Policies That Reduce Gun Violence?

The past weekend brought the latest mass shutting. Over 100 people were shot in Orlando, about half fatally, by a self-proclaimed Islamic Extremist. Predictably, Trump immediately talks about the failure of immigration policy, while Clinton and Obama call for further erosion to the Second Amendment. Neither is going to work to save lives.

The access to guns in US today is more restricted than during any other time in our history. So why is it, that American society experiences more gun violence today than any time in the past? And what does it have to do with immigration if anything?

I know that over the last couple of decades, the gun deaths are down. However, the decrease in gun deaths is due to advances in medicine, which allow doctors to save more victims’ lives and not due to reduced violence in our streets.

What is the Root Cause of Violence?

I found a book titled “On Killilng” by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman. I expected to read a discussion about effects of killing on soldiers who killed in combat – and I did find that. But Grossman also included chapters on killing in our cities by civilians, and offered a very plausible explanation I have not read anywhere else.

One of surprising facts he talks about is that it is very difficult to train soldiers to overcome the resistance to killing the enemy. He offers evidence and account from several wars dating back to the Civil War, that humans, even trained soldiers have an intrinsic revulsion to killing other humans.

He is not talking about the marksmanship but about actual act of killing. This of course presents a problem for our military leaders, because we need our soldiers to be able to kill the enemy soldiers if called upon.

To “inoculate” the soldiers against this natural resistance to kill, the military has special training. Soldiers are put through shooting simulations where the target is human like (as opposed to a bull’s eye), it depicts thread (Such as a crouching soldier with a ready to fire rifle), and it is presented quickly (pop-up targets).

These kinds of drills are repeated until the reaction to a thread becomes “automatic”, and embedded to soldiers’ muscle memory. This is a very short summary but the training techniques improved soldiers’ firing rates from 20% in World War II to over 90% in Vietnam and Korea.

Grossman then compares this aspect of the military training to what is happening in civilian lives and argues, that children and young adults who are exposed to violence in their neighborhoods, who watch violent movies and video games are also “inoculated” against resistance to killing through the same psychological mechanism.

The link between growing up in a violent neighborhood and becoming violent is frequently discussed. Grossman adds to it an equally well researched and documented but much less discussed link between consuming violent content in form of movies and video games and becoming violent.

Videogames, where the targets are high definition human figures, provide “training” similar to what soldiers are going through with one important distinction. In military, there are safe guards incorporated to the training, which are entirely missing in the videogames, movies and on the streets, such as being given the order to shoot. The order is part of the training and part of the “situation” that triggers the soldier’s “automatic” reaction.

According to Grossman, the soldiers who return to civilian life after battlefield experience do not exhibit anymore propensity to violence than general population. The same cannot be said about gang members who received their training from the ghetto and Hollywood. The videogames, violent TV programs and the “role models” on the street just teach young adults to shoot at who makes them mad.

Gun Restrictions Do Nothing to Curb Violence – What Does?

In August 2015, I have heard a piece on NPR about a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who pioneered a new approach to decreasing violence. His approach is to treat violence as a disease. I looked it up on the internet and found a June 2013 article on The Trace website:  The Doctor Who Tries to Cure Gun Violence By Treating It Like a Contagious Disease.

In 2000, Slutkin, began to put his ideas about violence into practice, starting an organization called Cease Fire Chicago with the hope of reducing homicides and shootings in the city. The group trains people with knowledge of their neighborhoods and ties to likely perpetrators to prevent shootings, by identifying and mediating potentially lethal conflicts in the community before the shooting occurs.

The program, now called Cure Violence, has since been implemented in other cities such as Baltimore and New York and has helped reduce violence in some urban neighborhoods by 40 to 70 percent. It’s model is now being implemented across four continents and seven countries.

Holder, the former Attorney General under Obama, has called Cure Violence “the kind of approach that this Administration is dedicated to pursuing and supporting.” The Department of Justice characterized the program as one of just a few crime prevention programs that has a proven record of effectiveness.

Regardless of the evidence of the effectiveness of the Cure Violence inspired programs, the administration mostly just gave the lip service to the initiative. Obama did not support the programs in a long term. In January 2013, the administration met with clergy members to seek their support in his gun violence legislature. Unfortunately, the president was unwilling to include any measures like Cure Violence programs proven to decrease the inner-city gun violence epidemic. The pastors asked for $500 million to support the inner city programs but the president preferred to focus on further limiting gun rights and creating his own initiative, called My Brother’s Keeper (MBK). See The Cure Violence Health Model & My Brother’s Keeper Initiative for more detail.

MBK was created in February 2014. After the first 90 days, the MBK task force delivered recommendations to use a three prong approach to curb violence: Place Based State and Local Engagement (the MBK Community Challenge); Private Sector Action (e.g. independent nonprofit, philanthropic and corporate action); and Public Policy review and reform (the work of the MBK Task Force). It focuses on Black, Latino and Native American Communities.

The MBK is not specifically focused on reducing violence like the programs mentioned earlier, though it includes it as it’s #6 objective. The MBK objectives for young people:

  1. Entering school ready to learn
  2. Reading at grade level by third grade
  3. Graduating from high school ready for college and career
  4. Completing post-secondary education or training
  5. Successfully entering the workforce
  6. Reducing violence and providing a second chance

It sounds like a good framework because it takes more holistic approach than Dr. Slutkin’s Cure Violence initiative.

I scanned the MBK Task Force One Year Progress Report and found no citations of progress in reducing violence the report. The MBK Task Force 2016 Report contained better news. Couple examples below:

  • Violent crime and homicide rates dropped nearly 25% during the six weeks of 2015 Grow Detroit’s Young Talent operation in Detroit.
  • Los Angeles funded Gang Intervention Program, and  recorded a decrease in homicides of nearly 50% from 2014to 2015.

Those are some encouraging results, though they come at a price. According to the 2016 report, since the launch of MBK, the private sector has committed more than $600 million in grants and in-kind resources, along with $1 billion in low-interest financing to support activities that are aligned with MBK priorities.

Regardless of what you or I may think of the MBK price tag, it proves that even our government can help reduce the gun violence, if they concentrate on root causes of the violence – the people.


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