“It Must Be a Peach of a Hand.”

In spite of the confident assertions on the right and the left, violence in America is full of puzzles and contradictions.  First, murder rates have fluctuated.  In 1980, America had a murder rate of 10.2 per 100,000 people.  The rate drifted downward for the next ten years, then began to fall sharply from about 1990.  By 2014 it had fallen to 4.5 murders per 100,000 people.[1]  Then, in 2015, the national murder rate increased to 10.8 percent.  However, the sharp increase can be attributed to selected cities (Baltimore, Houston, and especially Chicago).  There murder rates jumped to highs not seen in half a decade.  For example, by about 22 November 2015, Baltimore’s homicide tally hit 300 deaths.  This is 42 percent higher than the total for 2014 and we still had the holidays to go.  Most of the rise seems to have come since the rioting that followed the arresting-to-death of Freddy Gray.[2]  That’s scary because the last time the US had an increase like this came in 1971, at the dawn of several violent decades.[3]

One question to ask is if these changes reflected government action or some other influences.  A second question to ask is, if it did reflect government action, then did it reflect federal, state, or local action?  A third question to ask is, if it reflected some other influences, what were those influences?

Second, superficially at least, declining murder rates were tracked by declining support for the death penalty.  In 1994, fully 80 percent of Americans supported the death penalty for murder, while 16 percent opposed it and 4 percent were unsure.  By March 2015, 56 percent supported it.  By October 2016, 49 percent supported the death penalty.[4]  Similarly, the use of capital punishment continues to decline in the United States.  It fell from 98 in 1999 to 35 in 2014 to 20 in the first two-thirds of 2015.  Extrapolating from that latter figure, there would be 30 in all of 2015.  Even in Texas, the state most prone to impose the death sentence, no one has been sentenced to death so far in 2015.[5]

Third, just over half (55 percent) of Americans think that gun ownership can be restricted without violating the constitution (and the Second Amendment be Damned!) and slightly more (57 percent) want a ban on assault weapons.  Conversely, 43 percent of Americans believe that gun ownership cannot be restricted without violating the constitution and 25 percent oppose banning even assault weapons.  All the same, almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans support universal background checks.[6]

Fourth gun control is bad for gun control.  After the liberal characterization of the San Bernardino terrorist attack as a “mass shooting,” 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]

In spite of the obvious violation of individual civil rights, most (80 percent) of Americans favor banning people on terrorist watch-lists from buying guns.  A small minority (17 percent) suspect that the ban would not be very effective.[8]  There are 25,000 to 40,000 Americans on terror watch-lists.  Of these people, 244 of them tried to buy firearms in 2015.[9]  That is, about one tenth of one percent sought to buy weapons.  People on terrorist watch lists buy guns at lower rates than do “ordinary” Americans.

Fifth, what is a “mass shooting?”  Orlando or Newtown, right?  Actually, the EffaBeeEye’s definition is a little more expansive: a single event in which four or more people get shot.[10]  So, criminals probably commit the bulk of the mass-shootings as a by-product of their business or personal lives.  By the EffaBeeEye’s standard, there have been 133 mass shootings in 2016.  Florida has suffered 15 (or 11.2 percent) of them.

Americans are sharply divided over how to interpret Omar Mateen’s massacre in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL.  Most (60 percent) Democrats see it as an example of “domestic gun violence,” while most (79 percent) Republicans see it as an example of “Islamic terrorism.”[11]  The trouble is that the partisan filter on the vision of observers inhibits both understanding and civil discourse.  The further trouble is that both are right.

America is becoming a less violent place in comparison to the past, if not in comparison to Denmark.  Murder rates are generally trending downward; support for the death penalty is trending downward; and support for gun-control seems to be rising.  However, the politics of gun-control may well be hampering further progress.  It is common to blame the National Rifle Association for this problem.  It is common to use “terrorism” and “mass shootings” as labels that justify pushing ahead rapidly with strict gun-controls.  All that this does is to put the backs up on gun-owners.

Instead of shaming campaigns (satisfying though they are to many liberals), perhaps the best answer to a violent America is education campaigns.  Between 1964 and 2004, the number of Americans who smoked fell every year.  But in 2004, the decline bottomed out at 20.8 percent.  It stayed there through the end of 2007.[12]

Still, in these regards, America is a better, safer place to live than when I was a child.  Unless, of course, you are living in one of the broken cities where the War on Drugs spawns the “war for corners”; and where the “war for corners” spawns a confrontational style among young men with no better future.

This doesn’t end up exactly where I wanted to go when I began writing.  It just ends up where some random facts led me.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 29 July 2016, p. 16.

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 16.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 7 October 2016, p. 16.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 14 October 2016, p. 17.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 16.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 5 August 2016, p. 17.

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

[8] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p.7

[9] “Noted,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p. 16.

[10] “Noted,” The Week, 24 June 2016, p. 20.  By this standard, the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” was a mass-shooting.  Especially if you were one of the Earp brothers.  If you were a Clanton or a McLaury, then it was a mass getting-shot.

[11] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 1 July 2016, p.7.

[12] “Noted,” The Week, 23 November 2007, p. 16.  Why did the decline stop?  What has it done since then?  Who are the remaining smokers?    I don’t know.  Perhaps they constitute a libertarian revolt against the intrusive nanny-state of liberal fascism.  Perhaps the people who rush to buy guns and ammo (as opposed to buying Guns and Ammo) are operating under the same star.

The 1400.

Chicago has a population of about 2.7 million people.  In the first quarter of 2016, it had more than 1,000 people shot—of whom 141 died.  That makes the “City of Big Shoulders” the murder capital—sorry, tired phrase—of the United States.[1]  Most of the violence appears to spring from wars between drug gangs.

“Da Cops” think that 1,400 young, black men did most of the shooting.[2]  It appears that most of those young men belong to a group of “social networks.”[3]  In an interesting experiment that smacks of Philip K. Dick,[4] the police have been analyzing 10 variables[5] to assign a likely-to-be-involved-in-violence score to people on its “Strategic Subject List” (SSL).[6]  It may not be perfect, but it’s not inaccurate: 70 percent of those who were shot so far in 2016 were in the list.

One question is how to respond.  A “public health” response takes the form of visits to the homes of people on the SSL by teams of police officers, social workers, and community organizers.  The purpose is to warn them that they have come to the attention of the authorities, and to offer them what meager support a bankrupt city can afford if they want to go down another road.[7]  Any life redeemed is a win.  One official says that 21 percent of the SSL figures “they had succeeded in talking to”[8] had accepted the offer of help and only 9 percent had been shot since a visit.[9]

Another question is about civil liberties.  People who care about civil liberties (practically an endangered species in America, they’re going to end up being released into the wild in Yellowstone or something like that) might be concerned about the fact that 80 percent of those arrested for involvement in shootings, and 117 of the 140 people arrested in a spate of drug and gang raids also were on the SSL.  Do the police have any evidence or do they just “round up the usual suspects” based on the SSL?  That approach is more cost-effective and emotionally satisfying in a country in love with “getting tough” with everyone except ourselves.

What do the variables themselves tell us?  Take “having been shot.”  If somebody shot me, then I would certainly want to shoot that person.  Fair’s fair.  However, I’d settle for the police arresting that person and the courts trying that person, and the judge assigning some inadequate sentence.  Walk away grinding my teeth.  None of that is true for the shooters and the shot in Chicago.  They don’t accept the court system.  They don’t delegate “justice.”  They don’t walk away.  Probably, that would undermine what little personal dignity they possess.

[1] “Chicago in crisis,” The Week, 13 May 2016, p. 11.

[2] They’re mostly terrible shots.  If you take 14.1 percent lethality as a measurement, the ROI is low.  Still, what if the thrill of the experience is what people are after, rather than actually killing somebody?  Also, it’s not like there are lots of places to practice one’s aim and receive expert instruction.  I suppose the cops could subpoena the records of gun ranges.  Find out who is buying time on the range, renting muffs and safety glasses, buying 9-mm ammo.

[3] See Andrew Papachristos, http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/11/18/can-predictive-policing-be-ethical-and-effective/use-of-data-can-stop-crime-by-helping-potential-victms

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minority_Report_%28film%29

[5] The variables include things like “trend lines” of previous arrests, arrest for possession or use of a weapon, and having been shot.  They exclude race, gender, age, and geography.  Why include things that can be taken as a given, but which will end up in a lawsuit over profiling?

[6] Monica Davey, “Chicago Police Try to Predict Who May Shoot or Be Shot,” NYT, 24 May 2016.

[7] That aid includes drug treatment, housing assistance, and job-training.  To put the worst possible spin on it, become a minimum-wage food-service worker, so you can go to bed early and can get up before dawn to take public transit, and be a complete pussy in the eyes of everyone except your grandmother.

[8] That is, most weren’t at home because they were “at work” or laying up with a girl or just told them to go away.

[9] They visited 1,300 people.  So, 9 percent would be 117 people.  Out of 470 killed and perhaps 3,300 shot.  Murky.

What can be done?

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


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.


In murders, the United States ranks 91st among countries, with a rate of 4.7 per 100,000 people. However, Japan has 0.3 homicides per 100,000; South Korea has 0.9; Britain has 1.0; France has 1.0; and Belgium has 1.6.[1] Saying, “well, at least were not Venezuela” isn’t much consolation if you’re trying to think of yourself as living in a civilized country.

What is the death toll from guns? In 2012, about 11,000 people were murdered with guns.[2] This is pretty much our current “normal.”

Who are the killers and who are the killed? From 1980 to 2008, young men (18 to 24 years old) have provided most of the killers. Better than a third (34 percent) of victims and almost half (49 percent) of the killers were under age 25. In cases of gun homicide, 59.7 percent of the killed were between 18 and 34, and 65.9 percent of the killers were between 18 and 34. In cases of drug-related homicides, 70.9 percent of the killed were between 18 and 34, and 76.4 percent of the killers were between 18 and 34.

Males represented 76.8 percent of the killed and 89.5 percent of killers. In gun-related homicides, 82.6 percent of the killed were males, and 92.1 percent of the killers were male. In drug-related homicides, 90.5 percent of the killed were males, and 95.5 percent of the killers were male.[3]

Blacks were and disproportionately represented among both the killed and the killers. According to the Census, 12.2 percent of Americans are black.[4] For all homicides, 47.4 percent of the killed were black; 52.5 percent of the killers were black. In gun homicides, 55.4 percent of the killed and 56.9 percent of the killers were black. In drug related homicides, 62.1 percent of the killed were black and 65.6 percent of the killers were black. In sum one of the biggest drivers in American murders is the illegal drug trade. The killings result from the “war for corners.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFkWPNJAy14

Since 2000, young (18-24) white males have accounted for about 6 percent of the population, about 10 percent of the killed, and about 16 percent of the killers. While young (18-24) black males have accounted for about 1percent of the population, 16 percent of the killed, 27 percent of the killers. That is, 1 percent of the population accounts for 27 percent of the killers. If you put the two groups together, then 7 percent of the population accounts for 26 percent of the killed and 43 percent of the killers.

In 2008, of the murders committed by killers 14 to 17 years-old, 37.5 percent involved multiple killers; and of the murders committed by killers aged 18 to 24 years-old, 27.5 percent involved multiple killers; while of the murders committed by killers aged 25 or older only 13.7 percent involved multiple killers. Is murder the price of admission to a gang?

From 1980 to 2008, 57.7 percent of homicides occurred in cities with a population of 100,000 or more; more than a third of all homicides in large cities occurred in the biggest cities (those with a population of 1 million or more); and two-thirds of all drug-related (67.4 percent) and gang-related (69.6 percent) killings took place in large cities.

The “war on drugs” is driving the killings in big cities and, thus, in the nation.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_intentional_homicide_rate

[2] “Noted,” The Week, 26 September 2014, p. 16.

[3] Apparently, drug-dealing is not subject to Title IX.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States#Race_and_ethnicity

Race and Policing.

In August 2014, a police officer shot to death Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In August 2014, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[1] Among African-Americans, 80 percent believed that the shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed,” and 37 percent of whites agreed. In contrast, 47 percent of whites believed that “race is getting more attention [in the media] than it deserves.”[2] In December 2014, after the failure of a grand jury to indict police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 44 percent of Americans described race relations as bad, and 36 percent thought race relations were getting worse. In January 2015, 40 percent of Americans thought race relations were “fairly good” or “very good.”[3] In March 2015, 38 percent of Americans described race relations as bad.[4] Then, in April 2015 came the shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, and the death of Freddie Gray, and the Baltimore riots. Soon afterward, 61 percent of Americans said race relations were bad; 44 percent thought that race relations were getting worse.[5]   In sum, less than a year ago, a large minority of Americans, but a huge majority of African-Americans, thought that race relations were bad. Broadly, this pattern continued until Spring 2015. Then the deaths of Walter Clark and Freddie Gray triggered a lurch toward seeing race relations as bad.

Clearly, this growing sense that race relations are bad is related to police use of force. In December 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown, 48 percent approved the decision, and 45 percent disapproved it, including 85 percent of African-Americans.[6] When, on 3 December 2014, a grand-jury refused to indict New York police officers in the death of Eric Garner, 57 percent of Americans saw this as an error, 22 percent saw it as the correct decision, and 21 percent weren’t sure or didn’t know. Within the majority believing the decision to be an error were 90 percent of African-Americans polled, but only 47 percent of whites.[7] Again, there is a consistent majority of African-American opinion holding one opinion. White opinion seems to have shifted as case after case of grand juries refusing to indict police officers came to their attention.

In December 2014, 40 percent of Americans believed that deadly force was more likely to be used against an African-American.[8] In April 2015, 44 percent of Americans believed that the police are more likely to use deadly force against an African-American.[9] At the same time, 37 percent of whites and 79 percent of African-Americans believe that the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans. A hair over 50 percent of Americans didn’t believe that race is a factor in police officers’ decision to use force.

There are at least two possible explanations for the divergence of views between African-Americans and Caucasian Americans. One explanation is that intense media attention to an unusual series of controversial cases has allowed African-American activists to foment anger. In this interpretation, the passage of time will heal wounds. Another explanation is that American society remains deeply segregated, so Caucasian Americans have no sense of the range of real experiences of African-Americans. In this interpretation, African-Americans are broadly correct in their perception and Caucasian Americans are living in a dream world.

By December 2014, a huge majority of Americans–some 87 percent–wanted body cameras on police so that contested incidents can have some kind of documentary record. (The racial divide on the issue was virtually non-existent: 90 percent of African-Americans and 85 percent of whites favor the cameras.)[10]

Which interpretation is more nearly correct? In early June 2015, a Washington Post effort to quantify police shootings found that US police had shot and killed at least 385 people in the first half of 2015. Two-thirds of the unarmed people killed by the police were African-Americans or Hispanics.[11] So, apparently, the police are more likely to use deadly force against African-Americans, and Hispanics as well.

According to the 2012 census, 63 percent of the population was non-Hispanic white; 17 percent was Hispanic-Latino; 12.4 percent was African-American; 4.4 percent was Asian-American, for a total of 96.8 percent. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Arab Americans made up the remainder.[12]

About 50 percent of all American homicide victims are African-Americans.[13] If African-Americans make up about one-eighth of the population, then they are massively over-represented among the ranks of those liable to be murdered. Many African-Americans live in a violent place that white Americans cannot or will not bother to imagine. Moreover, use of the death penalty has dropped off sharply since it was re-instituted in 1977, but 77 percent of those executed have been put to death for killing a white victim.[14] Without wanting to argue for a wider use of the death penalty, can this be read as a subtle affirmation that “Black Lives Don’t Matter”?

Are African-Americans more likely to use deadly force against police officers? In January 2015, the Washington Post reported that 511 police officers had been killed between 2004 and 2013. Of the 540 people identified as having been involved in the killings, 43 percent were African-American and 52 percent were white.[15] Thus, it appears that Hispanics and Asians aren’t likely to kill police officers; whites are statistically somewhat under-represented in the killing of police officers; and African-Americans are dramatically over-represented.

These statistics just add another layer of complexity to understanding the violent police-community interactions that have so deeply troubled America in the last year.

The discussion shouldn’t stop there however. Race relations aren’t just about policing. In the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore attending the arresting-to-death of Freddie Gray, 50 percent of African-Americans believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting.[16] To take just one example, in the wake of the “Great Recession,” white people are dramatically better off than are African-Americans. An average white household possesses 13 times as much “wealth” (assets, not income) as does the average African-American household.[17] In contrast, 39 percent of whites believed that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting. That means that 61 percent of whites and 50 percent of African-Americans either did not believe that poverty and a lack of opportunity explained “a great deal” of the rioting or they “didn’t know.” You don’t have to believe that the rioters in Baltimore were driven by poverty and a lack of opportunity to believe that the focus on policing is a way of avoiding taking about other, more troubling and difficult dimensions of race relations.

[1] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[2] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 29 August 2014, p. 17.

[3] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 January, 2015, p. 17.

[4] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[5] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[6] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 12 December 2014, p. 19.

[7] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19.

[8] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[9] Dalia Sussman, “Views on Race Relations Worsen, Poll Finds,” NYT, 5 May 2015.

[10] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 19 December 2014, p. 19. There is something very American and contemporary about believing that the solution to a problem is to be found in technology.

[11] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.   About a quarter of the people killed were subsequently identified as mentally ill. Harder to organize the mentally ill, march on city hall, chant “No sanity, no peace.”

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States#Racial_makeup_of_the_U.S._population

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

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

[15] “Noted,” The Week, 23 January 2015, p. 16.

[16] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 15 May 2015, p. 17.

[17] “Noted,” The Week, 26 December 2014, p. 16.