Friday, December 21, 2012

Jumping the Gun: Why Most of the Gun Debate After Newtown Isn't Helpful

Jay Carney got some flak after the Newtown massacre by saying "Today is not the day to talk about gun control."  Detractors almost universally said "if not now, when."  They were right.  We can say what we want, when we want.  But pushing for gun control immediately after the incident, before the facts come in, increases the chances that we'll just say or do something useless.

Many of the loudest gun control advocates are pushing for assault weapons bans, because a semi-automatic assault rifle was used to kill the children in Newtown.  Many gun advocates, including many pundits and politicians who have previously opposed these bans, are saying that nobody needs weapons like this.  I'm generally inclined to agree with this, but any time the government tells me what I do or don't need, the Libertarian part of my psyche cringes.  One thing they say that makes sense is that certain weapons only belong on the battlefield.  The trick is identifying what that means.

The definition of assault weapons is a bit vague.  Automatic weapons are always considered assault weapons.  Not all semi-automatic weapons are considered assault weapons, only ones with certain characteristics are.  The assault weapons ban defined an assault weapon as a weapon with detachable magazines and at least two other characteristics that were considered typical of assault weapons.  The problem is, a few of the things that potentially define something as an assault weapon seem mostly or entirely harmless.

Two examples are pistol grips and collapsible stocks.  A collapsible stock is a stock that can be shortened in order to be customized to the size of the user.  I don't see how this makes a gun noticeably more dangerous.  A pistol grip allows the user to control the recoil more easily.  One could argue that it makes a shooter more able to shoot people more quickly.  But it also makes them more able to shoot static targets more quickly or deer more quickly or whatever.  Typically, how quickly someone can kill targets has more to do with the skill of the shooter than the type of stock or grip that a gun has.  This ban seems to be designed to ban guns that look dangerous. They may like they belong on a battlefield, but many of them are no more or less dangerous than more ordinary looking weapons.

Another problem with fixating on assault weapons is the fact that they are not used in most murders.  Most murders are committed with pistols, which is probably why the last assault weapons ban had no noticeable effect on homicide rates.  The President echoed this in the presidential debates, noting that most murders involve "cheap handguns".  Even some mass killings are done with pistols.  The Virginia Tech massacre, the worst school shooting ever, was done with two handguns.  By focusing entirely on the specific circumstances of the shootings in Newtown, we risk ignoring most of the violence in this country. 

Another thing that has come to the forefront is a focus on mental health and identifying people with problems and treating them.  Many, if not all, of the mass murderers in recent years have had some kind of mental health problem.  Disturbing behavior by the Tucson killer was reported by many classmates at a local community college he attended and nothing was done.  The Aurora killer's classmates also reported strange behavior and nothing was done.  On the other hand, The Virginia Tech killer and one of the Columbine killers had been diagnosed with mental health problems prior to the attacks and had received treatment.  The Newtown killer was known to have some mental problems and some reports suggest his mother was about to have him committed.  These instances all suggest that more intervention is necessary and when it happens it needs to be more effective.  But what's also true is that most murderers are not crazy.  Most murderers kill for a relatively mundane reason: an argument, jealousy, revenge.  Angry results in more murders than crazy.  Focusing only on the mentally unstable ignores most of the problem.  It's always a good idea to improve mental health care (or any other health care), but this won't fix most of the problem.

As with every other mass shooting, the debate over the "culture of violence" has reemerged.  We are told that America has a history of violence and our culture glorifies violence and contributed to this.  But this actually doesn't make any sense.  The same violent movies and video games that are common in a America are equally common in other nations where murder is extremely rare.  American movies are commonly watched in Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and Australia.  They buy the video games too.  France, the UK, and Germany have far more violent histories than America.  Yet murder rates are low in all of these countries.  Not only would attempting to silence or deter these forms of entertainment be a violation of the First Amendment, it would be a complete waste of time.  Other countries are able to avoid real violence, despite the fact that they are exposed to the same amount of fake violence as we are and despite the fact that they have histories as violent, if not more so, than ours.

While I'm on the subject of foreign countries, it has to be mentioned that other industrialized nations have stricter gun control laws.  In some, like Japan and England, this results in low rates of gun ownership and low murder rates.  Others, like Canada or France, have relatively high numbers of gun owners (though not as many as us) but still have low murder rates.  And some others, like Brazil and Russia, have low rates of gun ownership but much higher murder rates.  What this means is the presence or lack of guns and gun control laws doesn't appear to predict a country's murder rate.  The source of the problem is something else.

This doesn't mean gun control is useless.  I think some gun control measures makes sense.  Smaller magazine size is fine.  I truly don't need a 30 round clip to defend myself.  If I need to defend myself from an attack and need more than six or seven bullets to do it, this is the sort of attack I should be running away from.  And limiting magazine size won't prevent me from buying more than one gun.  This won't stop people from producing homemade high capacity magazines, but I still think it will reduce the chances of mass shootings occurring.  Background checks should be required for all gun purchases.  Instant background checks should be available everywhere.  There must be a way to make background checks possible at gun shows.  This won't stop strawbuyers, but it will still prevent many felons and crazy people from getting guns. Lastly, one thing that often goes unmentioned is that many criminals acquire guns from licensed dealers who make illicit sales under the table. So another thing that must happen is additional enforcement.

But as for the rest of the debate, it's a hasty reaction which will have little or no effect.  We won't fix the problem by renewing an assault weapons ban that didn't accomplish anything significant the first time, other than boosting assault weapon sales before its passage.  And hand wringing over movies and video games is a waste of time.  This is a multi-faceted problem that will probably take decades or generations to fix.  We won't be able to control it if we only respond to the headlines.  We will not fix anything if we attempt to resurrect legislation that already failed once.  We must be willing to commit to rigorous analysis of all aspects of the problem and explore all possible solutions, while being mindful of the Constitution and its guarantees.  We must accept that this requires a prolonged effort at the grassroots level by all citizens who want the violence to stop.   If we want to prevent future violence and respect the memory of the victims of violence, we must attempt to find solutions that actually work and shake off the tired old rhetoric that solves nothing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Gun Made Me Do It

Bob Costas has been echoing the same tired old talking point that gun control advocates have been spewing for years.  On the O'Reilly Factor, Bob Costas said (paraphrasing) that if more people possess guns that it is more likely that a dispute would escalate because someone has a gun.  What he actually said is here, on the second clip at about the 1:30 mark.  This assumes that the possession of the gun is more likely to cause one person to want to kill another in a dispute.  This is false.  It's true that a person with a gun is more likely to succeed in killing someone else, but the gun does not magically cause someone to be more aggressive.

The problem is not the presence of guns.  The problem is that people in the United States are more likely to want to kill someone than they would be in many other countries.  Many of the highly publicized murders we've seen were preventable without taking away guns.  Kansas City Chiefs Guy had a history of problems in his personal life.  Crazy Guy in Arizona had been reported acting loony at his community college.  Nobody did anything.  If we had been more proactive about identifying and dealing with these problems, they never would have escalated into violence.

More recently,  Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida.  This was an escalation of a simple argument.  A motive for murder that is all too common.  This is the real problem.  People in the United States are willing to kill for stupid reasons.  Apparently, Jordan Davis and his pals were just playing their music too loud.  That's not a sufficient reason to kill.  We should be focusing our efforts on figuring out why people are willing to do things this senseless.

Instead, Costas and others simply fixate on the guns.  If two guys want to kill each other and we take away their guns, it doesn't suddenly make them not want to kill each other.  Disarming us isn't the answer.

Gun control advocates like to point to other industrialized nations which have strict gun control laws and lower crime.  But they always forget to mention Russia and Brazil.  Russia has extremely strict gun control laws, but twice the murder rate of the US.  Brazil is the most violent industrialized nation in the world, despite its gun laws.  Here in the US, gun ownership has been on the rise, despite the fact that violent crimes have been declining for years.  The presence or lack of guns or gun control laws isn't the problem or the solution.

The problem of violence is extremely complex and nuanced.  Simply demanding gun control every time a tragedy happens is a simple-minded solution.  Simple-minded solutions do not fix complex problems.  We need to make an effort to identify why we can't identify dangerous people in time and why ordinary people are so willing to kill for ridiculous reasons.  Until we accept that deeper analysis is necessary, this problem won't go away.

Monday, December 3, 2012

To Prevent the Country From Committing Fiscal Suicide, Congress Must Commit Political Suicide

Several of my bosses, past and present, have recently channeled Warren Buffett and told me they want the government to raise taxes on them.  This stunned me a bit.  Like many business owners they are all conservative.  Or at least conservative-ish.  Meaning they all fall somewhere between Dick Cheney and Ron Paul on the political spectrum.  These are generally anti-tax people.  They believe taxes should be kept as low as possible for the simple reason that they believe people should keep as much of their own property and income as possible.

So how do these guys finally arrive at a tax raise?  As conservative-ish people, they also believe in personal responsibility.  Therefore, these are not the type of people who are inclined to leave a mess behind.  Failure to handle the budget now just means they're dumping it on their kids, and their kids will have it even worse.  We've arrived at a point where it may actually make sense under the rules of conservatism (or at least conservative-ish-ness) to increase taxes.  Because somebody has to pay the debt, and true conservatives are not the type of people who pass on their problems to someone else.

The counterargument to raising taxes is that it removes cash from businesses that they could use to invest or hire more people.  This is not false, but not necessarily true either.  Most of the bosses and ex-bosses I talked to could hire more people, but they don't have enough work to give to new people.  Nobody hires people to do nothing.  Unless there's some wacky union contract involved.  They could invest in new business, but the market is uncertain.  They, like many people, are being cautious.  New investments are always risky, and when there are plenty of analysts foretelling of a double-dip recession, new investments are very risky.

Getting the debt under control would eliminate some of this uncertainty.  America's credit rating (recently downgraded) is one of the foundations of the global economy.  Until recently, treasury securities were considered the closest thing there is to a risk-free investment, and investors and analysts used it as a benchmark by which the attractiveness of other investments could be measured.  The downgrading of our credit increased the uncertainty, which is why investors are cautious.  That's partly responsible for the slow recovery.

Of course, Republicans always bring up cutting spending and possibly closing loopholes rather than raising rates.  And they're right.  But in order to cut spending in a way that actually brings the debt under control, significant cuts must be made in defense, Medicare, and Social Security.  In order to significantly raise revenue by closing loopholes, some of the more popular loopholes, like mortgage interest deductions, would have to go.

This is the problem.  Nobody wants to lose the things that they like.  Raising rates is more popular than removing the mortgage interest deduction, because raising the rates in the top tax bracket would only affect a few people and removing the mortgage interest deduction would affect many more people.  Cutting defense is more popular than cutting Medicare and Social Security, because most people currently or eventually will benefit from Medicare and Social Security.  Strictly speaking, everyone benefits from defense, but it's impact on our lives is not as tangible as entitlement programs are.  Because of this, defense cuts are more popular than entitlement cuts.

The problem with cutting popular programs is that politicians see value (Read: re-election) in defending them.  Anytime someone talks about Medicare or Social Security reform, politicians with no interest in reform and a great deal of interest in re-election dust off the same old tired talking points.  Gems like "Medicare is the most popular government program" or "Social Security is the most successful social program in the history of the world," are bandied about in order to prevent government from taking real action.  I think these statements are generally true (although talking points, by their nature, are always at least one part falsehood), but they are only true for the time being.  Once Medicare and Social Security become fiscal train wrecks (an eventuality we've seen coming for decades), they won't be considered popular or successful anymore.  We have to fix them now.

The solution is that everyone needs to give up something.  Something we like.  We can't expect someone else to take care of this for us.  We all have to be willing to give something.  If this means the rich pay more taxes, let's consider that.  If this means the payroll tax ceiling is raised or removed, let's consider that.  If this means benefits are reduced or retirement ages are increased (the latter is likely necessary, since we all live longer these days), let's consider that.  If this means cutting defense or removing mortgage interest deductions, let's consider that.  I know some rich guys who are willing to put up some money, the rest of us should think about ponying something up as well.

We should pass a bill that increases taxes and/or removes loopholes.  And the new revenue must be committed primarily to controlling debt. No earmarks or pet projects. These revenue increases must be married to spending cuts, including defense, Medicare, and Social Security cuts.  And there must be triggers in this bill that require that all of these things be done within one year of passing the bill, or else everything in the bill goes back to the way it was prior to the bill's passage.  This last part is critical.  Reagan raised some taxes in return for a promise to cut spending in the eighties.  The Democrats reneged.  This time, it can't be a bait-and-switch.

In order to accomplish this, everyone in congress will have to sign off on a bill that includes at least one thing that upsets their supporters.  This is the type of compromise we need.  Traditionally, politicians are only interested supporting bills that have negative effects on someone else's constituents.  This can't continue.  The members of congress may have to commit political suicide to pass a bill like this.  But it's better than the entire country committing fiscal suicide.