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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Gun Violence and Gun Laws

Any candidate for any political office gets a slew of questionnaires from different groups.  They ask for opinions on issues so the group posing the questionnaire can decide whether the candidate gets their support.  Here is one

Question #5:
5. Do you support Gavin Newsom's Safety for All initiative? Did you support Measure C, the gun safety measure that was on the November 2013 ballot in Sunnyvale?

The Newsom "Safety for All" act is a set of gun and ammunition control laws.  The text can be found here:

The first part of this question raises another question - what does a statewide initiative have to do with City Council elections?  I have no answer to that.  But since the subject is guns, I did some research and here's what I've found.  (By the way, I do not now own a gun, nor have I ever, nor do I intend to.)


According to the US Government's Center for Disease Control, of the 33,000 deaths from firearms in the US, 21,000 - about 64% or roughly 2 out of 3 - are suicides.

This might lead you to think that gun control laws might at least reduce the number of suicides.  But the US is pretty much in the middle among the G8 countries - the 8 most developed, richer countries (see chart above).  This chart shows that Japan, where guns are almost impossible to get, has a much higher suicide rate than the US. (click on figure to enlarge)

By making it harder to find a quick an easy way to kill themselves, one might think that more people will have time to think about it and decide against it.  This is argued in the New York Times:

But the same NYT article argues most of the gun control measures would do nothing to mitigate suicide.  Mental health measures to treat the depression that leads to suicide would be effective and this would also lessen the incidence of mass shootings since almost all of those result in suicide.

In fact, the US is right next to the average suicide rate of the OECD (developed countries) The US is just to the right of the red bar - average OECD suicide rate - shown in the graph below (click on figure to enlarge):

Mass Shootings:

"All hatred is self hatred" has been ascribed to various people and we should look at suicide as an extreme form of that.  Mass shootings usually end in suicide and it would be best to treat them as such.

Malcolm Gladwell has written on this.  He is the author of several popular books on various aspects of society including psychology, sociology, and current events.

He explains in an interview ( ) what seems to be the main cause of the increase in mass shootings.  In his explanation, what we have now is a slow-motion riot where each mass shooting makes it more acceptable for the next troubled person to do the same.

In an article in the New Yorker magazine he goes into more detail describing an online cult that has formed around the Columbine shootings.  This shooting has served as a model for many people who want to commit suicide and are looking for some model or something that somehow makes it weirdly "acceptable".  

The best answer to this seems to be to suppress the news of mass shootings. The precedent for this is how newspapers usually treat suicides.  Suicides happen much more often than homicides but newspapers don't report very many (unless it is a celebrity).  They know if they do so, it will prompt others who might be on the edge of suicide to go over the edge.  You need to let people in the immediate vicinity of a mass shooting know about it but the hope is that if it does not get much coverage outside of that area, it will not prompt others to do the same.

School Shootings:

The number of deaths from school shootings is a small fraction of the number of gun deaths but they get more publicity than all other shootings.  

Some of the security measures currently implemented in the US are shown in the following chart from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics: 
(click on chart to enlarge):
The link above also has further links for more data.  Note that over 10% of high schools use metal detectors.  The vast majority of schools use security cameras.  These are mostly in areas that have trouble with teenage gangs, not the mass shootings that get wide US news coverage.


The magazine "School Planning and Management" has an article on fencing and security here: which includes the following

"As those schools’ efforts demonstrated, fences are a key part of a multi-pronged, multi-layered security platform... [and] includes a robust fence that not only compartmentalizes a facility, but is also integrated with electronic security and notification systems, other physical components inside such as locks and hardened doors, and the training and protocols in place to make the entire array work swiftly."

The above article also notes:

"The choice of fencing needs to be based on both security and aesthetics. While the fencing needs to be adequately durable and serve the role of heightening security, defining boundaries and channeling traffic, it needs to be aesthetically pleasing and not create a prison-like atmosphere."

Fences can be attractive
“The point is to mitigate an event, not stop it... [like] locking a car door: Doing so greatly reduces risks — reduces, not eliminates. Thus, there is a need for the right perimeter security systems combined with other elements and continued vigilance."

Fencing is being put around more schools - both to prevent vandalism and for safety.  Many are locked after school hours.  The loss of use of school grounds as a place for walks or play - essentially like parks - is a downside.  
Walking the dog at Sequoia Middle School in Redding
Nothing in California state law requires school grounds to be available to the public after hours but people get used to walking the dog or playing on the neighboring school grounds.  The loss of open space access affects their perception of their neighborhood.

Metal Detectors:  

NY City metal Detectors
Over 90,000 HS Students Searched Entering School
NY City has not had a school shooting in 13 years and there is some thought to removing the metal detectors and surveillance cameras.  However...

" safety union officials and some parents feel that if the cameras are removed, then the whole school community is exposed to unforeseen risks. Since July 2015, more than 300 weapons have been recovered by safety agents in the schools."

An article on metal detectors quotes an expert who claims they require a lot of security people and expense, are not worth the ongoing cost and manpower, and are ineffective.  There would need to be security patrolling the grounds 24/7 to make sure someone doesn't throw a gun over the fence at night for later retrieval, etc., etc.  The article mentions a school shooting (7 people died) in 2005 at a school that had metal detectors.

"The gunman killed an unarmed security guard manning the detector, and the other guard fled for his life."

The expert says the best way to improve security is to establish relationships with the students so they feel free to tell school staff that someone they know has suddenly started talking or acting in a way which is worrying.

The same article goes on to quote a spokesperson from a school district where metal detectors are used.

"They are one of several tools we use...We don't rely solely on metal detectors, but they are an important part of our security, particularly at the high school level...The metal detectors have done their job in terms of alerting staff to items that maybe shouldn't be brought into the school."

This recalls the adage that "locks keep honest people honest".  Security measures can never stop the most determined potential shooter, but they can make it too much trouble for the less determined, more impulse driven.  As Malcolm Gladwell noted, what we are seeing is not the intense, long term planning that preceded the Columbine shooting but less intense people going over the edge in copy-cat fashion.

Metal detectors, and security fences are controversial and there needs to be adequate community involvement and discussion before going forward with them.  What level of security is wanted?  How much in terms of inconvenience and financial burden are people willing to tolerate?  Getting people together to talk face-to-face will help articulate the trade-offs and come up with a level of security and restrictions most people are satisfied with.

21-page PDF on school fences and security:

List of US school shootings:


The main factors affecting gun violence are poverty, drugs, age, and social environment.  There has been no significant change in gun laws in the US for a while yet the murder rate has plummeted.  By 2013, it was the lowest in over 100 years according to the FBI (click on figure to enlarge):

At the same time, the number of firearms has increased significantly according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (click on figure to enlarge):

So the murder rate is way down while the number of guns is way up.

The number of gun owners is way down too, meaning each owner has more guns (click on figure to enlarge):

Gun violence appears to be related to age and gender.  The highest incidence of homicides is in the population age group 16-24 as seen here (click on figure to enlarge):

from: "Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide" by Mike Sales

However, the homicide rate for that age group has been declining for some time now as seen in the chart below (click on figure to enlarge):

from: "Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide" by Mike Sales

The reasons for this decline are complex.  The opioid drug trade has eroded as potential customers see the devastation it wreaks.  Better police intervention with gangs is also part of the explanation.

Reduced illegal immigration contributes in that recent illegal immigrants are generally poorer than those that have had time to adjust to the economy.  Poverty is the key indicator as the next chart shows (click on figure to enlarge):

So it isn't youth per se that is the important factor but poverty.  Young people in poor neighborhoods are the poorest of the poor and most stressed.  As they get older, their economic situation improves.  The diminished financial stress shows in a decreased tendency to violence.  The key quote in the article cited is:

"Where middle-aged adults suffered high rates of poverty common to teenagers, they displayed higher “teenage” offending rates; where teenagers enjoyed low middle-aged poverty levels, they displayed lower middle-aged crime rates. That is, “adolescent risk taking” is an artifact of failing to control for age-divergent SES (Socioeconomic Status). These studies suggest that adolescents and young adults, like non-White races, suffer higher rates of crime and arrest due to poverty and related economic disadvantages, not demographic characteristics such as age or race."
 - from: "Age, Poverty, Homicide, and Gun Homicide" by Mike Sales

There are ways to direct the stress away from violence.  The US Government's Center for Disease Control (CDC) in a brief, well sourced paper notes:

"Homicide is an extreme outcome of the broader public health problem of interpersonal violence. Despite the promising decrease in certain homicide rates, primary prevention efforts against violence should be increased, particularly among young racial/ethnic minority males. 

"Effective evidence-based strategies are available to reduce youth violence (13). For example, universal school-based interventions, at all school levels, that are aimed at reducing youth violence are promising. 

"Such interventions teach students the skills to reduce violent and aggressive behavior, as well improve emotional well being, self-esteem, positive social skills, social problem-solving skills, conflict resolution skills, and team work"

Note (13) cited above is: Mihalic S, Irwin K, Elliot D, Fagan A, Hansen D. Blueprints for violence prevention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; 2001. Available at

Above quote from:

The United States Government's Bureau of Justice Statistics notes the following:

  • Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) (39.8 per 1,000) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households (16.9 per 1,000).
  • Persons in poor households had a higher rate of violence involving a firearm (3.5 per 1,000) compared to persons above the FPL (0.8–2.5 per 1,000).
  • The overall pattern of poor persons having the highest rates of violent victimization was consistent for both whites and blacks. However, the rate of violent victimization for Hispanics did not vary across poverty levels.
  • Poor Hispanics (25.3 per 1,000) had lower rates of violence compared to poor whites (46.4 per 1,000) and poor blacks (43.4 per 1,000).
  • Poor persons living in urban areas (43.9 per 1,000) had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas (38.8 per 1,000).
  • Poor urban blacks (51.3 per 1,000) had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites (56.4 per 1,000).

It is not only poverty but income and income inequality that causes higher crime.   A World Bank study published in the "Journal of Law and Economics" in 2003 concluded that 

"Crime rates and inequality are positively correlated within countries and, particularly, between countries, and this correlation reflects causation from inequality to crime rates, even after controlling for other crime determinants."

What this means is that poverty and income inequality cause an increase in crime.  One might say that the unfairness of the inequality causes resentment and frustration leading to tension and increased "acting out " of that resentment.

Finally these quotes from a comprehensive article (with more good references):

"This finding is parallel with the theory on crime by American economist Gary Becker, who pronounces that an increase in income inequality has a big and robust effect of increasing crime rates. Not only that, but a country’s economic growth (GDP rate) has signi´Čücant impact in lessening incidence of crimes. Since reduction in income inequality gap and a richer economy has an alleviating effect on poverty level, it implies that poverty alleviation has a crime-reducing effect."


"The U.S., which ranks 3rd among the most income-unequal nations, and the worst in terms of income gap growth, also has the largest percentage of its population in prison among industrialized democratic nations. Is it a mere coincidence or does it reflect the social ills that a big wealth disparity and overt rich-poor distinction brings?"  

The key point is that no one who has seriously studied the cause of homicide or non-lethal violence includes gun control laws as a significant way to lessen the bloodshed.

So, finally, what should I respond to a question that is not relevant to Sunnyvale City Council Elections, and appears to have no effect whatever except to create hostility between groups who might otherwise have a lot in common.  Perhaps it is a divide-and-conquer policy of ruling elites to distract people from the ever increasing gap between the rich and everyone else?

I guess that is my answer - that the entire question is based on a false premise and not relevant.