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.
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.
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.