Monday, February 26, 2018

Our Guns, Our Culture, And Our Hearts

Like everyone else, I am bothered by the prevalence of gun violence in the United States. Most conversations I have witnessed have devolved very quickly into emotional outbursts and meme-level talking points. This is my attempt to offer a meaningful addition to the conversation. Though I have attempted to do my homework, I don't expect you to substitute this for your own research. I welcome any thoughtful comments or links you would like to add to this conversation.

Let's begin with some statistics.
In the face of the reality of gun violence in the United States, there seem to be three primary solutions: limit access to guns, address unhealthy cultural dynamics, or change the people who use the guns. In the wake of the tragic Florida shooting, I've heard a lot of conversation about the first, but not so much about the other two. I don't think that's going to work. We should be talking about the weapons, sure, but we must also talk about the reasons people use them for such evil ends.


1. Here's the strongest argument for limiting access to guns: According to the New York Times, "More gun ownership corresponds with more gun murders across virtually every axis: among developed countries, among American states, among American towns and cities and when controlling for crime rates. And gun control legislation tends to reduce gun murders, according to a recent analysis of 130 studies from 10 countries." And please, don't bring up Chicago's laws. At least 60% of guns seized in Chicago are not from Chicago.

The dilemma, of course, is that there are already 300,000,000 guns in the United States. That's...a lot, no matter how sales might be limited from here on out. Also, there seems to be no good reason to believe that those who wish to use guns criminally will care at all about these regulations. Even if we would ban all sales, the approximately 2,000 guns a day that cross the U.S. border into Mexico would likely reverse direction if suddenly we were the ones demanding a supply.

2. What about a buy back program? One was used with good success in Australia (in conjunction with a national crackdown on sales); however, these programs have been ineffective  up to this point in the United States.

3. We could make the ownership process more thorough. Japan, for example, has a four month process that trains and analyzes potential owners thoroughly.  Among other things, potential gun owners have to actively prove mental competence, and the police interview neighbors and co-workers to see if there is any sign of instability.

4. Israel is often cited as an example of how a nation can be awash in guns without accompanying gun crime. Its' worth noting what  Alon Shalev notes about the gun culture in Israel:
"In Israel, in order to get a license you must be either (1) someone who lives in dangerous territories (such as the west bank); (2) a former officer in the IDF, or; (3) a former special forces soldier in the IDF, and; have no criminal or otherwise compromising background. 
Generally speaking, Israel does not encourage gun ownership. About 10 years ago there was a big round up of privately owned guns, in which the police offered for people to hand in their weapons in exchange for wavering of fines, refunding of license fees and other incentives, and many people complied. At the moment, Israeli parliament in discussing the possibility of making gun ownership rules stricter still in Israel.... 
All Israelis I know, for example, view American gun culture, with all its borderline-fetishistic admiration and importance of gun ownership as anything between bizarre and contemptible. Incidents in which guns are not treated with appropriate seriousness, such as cases of soldiers who take pictures of themselves holding a hostile at gunpoint, get wide media coverage and are widely condemned. For Israelis, a gun is a forced burden which only makes life more dangerous - not something you want to own."
5. Politicians like to talk about becoming more effective at keeping guns out of the hands of mentally ill people. That argument falls apart in the face of reality. Blaming the mentally ill is a red herring; they are no more likely to be violent than anyone else.   Less than 5% of all violent crimes are committed by people with a mental illness. They are far, far more likely to be victims. There is no downside to being more focused on helping and monitoring people with a mental illness, of course, but it's not the issue.

I highly doubt gun ownership dynamics are going to change much in the Unites States. Even if we could cut off or limit the sale of guns, that does nothing to impact the 300,000,000 guns currently out there, and whatever was still available would sell like hotcakes. We could limit the sale of ammunition, but ammo can be bought and shipped from all over the world.

Leah Libresco, a former writer for FiveThirtyEight, spent three months studying gun-related deaths in the Unites States as well as what's been happening around the world where countries have been passing stricter gun laws. Much to her surprise, she arrived at a conclusion she did not expect:
"By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don’t want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them. Policies that often seem as if they were drafted by people who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news.  
Instead, I found the most hope in more narrowly tailored interventions. Potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections. Older men, who make up the largest share of gun suicides, need better access to people who could care for them and get them help. Women endangered by specific men need to be prioritized by police, who can enforce restraining orders prohibiting these men from buying and owning guns. Younger men at risk of violence need to be identified before they take a life or lose theirs and to be connected to mentors who can help them de-escalate conflicts....  
A reduction in gun deaths is most likely to come from finding smaller chances for victories and expanding those solutions as much as possible. We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves."


This expands on what Ms. Libresco suggests: "smaller chances for victory" that focus on at-risk groups.

1. The connection between youth violence and absent fathers is undeniable. "85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes," according to the Fulton County, Georgia, Texas Department of Correction. If that makes you uncomfortable, your beef is with sociological data, not me. This does not mean that kids (especially boys) whose fathers are gone will necessarily become violent; I know a lot for whom this is not the case at all (HT to their moms who are so faithfully present in their lives, and to the men who have stepped up as father figures). This simply means that there is a strong correlation between kids who do become violent and the lack of a father present in their lives.

2. As Ms. Libresco pointed out, we must more purposefully address gang violence. Gangs are responsible for 16 percent of all homicides, up to 25 percent in larger cities. In a typical year in Chicago and Los Angeles, around half of all homicides are gang-related.  Lisa Firestone wrote in "The Making Of A Murderer":
 "Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries who works closely with Los Angeles gang members, has said, 'No kid is ever seeking anything when they join a gang. Kids are always fleeing something.' So, the question becomes, 'What are they fleeing?'” 
She speculates that two of the things they are fleeing is poverty and abuse - both of which are about to show up on my list.

3. We begin to more proactively address anger, both its management and its cause. See "youth violence and absent father" as a good starting point. I've read accounts from psychologists working with mentally ill people who commit violent crimes in which the patients made clear their mental illness did not drive them to attack someone; they were just angry. One schizophrenic insisted to her doctor that the voices in her head told her not to, and she ignored them (sorry...I lost my source for that anecdote). The root cause and the management of anger is a huge issue that is too often overlooked.

4. There is a strong correlation between poverty and violence, though the question of just how strong of a cause and effect link exists is not always clear.  Nonetheless, they correlate in the United States. What dynamics are at work here that can be addressed?

5. Did you know that "a third of firearm buyers with prior alcohol convictions went on to commit a violent or firearm-related offense"? A 1991 study of domestic gun homicides in Ohio found that "61.7 percent of perpetrators interviewed admitted that they’d used alcohol when they committed the homicide.” The U.S. Department of Justice Survey notes that “more than half (52.4 percent) of state and federal prison inmates who are doing time for murder reported that they were under the influence of alcohol or drugs when they committed their offense.”  When there are cases of mentally ill people being violent, they are often drunk or high.

6. We must talk more directly about the influence of media and entertainment. At maximum, it makes kids "less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others... more fearful of the world around them... [and] more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others." At minimum, it encourages kids who are already at risk of becoming violent to head in that direction.

7. We must address childhood abuse. One researcher noted:
"I visited a series of high-security prisons to interview men found guilty of murder and other violent crimes. As I sat down with each inmate, the first question I always asked was, 'How did you come to be a violent person?' Without fail, every single person I spoke to was quick to respond with a horrific tale of trauma in his childhood." 
A psychologist summarized it well when he described "untreated traumatized children, inhabiting the bodies of often very scary men.” Phyllis L. Crocker, from Cleveland State University, wrote in "Childhood Abuse and Adult Murder: Implications for the Death Penalty":
A study focusing on the childhood histories of fifteen death row inmates substantiated "extraordinary abuse" in twelve of the fifteen cases.'26 Eight of the twelve were classified as victims of "potentially filicidal assaults"127-conduct by a parent that was "likely to result in death were they not forcefully curtailed"'- and four who were "brutally assaulted," albeit "short of actual attempted murder."' 29 Five of the subjects had been sexually abused as children,3 ' and in twelve cases, the adults in the abused children's lives engaged in "extraordinary violence" toward other adults.''
Check out the work of ACE Sciences. They offer a thorough tool for evaluating the effect of traumatic childhood experiences and a solution for early intervention. It helps to address many of the issues that were caused by or can eventually result in pretty much everything I listed above, plus a whole lot more.


As a Christian, I believe the deepest and most significant change is a spiritual one, one that takes place in the heart, mind and soul. However, one does not have to agree with me to see the value in building citizenship by creating an environment of nurture to combat the worst angels of our nature.

We must build a culture more grounded in the concept of honor; specifically, what it means to honor others. How do my words, thoughts and actions give value and dignity to those around me? Honorable acts should be rewarded, and dishonorable acts shamed.

We must teach the benefit of self-restraint.  Exercising self-control is a sign of strength, not a dysfunction. There is real strength in controlling the lashing tongue, the wandering eye, the roaming heart, the heavy hand, the quick high. We tend to celebrate the unfettered freedom of "Nobody can tell me what to do!" Perhaps we should begin celebrating the goodness of a live given to the service of something greater than ourselves. In doing this, the strong do what they should have always done: work for and protect the lives of those around them emotionally, relationally, and physically.

We must teach generosity. We don't need to have the government pass a new policy in order to address poverty. Those of us who have can choose to willingly share with those who do not. Everybody complains about poverty, and everybody wants to fix it on someone else's dime. That makes us part of the problem.

We must strengthen families. Children flourish best when raised by their biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. There are many daunting hurdles children face when their homes have been broken by death or divorce, some of which clearly correlate with an increased risk of crime and even violent crime.  Obviously, many children can and do flourish when this ideal is not present - history is not destiny - but the statistics would show us that we have every reason to promote the optimal environment for children whenever possible.

We must build strong, close communities. Modern transportation has devastated closely knit communities. There was a time when people lived and died among people who have known them all their lives, particularly their families. There was an accountability and stability in that kind of setting. This is now rarely the case. It's much easier to become detached, isolated and lonely thanks to technology of all kinds now. If we can't get away in a car, we can do it on our phone. We must commit to building real communities of deep relationships, places where even the most marginalized can find a home.

We must learn to guard our hearts. They are the well from which the waters of our lives flow. One need look no further than human history to see Joseph Conrad's "heart of darkness" can be found right where we live. Indeed, we may well be the ones who provide it. "The battleline between good and evil,"said Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "runs through the heart of every man."


Wretched people that we are, who can save us from ourselves?

Switchfoot, "Mess Of Me"

That is the million dollar question.

Good laws can help; they can minimize the violence toward which our sick hearts are inclined. I'm not sure how much that will make a difference in this case, but I am certainly not opposed to trying. Yet the best laws in the world will be ignored by those who have really committed to damaging the world. This is a heart issue. We are what we love; if we love chaos, we will bring chaos to the world.

We must move this conversation beyond controlling the tools people use. We must even move it beyond changing the environments in which people live. Those may both be helpful responses - I think the "small chances for victory" in particular are a necessary part of the solution - but they will fall short unless we are willing to have hard conversations about the state of our hearts, and where true hope and healing can be found.

Adam Again, "Who Can Hold Us"

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