Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, August 05, 2019

Context and Nuance: Part One

Neil DeGrasse Tyson got seriously ratioed (as the kids say) for tweeting that the average 48 hour death toll from various causes exceeds that from the two recent mass shootings (never mind that they actually happened 13 hours apart .) His statistics are approximately accurate, although the claim of 500 deaths from medical errors is highly disputed. (It's complicated, but it's for another day. The definition of medical error is debatable, and ascertainment is difficult. This number is probably much too high, in the sense that it would be impossible to reduce it by a huge amount.) The death toll from influenza is also largely beside the point since most influenza deaths are terminal events for people who already have a low life expectancy.

It is probably salutary to remind ourselves that in the scheme of things, the death toll from these events is just a blip, and in fact it's a small proportion of firearm-related deaths. I was among those who reminded my readers that the death toll from the Sept. 11 attack was essentially undetectable on an annualized basis, though it very definitely spiked the homicide rate. But that was because politicians including John McCain were calling Islamic terrorism and "existential threat" to the United States, which was absurd, and using that kind of language to justify some appallingly wrong and harmful responses.

White nationalist and other forms of racism really are an existential threat. The point that Dr. Tyson appeared to miss is that we are horrified not simply because 31 deaths occurred, but because these deaths, or at least 22 of them and many more in various previous incidents, are the most highly visible manifestation of a far broader and more deeply destructive phenomenon. Yes, violent Islamic radicalism is a comparable excrescence, but it is quite rare in the U.S., and it can hardly be said that people are too little aware of it. Let me try to make some distinctions, which I know often generates outrage in these emotionally fraught situations.

First there is the question of mass murder by firearm, what are called mass shootings. People define these in all sorts of ways, with different numerical thresholds for deaths, sometimes excluding domestic or gang violence. Family and gang violence incidents often produce four or more deaths, and account for the bulk of mass shootings so defined. But mass firearm murder of eight or more people is more likely to involve assaults on strangers, and is much rarer. However, it is getting a whole lot less rare. There was exactly one such incident in all of the 1960s. (The Texas Tower massacre, of unknown motivation but possibly the result of a brain tumor.) Here is Prof. Campos's tally since then:

1970s: 0
1980s: 6
1990s: 6
2000s: 7
2010s: 12 and counting

These include (after 2000) Islamic, radical Christian, and White Supremacist violence; and violence of unknown or imponderable motivation, sometimes by people diagnosed with psychosis (e.g. Gabby Gifford and Aurora movie theater attacks) and sometimes of unclear origin, for example the Sutherland Springs church and Las Vegas massacres.

There is a very clear and highly effective way to prevent such incidents. That is to eliminate semi-automatic weapons from civilian ownership. Done. Problem solved. At Boy Scout camp, they had us shoot at targets with a single shot, bolt action rifle. That's what hunters used  and still use. You pull back the bolt, slip in one round, close the chamber, shoulder the rifle, aim and shoot. If you want to take another shot, you have to do it again. If I'm hunting deer, that's all I need. Fowlers often used double barrelled shotguns and they get two shots.

There is a lot of talk about banning "assault rifles," but that is properly ridiculed. The term doesn't have any specific meaning and it doesn't matter anyway. What matters is that you can put a magazine on your semi-automatic weapon holding ten or twenty or thirty rounds, whether or not it's an "assault weapon," and fire them all by pulling the trigger as fast as you can. The police got to Connor Betts in Dayton less than  a minute after he had started firing but he'd already had time to murder nine people and shoot two dozen more. If he'd had the rifle they let me play with in Boy Scouts, the total toll of dead and injured would be one.

There is no defensible, nay no discernible reason why it should be legal to sell semi-automatic weapons to civilians, or why civilians should be allowed to own them. Their only purpose is mass killing of humans. Eliminating them would have no effect on hunting or most target sports. Biathlon requires, I believe, 5 rounds, and there may be some other limited and manageable exceptions. (They are lightweight and low powered.)

However, that isn't going to happen in my lifetime.

Turning now to the rising tide of violent racism, as I say it is terrifying and a true existential threat to our nation regardless of whether it results in more mass killings. I will discuss that next.


Dr Porkenheimer said...

Focusing on the type of guns is great and it may mitigate somewhat *IF* you can get it passed signed and also past the court, but it doesn't get to the root problem.

I have read the "manifesto". Have you?

It's very revealing.

Cervantes said...

Yes, I'm getting to that next. As I say, this is only Part One

mojrim said...

You're going to have to repeal the 2A and then go house to house. I think it's useful to keep Tyson's point in mind: the solution you propose, whatever its other merits, will certainly cause more bloodshed by several orders of magnitude than the existing state of affairs. If you want to reduce the body count by a meaningful number, ban handguns. It's far more likely to survive 2A challenge (no military purpose), they account for the majority of murders, and no one will actually kill to keep them.

Cervantes said...

Right, as I said, it's not going to happen, this is just a thought experiment. You wouldn't need to repeal the 2d Amendment, however; just get a Supreme Court that can read. None of these people have any association with a state militia. Australia managed to do it without any bloodshed, BTW.

Handguns indeed have no legitimate use in civilian hands, but you could require the to load only single shots. They are in essence semi automatic weapons. I don't see why it's easier to ban handguns than it is to ban semi-automatic rifles under present SC doctrine.

Mark P said...

I agree with pretty much all you have said. The obvious solution to mass shootings is to eliminate semi-automatic rifles, and I would toss in semi-automatic pistols as well. If you must have a pistol, use a revolver. At least then you can only kill six people at a time.

I am not sure of the utility of comparing the death toll of mass shootings to the death tolls of other types of shootings. It's true that mass shootings account for only a quite small percentage of all gun deaths, but I don't see why that should prevent doing something about it. Suicides account for a very large percent of gun deaths, but I don't have to worry about dying in a Walmart because of suicide. The other huge percentage is simple murders, and most (but not all) of them are between people who know each other. Again, that is not much of a threat to me. The only real chance I have of dying by gunfire in a Walmart is though a mass murderer. Maybe a vanishingly small chance, but a chance nevertheless. Why not eliminate that chance so we don't have to read about mothers and fathers shot down while holding their baby, or five- or six-year-old kids gunned down at school? It would be done in a sane society. But then, we are not a sane society.

Mark P said...

I meant to mention the magazine that the Dayton shooter used. It is a double drum magazine that was said to hold up to 100 rounds. If the shooter had not been stopped when he was, the death toll could have been significantly higher. That piece of equipment would not be available to civilians in a sane society, but, as I said ...

mojrim said...

Because the 2A is explicitly about weapons of war, not hunting or individual self defense. As the amendment was written and then modified there is literally no possible way to ban semi-autos as a class. A militia, however constituted, must be equipped with the "weapon of the day" or it has no meaning, which SCOTUS made plain in US v Miller (1939). That makes handguns (which are nothing more than badge of authority) vulnerable while AR-15's are not.

The first thing you're ignoring is that the 2A was incorporated against the states by the due process clause of the 14A. Both it's author, John Bingham, and the committee which forwarded it to congress, were explicit in agreeing that it was creating an individual right to bear arms.

The second thing you're ignoring, as are american liberals generally, is that we are not remotely like Australia, or the UK, or any other modern western country. The colonization of what became the US originates in britain's disposal of the waste products of early industrialization: english tenant farmers, scots borderers, and pretty much anyone irish. They were transported on the most trivial excuses and left largely ungoverned on an uncharted shore. When parliament tried to assert the most rudimentary controls they responded by killing the police. Reinforced by the similarly discarded populations of continental europe they proceeded to rape, murder, and pillage their way across 3000 miles while stocking vast wealth via the most brutal form of slavery imaginable.

By the time or our colonial rebellion parliament had solved most of its human waste problem. What they dumped in Australia was both much lower on the problem scale and more tightly controlled to prevent a replay of the events in north america. Australians, like brits, love to fistfight. America is a nation of killers and, even subtracting the gun deaths, has twice the murder rate of either.

This country was literally founded on genocide and cop killing. How can you imagine that such a people would willingly surrender their means of mayhem?

Cervantes said...

This is interesting in some ways but it seems rather self-contradictory. I'm not sure why you accuse liberals of not knowing about the violent and genocidal origins of the U.S. In any case, you talk in the same breath about the nature of a militia, and an individual right to bear arms.

Here is a discussion of the history of the Second Amendment which is quite contrary to your claims. Excerpt:

In The Second Amendment, author Michael Waldman goes back to the creation of the Bill of Rights for answers. He found that the Second Amendment was among the least debated provisions by Congress. In the House, he wrote, “Twelve congressmen joined the debate. None mentioned a private right to bear arms for self-defense, hunting, or for any purpose other than joining the militia.”

In fact, guns were well regulated at the time. Legal scholar Adam Winkler wrote for the New York Review of Books:

What the NRA doesn’t like to admit is that guns were regulated in early America. People deemed untrustworthy — such as British loyalists unwilling to swear an oath to the new nation — were disarmed. The sale of guns to Native Americans was outlawed. Boston made it illegal to store a loaded firearm in any home or warehouse. Some states conducted door-to-door registration surveys so the militia could “impress” those weapons if necessary. Men had to attend musters where their guns would be inspected by the government.

As for what constitutes a militia, the founders were purposely vague, leaving it to Congress to define. In the past, these were organizations of all or most able-bodied men that states and the federal government armed for security and law enforcement. In modern terms, the militia is, essentially, the National Guard.

Don Quixote said...

All of our historical and philosophical discussion ignores the human element. When one life is taken, it devastates many lives. When two or more lives are taken the devastation is basically an order of infinity expanded to create that much more heartbreak. Our individual chances of being shot in a multiple killing may be, to quote one author above, "vanishingly small," but if YOU are that individual, or one dear to you--well, you get my point. These are PREVENTABLE deaths.

This is a public health policy forum, and preventable deaths are a public health policy issue. This is the bottom line: handgun and rifle deaths are totally preventable. All it takes is the political and social will. We live in a time in the US when the the rule of law is under attack. I watched Donald Shitler commit a crime live during the 2016 "debates" (I should call it the "debase"), when he stalked his opponent onstage and the corporate media hosting the event did nothing. Hence we have a predator rapist in the White House.

Laws need to be OBSERVED and obeyed if they are to be effective. All the debate in the world won't get us action.

Don Quixote said...

Depending on how one defines mass shootings, there have been--according to one documented article--2,178 mass shootings in the U.S. since Sandy Hook.

Two thousand, one hundred and seventy-eight.

How many lives has this shattered?

mojrim said...

There are two kinds of militias mentioned in the constitution. First is the Art 1 militias which were raised, equipped, and officered by the states. This is what has evolved into the national guard. The other, 2A sort, was the local irregular, self-equipping and self-deploying. In virginia they hunted escaped slaves, in the north they murdered the natives. The 2A prevented the only the federal congress from disarming classes of people while leaving states to do as they wished, thus the regulations you speak of.

The Bill of Rights ratified in 1791 did not grant one single right which could be held against the states, only the united states. Massachusetts continued to have religious tests for office, others carried out warrantless searches. Fast forward to 1868 and the 14th amendment. It is solely because of the due process clause, expressed as incorporation, that anything in the bill of rights applies to the states, and each one was a fight in itself. SCOTUS has historically been extremely wary of expanding rights, holding out until 1897 with Quincy Railways v Chicago. The firearms case, McDonald v Chicago is merely the latest in incorporation. Literally nothing we understand today about "rights of americans" existed in 1791. It all stems from the 14A rendering the framers' intentions utterly meaningless. As I said before, the 14A committee was explicit in creating a previously non-existent individual right to arms. John Bingham specifically cited laws preventing blacks from owning guns in the reconstruction south.

If you proposed to the CDC a multi-generational, hundred-billion dollar program to eliminate the cause of 150 deaths annually you would rightly be laughed out of the building. Military-ish rifles are almost never used in crimes, account for less than 1% of murders, and are the ones whose owners will fight hardest (with time, money, and lead) to keep. Meanwhile, handguns account for almost half of all murders and suicides, some 28,000 deaths annually. You speak of this as a public health matter; if that is so then address it as such.

Cervantes said...

Please read more carefully. I explicitly said that I do not propose banning "military style rifles," but rather semi-automatic weapons, which includes hand guns. I also explicitly said that I do not expect this to happen. If you want to continue to comment, please respond to what is actually written here.

Your arguments about the history of the bill of rights and the 2d amendment are simply incoherent. If the 2d Amendment only prohibits the federal government from banning state militias -- which is indeed the approximate interpretation of many scholars -- then it does not grant any rights to individuals vis a vis states that might want to limit firearm ownership. The 14th Amendment is therefore irrelevant to the second because it is logically impossible for the states to be required to recognize a right that never existed.

Yes, this is a public health matter. While I don't know what the real political prospects are for banning semi-automatic weapons -- and I do not agree with you that the prospect of angering heavily armed fanatics should prevent us from even thinking about it -- there is fairly serious discussion of limiting magazine capacity.

Other measures that are commonly proposed by public health experts are universal background checks coupled with (revocable) licensing, firearms registration, and requirements for safe storage, as well as so-called Red Flag laws.

mojrim said...

I read you quite carefully. The problem may be that we are both abbreviating our arguments based on understandings we don't share.

1. All the military-ish rifles are semi-automatic making yours a distinction without a difference. While there are genuine fully automatic weapons on the american market they are painfully expensive and too few to bother with.

2. That your proposal covers most handguns fixes nothing. All firearm suicides use one round; most firearm homicides use <12 and most of that is wasted. All but a tiny number of non-fatal violent crimes (e.g. armed robbery) are accomplished by waving a shotgun or pistol around without firing a shot. Transitioning those from 15 round autos to 6 round revolvers won't change anything.

3. Okay, here goes. The so-called bill of rights does not really create or protect rights, it merely enjoins the united states from intruding into individual affairs or dealing with individuals in certain ways. No rights have ever recognized, only the number of governments restricted in certain was was expanded. That is the common legal understanding of due process incorporation.

The 14A via incorporation applies those same restrictions to the states. Thus, where previously only federal agents required a warrant now state agents also require one. Where only the united states was compelled to permit individual bearing of arms, now the states are as well. While the 2A was uncontroversial in 1791, the 14A's provision to arm blacks was among the most hotly contested of amendments in our history.

4. Limiting magazine capacity, just like banning semi-autos, is a privileged position, addressing only mass shootings while ignoring how most of us actually get killed. If you're white, educated, successful, and suburban the vast majority of gun homicides don't threaten you or yours, only the 1% from mass shootings. I know you're not thinking of it this way, but it's deeply racist and classist to
focus on that stuff while ignoring the stuff that actually kills poor and POC. Nothing you're talking about would have saved one life in the neighborhoods I grew up in. This point is one of my major frustrations with white liberals.

Angry Cursing Rant:
That last is something I go to great lengths not to blow up over but, god fucking damnit, it gets to me. All the public intellectuals, the gun control advocates, the sandyhook moms, ALL YOU MIDDLE CLASS WHITE PEOPLE, show up after a mass shooting in some suburban mall and go home afterward. Meanwhile, the people I grew up with keep fucking dying, invisibly, in Oakland, Chicago, and Detroit. All the fucking air time, all the Serious People(tm), are devoted exclusively to your concerns while we keep dying one at a time, by guns you don't know exist.

Fuck I'm tired.

Cervantes said...

1. Yes, all military style rifles are semi-automatic. That was my point -- the "assault rifle" designation is meaningless.

2. I was not discussing suicides. I agree that restricting handguns to 6 rounds wouldn't accomplish much. I didn't bother to mention the concept of revolvers but what I am talking about is the ability to fire multiple times without reloading. I would include revolvers in that designation.

3. If, as we seem to agree, the 2d Amendment forbids the federal government from banning state militias, then the 14th Amendment applies that same restriction to the states, so now states cannot ban state militias. And indeed they do not -- the state militias are the National Guard. (States also have police forces with substantial military capabilities including armored vehicles, for what it's worth.) So what? The idea that the 2d Amendment confers some sort of individual right to bear arms did not occur to the courts until the 20th Century, and most legal scholars consider it to be wrong.

4. I have said here innumerable times, including in the very post on which you are commenting, that mass shootings constitute a very small proportion of firearm homicides. I only focus on it in this post -- with the strong caveat you may read at the very top -- because it is on people's minds. These events attract a lot of attention and cause a lot of fear because that's human nature. We perceive more risk in events that have large numbers of casualties. Airline crashes get far more publicity than the far greater number of deaths every day from automobile crashes. There's just no getting around it. Eliminating semi-automatic weapons would pretty much put a stop to these events. I'm not ignoring other gun violence.

And I have already offered other gun safety measures that would have more of an impact on the violence plaguing certain poor urban neighborhoods. Obviously I'm not ignoring it, I've already discussed it. However, I don't think that firearm regulation is the key issue here. The issue is economic opportunity, broadly construed. Yes, there are all sorts of ways we need to unpack that, from inferior schools to racist assumptions to disproportionate criminalization of adolescent conduct to discrimination in hiring to the cost of higher education and a whole lot more. I am well aware of all that and I teach it to my students.

I am perfectly aware of the existence of guns in Oakland, Chicago and Detroit. You are yelling at the wrong person.

Rank and File said...

We hire judges, either through elections or through appointments, to decide for uys what these laws mean and how they're to be interpreted. And we have all agreed to abide by their decision.

And the decision is that the 2A confers an explicit constitutional right to the individual.Until they reverse that decision, that's the law.

It's meaningless to grouse about how you think the law should be otherwise interpreted.

Cervantes said...

Nonsense. The Supreme Court has made many atrocious rulings and later reversed them. Dred Scott, anyone? Everybody has a perfect right to object to Supreme Court rulings. That's what the anti-abortion movement has been doing since Roe v. Wade and that's why they voted for a president who would appoint justices who will overrule it.

It isn't meaningless to object at all. What a ridiculous comment.

Rank and File said...

Well..there you go!

Get enough people to agree with you and win an election, then. Until then, grousing is not helpful, and yes, it's meaningless.

"Elections have consequences"
--Barack Obama

Cervantes said...

Actually, Hillary Clinton did win the election, by about 3 million votes. But that's beside the point. There is nothing wrong with expressing a minority opinion, although in this case most Americans do support firearm safety laws.

mojrim said...

3. No, the 2A originally prevented the united states from banning irregular, local militias, the kind of thing you may have in mind as a sheriff's posse. That's why it refers to "people's right to bear arms" rather than the states'. The state militias are covered under Art 1, Sec 15&16. They are unrelated objects. The 14A, in turn, prevented states from banning those local militias.

And, again, you ignore the statements of both the amendment's primary author, John Bingham, and those of the committee which proofed and passed it to congress for ratification. SCOTUS proceeded to ignore that until 2010 just as it ignored the rest of incorporation until 1897. Many legal scholars don't like that idea because most don't like guns, but lawyers do motivated reasoning better than anyone else on the planet; it's what we pay them for.

4. None of those other measures you proposed, except registration, would make dent and that has a snowflake's chance in hell. Neither does one shot limit for that matter. You're engaging in a pie in the sky fantasy about an america that does not and may never exist.

Yes, economic opportunity, ending the drug war, curing racism, yadda yadda yadda. Those are multi-generation projects and not what's on the table here. Taking away the handguns means people have to use knives, something very few are capable of, and that saves thousands.

Rank and File said...

To believe Hillary won the election, you must first believe that the popular vote is somehow a more legitimate measurement than the electoral system that actually appears in the US Constitution.

I'll be interested to see what legislation is proposed on guns and if it passes. More than likely, it will be a political solution and will be legislation that, had it been in place, would not have made any difference at all in these mass shootings.

Cervantes said...

R&F: I do believe that, as do most people.

Mo: I have no idea why you think that a ban on handguns is more politically, or constitutionally feasible, than a ban on semi-automatic rifles. You are seeing a distinction here that I am not.

As for your understanding of the 2d Amendment, it is a minority viewpoint. I refer you again to the article linked in the post. Regardless, your interpretation was never that of the Supreme Court and is not the interpretation which is currently in effect. I'm not sure why it's so important to you to defend it, since I presume you would like to see effective gun safety legislation.