Expect the Unexpected.

Change and innovation lead to un-foreseen effects.  Caller ID allows people to tell whether they are being called by someone they know or by some unknown person.  If the call comes at the dinner-hour, it’s 99.9 percent sure to be somebody trying to raise money for the local fire department or somebody conducting a survey.  In either case, most people don’t want to talk to the caller.  In 1997, the response rate to telephone surveys was a measly 36 percent (unless you count “Go to Hell!” as a response).  By 2014 it had fallen to 9 percent.[1]  How exactly is anyone supposed to measure public opinion if the public won’t give it?  Hard for politicians to pander to the voters if they don’t know what the voters want to hear.  Maybe they’re stuck pandering to the donors?  We could end up back in the land of “Dewey Beats Truman!”

“Baby Boomers” are entering the “golden years.”  One natural response to having the kids out of the house is “downsizing” to a smaller home or an apartment.  Lots of older people with—comparatively—lots of money are entering the market for smaller homes and apartments.  This pushes up the price of what used to be “starter homes” (now to be re-labeled “finisher homes”?) and the rent for apartments.  Between 1995 and 2005, the average share of income devoted to rent was 24 percent.  By Summer 2015, it had risen to 30.2 percent.[2]  This is likely to make things more difficult for younger people with—comparatively—less money.[3]

The “fracking revolution” has brought down energy prices.  (By August 2015, they were at a six-year low.)  The fall in energy prices has damped down inflation.  Low inflation means that—for the third time since 2010—Social Security recipients will see no increase in their benefits.  On the other hand, Medicare premiums are not linked to the inflation rate.  So these will rise in 2016.[4]  The disposable income of retirees is likely to shrink.

When energy (if not yet the climate) became a grave concern back in the 1970s, a sustained drive got underway to make all sorts of things more energy efficient.  Today, American houses are 31 percent more energy efficient than they were forty years ago.  On the other hand, American homes are 57 percent larger than they were forty years ago.  In the 1970s the average American home was about 1,300 square feet.  In 2012 the average American home was 1,864 square feet.  The most recently built homes are averaging 2,657 square feet.  This cancels out the gains in efficiency.[5]  Several puzzles arise.  Where does the extra space go?  Garages?  Bigger bedrooms for the kids?  A bathroom every ten feet?  Why are homes larger when families are smaller?  What is it like to live in one of these homes?  Do family-members retreat into their own space and close the door?  Is the same thing true of the improved gas mileage of cars?  Is efficiency improved, but we drive more?

The current, much-discussed surge in opiod addiction has led to a surge in deaths from drug overdoses.  That, in turn, has led to a rise in the number of organ donors.  They now provide better than ten percent of all organ donations, up from about 3 percent in 2006.[6]  So, higher death rates for some mean longer lives for others.

After the San Bernardino terrorist attack liberals characterized the attack as a “mass shooting” and called for tighter gun controls. Unlicensed gun-dealers, a common “bete noire” of gun control advocates, came in for special presidential attention.  Gun sales zoomed upward.  In December 2015, Americans bought 3.3 million guns.  All of these sales have been from licensed gun-dealers because the government background check system has been swamped.  Attorney General Loretta Lynch has asked for the hiring of 430 additional people just to process the background checks of Americans complying with the existing gun laws.[7]

The Americans with Disabilities Act bars discrimination against people with disabilities.  Some of this is left open to interpretation by government officials.  As a result, the state of Iowa will issue gun permits to blind people.[8]

Should these random reports make people cautious in regarding business plans, campaign platforms (“The New” Anything), or succeeding at their New Year’s Resolutions?  Just asking.

[1] “The bottom line,” The Week, 5 September 2014, p. 32.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 28 August, 2015, p. 14.

[3] “The bottom line,” The Week, 15 October 2015, p. 36.

[4] “The bottom line,” The Week, 30 October 2015, p. 36.

[5] “The bottom line,” The Week, 20 November 2015, p. 32; “Noted,” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 16.  .

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 20 May 2016, p. 18.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 5 February 2016, p.8.

[8] “Noted,” The Week, 20 September 2013, p. 16.

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The Gun Show.

Since 2009, when President Obama first began talking about gun control, gun sales have increased. The stock market value of gun manufacturers like Smith and Wesson and Ruger rose by 900 percent.[1] Now the president has begun taking executive action to extend federal control.

How big is the problem of unlicensed gun sales? A study of “Armslist.com” found that 600,000 guns were offered for sale on-line by unlicensed dealers. Of these, 4.5 percent were sales by “high volume dealers”–people who sold 25 to 150 weapons a year.[2] So there are a small number of people knowingly skirting the law in much the same way, perhaps, as many drivers ignore the speed limits[3] or sell marijuana. Guns purchased on-line will not be sent directly to the purchaser. They will be sent to a licensed gun-dealer who can carry out an on-line background check before turning over the gun to the purchase. Many, if not most, gun show sales also require a background check. (Lots of people have a Wi-Fi connection.)

When President Obama issued his executive order on gun-sales, he sought to bring all those who sell or trade guns under federal control.[4] Specifically, anyone who sells guns could be considered a “gun dealer.” Any of them who do not have a federal license—which will not be issued to applicants in the same way that federal lands are to be closed to coal miners by executive order—could be subject to heavy fines. White House spokes-person Josh Earnest[5], claimed that the penalties to be levied on people “hiding behind the hobbyist exemption” would force many people to seek federal gun-dealer licenses. So, that’s the end of that. These dealers are thought to sell hundreds of weapons a year. Some of these hundreds of weapons may be used in the thousands of gun homicides that happen each year. Both small gun dealers and knowledgeable federal officials doubt that the new order will have any effect.

How does it play in Peoria? As of early January 2016, 51 percent of Americans were opposed to tighter gun laws; while 48 percent supported tighter laws.[6] As of mid-January 2016, more than half (54 percent) of Americans opposed President Obama’s use of executive orders to alter the gun laws [relating to who is a gun-dealer], while 44 percent approved it. So, Americans are clear in their own mind about what they believe on this matter. At the same time, however, two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans supported President Obama’s directive for expanded background checks for gun-buyers.[7] What about the party-affiliation breakdown? Well, virtually all Democrats (85 percent), two-thirds (65 percent) of Independents, and just over half of Republicans (51 percent) support expanded background checks. 

What’s the difference? Well, we have an existing system of back-ground checks and anyone can see that the system doesn’t catch enough of the killers. So extending it makes sense without changing the law by presidential ukase. Changing the legal definition of who is a gun-dealer smacks of President Obama’s all-too-evident belief that he is the ruler of the French Second Empire, rather than president of the United States. The former adjunct professor of law appears to have a problem with many Americans about how he understands the Constitution.

[1] Compared to 800 percent for Apple and 147 percent for the benchmark Standard and Poor’s 500 index.

[2] The NYT did not report on the hand gun versus long gun balance of this trade. Hand guns are the chief killers.

[3] See: Route 202 southbound at 6:30 AM. Just reporting on what I have seen.

[4] Hiroku Tabuchi and Rachel Abrams, “Obama’s Gun Initiative Seen as Having Limited Effect on Unlicensed Dealers,” NYT, 8 January 2016.

[5] “Josh” is an old term for “joke.” “Earnest” is an old term for “I’m serious.” So, which is it?

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 January 2016, p. 17.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 22 January 2016, p. 17.

American opinion on gun control.

Americans are divided on the utility of stricter gun laws to stop shootings. In September 2015, 46 percent of Americans thought that stricter gun-laws were the best way to reduce the number of shootings, while 36 percent thought that the best way would be for more Americans to carry guns for their own protection, and 18 percent weren’t sure.[1] By late-October/early-November 2015, about one-third (35 percent) thought that tighter laws would reduce all forms of shootings, while another third (35 percent) thought that tighter laws would have no effect, and almost a third (30 percent) weren’t sure. On the subject of “mass shootings, however, Americans were clearer in their mind. Almost half (48 percent) thought that mass shootings can be stopped, while one-third (35 percent) think that these events are “just a fact of life in America today.” That means that only one-sixth (17 percent) weren’t sure.[2] However, that was before the San Bernardino shootings[3] and President Obama’s ill-received speech seeking to reassure Americans. By mid-December 2015, 71 percent of Americans believed that both mass shootings and terrorist attacks have become a permanent part of American life.[4]

That is, the share of Americans who believe that mass shootings are just a fact of life more than doubled and moved from a minority to a majority position in about a month. It’s easy to se why they think so. About twice a day for the last twenty years somebody gets killed in an act of workplace violence. More specifically, 14,770 people between 1992 and 2012. Mostly, they were shot.[5] Between 2007 and the end of 2015, 29 people legally entitled to carry a concealed weapon committed “mass shootings.”[6] In the wake of the shooting incident at the Planned Parenthood site in Colorado Springs, CO, people started doing the math for the umpteenth time. Using the expansive definition of “mass shootings” (at least four people including the gunman are killed or wounded), there were 351 mass shootings from 1 January to 30 November 2015.[7] However, this isn’t what most people mean by “mass shootings.” Most people mean “somebody goes postal.” The expansive definition includes criminals who shot up everyone inside of or in front of a row-house in Bal’mer.[8]

Similarly, in Fall 2015, almost half of Americans (46-48 percent) thought that stricter regulation of who could own a gun would reduce shootings by some uncertain amount, while just over a third (35-36 percent) thought that such restrictions wouldn’t be effective. The size of the uncertain group bounced around from 18 to 30 percent. However, the number of the uncertain rose as the issue was discussed in public. The increased size of the uncertain group came at the expense of the supporters of stricter gun laws.

In contrast, the numbers for those who favor carrying personal weapons for protection, who doubt the effectiveness of stricter gun control laws, and who believe mass shootings are just a fact of life are all the same at 35 percent. This matches up with the one-third of Americans who are estimated to own guns.

Gun control advocates are losing the debate. The more they talk, the more they lose. Is it time to re-think strategy and discourse?

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 11 September 2015, p. 19.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 21.

[3] So far as I can tell, the NYT never referred to the recent attack in Paris as a “mass shooting.”

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 25 December 2015, p. 21.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 11 September 2015, p. 18.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 6 November 2015, p. 20.

[7] “Noted,” The Week, 11 December 2015, p. 16.

[8] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7DhFhzkjcA

Gun-ownership in America.

There are a lot of firearms in the United States. Roughly about one per person. What percentage of Americans own these firearms?

Survey data suggests a range of answers. A study done by a Harvard University team suggested that 38 percent of Americans own guns.[1] A study done by a Columbia University team suggested that about one-third of Americans own at least one firearm.[2] A study done by the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey suggests that the figure is 30 percent.[3] Arguably, there’s a broad convergence of estimates around the one-third figure.

The studies revealed interesting disparities in gun-ownership. There are big differences between states and between regions.

5.2 percent in Delaware.

5.8 percent in Rhode Island.

19.6 percent in Ohio

20.0 percent in California (the lowest rate of Western states).

28.8 percent in Vermont.

47.9 percent in North Dakota.

57.9 percent in Arkansas.

61.7 percent in Alaska. (D’uh.)

An article in Mother Jones[4] elaborated on the findings of the Columbia study.

Almost half (46 percent) reported having received a firearm as a gift.[5]

Only about one-third (34 percent) had taken a formal gun safety class.[6]

A table in the Mother Jones article shows the link between rising levels of gun ownership and rising levels of gun deaths. However, is it possible to have high rates of gun-ownership and low rates of gun violence? Yes. About 45 percent of Hawiians own guns, but it has a rate of gun deaths comparable to Massachusetts, where fewer than 25 percent of people own guns, and lower than New York, where only about 10 percent of people own guns. Is it possible to have low rates of gun-ownership and comparatively high levels of gun deaths? Yes. Only about 5 percent of Delawareans own guns, but it has a rate of guns death comparable to Texas, where 35 percent of people own guns. What explains these divergences from the norm?

Almost half (45 percent) of men own a gun, but only one-ninth (11 percent) of women own a gun. Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of gun-owners own at least a handgun. Almost half (48 percent) of gun-owners have at least four guns.

So, is gun violence at high levels here to stay? Probably not. Gun ownership peaked at 53 percent in the crime-ridden early 1970s, then fell to about 33 percent today. Now the person most likely to own a gun is a married white man over 55 with at least a high school education. Gun-ownership may be like smoking: eventually, it may fall out of fashion in a changing culture.

[1] Lisa Hepburn, Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael, and David Hemenway, “The US gun stock: Results from the 2004 national firearms survey,”  Injury Prevention. 2007 13:15-19.

[2] Bindu Kalesan, Marcos D. Villarreal, Katherine M. Keyes, and Sandro Galea, “Gun ownership and social gun culture,” Injury Prevention, June 2015.

[3] Reported in “The Blaze.” http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/03/19/how-many-people-own-guns-in-america-and-is-gun-ownership-actually-declining/

[4] See: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/06/gun-owners-study-one-in-three

[5] Requiring back-ground checks for personal transfer weapons is going to meet a lot of open opposition and covert defiance.

[6] No, instead, their fathers taught them. That’s been true for centuries.

Cautionary tales about gun control.

About 106,000 people a year get shot in the United States. About 31,000 die of their wounds and 75,000 survive.[1] The sufferings of the survivors is not much noticed in the media. About 58 percent of the gunshot fatalities are suicides. This is not much noticed in the media either. The vast majority of the rest are homicides.

Some gun owners will kill. How many? Well, fourteen thousand gun homicides in a country with 310 million firearms. OK, much more realistically, 14,000 gun homicides in a country with 100 million hand-guns. (Only a few hundred deaths result from “long guns” (rifles and shotguns).) Then, it’s a safe bet that some hand-guns are used in multiple homicides.[2] So, fewer than 14,000 guns from a stock of 100 million hand-guns are responsible for most homicides. I think that means 1.4 percent of hand-guns cause virtually all of the homicides. It is really difficult to build a case for general gun regulation from this evidence.

In the wake of the December 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama made an impassioned plea for stricter gun regulations.[3] That plea brought no result from Congress. However, it did bring a response from gun-owners. Fearing that the government would limit gun-sales and demand registration of new purchases, gun-owners flocked to the stores to buy up all the guns and ammunition they could get their hands on. In the nature of a market economy, manufacturers responded by increasing production to meet demand. In 2009, American firearm manufacturers produced 5.6 million firearms. In 2013, they produced 10.9 million firearms. If one wants to be perverse about this, then it is possible to argue that President Obama’s efforts led to an additional 5 million guns sold.[4]

The “war on drugs” allows us to regard half the murder victims in the United States as criminals killed by other criminals. We can be effectively indifferent about these deaths. However, it is the “war on drugs” that turns all these Americans into “the enemy.” When is the last time you heard of someone killed in a quarrel over alcohol (which happened all the time during Prohibition)? When is the last time you heard about someone who died from a botched “back alley” abortion (which happened all the time before Row v. Wade and Planned parenthood)?

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans. However, 12.2 percent of the population is African-American. That means African-Americans get killed at four times their share of the population. In contrast, while use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[5] So, “Black Lives Matter,” but not to juries.

A majority (more than 50 percent) of mass murders happen when someone—almost always a man—wigs out and kills his estranged spouse or former spouse and her family.[6] The pre-occupation with random mass killings obscure this terrible truth. Getting guns away from people who have a restraining order against them is a necessary first step.

What is striking is that we can’t talk to each other about this complicated and painful subject.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 16.

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulIPnwiFYQU

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_control_after_the_Sandy_Hook_Elementary_School_shooting

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 16 October 2015, p. 16.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 16 May 2014, p. 18.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 25 July 2014, p. 14.

What can be done?

What can we do? Solutions—in my mind—divide between the nonsensical (but effective) and the practical (but imperfect).

Nonsensical.

The Constitution allows for Amendment. Prohibition was instituted by Constitutional amendment and it was repealed by Constitutional amendment. The same could be true of the Second Amendment. So, amend the Constitution to repeal the current Second Amendment and replace with something that allows for more effective regulation.

This is where a lot of the push-back originates. Part of this reflects a deep distrust of the federal government.[1] Sales of semi-automatic, civilian versions of “assault rifles” have been booming. One type rose from 4,600 sold in 2006 to 100,000 sold in 2010. “The weapons that would be most suited to overthrow a dictatorial federal government would, of course, be weapons of war, and not sports equipment.”[2]

Part of it springs from a realistic belief in self-defense. The number of justifiable homicides by civilians is not great and has declined. From a high of about 325 in 1980, the number of justifiable homicides while disrupting a crime had fallen to about 150 in 2008. Among murder victims age 40 or older, the proportion of homicides committed during a felony began increasing, accounting for 32.8 percent of homicides of 64-year-old victims and 40.3 percent of homicides of 76-year-old victims. That is, some old person is at home or returns home while someone is breaking into their house and gets killed.

Between 1980 and 2008 the number of justifiable homicides while resisting attack bounced up and down between 50 and 100 a year. In sum, civilians kill with legal justification 200 to 250 times a year.

Regulate gun-ownership by age. The drinking age (21) is higher than the age to vote, to enlist in the military without your parents’ permission, to get married without your parents’ permission, and to be charged as an adult for whatever stupid thing you did last Saturday night (all 18). The courts have already approved an age distinction. So, if young men under 25 are the chief source of the murder problem, raise the age of legal gun ownership/possession to 25. For that matter, require men to surrender their guns when they hit 50, hold them in trust until they are 60, and ban gun sales to men in that age range.

Practical: Regulatory.

Greatly tighten ATF regulation of gun-dealers to eliminate the 8 percent of them (in the estimation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF)), who supply the black market in guns. This will mean repealing or amending the Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986.

A lot of prescriptions for anti-depressants are written by primary care physicians, rather than by psychiatrists. Push primary care physicians to aggressively inquire of their male patients aged 50 or more, about their state of mind. Look for signs of depression, ask whether they have guns in the house (pediatricians already do this), and require them to report cases where they fear someone may harm themselves (psychiatrists already have to report cases of potential violence to the police). Sure, there are privacy issues here. But who wants to be scrubbing brain-matter off bathroom tile?

Practical: Political.

End the “war on drugs.” One effect of the “war on drugs” has been to increase the supply of drugs and reduce the price. Another effect has been the “war for the corners” that has led to so many deaths. How is this a successful public policy? We’ve tried a “war on alcohol,” a “war on abortion” before Roe v. Wade, and a “war on drugs.” They all end in the same place.

Roger Lane, author of Murder in America: A History, tells us that, between 1865 and 1917, the “police, the temperance movement, the public schools–the items on the reform agenda designed to discipline the population–were successful as never before. And underlying all of them were the direct demands of the new kind of work itself, which helped create a whole new social psychology.” (p. 182.) Police departments got control of the streets after the Civil War, suppressing riotous behavior. Temperance movements cut down on the amount of alcohol consumed. Young people spent a lot more time in school (and out of trouble) learning how to put up with being bored. Most importantly, industrialization created enormous employment opportunities, even for the semi-skilled and unskilled, so they went to work instead of hanging around the street corner and boozing.

The same thing could happen again now. De-militarize the attitudes—not the weapons—of the police. Whatever you think of Planned Parenthood, fund Narcotics Anonymous. Reorganize the funding of public schools to transfer resources from suburbs toward inner cities. (You can always change your mind if it turns into a rat-hole.) Finally, make thoughtful choices in elections. Which candidates are actually likely to promote a renaissance of the American economy so that there is broad-based prosperity? Both parties claim that to be their goal. Both may have policies that would achieve that goal. It is up to each voter. You’re not a potted plant.

[1] Which criminalized Japanese ancestry in 1941.

[2] David Kopel, Cato Institute, quoted in “The assault weapon,” The Week, 15 February 2013, p. 11.

The Secret History of the Second Amendment II.

In 1963 and 1965, Senator Tom Dodd of Connecticut introduced bills to regulate the inter-state commerce in guns. They went nowhere. Then, after the death of President John F. Kennedy, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were slain by assassins. In 1968, Congress passed two laws that extended gun regulation. One law raised the age of legal purchase of a gun to 21.[1] The other regulated inter-state commerce in guns, outlawing the mail order sale of guns, and the buying of guns by felons, drug users, and people who had been involuntarily committed to a mental institution.[2] There matters rested for almost 20 years. They didn’t do a Hell of a lot of good: in 1981 a crazy person tried to kill President Ronald Reagan.

Between 1968 and 1986, some politically-active gun owners came to believe that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF), which enforced federal gun-control laws, had often abused its authority. As a result, some of the restrictions of the 1968 Act were rolled-back by the Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986).[3] One provision of the act barred the federal government from running a registry of owners of non-NFA weapons (machine guns, sawn-off shotguns) sales. Another expanded and clarified the list of people who could not buy guns.

In 1990, Congress passed the Gun Free School Zone Act[4] which barred possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of a school. In cities, schools are everywhere. The law meant to provide grounds for arrest for people in big cities, although—the bureaucratic mind at work—it has also been applied to hunters in New Hampshire. However, in 1995 the Supreme Court overturned this law as unconstitutional. The Clinton Administration then passed a revised Act.

In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill.[5] This law required a background check on gun-buyers and a five day waiting period until a computerized system became available.[6] That system, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, came on-line in 1998. It applied to “long guns” as well as hand guns, even though long guns account for only a small fraction of homicides.[7]

In 1994, in reaction to several mass shootings, Congress passed a ten-year ban on the manufacture and sale of “assault weapons.”[8] The law helped to bog down the discussion of what constituted an “assault weapon” by focusing on trivia rather than the key issue of the receiver, which controlled the rate of fire. There matters rested for almost 15 years.

In 2008 and 2010, in two separate cases, the Supreme Court held that the right to keep and bear arms is an individual right and that federal law trumps state law.[9] For the moment, at least, the quarrel between “individual right” and “collective right” advocates which opened in Kentucky 200 years before has been settled.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omnibus_Crime_Control_and_Safe_Streets_Act_of_1968 So, my folks giving me a gun on my 12th birthday was not illegal. Also, it occurred in 1966, before the law went into effect.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun_Control_Act_of_1968 See, also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5IWK9sRYTs

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Firearm_Owners_Protection_Act

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gun-Free_School_Zones_Act_of_1990

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_Handgun_Violence_Prevention_Act

[6] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haeYj82a9f4

[7] In all likelihood, this drove gun owners wild. It probably made non-gun-owning liberals all warm and gooey.

[8] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Assault_Weapons_Ban

[9] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/District_of_Columbia_v._Heller; andhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald_v._City_of_Chicago. In the McDonald case, the city of Chicago had refused to issue hand-gun permits since 1982, effectively disarming law-abiding citizens, rather than criminals.