 0.3 percent of attempted and completed incidents between 2014 and 2016.

Here are the graphic data on that survey provided by The Washington Post:

Even just considering guns kept in the home, those guns are far more likely to be involved in accidental shootings, criminal acts, and suicides than in justifiable incidents of self-defense. Here’s a survey from 1999 published in the Journal of Pediatric Surgery (my emphasis):

Determine the relative frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times these weapons are involved in an unintentional injury, suicide attempt, or criminal assault or homicide. We reviewed the police, medical examiner, emergency medical service, emergency department, and hospital records of all fatal and nonfatal shootings in three U.S. cities: Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas. During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides. Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

Given this balance, what’s the justification for allowing people to keep guns in their homes?

The NRA responds that people wounded in acts of self defense and who escape are not reported by gun owners for fear of police investigation. But I strongly doubt that even if this underreporting exists, it can redress the balance of innocent lives lost versus successful defenses against criminals.

A 2015 paper in Preventive Medicine says pretty much the same thing: self defense gun use (SDGU) is not associated with reduced risk of injury to the people defending themselves, while use of any weapon, not just guns, reduces the likelihood of property loss.

Finally, a Pew Survey published in 2013 shows that the percentage of people who own a gun for protection has gone up dramatically since 1999 (“constitutional right” is a mere 2%)

My own view, which I’ve discussed before, is that the U.S. needs the same laws as Scotland, which has pretty much the same strict gun laws as the UK but with even stronger provisions:

Gun laws in Scotland differ in some details from those in the rest of the UK. However, in terms of licensing they are, currently, identical to the rest of Great Britain. A firearms certificate is required to purchase firearms, and a separate shotgun certificate is required for shotguns. The guiding laws for firearms in Scotland are the Firearms (Scotland) Rules 1989 and the Firearms Act (1968). All handguns, semi-automatic and pump-action non-rim-fire rifles are prohibited. A few pistols are licensed on a Firearm Certificate for exactly the same reasons as the rest of Great Britain. There are only 566 licensed handgun owners in Scotland.

Note that handguns were banned in the UK after the 1996 Dunblane School massacre in Scotland. That is a sane mentality, and the opposite of the craziness in the US, where after a mass shooting many legislators and NRA crazies call for more guns, assuming that people need to protect themselves from mass shooters. But mass shooters are nearly always taken down not by private citizens with guns, but by the police. And, as we’ve seen, having a gun in the home doesn’t make you safer; in fact, it leads to more deaths of innocent people.

The result: we have a gazillion mass shootings and accidental shootings in the U.S., and there are virtually none in the UK.

Finally, the whole “right to bear arms” issue, which some people—especially Republican legislators and the NRA—use to justify widespread ownership of handguns, is based on a Constitutional provision, the Second Amendment:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

That seems pretty clear to me: the amendment is there to allow the existence of a militia to keep the people from being oppressed by the arms of the government. Well, we don’t have militias any more, and armed private citizens are no longer a match to government weapons. Garry Wills, in an excellent article in the New York Review of Books, makes (to me) a persuasive case that the Second Amendment was not intended to justify the willy-nilly ownership of guns, even with the intention of self-defense. His piece ends like this:

The recent effort to find a new meaning for the Second Amendment comes from the failure of appeals to other sources as a warrant for the omnipresence of guns of all types in private hands. Easy access to all these guns is hard to justify in pragmatic terms, as a matter of social policy. Mere common law or statute may yield to common sense and specific cultural needs. That is why the gun advocates appeal, above pragmatism and common sense, to a supposed sacred right enshrined in a document Americans revere. Those advocates love to quote Sanford Levinson, who compares the admitted “social costs” of adhering to gun rights with the social costs of observing the First Amendment.  We have to put up with all kinds of bad talk in the name of free talk. So we must put up with our world-record rates of homicide, suicide, and accidental shootings because, whether we like it or not, the Constitution tells us to. Well, it doesn’t.

Sadly, the Supreme Court doesn’t accept Wills’s argument; and since most of them are conservatives, they won’t any time soon. I have little hope that the gun epidemic in our country can be stemmed. We may get a few more regulations and background checks, but in my view we should adopt the UK/Scottish system, along with severe increases in legal penalties for committing crimes with guns. But of course that’s a pipe dream.

 

John Paul Stevens: Repeal the Second Amendment

March 27, 2018 • 12:45 pm

If you’re an American, you’ll know that John Paul Stevens was an Associate Justice in the U.S. Supreme Court, serving from 1975-2010. Although a registered Republican, his decisions put him on the liberal side of the Court.  He’s now 97 years old, but is still fired up (if that’s the right word) about the misconstrual of the Second Amendment to the Constitution.  Let us look at Amendment before we read Stevens’s new op-ed in the New York Times (click on screenshot below):

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Read it again. The first part gives the rationale for the second, so that the “right to keep and bear Arms” is justified by the need to have a “well regulated Militia”. Militias were quasi-military bodies that the government, in colonial days, used to constitute the armed forces.

For many years, as Stevens notes, the Amendment was interpreted by courts as the government’s having the ability to regulate the possession of arms. That is, the Amendment was construed not as simply allowing Americans to have relatively unrestricted rights to own guns. (For a similar argument, see Garry Wills’s excellent article “To Keep and Bear Arms“, published in 1995 in the New York Review of Books.) Stevens begins by noting the groundswell of support for gun regulation evinced in last Saturday’s demonstrations.

That support is a clear sign to lawmakers to enact legislation prohibiting civilian ownership of semiautomatic weapons, increasing the minimum age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old, and establishing more comprehensive background checks on all purchasers of firearms. But the demonstrators should seek more effective and more lasting reform. They should demand a repeal of the Second Amendment.

Concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security of the separate states led to the adoption of that amendment, which provides that “a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Today that concern is a relic of the 18th century.

For over 200 years after the adoption of the Second Amendment, it was uniformly understood as not placing any limit on either federal or state authority to enact gun control legislation. In 1939 the Supreme Court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a “well regulated militia.”

During the years when Warren Burger was our chief justice, from 1969 to 1986, no judge, federal or state, as far as I am aware, expressed any doubt as to the limited coverage of that amendment. When organizations like the National Rifle Association disagreed with that position and began their campaign claiming that federal regulation of firearms curtailed Second Amendment rights, Chief Justice Burger publicly characterized the N.R.A. as perpetrating “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word fraud, on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Ah, how I long for the Burger court. . .

But how things have changed! And they changed for the worse (and seemingly for keeps) with the Supreme Court’s decision a decade ago in District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court ruled, by a scant 5-4 margin, that the Second Amendment didn’t need the requirement of a militia: that it gave individuals to have the right to own guns for self defense. (The decision overruled Washington D.C.’s prohibition of handguns and restrictions on rifle storage.)  The majority opinion was written by the odious Antonin Scalia, while Stevens wrote the dissent.

Since then, gun ownership has proliferated, and with it the spate of shootings in nightclubs, schools, and other public places that culminated in last Saturday’s demonstration. The way to cure this, says Stevens, is simply to repeal the ambiguous Second Amendment. Referring to the Heller decision and the Amendment, Stevens argues this:

That [Heller] decision — which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable — has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power. Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.

That simple but dramatic action would move Saturday’s marchers closer to their objective than any other possible reform. It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States — unlike every other market in the world. It would make our schoolchildren safer than they have been since 2008 and honor the memories of the many, indeed far too many, victims of recent gun violence.

He’s right, for as long as the courts interpret the Second Amendment in the wonky and right-wing way they have, the justification for widespread gun ownership will remain. And there’s no sign that the Court, which is even more conservative now than in Stevens’s Day, will reverse course. The only way to do an end-run around Scalia et al.’s stupid decision is to change the Constitution.

But of course that seems impossible. While there are several ways to amend the Constitution, the usual one is for a proposed amendment to pass both the Senate and the House by a 2/3 vote, and then be ratified by three-quarters of America’s states—all within seven years. (The time limit is why the Equal Rights Amendment, a no-brainer guaranteeing that equal rights couldn’t be abrogated on account of someone’s sex, failed.) Can anyone imagine the Congress even voting to send such an amendment to the States? And can anyone imagine that the ensuing confusion about what would happen with such a repeal would be cleared up before the time limit? And I’m not even taking into account the mouth-foaming, vitriolic, opposition of the National Rifle Association and the power and money it would muster to block such a move.

Stevens’s suggestion is a good one in principle, for it eliminates the Constitutional ambiguities that have led to virtually unrestricted private ownership of guns.  But what would replace it? A farrago of state laws, some even more lax than the ones we have today? Federal laws with even stricter gun regulations?

My own stand on guns is that they should be severely restricted along the lines that the UK has. No handguns, automatic or semi-automatic weapons, justifications and strict controls needed to own any firearm, and private ownership of such arms limited to shotguns and sporting rifles. (The UK of course has a much lower rate of gun violence than the U.S., but gun nuts make unconvincing arguments that regulation and deaths are unconnected.)

I don’t know how this will happen, but I dearly want it to happen, for too many lives have been taken away but morons who cling to their guns—or by innocents who accidentally discharge them. Statistics show that guns do not make people safer, for they wreak more carnage than they do in protecting homeowners.

When the shootings in Florida took place, I hesitantly suggested that perhaps this might mark a turning point in America’s attitude toward guns. And indeed, the demonstrations by young people, which greatly heartened me, made me think that maybe something will happen. But as the days pass, I fear the activism will wane, and we’ll be back to business as usual. In my own city, 499 people have been shot this year (91 killed), and someone is shot every four minutes. Can anyone stop the madness?

Gun legislation turned down by Florida legislature; Dinesh D’Souza mocks students lobbying to get it passed

February 21, 2018 • 9:20 am

Over the past two days, the evening news has featured distraught, angry, and determined Florida students marching on the state legislature, stunned about the 17 students shot by Nikolas Cruz, but bent on ensuring that it won’t happen again. Many of the lobbyists were classmates of the slain students.  I thought to myself, “If anybody can change this country’s attitudes towards guns, it’ll be the young people who were the targets of those guns.” I hoped mightily that Florida, and then the country, would at last begin to respond. Dare I hope that this might be the turning point in the struggle against America’s senseless proliferation of weapons—especially assault weapons?

No chance. As I predicted, we’ll have a brief flurry of anger and calls for new gun laws, and then it’ll be business as usual. Far too many Americans see student lives as collateral damage to the necessary production and ownership of guns. That’s just sick.

Of course Florida turned a deaf ear to those students. As ABC 10 reports, just one day after the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School went to Tallahassee, Florida to lobby for gun control at the state capitol, the House voted down a motion to ban assault weapons like the AR-15 used by Cruz. The vote wasn’t even close: 36-71.  And it’s ASSAULT WEAPONS!  There is no reason to allow these even if you think that the Second Amendment should permit personal possession of weapons for self defense.

The students were devastated, as they should be, watching a bunch of Republicans vote down sensible restrictions on the very gun that had shattered the bodies of their friends. They watched and wept:

And Dinesh D’Souza, odious human being that he is (he’s supposed to be a pious Christian), brutally and cruelly mocked these students on Twitter:

How lame a human being must you be to say things like this? Reader Pliny the in Between adds a comment:

 

h/t: Grania, Hempenstein

Why is the U.S. uniquely prone to mass shootings? The New York Times says it’s guns.

November 8, 2017 • 1:00 pm

This article in the New York Times (click on screenshot to go there) says that the “answer” to the deeply worrisome problem of mass shootings lies in both the number of guns we have, the ease of procuring them, and the ability to get guns in the U.S., like semiautomatic weapons (or ones that can be converted easily to automatics), that can do far more damage than simple rifles or pistols. The article rests largely on a study done in 2005 by Adam Lankford at the University of Alabama, a study I haven’t read.

The study (and article’s conclusion: “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.”  To demonstrate this, the author (and NYT) show some data, including this correlation between the number of guns (showing how much of an outlier the U.S. is) and the number of mass shooters:

 

Well, of course this is a correlation, and we all know that correlations don’t show causation, as there are third variables that could increase both, like an increased propensity of Americans to be criminals, which could prompt the acquisition and the using of guns. But that’s taken care of in data below.

Further, if you eliminate the U.S from the graph as an outlier, it’s hard to see much of a positive correlation for the rest of the countries (it may well be there, but you can’t really tell from the plot alone), which is what you need to establish to see if there’s a general relationship between gun ownership and number of mass shootings. You’d also want to control for population size, for what we want is not the number of guns and mass shootings, but the number of guns per person and the number of mass shootings per person.

All this appears to be taken care of in the next bit, which shows this figure:

As you see, the U.S is an outlier along with Yemen, the only country that has a higher number of mass shootings—and also has a high rate of gun ownership. If you remove these two countries, and look at the remaining dots, it’s not clear to me that there’s a correlation here, either, but it’s hard to tell (no statistics are given).  But the article also notes that the relationship holds even when you remove the U.S., so I’ll trust Lankford here.

Further, if you look at confounding factors that may explain a correlation without saying that the cause of mass shootings is guns, they don’t appear to be involved. Lankford found, for instance, that there is still a relationship when you control for homicide rates, general criminality (the U.S. “is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries”) and the rate of mental illness, which doesn’t appear to be higher in the U.S. than in other “wealthy countries”. (How would that cause a spurious correlation? Well, if Americans were more mentally ill than inhabitants of other countries, the disturbed people might go out and get more guns and then use them to kill others, so that the causal factor wouldn’t be availability of guns, though it would still involve gun ownership.) At any rate, countries with higher suicide rates have lower rates of mass shootings, the opposite of what you expect if the rate of mass shootings were correlated with the type of mental illness that lead to suicide.

There are other data as well:

America’s gun homicide rate was 33 per million people in 2009, far exceeding the average among developed countries. In Canada and Britain, it was 5 per million and 0.7 per million, respectively, which also corresponds with differences in gun ownership.

Americans sometimes see this as an expression of deeper problems with crime, a notion ingrained, in part, by a series of films portraying urban gang violence in the early 1990s. But the United States is not actually more prone to crime than other developed countries, according to a landmark 1999 study by Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins of the University of California, Berkeley.

Rather, they found, in data that has since been repeatedly confirmed, that American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, for instance, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.

They concluded that the discrepancy, like so many other anomalies of American violence, came down to guns.

More gun ownership corresponds with more gun murders across virtually every axis: among developed countries, among American states, among American towns and cities and when controlling for crime rates. And gun control legislation tends to reduce gun murders, according to a recent analysis of 130 studies from 10 countries.

This suggests that the guns themselves cause the violence.

You can read the article for yourself, as I don’t want to simply regurgitate the data, but it all points to the fact that the easy accessibility of guns in America, the lack of gun controls, and the kind of guns that we can buy, are the variables that best explain the number (and rate) of mass shootings in America. (Note that this article doesn’t deal with individual homicides, but there are other data on those issues that implicate the accessibility of guns.)

In the end, the problem seems to come down to America’s Second Amendment, which was intended to allow arming of a militia, but has been interpreted (wrongly, I think) by U.S. courts as allowing fairly unrestricted individual ownership of guns—no militia needed. That Amendment appears to have fostered a sense of entitlement that we should have guns—that it’s our right. Barring the Second Amendment, you’d have a hard time justifying that we have a “right” to own such lethal weapons. (I’m always dubious when “rights” are asserted as arguments, but they become prima facie legal rights if they’re in our Constitution.)

Referring to the tighter gun laws of Switzerland (even though they’re second to the U.S. in the rate of gun ownership, the rate of Swiss gun homicides is far lower), the article notes this:

Swiss gun laws are more stringent, setting a higher bar for securing and keeping a license, for selling guns and for the types of guns that can be owned. Such laws reflect more than just tighter restrictions. They imply a different way of thinking about guns, as something that citizens must affirmatively earn the right to own.

The United States is one of only three countries, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the opposite assumption: that people have an inherent right to own guns.

The main reason American regulation of gun ownership is so weak may be the fact that the trade-offs are simply given a different weight in the United States than they are anywhere else.

After Britain had a mass shooting in 1987, the country instituted strict gun control laws. So did Australia after a 1996 shooting. But the United States has repeatedly faced the same calculus and determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society.

That choice, more than any statistic or regulation, is what most sets the United States apart.

And it is that Second Amendment that makes us think we have a right to own guns. Would that we could repeal that Amendment, but of course that wouldn’t end the problem, for we’d still have to legislate firearm laws for each state under the amended Constitution, and in a populace that largely thinks they have the right to have guns. The idea that we have such a right is alien to me, but it’s so deeply instilled in America that the problem seems harder to solve than that of Donald Trump himself, who, after all, will be gone in at most seven years. The article ends on a poignant note, one that shows how deeply sick we are with our guns fetish:

“In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate,” Dan Hodges, a British journalist, wrote in a post on Twitter two years ago, referring to the 2012 attack that killed 20 young students at an elementary school in Connecticut. “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”

 

If not now, when? Nicholas Kristof on guns

October 2, 2017 • 12:45 pm

I don’t know if a lot of us are fans of Nicholas Kristof, but I suspect many of us will agree with his column in today’s New York Times, “Preventing future mass shootings like Las Vegas.” As he implies, the National Rifle Association, which I’ve long seen as Institutional Evil, will say “In this heated climate after a shooting, it’s the wrong time to discuss gun regulation.” But if not now, when? For one thing is certain: the righteous furor about a private citizen getting an assault rifle will die down after a while, only to be roused again when the next shooting takes place. Kristof gives us this horrifying statistic:

Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns (including suicides, murders and accidents) than the sum total of all the Americans who died in all the wars in American history, back to the American Revolution. Every day, some 92 Americans die from guns, and American kids are 14 times as likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries, according to David Hemenway of Harvard.

And that’s just since 1970! Living in Chicago, one becomes acutely aware of this problem. I often see young men, mostly black, pushing themselves about in wheelchairs, and I know that many of them got that way from being shot in the spine. In Chicago this Labor Day weekend, 7 people were killed and 35 injured, all from guns; and 438 people have died this way in 2017.

Do we have to accept this? Kristof (and this is where I partly disagree) says that we’ll never get rid of gun violence in America, and so should adopt proposes some familiar—and mild—restrictions. I agree fully with these restrictions, and with Kristof’s claim that we’ll always have some guns (illegal ones are hard to stop), but why must we simply accept that guns are inevitable and just try to regulate who can get them, and what type can be sold? Why can’t we do what Australia did, and clamp down hard on guns, something they did after a mass shooting in 1996. Strict legislation was passed, including the restriction of firearms to those who have a “valid reason” for owning them.  Here are those “valid reasons”:

  • Sport/target shooting
  • Hunting
  • Primary production
  • Professional hunting
  • Handgun or clay target shooting (including licences held on behalf of juniors)
  • Employment as a security and/or prison guard
  • Official, commercial or prescribed purpose or for a purpose authorised by an Act or Regulation.

After this passed, and after a buyback scheme was implemented, gun deaths in Australia have dropped 50%. (Yes, I know that you can argue against that for other reasons, but why not do the experiment in the U.S.?) Here are Kristof’s suggestions:

  1. Impose universal background checks for anyone buying a gun. Four out of five Americans support this measure, to prevent criminals or terrorists from obtaining guns.
  2. Impose a minimum age limit of 21 on gun purchases. This is already the law for handgun purchases in many states, and it mirrors the law on buying alcohol.
  3. Enforce a ban on possession of guns by anyone subject to a domestic violence protection order. This is a moment when people are upset and prone to violence against their ex-es.
  4. Limit gun purchases by any one person to no more than, say, two a month, and tighten rules on straw purchasers who buy for criminals. Make serial
  5. Adopt microstamping of cartridges so that they can be traced to the gun that fired them, useful for solving gun crimes.
  6. Invest in “smart gun” purchases by police departments or the U.S. military, to promote their use. Such guns require a PIN or can only be fired when near a particular bracelet or other device, so that children cannot misuse them and they are less vulnerable to theft. The gun industry made a childproof gun in the 1800’s but now resists smart guns.
  7. Require safe storage, to reduce theft, suicide and accidents by children.
  8. Invest in research to see what interventions will be more effective in reducing gun deaths. We know, for example, that alcohol and guns don’t mix, but we don’t know precisely what laws would be most effective in reducing the resulting toll. Similar investments in reducing other kinds of accidental deaths have been very effective.

To me this is a Band-Aid (I like the smart gun idea, and not just for cops but for everyone), yet one life saved is a whole world of misery prevented. I much prefer the UK system, which has a very strict system of ownership and storage, and no pistols (except for those with 24-inch barrels or muzzle loaders).  Here are the comparative data:


The death rate in the US is 46 times higher than in the UK, and gun ownership 17 times higher. Some of you will be saying, “Yes, but there are cultural differences between the UK and US”, and my response is “Yes, we have a gun culture, but we can change it.” We also have the Second Amendment which, I think, has been wrongly interpreted by the courts, for the Constitution mandates gun ownership to allow for a “well regulated militia”. By what stretch does that mean that any citizen can have their own gun for any reason? What does that have to do with a “well regulated militia”? (If you disagree with this construal, read Garry Wills’s 1995 article on the Second Amendment).

To me it makes no sense to allow the proliferation of weapons, and other countries have taken far more drastic action than Kristof proposes.

I know I’m bawling down a drainspout here, given the courts’s interpretation of the Second Amendment, the nature of our present Supreme Court, and the power of the National Rifle Association, but what little optimism remains in me says that this issue—and these deaths—are not things we must live with forever.

University of Texas threatens professors who ban guns in their classrooms

August 12, 2016 • 1:30 pm

As I’ve mentioned before, on August 1 a Texas law went into effect that allows students at four-year colleges to carry concealed handguns nearly everywhere on campus. (In exactly a year the same law will apply to two-year colleges.)

My post described the law like this:

The students need permits for their concealed carry, and the campus is allowed to designate a limited number of “sensitive areas” where guns aren’t allowed, though those areas must be approved by the institution’s board of regents. You’re also not allowed to store weapons in automobiles.

I can only imagine what more enlightened countries, like Canada, France, or England, think of such a law.

As far as I understand it, the law applies to all colleges, not just public ones, and replaces a previous law that allowed guns only in public areas of universities (quads, sidewalks, and the like). Private universities, however, can opt out of this law, and schools like Rice and Baylor have done just that. There’s no opting-out for state-funded schools. 

Three professors at the University of Texas at Austin, Jennifer Lynn Glass, a professor of sociology, Lisa Moore, a professor of English, and Mia Carter, an associate professor of English, sued to block the law on the grounds that it forces their university “to impose ‘overly-solicitous, dangerously-experimental gun policies’ that violate the First and Second Amendments, as well as the Fourteenth (see today’s Hili dialogue). You can see the full copy of their lawsuit here.

I posted even earlier that the physicist and Nobel Laureate Steve Weinberg, also at the University of Texas at Austin, said that he would not allow guns in his classroom, and would take the consequences for violating the law. I haven’t heard about Weinberg since then, and he wasn’t party to the lawsuit.

Now, according to the Dallas News, both the state and the University of Texas have warned that professors defying this law, as Weinberg said he’d do, will face punishment:

“Faculty members are aware that state law provides that guns can be carried on campus, and that the president has not made a rule excluding them from classrooms,” attorneys representing the University of Texas at Austin and Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote in a legal brief filed Monday. “As a result, any individual professor who attempts to establish such prohibition is subject to discipline.”

This threat was clearly intended as a warning to the three brave women standing up against this insane law, but they’re persisting in their suit:

The state’s lawyers, in their Monday filing, asked Judge Lee Yeakel to throw out the professors’ lawsuit. The educators fired back in their own brief, calling again for Yeakel to halt the law for one semester so they can hold a public trial on whether campus carry violates their constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection.

The professors’ lawyers say the law and UT’s own campus carry rules are too vague for his clients to know if and how they might be punished if they tried to keep gun owners out of their classrooms.

“No person of common intelligence — and one would think that the tenured plaintiffs rise at least to that level — can figure out what governs them on this issue under Texas law and UT policies,” the professors’ attorneys wrote.

They go on to say there is nothing in state law or UT policy that explicitly forbids professors to ban guns in classrooms, so, then, the question is “whether there is any policy at all that would bar plaintiffs from doing what they want to do or that would punish them in some way if they did so.”

I suppose the President of UT Austin, Gregory Fenves, didn’t have much choice here, but it would have been nice to hear him say something like this: “We have to follow the law on this campus, but I think it’s a bad law and I accept it unwillingly.” But not only did he not say that, but also failed to exercise his power to turn any classrooms into gun-free zones.

In the state’s brief, attorneys from Paxton’s agency say the law is clear. It gives campus presidents the ability to designate each school’s limited “gun-free zones,” they say, and if classrooms are not expressly included in campus policy as off-limits to firearms, then guns must be allowed there.

“The president is the sole individual authorized to establish gun exclusion zones on UT Austin’s campus. He has not designated classrooms as gun exclusion zones,” they wrote.

A judge will decide the lawsuit next week, but, as I predicted earlier, I doubt the three women will prevail. It’s Texas, Jake!

And I’m glad I don’t have to teach at the University of Texas! Imagine an angry student confronting you about his grade. “Does he have a gun?” would be your first thought.

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UT students protest the law.

 

Gun control: did it reduce suicides and homicides in Australia?

June 26, 2016 • 12:15 pm

I keep calling for more stringent gun laws in the U.S.; in fact, I would, if I were in charge, take the U.S. to the British system, in which private ownership of handguns is prohibited and rifles can be owned only for sports shooting or hunting—and under strict licensing. In contrast, many gun advocates say that the U.S. would become more dangerous should such legislation be enacted, and, regardless, the Second Amendment guarantees us private ownership of guns (the Supreme Court agrees; I don’t).

There is one “natural” experiment in banning guns: that in Australia, where, after mass shootings, stringent gun control was imposed in 1996. (Actually, the UK did another, but I know of no data like what I’ll show below.) And the data on homicides and suicides for periods of roughly two decades before and after the ban has just been analyzed and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Simon Chapman et al. (reference and free download below).  The upshot is that there are some data suggesting that gun-related suicides and homicides decreased after the ban, but in some cases it didn’t reach statistical significance.

There are two problems here. First, firearm-related homicides and suicides were already decreasing before the gun ban, so the analysis had to determine whether the rate of decline of gun-related deaths increased after the gun ban, and that method involves estimating regression coefficients—an insensitive way to detect anything other than big changes in rate.

Second, there may have been other changes over time that decreased gun-related deaths after the ban, namely the wider use of cellphones, which allow one to report shootings faster, possibly saving more lives and thus reducing the homicide rates, as well as improvements in medical care, so a suicide or shooting is less likely to cause death. Since the data analyzed involve only deaths and not injuries, the authors can’t rule out these factors.

That said, the data show that the number of mass shootings (defined as shootings in which more then five people die) dropped to zero after the ban (19 years after the gun ban was enacted), while there were 13 such incidents in the 18 years before the gun ban was enacted. That itself is a significant difference if you use a simple two-sample chi-square test assuming equality of numbers, but that difference may reflect only the same trend of reduced homicides over time. However, the overall data show that in every case the rate of decline in gun-related deaths increased after the ban, and didn’t increase in any case, as the gun-lovers would have us believe. Moreover, in some cases the faster decline was statistically significant.  The report then, is heartening but not decisive. It certainly gives us no cause to think that if a Western nation suddenly tightened its gun policies, gun-related deaths would rise.

First, the facts (all quotes from the paper):

In 1996, Australia’s state and federal governments introduced sweeping uniform gun laws that were progressively implemented in all 6 states and 2 territories between June 1996 and August 1998. The enactment of these laws followed a massacre on April 28, 1996, in which a man used 2 semiautomatic rifles to kill 35 people and wound 19 others. The new gun laws banned rapid-fire long guns (including those already in private ownership), explicitly to reduce their availability for mass shootings.

In addition, by January 1, 1997, all 8 governments commenced a mandatory buyback at market price of prohibited firearms. As of August 2001, 659 940 newly prohibited semiautomatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns had been purchased by the federal government from their civilian owners at market value, funded by a one-off levy on income tax, and destroyed.  From October 1, 1997, large criminal penalties, including imprisonment and heavy fines, applied to possession of any prohibited weapon.

During a second firearm buyback in 2003, 68 727 handguns were collected and destroyed. Thousands of gun owners also voluntarily surrendered additional, nonprohibited firearms without compensation, and since 1996 thousands more privately owned firearms are known to have been surrendered, seized, and melted down.

The trends. The authors looked at overall suicide and homicide fatalities, and then separated them into those involving guns and those not involving guns. (They also gave separate and combined data for suicides and homicides.) I’ll show the trends only for the data separated by whether or not they involved firearms, leaving out the combined (firearm + nonfirearm) deaths:

joi160074f1

You can see that both suicides and homicides involving firearms were already decreasing before the ban (vertical line), while suicides and homicides not involving firearms were either increasing or steady. In the latter case, though, both kinds of deaths decreased after the gun ban, suggesting that better medical care, increased cellphone use, or other factors were involved.

Here are the statistical analyses:

joi160074t3

The column to look at is the P values in the RT column (ratio of trends happening before and after gun control; “RL” looks for a step change occurring in 1996). You can see that in every case (5 out of 5 non”total” cases involving separated firearm and nonfirearm deaths: rows 2-4 and 6-7 in Table 3), the death rates declined more steeply after than before gun laws. That alone is nearly statistically significant, but remember that two of these statistics are deaths not involving firearms. In one analysis of firearm deaths—suicide—the drop was significantly steeper after 1996, and for all homicides it was almost significant (p = 0.06). But the drops in non-firearm deaths also accelerated after 1996, which again may reflect other factors (including, in the case of suicide, better prevention techniques).

Largely because of the contribution from fewer suicides, the rate of decrease in total firearm deaths, involving both suicides and non-suicides, was larger after gun control than before. All of this shows that easy access to firearms, at least in Australia, seemed to promote more suicides than homicides.

What’s the lesson? As I said, it’s a bit problematic because of other factors, factors that could be reflected in a decrease in nonfirearm deaths as well. Nevertheless, there are no data here suggesting that firearm deaths will increase after guns are largely banned. In other words, these data show that such a ban is worth trying, as there appears to be no downside.

Ideally, we’d want more data from other countries, but we can’t get it from the one country everyone’s concerned about: the U.S. Until the Supreme Court interprets the Second Amendment correctly, and the legislature gets the moxie to buck the National Rifle Association and enact meaningful gun laws, we simply won’t know what will happen in the U.S. if we followed Australia’s lead. The data above, however, suggest that we should.

________

Chapman, S., P. Alpers, and M. Jones. 2016. Association between gun law reforms and intentional firearm deaths in Australia, 1979-2013. J. Am. Medical Association. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.8752 Published online June 22, 2016.

Chicago’s weekend gun toll

May 30, 2016 • 5:15 pm

It’s only 5 p.m. on Monday, but so far over the 3-day Memorial Day weekend, Friday until now, 60 people have been shot in Chicago. Five of them were killed, including a 15-year old girl—”collateral damage” from gang violence. I wonder how many people were shot by those claiming self-defense against trespassers or muggers?

More than ever, and especially in Chicago, we have to get guns out of the hands of private citizens.

Defying the law, Steven Weinberg plans to ban guns in his Texas classroom

January 28, 2016 • 12:30 pm

A new Texas law that goes into effect on August 1 will allow all students to carry concealed weapons on public university campuses and inside classroom buildings (some exceptions can be made by university administrations). It’s a dreadful idea, predicated on the notion that if the students are packing heat, it will deter terrorists or other crazies who want to attack campuses. (I can imagine the carnage in a classroom shootout like that!) Private universities are exempt—for the time being.

Given that it’s a law, there’s not much one can do but challenge it in court. But one professor, and someone I know and respect, is simply committing civil disobedience, telling students he won’t allow guns in the classroom.

According to PuffHo, renowned and Nobel-winning physicist Steven Weinberg (also an atheist) has announced that he’ll try to ban guns in his University of Texas at Austin classroom this fall:

Steven Weinberg, who won the top prize in science in 1979, said at the university’s faculty council meeting that he understands the decision could leave him vulnerable to a lawsuit. Most university task forces across the state have found that Texas’ new campus carry law prohibits such a ban. But Weinberg said he believes that he would eventually win that suit, because forcing professors to allow guns quashes constitutionally protected free speech and academic freedom.

“I am willing by my own actions to expose myself to this,” he said. “Let’s have it heard. We should allow the courts to decide it.”

Yes, I think he’ll be sued, and I’m glad he’s willing to take the heat (so to speak) and fight this thing up through the courts (I’m sure the American Civil Liberties Union will help, although I can’t really see this as a free-speech issue.) But Weinberg’s in for a hard time, for even the University’s lawyers disagree with him:

UT-Austin officials charged with reviewing the law were unconvinced. Steven Goode, a UT-Austin law professor and chairman of the university’s campus carry task force, said his group reviewed banning guns in classrooms and decided that it violated the new law. Attorney General Ken Paxton has agreed in a written opinion issued last month.

“I think that the notion that a First Amendment claim would win in court against [the campus carry law] is an illusion,” Goode said. “I think it is an extraordinarily weak argument.

. . . At UT-Austin, President Greg Fenves appointed a task force to review the law and suggest rules. That task force has recommended banning guns in dorms and allowing professors to ban guns in their individual offices. But it said that bans in classrooms went too far.

Fenves, who hasn’t yet weighed in, said on Monday that he expects to propose his rules by mid-February. But in comments to the faculty council, he indicated that he would have to stick with state law. When asked whether professors can require students with handguns to sit in the back of the classroom, for example, Fenves said he didn’t think so.

“As a public university, I am obligated to seeing that we carry out the law,” Fenves said.

I have a lot of friends who teach at UT Austin and other public universities in Texas, and I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes. I simply can’t imagine teaching knowing that students are sitting in front of me with pistols. What if they get mad?

At any rate, Weinberg has guts, and although he’ll probably lose, I applaud his chutzpah.

steven-weinberg-4
My hero!

 

Meanwhile, back at the refuge. . .

January 28, 2016 • 8:10 am

Things appear to be winding down on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, but it’s not over yet. I heard on the news this morning that jailed leader Ammon “I am Liberty” Bundy asked the rest of his thugs to leave, and this is verified by KATU in Portland, Oregon and the New York Times.  Three more protestors have turned themselves in and have been arrested, and Ammon B. issued the following statement:

“To those remaining at the refuge, I love you. Let us take this fight from here. Please stand down. Go home and hug your families. This fight is ours for now in the courts. Please go home.”

The authorities have blockaded the roads, so protestors can no longer come and go as they please or head into town for snacks. While some have been reported leaving the area (they’ll get arrested when they do so), the NYT reports that others seem to be digging in for a longer haul. It won’t work.

What did they accomplish? Nothing. I hope other gun-toting libertarians think about that. What they did was piss off most of the rest of America, get clapped in jail, and one of them got himself killed. I hope the feds slap the group with fines for the damage they did to the preserve, which I hear is considerable. The next move should be confiscating the cattle of Ammon’s father Cliven.

I haven’t found much out about the shooting death of LaVoy Finicum; that scenario is being kept under wraps while the police (and perhaps lawyers) investigate. There’s still the possibility that he was killed in cold blood, though I doubt whether the police, with the eyes of the U.S. on them, would fire without some provocation.

Meanwhile, courtesy of the Multnomah County sheriff, we have mug shots of the first eight arrested, all being held without bond until at least tomorrow:

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From top left, booking photographs of Ammon Bundy, Ryan Bundy, Brian Cavalier, Shawna Cox, From bottom left, Joseph Donald O’Shaughnessy, Ryan Payne, Jon Eric Ritzheimer and Peter Santilli.