Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, April 14, 2016

By No Means First Against the Wall

The limits of the political revolution that Bernie Sanders promises are perhaps best illustrated by his loyalty to the gun industry.  Whether Bernie Sanders genuinely believes that gun businesses deserve to be shielded from liability, or whether he simply finds it expedient to be pro-gun in one of the most rural states in the country, it is fair to say that the gun industry has little to fear from a Sanders administration.  It seems that while corporations in general exert a baleful influence on our country, the gun sector is an exception and it must not be demagogued.

I think this is the sort of blind spot that explains why black voters have overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries.  And this gets at an important dynamic that I think is underappreciated.  Inadequate gun control imposes obvious costs on our society, especially high-crime areas, in the form of gun violence.  But I suspect there are also large second-order effects:  the omnipresence of guns makes policing much more dangerous, and forces police officers to respond aggressively to perceived threats.  This, combined with the concentration of gun crime in black neighborhoods and a toxic racial dynamic, drives a wedge between police officers and the communities they police.

I'm not saying it's safe or easy to be a police officer in Japan, but I'm guessing it's extremely rare for a Japanese cop to risk getting shot during routine police work.  A Japanese cop can afford to be flexible, to err on the side of restraint, because the likely worst-case scenario is a criminal attacking with his fists or a knife.  Cops in the U.S. don't have that luxury because the likely worst-case scenario is a bullet.  Where cops don't feel threatened in that way (for instance, on college campuses), I bet they are far less likely to respond with overwhelming force.  (Certainly that was my experience on campus, but I am speaking from a position of privilege as a white male with an extremely non-threatening, not to say laughable, physical appearance.)  And this dynamic is self-reinforcing:  a bad community/police dynamic makes it harder and more dangerous to investigate crimes, which makes neighborhoods more dangerous and inhospitable, which makes it harder and more dangerous to investigate crimes...  breaking this cycle could do a lot to improve life for the poorest Americans.

So this is just to say that effective gun control would not only spare us a lot of needless deaths, it would probably do a lot to improve police/community relations, with substantial knock-on benefits, and so it is more than a little disappointing that Bernie Sanders doesn't think of it as a priority.

[Edited to add:  This story is the sort of thing I am talking about.  See also the Officer Down Memorial Page.  Apparently so far this year 16 officers have been intentionally shot to death (a 17th was killed by accidental gunfire).  Based on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, that is fairly close to the total number of gun deaths that would happen in a comparable period of time in Japan, and a large majority of gun deaths in Japan are suicides.  I think it's safe to conclude that the statistical odds that a police officer will be shot to death in the U.S. are vastly higher than the comparable odds in Japan.]


Blogger Zed said...

FWIW I have long been skeptical that gun control measures that are actually on, or near, the political agenda do much to affect this dynamic. It seems to me that substantially decreasing the prevalence of guns in society will require confiscating/buying back a lot of legally owned guns, as in Australia. All the high-capacity weapons bans seem almost entirely beside the point, and not worth wasting political capital on. (My priors are fairly weak on all of this, however.)

While I'm skeptical that this really matters in the long run, the parallels between overreactions to mass shooting and to terrorist attacks bother me personally; I feel the latter are disproportionate, and do not see a way to clearly distinguish the former.

Also I don't know to what extent -- nowadays -- the default police response "I thought I was in danger" is good faith vs. sheer legal deniability for lawlessness.

3:09 PM  
Blogger James said...

Whether or not the police are acting in good faith in any given incident, I think police officers would generally be justified in fearing that they might be shot to death in the line of duty (see the update I've added with some statistical basis for this fear). And they might rationally respond in two ways: (1) acting aggressively to "maintain control" in tense situations, including the notorious "stop and frisk" tactics used by the NYPD, and (2) declining to police high-crime neighborhoods. The combination of these responses almost certainly makes life much worse for poor black Americans.

The politics of gun control are hard but I see no particular need to be solicitous of the financial well-being of gun suppliers. This is where Bernie and I part ways.

4:34 PM  
Blogger Zed said...

People are always justified in fearing anything. It is "rational" for cops to violate civilians' rights (and even torture random innocent minorities for that matter) because it is empirically very unlikely that they will get indicted for any abuses however severe. Nevertheless, doing so would be immoral.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for context, this article http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/01/06/guns-and-states/
does a pretty good job reviewing the literature on gun control and concludes that "An Australian-style gun control program that worked and had no side effects would probably prevent about 2,000 murders in the US [per year]". It doesn't cover suicide deaths.

Preventing 2000 deaths is a fairly large impact, though nothing on improved highway safety. So gun control is meaningfully different that terrorism panic. That said, most politically obtainable gun control probably wouldn't do anything close to that. So its likely not worth spending a lot of political capital on.

1:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home