Gun Control: A Time to Rethink the Realities

I struggle with the idea of gun control.  Over time, my ideas have gone from embracing the idea that anyone should be able to own a firearm, as long as they comply with the law, to questioning the need for anyone to possess a weapon with the exception of the Police and Military.

I argued that there are practical problems with imposing serious gun control in this country.  Best estimates show there are 114 million handguns in private hands.  To create a program to remove them lawfully from private ownership has nightmarish legal and practical implications.

There are issues with overcoming the constitutional arguments.  I have revisited the arguments of the second amendment. I see a clear distinction in the common interpretation between its original intent and today’s modern era.

As with all aspects of the Constitution, adapting to a changing world is both necessary and reasonable

In light of the clear and undeniable problem of gun violence in this country, a new approach to gun control is long overdue.  The numbers for 2010 were 18,000 deaths and 33000 injuries from firearms.  Homicide rates in urban areas are 12.1 per 100000.

Some other interesting information; (various on-line sources)

The U.S.A. is ranked third out of 45 developed nations in regards to the incidence of homicides committed with a firearm. Mexico and Estonia are ranked first and second.

In 2009 United Nations statistics record 3.0 intentional homicides committed with a firearm per 100,000 inhabitants; for comparison, the figure for Mexico, where handguns are prohibited was 10 per 100,000, the figure for the United Kingdom, where handguns are prohibited was 0.07 per 100,000, about 40 times lower, and for Germany 0.2.

Gun homicides in Switzerland however are similarly low, at 0.52 in 2010 even though they rank third in the world for highest number of guns per citizen.

Perhaps we can learn something from the Swiss.

So, what are the arguments for allowing private ownership of guns?  Here are the two most commonly cited, the second amendment and protection against a tyrannical government.

“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.”

Written at a time when the United States did not keep a standing army, citizens were called to duty when needed.  The benefit of having citizens maintaining and possessing firearms was clear.  The use of a firearm in daily survival, hunting for example, was common.  It was a different time.

Hunting is a hobby now, not a necessity. However, keep in mind, I am talking about handguns and, perhaps, high-capacity military type weapons.

Protection from tyranny.

Proponents of gun ownership often cite Hitler’s Germany outlawing private ownership of weapons as an example.  There is no evidence that the lack of private ownership of firearms by the German people contributed to the rise of the National Socialists in Germany.  The reasons behind that rise to power were infinitely more complex; handguns in every German home would not have altered anything.

This tyranny argument fails on two counts, one philosophical and one practical.  On the philosophical side, the idea that any American government could direct the military to attack the general population is ludicrous.

The men and women who serve do so because of the American people, not despite them.  I know no one who ever served in the military that would follow an order to attack American civilians.

Isolated incidents notwithstanding, the idea of a wholesale attack by the US military on Americans is insane. It makes for an entertaining movie theme, not reality.

Now the practical side of this argument.  Assuming for the sake of discussion that the President somehow convinced the military to attack civilians in a coordinated way, using the full power of the military, the “second amendment” advocates would not stand a chance.

A fully orchestrated attack by the 1st Marine Division, supported by aircraft, armored vehicles and artillery would utterly overwhelm a bunch of yahoos clinging to their precious weapons whose idea of training is drinking beer and shooting targets bearing the image of a politician they despise.

The idea that a citizen army could withstand such an attack is nonsense.

There is a long history of well-established civilian control over the military because the military is comprised of citizens. While one always needs to pay attention, I think a bigger threat to our freedom comes from Congress and not the Pentagon.

It really boils down to this, does the tradition of private ownership of firearms outweigh the real risk to our society.  We have a failing war on drugs because we thought we could arrest our way out of a health issue.  One that, while tragic, takes far fewer lives than handguns. Yet we seem to ignore the bigger threat of these weapons.

It is time for serious reconsideration of eliminating handguns, and perhaps non-hunting weapons, from private ownership and imposing strict control over their use by Law Enforcement.

Maybe it requires a discussion on the reasons behind our violent tendencies that are exacerbated by the easy availability of weapons.

I don’t know the answer, but ignoring the problem is not it.

A country that once said they would put a man on the moon, and did it, is most assuredly capable of finding a way to eliminate the very real threat these weapons pose to people.

Hobbling Justice to Satisfy a Bloodlust

By now the whole world knows something of the situation in Baltimore.  A man in custody of the Baltimore Police department dies and the inevitable peaceful protests turn violent.

The reaction in the country spans the entire spectrum from “send in the National Guard and start shooting people to Baltimore brought this on themselves.”

Depending on where you fall in this spectrum, either the cops are thugs or those throwing rocks, looting, and burning buildings are.

As with most things, it is much more complicated than that, but complex problems and the required complex responses do not make for good TV sound bites. 

Most wouldn’t, or sadly couldn’t  read it anyway which is another part of the problem.

It is impossible to sum up the issue, let alone propose a solution, in a 140 character Tweet or other such social media forum.  That doesn’t stop them from trying.

What I am about to say will likely be viewed by some of my friends and colleagues in Law Enforcement as heresy, but it falls upon them to refute it.

The character and nature of law enforcement has changed over the last several decades, mostly for the better but in several significant ways for the worse.

There was a time when the majority of law enforcement had daily, personal contact with the public not because of calls for service or responses to 911 calls, but from being out on the street walking the neighborhoods.  That all began to change with the movement to motorized patrol in a quest for efficiency and speed of response.

But the laws of unintended consequences kicked in.  We became faster in responding to problems at the cost of our separation from the public on a day to day basis, making us blind to the little problems as they developed. Those little problems eventually become big ones.  

We didn’t see the gangs taking over corners until it had already occured.  

We didn’t see graffiti growing until it was everywhere.

We focused on Patrol officers writing summonses for traffic violations and other such minor offenses as a way to measure efficiency.  When crime statistics went down we claimed it was embracing the “broken window” theory, if they went up, we attibuted it to factors outside our control.

The second error we made, or at least went along willingly, was the war on drugs.   The single biggest waste of resources ever.  Police departments that had one or two officers assigned to drug units suddenly assigned two and three times that amount.

Federal task forces were formed. Federal, state, and local law enforcement officers brought in.  The resources of the FBI, normally not tasked with drug cases, were added to the mix.  We seized larger and larger amounts of narcotics.  Put more and more people in prison.

We also created opportunity and incentive.  An incentive to sell drugs and the opportunity to generate an income with little or no education or skills.  All one had to do was accept the possibility of  the occasional arrest and stint in prison.

We also created a need for those in the business to protect themselves and their territory, thus the proliferation of weapons.

And, we let natue take it’s natural course.  If one is born into an environment where your family business is narcotics distribution, it is likely you’ll follow in those footsteps.

And you know what happened as a consequence of this policy?

The price of drugs dropped, the availability increased.  Yet we all went happily along.

And do you know why we did these two things?

Money.  

State and Federal Civil Seizure laws proliferated.   Police departments siezed the cash, vehicles, and property of those we investigated.  Sometimes, we moved to seize the property without even pursuing criminal cases because the legal requirements in court were easier than proving a criminal case.

Cities, towns, and states brought in revenue from motor vehicle violations and whole departments were created to deal with the influx of cash.

We did it with the best of intentions. No one embraced the philosophy of strong drug enforcement more than me when I was on the job.  Being away from it and having the benefit of hindsight and mountains of evidence to validate this opinion has changed my perspective.

You cannot arrest your way out of a health problem. Just look at the number of overdose deaths from opiates, the numbers are rising despite our enforcement efforts.

What does this have to do with Baltimore? The riots and rage arising from these incidents involving the police are symptoms of the problem.

Whenever there is a violent encounter with the police, those that live in an environment of hopelessness see it as another example of how things never change.  The system is stacked against them.

Those that are fortunate enough to live outside that environment only see the violence, they do not see the cause.

In the case of the Baltimore cops, there is another troubling aspect. The rush to judgement.   These six officers are innocent of these charges and will remain so until such time as a jury finds them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. 

It is the foundation of our criminal justice system, the presumption of innocence.   No one should forget that.

Opinions of their guilt are not only meaningless, they are dangerous.  It is dangerous for anyone to assume the guilt of anyone absent a conviction in a court of law.   It would serve us well for everyone to remember that.

Police officers assuming that those they have arrested are guilty and entitlted to less than humanitarian treatment by virtue of that arrest are as wrong as someone standing on the street hurling bricks at the police because they assume all cops are racist and prone to brutality.

Cops are human beings subjected to the same flaws as everyone else, although most learn to rise above that and perform admirably.

I hope that those in the position of authority in Baltimore, the prosecutor and those responsible for investigating what happened in the back of that police van, remember that truth is the goal not a politically expedient path of least resistance.

If the evidence supports the charges, and these officers are one day convicted then that will be justice.  If, on the other hand, the evidence contradicts these charges then these officers are pawns in a game of politics that perpetuates the very problem of those in power deciding what is the truth.

If power determines truth, then this country is in deep trouble.

Reefer Madness and Common Sense

In a recent Op-ed piece, Tom Ward, the editor of the Valley Breeze (a local Rhode Island newspaper focused on the Blackstone Valley area) bemoaned the difficulty of police departments in dealing with the issue of marijuana.  He described the disadvantage local and state police find themselves in light of the “secret” locations of legal marijuana growing operations for medical marijuana.

The article quoted Major Kevin O’Brien of the Rhode Island State Police “The secret locations are kept even from the local police and the Rhode Island State Police.  We don’t have the ability to provide the local PDs with the information because we don’t know it either.”  The Major goes on to detail a recent situation where the State Police invested time and resources investigating what turned out to be a legal grow operation. “We wasted our time and we wasted their time.” The Major said.

I did some quick research, just online, and was able to learn a great deal about local licensee operations.  It took a little imagination and the information was available.  I agree with the Major, require licensed location information be made available to the police as part of the provisions of the statute.  If for no other reasons than to prevent such wasted efforts.

Perhaps it is time we put the cost of enforcing laws prohibiting marijuana in perspective.

Enforcement: Depending on which source you use as reference, FBI, National Institute of Health, and a variety of others, the annual cost of enforcement and incarceration runs between $7 billion and $42 Billion Dollars.

I can think of many more beneficial uses of that money.

Gateway Drug: The fear of marijuana as a gateway drug is a long accepted, and incorrect, theory.  In Social sciences, it is referred to as “the fallacy of affirming the consequent.”

In other words a correlation, using marijuana and subsequent use of harder drugs, is not a proof of cause.

The latest accepted scientific analysis shows 79% of people that use marijuana never use other drugs (Drugscience.org and others).  That still leaves 21% at risk you say. This not the percentage that ultimately suffers from addiction or other consequences, it is much lower.

This is, and has always been, a health issue. We demonized it into a crime, and spent billions trying to arrest our way to a solution. It failed.

The ultimate point here is simple.  There is an overwhelming amount of hard evidence that the relative risk of marijuana use, compared to other similar activities, is low.

Not that I am endorsing this, but studies show driving under the influence of marijuana one is twice as likely to be involved in an accident, as opposed to 20 times under the influence of alcohol.

It would be interesting to see the statistics regarding driving while texting!  Now there is an enforcement effort I would applaud.

History shows us that we cannot arrest our way out of this. Turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals does nothing to solve the problem, it just creates more.

I am not suggesting that State and Local police be the arbiters deciding which laws to enforce.

That is reserved to the legislature and those we elect to those positions.

However, I am suggesting that, confronted with a choice to allocate investigative resources towards marijuana growing or distribution operations or to put those valuable resources towards curbing more obviously dangerous activities, shootings, gang violence, etc. we would be better served by common sense approach.

I speak with some experience in this matter.  I spent 20 years as a police officer, much of that time in narcotics working with other Local, State, and Federal Agencies.  I can honestly say that in all those instances involving marijuana cases, violence was rare.

It is time to look at the available evidence and reallocate those police resources towards efforts that genuinely improve the quality of life.