guns

Maryland School Shooting Complicates the School Safety Movement

This week, a seventeen-year-old student at Great Mills High School in Maryland brought a Glock 17 handgun to the school and wounded two students before being stopped by Blaine Gaskill, the school resource officer. The event came weeks after the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland, Florida, which set off a deluge of public outcry for “school safety” reform. The problem, though, is that nobody can agree on what “school safety” reform is. Before this week, activists have been pushing for stricter gun control, while others pushed various measures to enhance school security.

School shootings are a very unique and complicated problem, further frustrating the likelihood of any coherence coming out of this outcry. They are, in fact, very rare, and generally planned far ahead of time. This makes it difficult for any gun-control law to affect a school shooter. In general, gun-control laws tend to dissuade criminals on the margins–the guy who is vacillating about whether to kill his wife but who may decide to do it if given a gun. School shooters are not that type of criminal. Moreover, Maryland has some of the strictest gun-control laws in the nation. In addition to existing federal law—including the federal prohibition on handgun transfers to persons under 21—Maryland’s gun laws include:

  • A comprehensive “assault weapon” and “large capacity magazine” ban.
  • A universal 10-round magazine limit.
  • Background check requirement for all handgun transfers.
  • An exhaustive application process as a prerequisite to being permitted to purchase a handgun.
  • Mandatory registration of all handguns, and mandatory licensing of all handgun owners.
  • Prohibition on purchasing more than one firearm per month.
  • A seven-day waiting period for all handgun and “assault weapon” transfers.

In spite of all those laws, the shooter, who could not legally own the handgun under Maryland law (it was his father’s), still shot two innocent students. When laws are being demanded to ensure school shootings never happen again, we must always ask whether a new law would have actually prevented the harm. The paradigm school shooting in the United States, Columbine, happened during the federal assault weapon ban, using compliant weapons.

Supreme Court Continues Its Gun-Shy Ways

Over a decade ago, James Hamilton was convicted of a felony in Virginia, for which he served no jail time. Since then, the state of Virginia has restored all of his civil rights, including the right to possess firearms. In the years since then, Hamilton has worked as an armed guard, firearms instructor, and protective officer for the Department of Homeland Security. Despite never exhibiting any violent tendencies and leading a stable family, the state of Maryland, where Hamilton now resides, forbids him from possessing firearms because of that decade-old Virginia conviction.

Hamilton challenged Maryland’s absolute prohibition on the possession of firearms by felons as applied to him, arguing that, while there may be reasons for forbidding some felons from owning firearms, the prohibition made no sense when applied to him, a person who committed a non-violent felony over a decade ago. The Fourth Circuit, however, decided that Hamilton was not eligible to bring an as-applied challenge to Maryland’s law, leaving states in the Fourth Circuit wide latitude to abuse the constitutional rights of a huge class of citizens and leaving those citizens with no way to vindicate their rights.

A Response to the New York Times Front Page Op-Ed “End The Gun Epidemic in America”

Yesterday, for the first time in 95 years, the New York Times published an op-ed on the front page, position A1, above the fold. The subject of that op-ed: “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” The piece is filled with tired arguments and moralistic fervor, and it even includes the most vacuous of all public policy arguments: We gotta do something.

The title itself is odd. By focusing on guns themselves as an “epidemic” rather than on the ever-decreasing rate of gun violence, the Times seems to confirm that its editorial staff has a problem with gun ownership per se, regardless of its effects on public safety. The placement of the piece on the front page also suggests that the Times prefers moralizing to simple fact-checking. 

But it is even worse than that. At a time when the Times could have placed a meaningful and trailblazing op-ed on the front page, perhaps calling for an end to the drug war and the thousands of gun deaths associated with it, they instead chose to advocate for an impossible public policy goal that will have little to no effect on the problem at hand.

The piece was clearly animated by the recent spate of disturbing mass shootings. First of all, because it apparently needs to be said again and again, focusing on mass shootings when discussing firearms policy is deeply problematic. Not only do victims of mass shootings constitute one percent or fewer of gun deaths (depending on how “mass shooting” is defined), but the perpetrators of mass shootings are the hardest to affect with public policy changes.

When “Zero Tolerance” Means Zero Logic

Schools work very hard to curb drunk driving, so when a sober student offers to drive an inebriated friend home from a party rather than let her attempt to drive home herself, no doubt any school would hold her up as worthy of emulation, right? Wrong, sadly, at least at North Andover High School in Massachusetts:

Two weeks ago, Erin [Cox] received a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Erin drove to Boxford after work to pick up her friend. Moments after she arrived, the cops arrived too and busted several kids for underage possession of alcohol.

A North Andover High School honor student, Erin was cleared by police, who agreed she had not been drinking and was not in possession of alcohol. But Andover High told Erin she was in violation of the district’s zero tolerance policy against alcohol and drug use. In the middle of her senior year, Erin was demoted from captain of the volleyball team and told she would be suspended from playing for five games.

One of the central purposes of education is to teach students to consider the consequences of their actions. In this sense, Cox and her friend demonstrated greater wisdom than school officials. While the students clearly considered the potentially lethal consequences of attempting to drive drunk, school officials apparently haven’t considered how their “zero tolerance” policy might discourage sobers students from aiding inebriated colleagues in the future. As Alexander Abad-Santos notes at the Atlantic, “Cox did not break any laws; she did not drink, did not party — yet was still punished by the school. By reprimanding Cox, North Andover High is likely sending out a confusing and contradictory message to teens about drinking, designated drivers, and asking for help.” The Cox family lawyer agrees:

Bureau of Justice Statistics Reports Firearm Homicides are Down 39% Since 1993; Continues to Severely Under-report Defensive Gun Use

Yesterday, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a special report, Firearm Violence, 1993-2011. Not surprisingly, at least for those who follow crime statistics, the report shows that firearm homicides went down 39% between 1993 and 2011. The report also reconfirms many things that gun-rights supporters have been saying for decades: that less than 2% of prison inmates in 2004 bought their firearm from a “flea market or gun show,” and that “2% of state inmates and 3% of federal inmates were armed with a military-style semiautomatic or fully automatic firearm.”

Also not surprising is that very few people know about the dramatically reduced crime rate. Also released yesterday was a Pew study on Americans’ perceptions of the crime rate. Despite cutting the murder rate nearly in half in less than twenty years, only 12% of Americans believe that gun crime has dropped in the past two decades. Fifty-six percent believe it has increased, and 26% believe it stayed the same. This is not new. People often don’t realize how much better things are getting, and this fact can push public policy in misguided directions.  

Many have tried to explain this precipitous drop in crime, including one study that connected it to the decreased amount of lead in the environment. Whatever the cause, one thing is clear: there are about 50 million more guns in America now than in 1993 and crime did not go up.

Now, I will not oversell that statistic, not only because it does not prove the thesis “more guns, less crime,” but also because overselling statistics is a big problem in the gun control debate for both sides. For example, to take another statistic from the BJS report: the number of times per year people use guns to stop or curtail crime.   

Despite the fact that the BJS is quite good at some things, it is uniquely bad at measuring the level of defensive gun use (DGU) in America. And despite the fact that I can easily demonstrate this to anyone with even the slightest inclination to allow their minds to be changed, I am not optimistic that the gun controllers will listen.  

Gun controllers are constantly accusing gun-rights supporters of over-estimating the instances of DGU, and their primary source is the data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, which they rely on unquestioningly. The disparity between the BJS statistics and other studies is stark, as much as 30x. For example, yesterday’s BJS report claims that, between 2007-2011, crime victims used guns to stop or curtail crime 235,700 times. This aligns with the general tendency for the BJS to record between 60,000 and 100,000 DGUs per year. By contrast, Florida State’s award-winning criminologist Gary Kleck has found there may be as many as 2.5 million DGU instances per year. Gun-controllers almost always dismiss Kleck’s data as wildly inaccurate, if not NRA-funded propaganda (it is neither), and instead unquestioningly accept the BJS numbers. See, for example, this study by the Violence Policy Center, which simply regurgitates the BJS numbers, and this discussion of the VPC report at Mother Jones. This New York Times post on the VPC report sneeringly offers this observation on the disparity between Kleck’s and the BJS’s numbers:

Readers can judge for themselves whether the V.P.C. or the N.R.A. is likely to have better numbers. The V.P.C. used data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The N.R.A.’s estimate is the result of a telephone survey conducted by a Florida State University criminologist.

I accept the Times’s invitation, and I will judge for myself:

This Week in “Gun Disgust”: Social Services Visits New Jersey Man’s House Because of a Facebook Picture of His Son Holding a Gun

A picture of Shawn Moore’s 11-year-old clad in camouflage and holding a scary-looking gun prompted New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families to visit his house for an “inspection,” according to Moore. As reported by the Associated Press:

The elder Moore was at a friend’s house when his wife called, saying state child welfare investigators, along with four local police officers, were at the house, asking to inspect the family’s guns.

Some Pictures for Michael Moore

This week, Michael Moore took to his blog to ask someone to publish the assuredly horrific pictures of the Sandy Hook Elementary School crime scene. Like the horrific pictures of 1955 lynching victim Emmett Till, whose mom wanted the photographs published, or the heart-wrenching images of the Vietnam War, Moore believes that the pictures will finally galvanize people to meaningful gun control. He writes:

I believe someone in Newtown, Connecticut—a grieving parent, an upset law enforcement officer, a citizen who has seen enough of this carnage in our country—somebody, someday soon, is going to leak the crime scene photos of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. And when the American people see what bullets from an assault rifle fired at close range do to a little child’s body, that’s the day the jig will be up for the NRA. It will be the day the debate on gun control will come to an end. There will be nothing left to argue over. It will just be over. And every sane American will demand action.

This is a horrible suggestion, obviously. I do, however, have some pictures for Michael Moore:

Sgt. Castellano

Jeanne Assam

The first picture is of Sgt. Lisa Castellano. Two days after the Newtown tragedy, Sgt. Castellano was off-duty and working security at a movie theater. A gunman walked in and began firing. She stopped the gunman after he had shot one man.

The second picture is of Jeanne Assam. In 2007, Assam stopped what could easily have been the largest mass shooting in U.S. history at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. A severely deranged man, who had already killed two people at a youth mission in northern Denver the night before, entered the church with the same armament as Newtown killer Adam Lanza and began shooting. At the time, approximately 7,000 people were in the church. Assam stopped him after he had killed two and wounded three.

Guns in the Capital City

During his news conference yesterday, President Obama said he was interested in more firearms research and warned that those who opposed his legislative agenda might try to “gin up fear.”  Those are interesting claims.  Let’s take a brief look at some recent history here in the District of Columbia.

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