Armed America


A .308-caliber AR-10, one of the weapons reported to have been used in the Las Vegas massacre

Once again, in the wake of yet another tragedy, Americans are engaged in an unproductive debate about guns.

Firearm deaths in the country are too high. The data are clear on that. The U.S. homicide rate is significantly higher than that of other first-world countries.

All true Americans want it lower, significantly lower. Every homicide victim is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, friend or neighbor. There are too many people being shot dead every day.

But as Democrat Sen. Diane Feinstein, no friend of the National Rifle Association, has observed, there are no gun laws that would have stopped what happened in Las Vegas . The killer was wealthy, intelligent, calculating, secretive, suicidal, and old.

Outwardly, he was an outlier even among outliers.

No one, it appears, could have predicted that he would do what he did. But it is exactly because of this that so much of America from the lower middle-class on up has been shaken. These are the people who know the neighborhoods to avoid to live lives free from the fear of random homicide.

Most Americans might not know the reality of murder statistics, but they viscerally understand the geography. There are places to avoid because they are dangerous. There are the places in this country where people kill each other all the time, places like the Engelwood neighborhood in Chicago.

“Caracas, Venezuela is still the world’s most dangerous city with 120 homicides per 100,000 residents,” noted Chicago Now, “but Englewood blows that away with 172.”

If you live in the Chicago area, you want to stick to places like Forest Glenn or Lakeview, where the rate is zero, and maybe venture into the Loop where it climbs to three, which is still well short of a national average near five.

Still, everyone recognizes the Loop is but a small risk compared to the dangerous places.

And then comes a disaster like Vegas to upset all of this logic. If 58 people can be gunned down and killed with hundreds of others injured at a country-music festival in Vegas far from any dangerous neighborhood, it could happen anywhere.

Someone must do something.

It becomes suddenly easy to forget how small the odds and overlook how truly rare mass shootings because of the mere possibility that what could happen is so frightening. It is easy to be fearful.

Talk show host Stephen Colbert was moved to beg President Donald Trump to do something, anything.

“Anything but nothing. Doing nothing is cowardice. Doing something will take courage,” Colbert said in the wake of Vegas. But Vegas is a bad reason to act. Vegas is not the American gun problem.

Chicago is the American gun problem and St. Louis and New Orleans and Detroit and Birmingham, Ala. and Jackson, Miss., and other cities where dozens of African-Americans are gunned down every day.

Where Americans die

The unpredictable horror of Las Vegas is a predictable reality for much of black America, except the deaths aren’t happening at concerts. Black Americans get killed in their neighborhoods, usually by someone they in some way knew.

“In 2011, 79 percent of murders reported to the FBI (in which the victim-offender relationship was known) were committed by friends, loved ones, or acquaintances,” Erika Eichelberger writes in Mother Jones.  That figure has remained pretty constant over the years, and most of the victims are black.

“Black people have consistently accounted for close to half the country’s homicide victims, making up more than 50 percent of the broader pool of those killed overall every year since 2010,” U.S. News and World Report noted in a story about a year ago headlined “Race and Homicide in America, by the Numbers.”

The deaths of black Americans are all out of whack with the number of blacks in American society. African-Americans make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but in 2015 accounted for 52.3 percent of homicide victims.

The U.S. homicide rate these days is 4.88 per 100,000, according to figures from the United Nations. That’s more than twice the Canadian rate of 1.68 per 100,000. Remove the staggering number of African-Americans killed in this country every year, however, and the rate would fall to a much better 2.44.

Even if African-American homicides were merely reduced to the rate of white American homicides, the national average would be nearer 2.75. That’s still higher than most of Europe, though not that far from Belgium’s 1.95 per 100,000.

The problem is homicides among black Americans don’t seem to be falling. They instead appear to be on the rise.

“America’s Top Cities for Homicides Are on Track for Historic Rates in 2017,” The Trace reported in July. Few outside the urban battle zones noticed. There was none of the panic that has followed Las Vegas.

Six months into the year, The Trace said, 150 people had been shot dead in Baltimore, 110 in Detroit, and 90 in St. Louis. Most of them were people of color. You could almost start to think Americans as a whole don’t care about people of color.

War zones

In Baltimore in July, neighborhood leaders called for a “ceasefire” as if they were living in a war zone, and in some ways they were.

“The Baltimore Ceasefire was not declared by any one organization,” reported the Baltimore Sun. “This ceasefire is the product of Baltimore residents not only being exhausted by homicides, but believing that Baltimore can have a murder-free weekend if everyone takes responsibility.”

Baltimore is not alone as a place where murder is the norm. The poor parts of many American cities are plagued by homicides.

Mother Jones has been cataloging mass shootings in the U.S. It reports seven last year resulting in 71 deaths. That includes the 49 people killed in the Orlando nightclub massacre. The deaths are all horrible and tragic, but the number 71 includes all the deaths in all mass murders all across the country for a year.

Nineteen more people than that were murdered in Chicago alone in the month of August. These are cold, hard, uncomfortable facts.

“The number of deaths here this year, 471, is about 50 percent higher than the same period a year earlier,” wrote Monica Davey in reporting from the Windy City for the New York Times on Sept. 1. 

Again there was no outcry. Why would there be? The dead in Chicago are among the Americans easily overlooked.

“More than 2,300 shootings have taken place so far this year, mostly on the South and West Sides and most of them involving African-Americans,” Davey wrote.

These were deaths in the dangerous places. Vegas, or at least downtown Vegas, is not supposed to be one of those places. The Nevada city’s homicide rate has been creeping upward, but as the Time’s Jack Healy and Timothy Williams noted, most of the dead have been killed “during robberies, gang shootings, drug disputes, and domestic violence incidences.

Gang shootings, drug disputes and domestic violence don’t usually happen on the Vegas strip. These sorts of things happen in the dangerous parts of Vegas, in what SmarterTraveler calls the “seedier areas.”

“Stay in the areas that are designated for tourism and entertainment (this means primarily the Strip and the downtown area),” the website advises. 

Safe in Alaska

Most Americans, like most Alaskans, recognize the geographic issue of homicide risk.

In America’s last frontier state, guns are everywhere, and in most places, few ever feel unsafe around them save for concerns about the possibility of accidents from bad gun-handling.

Still, there are certain neighborhoods in the state’s largest city that fit the deadly pattern of other major American cities. With Alaska in recession, crime is on the rise in the state’s largest city, too.  But as in Chicago, with its murder rate of zero in Forest Glenn and 172 in Englewood, there are places where murders regularly happen, and places where they don’t.

There are neighborhoods in Anchorage where you can walk up to an off-duty police officer with a firearm in your hand, and he won’t bat an eye. And there are neighborhoods in Alaska where if you did that, the same police officer would be pointing his (or her) weapon at you, and telling you to put the gun down and get on the ground.

This is the nature of guns in America. They are tangled up in a complex web of geography, socioeconomic status, crime and, sadly, race. It is not that people of color are any different from white folk under the skin. It is that a lack of economic opportunity  forces a disproportionate number of them to live in neighborhoods where human life has a lower value.

Americans can debate at length whether easy access to gun makes them safer there, because they can obtain a weapon with which to defend themselves, or puts them at greater risk, because so many who might want to harm them are armed.

There are studies to support either argument. Conservative, heavily armed North Dakota has a homicide rate of 2.0 per 100,000 – less than half the national norm. Liberal, often-unarmed California has a homicide rate of 4.9. 

But the data overall really doesn’t add much to the discussion. New Hampshire’s rate is 1.3, the lowest in the nation at the moment. The homicide one state over in Massachusetts is 2.0, fifth lowest in the nation.

New Hampshire gun laws are among the weakest in the nation. Those in Massachusetts are among the strictest. Some point to this as black and white evidence for the argument gun control doesn’t work, but the issue isn’t that simple. 

Neither it is it simple as in Australia, the nation gun-control advocates love to cite. Australia imposed stiff gun control measures and reduced homicides. Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. The former Soviet Union, now Russia, imposed draconian measures and the opposite occurred.

“….Manifest success in keeping its people disarmed did not prevent the Soviet
Union from having far and away the highest murder rate in the developed world,” a decade-old Harvard study concluded. “In the 1960s and early 1970s, the gun‐less Soviet Union’s murder rates paralleled or generally exceeded those of gun‐ridden America. While American rates stabilized and then steeply declined, however, Russian murder increased so drastically that by the early 1990s the Russian rate was three times higher than that of the United States. Between 1998‐2004 (the lat‐
est figure available for Russia), Russian murder rates were nearly four times higher than American rates.”

The Harvard study underlines the complexity of trying to come up with gun-control policies that work to save lives because of the one big variable: people.

Happy, well-adjusted, comfortably well-off people don’t usually kill each other. Killing is usually reserved for unhappy or maladjusted or poor people, or people struggling with all of those things.

And then a Las Vegas happens, and one of those who isn’t supposed to be a killer becomes a killer, and suddenly everyone wants a simple solution to stop the killing.

Only there is no simple solution.

Impossible tragedy

The Las Vegas massacre shouldn’t have happened because those closest to the shooter insist he just wasn’t a homicidal maniac. His brother described him as “just a guy,” a former Internal Revenue Service employee, a poker-playing accountant, a real-estate investor, a man with no obvious political or religious affiliations.

“There’s absolutely no way I could conceive that my brother would shoot a bunch of people that he didn’t know,” Eric Paddock told CNN. “Something just incredibly wrong happened to my brother.”

The shooter’s longtime girlfriend is reported to have told authorities much the same thing.

All indications are that the shooter let on to no one in any way what he planned to do. That is unusual. When law enforcement authorities start backtracking the cases of serial killers, they usually find something amiss.

This guy? Nothing.

He appears to have had a good relationship with his brother. He was in a seemingly stable relationship with a woman. He had no financial problems. He had no history of violence or other problems with the law.

And he was old – 64-years-old.

Michael Aamodt and colleagues at Radford University have compiled an exhaustive data base on serial killers around the globe. It profiles 2,006 of them – 1,201 from the U.S. – going back 15 years.

Only 8 of them – or less than half of a percent – were in their 60s. Older serial killers, they found, were more likely to have been in the military, more likely to be married, more likely to have been arrested and spent time in prison, and more likely to have taken a “totem from the crime scene.”

The Las Vegas shooter checked none of those boxes.  About the only box he ticked was race. A slight majority of serial killers are white. The shooter was white. Other than that, he just doesn’t fit any profile.

There is a good reason law enforcement authorities are now soliciting for public help in identifying some sort of motive or trigger for the shooter’s actions. They have so little else to go on.

“Investigators have examined (Stephen) Paddock’s politics, his finances, any possible radicalization and his social behavior — typical investigative avenues that have helped uncover the motive in past shootings,” the Las Vegas Sun reported.  “The FBI announced that billboards would go up around the city asking anyone with information to phone 800-CALL-FBI.

“‘If you know something, say something,’ said Aaron Rouse, agent in charge of the Las Vegas FBI office. ‘We will not stop until we have the truth.'”

The truth might be that no one ever finds a clue as to what drove this guy to outfit himself with an arsenal that included automatic weapons and take to the upper floors of a Las Vegas hotel to start a shooting that killed 58 people and wounded more.

What happened in Las Vegas increasingly looks likely to be proven a random, wholly unpredictable event. There is not much society can do about random, wholly unpredictable events.

This isn’t like a cigarette smoker getting lung cancer. This is like a never-smoker getting lung cancer; the research suggests it could have been caused by everything or nothing. 

Sound public policy isn’t built on trying to legislate away these sorts of random, unpredictable events. It’s built on trying to legislate away recurrent, predictable problems.

When it comes to guns, America has the latter aplenty in its cities. If Americans really care about reducing firearm homicides, that is where the work should begin. Unfortunately, as Chicago has discovered, it might not be as simple or as cheap as simply ordering up gun control and thinking the problem will go away.

But there are solutions that could help as data journalist Leah Libresco pointed out in an op-ed in the Washington Post.  Libresco wrote what appeared a thoughtful commentary. When it was pointed out to some gun-control advocates, however, she was accused of being a secret agent for the NRA and worse.

The responses underlined why it is difficult to do anything about firearm violence in this country today just as they underlined a lot of what is wrong with America in general at the start of the 21st Century.

America has become such a politically polarized society that Americans can’t work together to try to find solutions that might work to solve actual problems because they’ve become so committed to arguing about who is right and who is wrong. It has reached the point that they will argue endlessly over who is right and who is wrong even when the issue under discussion has no clear right or wrong answer.

Cue the debate.





38 replies »

  1. Sounds like a belt fed weapon used in the Vegas shooting….AR’s with bump stock’s and magazines would drain clips in seconds and not fire at same cadence.

  2. The murder rate in Japan is essentially zero. Some years they go without a single murder in the entire country. Japanese Americans, now four generations removed from Japan, surrounded by the insane American gun culture, also have a murder rate that is close to zero. It’s about culture. Some cultures murder, others don’t. While domestic violence and fighting over drug turf plays a role in the high rate of African American gun violence the most common explanation in murder cases is “He looked at me funny.”

    • That is, of course, a result of a comparatively small sub-culture of violence, a resurgent “honor culture,” being over-represented within the overall peaceful and law-abiding African-American community for a host of sociological reasons, influenced, but not caused, by race.

      Cross-cultural comparisons with Japan in terms of crime rates are more problematic than with European cultures (which still have massive complicating factors).

      When it comes to killing, for example, the Japanese are far more “inwardly focused” than many Western (or even other Asian) cultures, as seen by their comparatively high suicide rates and low murder rates, particularly stranger and acquaintance rates. But a further complicating factor is also cultural, how their homicides are categorized.

      Japan has the term “oya-ko shinju” which means parent-child suicide. They have similar terms for other domestic murder-suicides. The reason that those distinctions exist is cultural, relating to the particularly Japanese definition and understanding of personal and family honor.

      In any event, those cases are reported and more importantly -recorded in official statistics- not as in the US as a (multiple) murder-suicide, but as a “mass suicide.” In the US, conversely, when a parent kills their entire family, then commits suicide, we use the term “family annihilation” murder to distinguish it from other multiple homicides, and count each murdered person in our reporting.

      Anyway, it is, always, about culture, and with crimes, often discrete sub-cultures within them. We tend to give too much weight to superficial similarities of “big picture” democracy, capitalism, and pop culture and not enough to the massive underlying history and culture distinctions of different nations when doing comparisons.

  3. Craig, the Earth is NOT a sphere! It is an oblate spheroid or, alternatively, an ellipsoid.
    Carry On……

    • It is more of a sphere than a pool cue ball would be if blown up to the size of the earth. Or even if it’s not blown up, I suppose.

  4. Great article Craig. I’ve long been a proponent of mandatory training for ownership and use of what I would call, “advanced” weapons and accessories. I know there will be a debate over what is advanced, its been going on for years, but for what I am referring to is AK’s, AR’s and the like, not Remington 742’s. Defining training is also necessary and I would let the experts at the NRA define it just as they do courses like the Range Safety Officer course that I just completed. Requiring training for ownership and use of advanced weapons is not going to violate the 2nd amendment, does not prevent a person from owning weapons, but would put folks who are going to own and use these kind of weapons in a class likely taught by a former military expert or law enforcement officer. Its a small step but, as you so well point out, it is a complex issue and most folks can not even define what the specific problem they are trying to address.

    • What is your feeling about “advanced”, as you call it, as to the differences between the so-called assault weapons and the Remington 742? Is it the bayonet attachment or the pistol grip that gives you your position? You haven’t given us anything to work with other than your “advanced” term.

    • Kevin,

      Hate to keep sounding like a negative Nelly. If the cost of the required training is too high, or if it is not available reasonably conveniently to all citizens, it will run afoul of a host of current precedents, both 2A and other, involving disproportionate impact.

      In any event, what statistical justification for requiring mandatory training is there at all, much less for a particular class of firearm? There is not, to my knowledge, any statistically significant difference in rates of misuse by otherwise lawful owners or carriers in states with required training/permitting and states with less or none. After all, without any required training, and with millions of “advanced weapons” having been sold over the past 30-40 years, to the degree that the AR family has been called “the most popular rifle in America,” the actual misuse of all rifles, much less “advanced ones,” in violent crime remains in the single digits and firearm accidental death from all types is at all time lows. They are not used more often in mass shooting incidents than handguns; for the same reason handguns are, and always have been, the most common firearm type used in all crimes: concealability and portability.

      I support people getting solid training, and training being offered widely. In fact I support age-appropriate, non-political basic firearms safety being taught in schools just like sex ed and for the same reasons, but absent statistical evidence that training has a significant effect on misuse, to require it is a restriction, an imposition of a cost in time and money on innocent people to exercise a fundamental right, without a rational justification.

    • How would training have an impact on this shooter in LV ? The vast majority of murders are committed with hand guns

  5. Looking at images of bump stocks: it looks like an easy item to make with a 3-D printer.

    just saying: this problem if a problem is not easily solved

  6. Paddock claimed in his injury lawsuit that he played the machines 14 hours a night and slept all day, 365 days a year. That alone is enough to drive anyone into madness. Steve Wynn said the he appeared to be a “rational person”. LOL by Vegas standards I suppose…

  7. Just as a point of precision, Craig. The decline in Australia’s homicide rate began in 1991, 5 years before Port Arthur. Despite the claims of a “plummet,” that ongoing rate trend of decline did not increase* after the Port Arthur confiscations. There’s no real, much less statistically significant, causality that can be applied to the ’96 semi-auto ban. Indeed, gun ownership is back up to pre-ban levels and the homicide rate has returned to the low rate it has been, more or less consistently, for the 20th century.

    If you look at homicide rate comparisons between the US and UK, Aus, Canada, etc over that period, you won’t see any stat sig, nor even really noticeable, change in their low rates even from before they had any gun controls at all (the loosest of controls first appearing only in the ’20s, with real restrictions only in the early ’60s). You’ll see no stat sig decreases after the impositions of their steadily increasing gun controls either. The differences are cultural, there as here changes in legal gun availability -within a country-, the only way to test such laws, cannot be shown to have a causal relationship to positive changes in homicide nor violent crime rates. If anything, imposition of laws trails such increases and has an inverse relationship.

    * you will sometimes see the mendacious claim a “plummet” from ’96 to ’97, but that is only by counting the deaths from the massacre as part of the “normal” homicide figures.

  8. He had no automatic weapons. He had semi-automatic weapons with an after-market accessory that enabled the weapons to fire more rapidly.

    • David: yes, he had semi-automatic weapons converted to automatic weapons with an an after-market accessory. when you pull the trigger, hold it down and the gun keeps banging away round after round it’s an automatic. how it got to that point, whether with an after-market accessory or a auto/semi-auto switch is just semantics. ATF should have pulled bump-stock-equipped semi-autos under the licensing standards for machine guns when that after-market accessory first appeared.

      • While you feel its just semantics, Craig, I’ve read several comparisons between the two choices (full auto and semi-auto) and the bump-stock semi-auto add on. Clearly some don’t consider it just “semantics,” and I suspect that is why ATF didn’t rule differently than they did. Further, the bump-stock add on doesn’t get up to the number of rounds fired/second for most fully automatic rifles. Regardless of ATF’s ruling, a law making them (bump-stocks) illegal should take care of the problem IMO.

      • bill: some don’t consider the earth a sphere either. it’s not a matter of “feelings.” from that reference called a dictionary (in this case Merriam-Webster): semi-automatic; “b of a firearm: able to fire repeatedly through an automatic reloading process but requiring release and another pressure of the trigger for each successive shot, a semiautomatic rifle.”
        if you hold the trigger down and the guns keeps recycling round after round, it is an automatic. rounds per second is irrelevant.

      • The devil is in the details when it comes to law or rule-making though, right? The law and regs define “full auto” as multiple shots for a single pull of the trigger (single release of the sear in practice). You pull the trigger once, releasing the sear, and the gun fires until dry or until you release the trigger and allow the sear to reset.

        Semi-auto is a single shot for a single sear release. On a bump stock, or when bump firing by any means, technically you are just holding your finger stationary as the trigger moves back and forth against it, riding the sear reset point. So semi’s with bump stocks meet that technical semi-auto definition, the trigger is being pulled and the sear is being released individually for each and every shot.

        I’m not sure how you can write a rule that can regulate a bump stock without regulating every semi-auto in existence? Rate of fire is too variable a standard, even the stocks aren’t that consistent, and you don’t need a stock or other device to use the recoil to “ride the reset” in any event. The law has to be clear or it just becomes arbitrary, and legislating by brand name or appearance is a fool’s errand.

        Here’s a good blog post illustrating the difficulty in using anything other than the fundamental mechanical definition.

        They certainly aren’t my cup of tea, but in a practical sense I’m not sure how you legislate them, nor what you do about the ones already out there.

      • Leave the lawmaking to lawmakers, IMO. As far a what to do with those already out there, just make the penalties severe enough that most will be turned in and don’t worry about the rest until they become a problem. For now, they are clearly a problem, IMO, as exhibited by the selling-out of gun shops who carried them.

      • Bill,

        Since the lawmakers work for me, and most are utterly unaware of the technical details of firearms, much less something as obscure as bump firing, I hesitate to let them do anything unsupervised. 😉

        And while we can certainly regulate future sales of bump stocks, or, once a usable legal definition has been created and defended in the Courts as not unConstitutionally vague, maybe require their registration, to actually confiscate them would be a “taking” and that opens up a host of Constitutional issues, as well as being in practice difficult if not impossible to enforce. They aren’t used much at formal shooting ranges, in my albeit limited experience, so a cop, who cared about the issue, would have to stumble on one in use in public to get even one out of “circulation.” They aren’t rocket science to build, and could be mass produced on 3D printers even if we could magically gather up the ones currently out there.

        As for the stocks being a “problem,” most people didn’t even know they existed, they were a niche item even among gun aficionados, and to my knowledge they were not used in crime to any noticeable amount. It’s only when the credulous press and the usual instant expert anti-gun crowd started trumpeting them as “evil” which “must be banned” in relation to this single incident, which was the one scenario in which a bump stock realistically could have been of any use in somewhat increasing the casualty numbers (unaimed plunging fire into a dense mass of people), that the sales exploded in anticipation.

        I mean, legislate away, but we have to acknowledge when laws are more for show and to make people feel good rather than have any realistic chance of accomplishing anything in practice.

      • OK, your sphere thing doesn’t pass any kind of smell test and has no place here IMO. Me also thinks your use of Webster doesn’t measure up and I’ll venture a guess as to its the reason ATF didn’t rule as you suggest they should have. I’m saying that the measure of whether/not any of these guns are automatic or not will utilize this or some other dictionary definition and will clearly not use your interpretation of its meaning.
        I’m surprised you still cling to your interpretation but that’s clearly your right. It’s always possible that ATF will revisit their earlier ruling and change it but that’s a pretty big if, IMO.

      • Mathew, your comment suggested that you knew of no way to do the lawmaking and my reply was to that, having nothing to do with your interpretation of what lawmakers were capable of doing unsupervised. While they clearly failed when the original assault weapon law was passed, it took some time to show this IMO. That said, I believe we are saddled with much more aware lawmakers when it comes to gun laws namely because they are much more aware of their chances of losing their jobs, should they get it wrong again.
        Just my opinion.

      • Craig, here is some more information relative to your thinking this bump-stock add-on makes a semi-automatic weapon an automatic.

        The money quote is “The bump stock was approved by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because by the strict letter of the law, the gun on which it is employed still requires one press of the trigger for each shot. It does not make an AR-15 an automatic weapon, but it does provide a means for putting a lot of rounds downrange fast.”

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