Some random thoughts on gun violence, gun control, and the Newtown massacre…
In a comment thread below, one of my readers said that it makes sense to him that states with lax gun laws have higher rates of gun violence. That got me to thinking about my own state, Louisiana.
I live in rural Louisiana. I would say that most households in my parish have at least one gun, and many more than one. Poverty is common; gun violence is not. Forty miles away is inner-city Baton Rouge. Poverty is common — and so is gun violence. Something else is going on.
In 2010, the most recent year for which I could find crime statistics, Louisiana led the nation in murders and non-negligent homicides. But if you dig a little deeper, you find that the New Orleans murder rate dwarfs the rest of the state combined — though Baton Rouge is also one of the most violent cities of its size in the nation. What’s more, the Louisiana gun murders in 2010 were overwhelmingly committed with handguns. Ban “assault rifles” if you will, but you won’t make a dent in our murder rate.
The Baton Rouge Advocate reported earlier this year that while gun crime is spreading all over the city, it remains heavily concentrated among poor black people in the northern part of the city. The victims and the killers are both likely to be young black men. And Baton Rouge police say drugs are usually at the center of killings there.
According to 2011 FBI statistics, blacks were responsible for 37 percent all murders in the US — three times the percentage of African-Americans in the US population. Unsurprisingly, young men, too, were disproportionately responsible for murders. And broken down by murder and victim, statistics show that in 2011, US murders are heavily a matter of white people killing white people, and black people killing black people.
So: if your state has lots of black people in it, you will have more killings overall, given that they are disproportionately represented among killers and victims. One in three Louisianians are black, versus 13 percent nationwide. If gun homicides are disproportionately concentrated among African-Americans, then states with proportionately larger African-American populations are going to register higher rates of gun homicides. Moreover, according to the 2010 Census, 60 percent of New Orleanians are black, and 33 percent white — the exact opposite of the black-white ratio in the rest of the state. The black-white ratio in Baton Rouge is comparable. You do the math.
So what does this have to do with last week’s shootings? Given the nature of the crime (slaughtering first graders in their classroom, I mean), and the blanket media coverage, it’s no wonder people are freaked out. The thing is, mass killings like Newtown’s are unspeakably horrible, but also extremely rare. Now, I would by no means say that we care more about the dead in Newtown because they are white. I think that would be untrue, and repulsive. What I would say, though, is that the grotesque nature of that particular crime blinds us to the fact that homicide in this country is heavily a thing to do with handguns (versus other types of firearms), and concentrated among African-American males under the age of 29. (See the victim stats, and the offender stats.)
Twenty-six people were murdered in Newtown last Friday. In 2011, around 24 Americans were murdered each and every day by gunshot. Perhaps we don’t feel these deaths as much, collectively, because we figure that most of them are what you expect from gangbangers and those involved in the inner-city drug trade. Frankly, if some crack-dealing thug gets shot to death by some other crack-dealing thug, I don’t care remotely as much as I care about a classroom of first-graders being blown away by a maniac, nor do I care remotely as much about the thugs as I do about innocent children in those poor neighborhoods being hit by thug crossfire.
But I wonder: maybe these deaths don’t matter as much to us because they are occurring within a politically powerless community, as opposed to within a prosperous suburb. If the sons of middle-class and upper-middle class white people were killing and being killed at the rate that the sons of poor black people are, how would the national discussion differ?
Another thing: nationwide in 2011, handguns were used in so many more gun deaths than other firearms you can barely compare them. We’re talking about seven times more deaths than all other firearms combined (note: 1,700 deaths were attributed to non-specific firearms, but it’s reasonable to assume the distribution among the categories will remain the same). Look at the stats. Once again, banning so-called assault weapons might or might not be the right thing to do — I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other right now — but the idea that it’s going to make a meaningful dent in US gun deaths is simply not borne out by the FBI’s data.
Besides, less than one percent of US murders are part of so-called spree killings. These things are virtually impossible to predict. In 1996, a maniac shot up a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, killing 16 children, one adult, and then himself. He did so with handguns; a shocked Britain banned handguns in response. In 2010, Derrick Bird, a UK taxi driver, went on a homicidal rampage in Cumbria, killing 12, injuring 11, and then committing suicide. His weapons? A rifle and a shotgun. Both were legally obtained, and registered.
A subsequent inquiry found that there was no way the government could have anticipated his act — the killer had no prior psychiatric history — or prevented it through existing gun control policy. I suppose they could have outlawed all private ownership of weapons, and attempted to confiscate all firearms in Great Britain. We have a Second Amendment in the US, and a far more robust gun culture than the UK does. That wouldn’t work here, at all.)
Anyway, Great Britain has some of the toughest gun control laws in the world, and yet, this berserker still managed to massacre a dozen people. Think about that.
And think about this: in 1992, a man who was almost certainly serial killer Derrick Todd Lee — who, as it turned out, lived in our neighborhood, and was a peeping tom who had been spotted peering into houses there, and even entering on occasion — stood on the other side of my sister’s door late one night, while her husband was away, pounding hard on it. She drove him away by yelling at him that she had a pistol and would use it if he came through that door. She wasn’t lying. She was armed and waiting for him. By the time police arrived, he was long gone. If she had not had a gun, and had not been able to say what she said and back it up with bullets, if it came to that, things could have gone very different for her that night.