Thursday, June 26, 2008

Intensifying Violence as a Way of Increasing Safety?

The ruling today by the Supreme Court on District of Columbia v. Heller does not come as much of a surprise but does set a dangerous precedent and shows how out of touch with reality the current court is. The ruling struck down the 1976 Washington D.C. law that banned the ownership of concealed weapons in Washington D.C. Scalia argued that gun ownership represents an important part of the "historical narrative" of the U.S. However, so did slavery, but I don't think his "air-tight" logic will get applied to that. Evidence from those who study gun violence and gun ownership find that while gun ownership among the general population does not increase crime, it does increase the intensity of the violent crime. A recent opinion piece points out the absurdity of the "more guns, less crime" ideology. Ludwig and Cook (2006) argue that this leads to greater likelihood of death from violent incidents and thus a greater risk to the community. Kleck (2004) notes that increased gun ownership by non-criminals leads to increased number of guns in the hands of criminals, through a variety of mechanisms. Luckily, D.C. is still able to create regulations for gun ownership if not ban it outright. Evidence of the effect of the 1976 law was overwhelmingly positive, with a twenty-five percent reduction in gun homicide and a similar reduction in suicide with a gun. Similar declines were not found in the areas of Maryland and Virginia that surround Washington D.C., which did not implement similar measures (Wintemute 2008).

Besides the evidence of the negative social costs in relation to violence, the ruling raises another key issue. The ruling notes that gun ownership is important for hunting and self-defense. On the issue of hunting, clearly the preferred weapon of most hunters is not a handgun. While hunting may be a enjoyable pastime for some, it seems that having measures such as trigger locks or disassembling them should not be a problem, as was required in Washington D.C. prior to the ruling today. For self-defense, Hemenway (2000) found that that criminal uses of guns far outweigh self-defense uses. This casts serious doubt on whether the presence of guns actually makes us safer, even from a self-defense standpoint. Wintemute (2008) also notes the dangers of guns and the likelihood of fatal accidents when fear is a factor, even when there was no actual threat.

While I don't think any amount of evidence can make die-hard gun activists change their mind, I hope that others are more open to the overall effects of guns on society. While a collectivist approach to public policy is not something that many Americans understand, it would provide for a safer future. Fixing the fear of violence through arming ourselves does little to assuage the fear and makes us less safe as a society. Reducing inequalities and creating active, engaged communities would do much more to foster safer neighborhoods than any amount of individual effort.


Cook, Philip J., and Jens Ludwig. 2006. "The social costs of gun ownership." Journal of Public Economics 90: 379-391

Hemenway, David, and Deborah Azrael. 2000. "The Relative Frequency of Offensive and Defensive Gun Uses: Results From a National Survey." Violence and Victims 15: 257-272.

Kleck, Gary. 2004. "Measures of Gun Ownership Levels for Macro-Level Crime and Violence Research." Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 41: 3-36.

Wintemute, Garen J. 2008. "Guns, Fear, the Constitution, and the Public's Health." New England Journal of Medicine 358: 1421-1424.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Misperception of Intent

When discussing undocumented workers many people on both sides of the argument make the claim that these workers end up in jobs "Americans don't want." However I think this argument places the decision making wrongly in the hands of the average American, who in this fantasy considers themselves too good for farm work or that it is too difficult work. It seems more likely that the reason these jobs are not taken by Americans is because the companies that hire these workers would be completely uncompetitive if they hired Americans (due to their ability to demand better pay and protection). Only through hiring marginalized workers with no formal rights are they able to remain competitive with goods produced much more cheaply elsewhere.

There are many jobs that are much more disgusting and backbreaking than field work but are done by Americans and some are even unionized. This is possible because these industries can remain competitive despite paying reasonable wages due to different competition structures than is present for agricultural work (e.g., copper mines). Many of these companies would have already moved production to another country if possible; but they are unable to, due to the type of product they produce.

While this argument leads some to push for new policies of protectionism, for me it indicates the need to structure trade in a fair way. Protectionism has done little to provide good long-term jobs for Americans. We must come to the point where the lowest cost is not separated from the factors from which the product are produced. Products from countries with substandard quality controls, unethical work practices, and terrible human rights records must be identified as such. By accepting these products despite these problems, we are just serving to reinforce the negative tendencies under which the goods were produced.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Confusing Correlation with Causation

A recent article on MSN Health does a great job showing how the medical view of individuals can miss the social determinants of both health and crime. The article cites a recent study in PLoS Medicine which found that increased levels of lead in children is linked to crime later in life. They article goes on to discuss the dangers of lead and the neurological effects that it has. Even though it notes the connection between lead exposure and poor communities, it completely misses the connection between poor communities and crime. Instead in assumes that the effects of lead on the brain are what lead to crime.

This lack of a larger perspective shows how entrenched the medicalized, atomized version of society is. Individuals who are born into socially marginalized communities often have no real opportunity for engagement and often end up being involved in delinquency. While there is still the presence of agency, it is difficult to disregard the widespread patterns of crimes in marginalized populations worldwide. Nothing links these groups (race, religion, creed, education) except for their marginal status. It is difficult to see how policy makers cannot make the connection that it is not something intrinsic to these individuals but something social that is happening. Social patterning of all aspects of our lives is something continually overlooked by the media and not well understood by those in power. We must learn to look past simple individual level explanations and ask why these patterns are so consistent across place and time. Only then will we be able to find adequate social and economic policies to mitigate the ill effects of poverty and marginalization.