Gun Control 2012

Posted 5/6/12

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

For some inner cities, The Great Crime Drop is The Great Myth

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  More than two-hundred fifty police chiefs recently gathered in Washington for the annual conference of the Police Executive Research Forum.  Much of their meeting was devoted to what has become the most pressing topic in big-city policing: rising gun violence.

     PERF used the occasion to present data from questionnaires sent to more than 1,000 police departments. About half were returned (N=588).  Consistent with PERF’s membership, responding agencies trended to medium and large size, with a mean of 579 officers and a service population of 553,119.  Gun crimes reported by PERF cities dovetailed with like measures in the UCR (click here for PERF’s slide show).  Gun homicide rates aligned perfectly with national data, falling from 4.2/100,000 in 2008 to 3.8 in 2009 and 3.7 in 2010.  Summary statistics for armed robbery with a gun and aggravated assault with a gun were also very close.

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     There are two caveats.  First, even if one finds the numbers reassuring, they still leave the U.S. with a homicide rate more than twice Canada’s and more than four times that of the U.K. and other industrialized nations.  And there’s a bigger problem. While the aggregate statistics from PERF suggest the same as the UCR – that crime and violence have been falling since the early 1990s – it’s increasingly evident that the benefits of the so-called Great Crime Drop have not been evenly distributed.

     PERF bored in on three cities with high rates of gun violence – Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Philadelphia – and three with low rates, San Diego, Austin, and Toronto.

PERF gun homicide counts for six cities (2011 incomplete)

     As the chart indicates, once the numbers are disaggregated the vaunted crime drop loses some of its luster.  That’s especially true for high gun violence cities.  Milwaukee’s three-year gun homicide trend is up (51, 60, 67). Minneapolis gun homicides rose in the third year but moderated somewhat in the fourth (24, 13, 31, 26). Gun homicides in Philadelphia, which dropped sharply in 2009, climbed back up in 2011 (278, 245, 244, 265).

     For the three low gun-violence cities, only San Diego’s count fell each year  (25, 22, 12). Toronto’s gun homicide count dropped in 2010 after being flat for two years (36, 37, 32).  Austin’s fell in 2009 then returned to its original level (16, 11, 16).

UCR violent crime rates per 100,000, 2000-2010

     UCR data for five of the most violent cities in the U.S. confirms that the plight of certain communities is being masked by large improvements elsewhere. Between 2000 and 2010 violence rates plunged in Baltimore (2458 to 1500) and Newark (1496 to 1041).  But in Cleveland (1263 to 1393), Detroit (2325 to 2378) and Oakland (1261 to 1604) the numbers got worse, and for the latter, spectacularly so.

     Clearly, the Great Crime Drop hasn’t been so great everywhere.  Still, as long as the more prosperous communities remain in good shape, does anyone really notice? Philadelphia police commissioner Charles Ramsay, who attended the conference, thinks not.  “It [gun violence] happens every single day in Philadelphia...It happens every single day in cities across the country, but if it’s a black killing a black [no one cares].” Commissioner Ramsay’s burden is particularly heavy.  According to UCR preliminary statistics, between January and June 2011 Philadelphia, pop. 1,526,006, had 158 murders, twelve more than during the same period in 2010. That yields a rate of 10.4/100,000.  By comparison, Los Angeles, pop. 3,792,621, had 148 murders (eight less than in 2010) for a rate of 3.9, while New York City, pop. 8,175,133, had 227 murders (two less than in 2010) for a rate of 2.8.

     Philadelphia isn’t suffering alone. Recent news reports indicate an upsurge in gun killings in Camden, Newark and Detroit as well.  Police chiefs know that they can’t alter the fundamentals.  They can’t make jobs, keep kids in school or prevent teenage pregnancies.  Poverty and hopelessness are beyond their ability to influence.  Worse, thanks to the economic crisis, departments in less affluent areas are suffering the additional whammy of plunging tax collections, leading to layoffs and other diminished resources.

     So what’s left? Much of the discussion was about limiting the availability of firearms.  And there the news is also bad.  With limited resources and a neutered, shrinking ATF, going after straw buyers, street dealers and interstate traffickers is tougher than ever (click here for a discussion about illegal gun sources and investigative techniques.) What’s more, legislators seem to have taken a fancy to weakening the few limits that do exist.  Concealed carry has become a near-universal right, while “stand your ground” laws have vastly expanded the notion of self-defense, shielding even some out-and-out criminals from prosecution.

     Well, there is one saving grace. As guns saturate our country, they will eventually endanger even the affluent.  Of course, by then there could be way too many firearms to control. It’s the same dilemma posed by climate change. By the time we strip off our ideological blinders and see the light, it may be too late to do anything but cry.

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Turn Off the Spigot     Where Do They Come From?


Posted 3/25/12

WALKING WHILE BLACK (PART II)

City officials try to advance a citizen’s implausible self-defense claim

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Listen closely. That’s George Zimmerman, two minutes and twenty-two seconds into his call to Sanford police. Your blogger recorded this fragment from the 911 tape, which is posted in its entirety on a TV station website.  Now click here for a segment that your blogger processed with Audacity’s standard noise-reduction algorithm. According to news reports (see, for example, the above video) you’re hearing someone, allegedly Zimmerman, utter the odious slur “fuckin’ coons,” a purported reference to the ethnicity of the 17-year old youth whom the community watch captain shot dead moments later.

     In our initial post we mentioned that after five hours of questioning Sanford police concluded that there wasn’t probable cause to arrest Zimmerman and let him go.  Chief Lee said that the shooting, while regrettable, was likely in self-defense.  “All the physical evidence and testimony we have independent of what Mr. Zimmerman provides corroborates this claim to self defense.”

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     Chief Lee had the 911 tape. The slur is very indistinct and likely escaped notice. But there is no disputing what the dispatcher told Zimmerman a moment later (click here for a complete transcript):

    Dispatcher: He’s running? Which way is he running?
    Zimmerman: Down towards the other entrance to the neighborhood.
    Dispatcher: OK.  Which entrance is that that he’s heading towards?
    Zimmerman: The back entrance…[mutters] “fucking coons” (?)...[labored breathing as though running]
    Dispatcher: Are you following him?
    Zimmerman: Yeah...
    Dispatcher: Ok, we don’t need you to do that. OK.  Alright sir, what is your name?
    Zimmerman: George…He ran.

Listen to the tape.  Pay attention to the dispatcher’s tone. He’s clearly admonishing the caller not to chase. Somehow Chief Lee missed that:  “When dispatchers told him not to do anything, it was just a recommendation.”

     Enacted in 2005, Florida’s “stand your ground” law eliminates the requirement that citizens try to retreat in the face of real or threatened violence.  Here’s a prosecutor’s prophetic lament about the ill-advised statute from nearly two years ago:  “Before this law, I kind of had an obligation to avoid going to a gunfight, to avoid deadly force.  Before this law, I kind of had an obligation to call the police.  Now, I can go to a gunfight and stand my ground.”

     No doubt, the law makes it easier to prevail with a claim of self-defense.  In the present case, though, the power imbalance couldn’t be more extreme, and in the direction opposite of that envisioned by the statute. Imagine being stalked by a hulking, armed idiot, eleven years older and a good fifty or more pounds heavier.  To excuse the shooting Chief Lee had to transform the victim, Trayvon Martin, into the assailant:  “If someone asks you, ‘Hey do you live here?’ is it OK for you to jump on them and beat the crap out of somebody?”

     “Beat the crap out of” is how the Chief spinned it. Yes, Zimmerman got decked. For all we know he might have already displayed his gun.  Even if he hadn’t, who had the more legitimate claim to self-defense?  An armed vigilante or a scared, skinny youth who wasn’t even carrying a stick and was just trying to get home?

     Yet even after the city commission voted 3-2 to censure the chief, the city manager persists in characterizing Zimmerman as the aggrieved party. Really, once the case hits the courts – and it’s a matter of when, not if – it’s certain that both officials will be called as witnesses for the defense. Think not? Consider this excerpt from an official letter of explanation that the city manager recently posted on the web:

    Why was George Zimmerman not arrested the night of the shooting? When the Sanford Police Department arrived at the scene of the incident, Mr. Zimmerman provided a statement claiming he acted in self defense which at the time was supported by physical evidence and testimony. By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time. Additionally, when any police officer makes an arrest for any reason, the officer MUST swear and affirm that he/she is making the arrest in good faith and with probable cause. If the arrest is done maliciously and in bad faith, the officer and the City may be held liable. [All emphasis from the original.]

     Compare that to what Florida law says about making an arrest after a claim of self-defense:

    776.032...(2) A law enforcement agency may use standard procedures for investigating the use of force [in self-defense] but the agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.

     The conclusion that police were “PROHIBITED” from making an arrest is the City Manager’s. Sure, it’s nice that Zimmerman gave a statement. Regrettably, though, the only person who could contest its contents is dead.  Police are under no obligation to give obviously self-serving comments any weight.  Whatever “corroboration” there was seems mostly spin.  There were plenty of objective reasons to believe that Zimmerman used excessive force, and officers would have been well within their rights to take him into custody.

     It turns out that the chief and city manager spun something else. Both originally portrayed the shooter as a law-abiding fellow. But according to the Boston Herald,  Florida cops arrested Zimmerman in 2005 for interfering in an arrest.  Zimmerman got pretrial diversion. A month later he was named in a domestic violence petition.  Here’s how the City Manager tried to explain away the discrepancy:

    Why was George Zimmerman labeled as “squeaky clean” when in fact he has a prior arrest history? In one of the initial meetings with the father of the victim the investigator related to him the account that Mr. Zimmerman provided of the incident.  At that time the investigator said that Mr. Zimmerman portrayed himself to be “squeaky clean”.  We are aware of the background information regarding both individuals involved in this event.  We believe Mr. Martin may have misconstrued this information.

     Zimmerman has also been accused of being overzealous on patrol; one incident involved another black youth.

     We will never positively know what happened on that Sunday evening when a pistol-packing neighborhood-watch captain confronted an unarmed youth against instructions from the 911 dispatcher. We do know the outcome: the captain wound up with a bruised face, while the youth got a bullet in the chest. Whether Zimmerman, an older and much larger man fired from anger or because he reasonably feared serious injury or death seems like something for a jury to decide.  Not the city manager or police.

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Gail Collins of the New York Times


Posted 3/18/12

WALKING WHILE BLACK

A Florida CCW permittee avoids arrest after killing a 17-year old he mistook as a threat

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  About 7:30 pm Sunday, February 26, Trayvon Martin, 17, a Miami high school junior, was on foot inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida. It was raining lightly.  Trayvon was returning to a residence where his family was watching basketball with candy and a drink that he bought at a convenience store.

     George Zimmerman, the leader of a recently formed community watch group, spotted Trayvon from his SUV. A 28-year old criminal justice student at Seminole State College, Zimmerman had a CCW license and carried a 9mm. pistol in his waistband.  Thinking Trayvon suspicious, Zimmerman telephoned police and told the dispatcher that a black youth in a hoodie was walking slow and peering in windows. “There’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs on something.”  It was his 46th. similar call in fourteen months.  Zimmerman was told that an officer would be sent, and when he offered to follow the youth the operator said “we don’t need you to do that.”

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     Several 911 callers soon alerted police about an altercation in the same area.  When officers arrived they found Trayvon on the ground, dead or dying of a bullet wound to the chest.  Zimmerman stood nearby.  He told police that he had shot the youth in self-defense.  (Click here to listen to Zimmerman’s call and the 911 tapes.)

     Trayvon had nothing on his person other than $22 cash, a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea.

     Police handcuffed Zimmerman and took him to the station.  They released him several hours later without charges.  “Until we can establish probable cause to dispute [the claim of self-defense] we don’t have the grounds to arrest him,” said police chief Bill Lee. Indeed, the chief strongly suggested that the evidence favored self-defense. “Mr. Zimmerman’s claim is that the confrontation was initiated by Trayvon...All the physical evidence and testimony we have independent of what Mr. Zimmerman provides corroborates this claim of self defense....Zimmerman had injuries consistent with his story...”

     Exactly what “all the physical evidence and testimony” comprises we can’t say.  Much of what the chief alluded to apparently stemmed from Zimmerman’s physical condition when officers arrived. Zimmerman had a bloody nose and a wound on the back of his head. His shirt was damp and had grass stains.  Taken as a whole, these characteristics appear consistent with being punched in the face and falling to the ground.

     It’s unknown whether Trayvon had injuries other than the bullet wound.

     Citizens have come forward with bits and pieces of information, but so far no one claims to have witnessed the entire incident. Residents overheard someone screaming for help in a high-pitched voice, but whether it was Trayvon or Zimmerman isn’t clear. Zimmerman reportedly told police that he called for assistance but no one came.

     Chief Lee said that Zimmerman established the community watch group two months ago in response to a rash of burglaries. Of course, given the tragic events, the chief’s endorsement of the group was qualified. “We encourage residents to report any suspicious activity, to not to put it in their own hands.” Still, he refused to say that Zimmerman was wrong to intervene. “When dispatchers told him not to do anything, it was just a recommendation.”

     Florida law doesn’t require that persons retreat before using force in self-defense:

    776.012  Use of force in defense of person. – A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if...he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony....

     Sanford police have turned the case over to prosecutors, and what they will do is anyone’s guess. Although the chief’s comments seem favorable to Zimmerman, we expect that he will eventually be charged. It seems excessive to shoot someone for being decked, and certainly not under these circumstances. After all, the youth had no idea who the strange man was or what he really intended. It’s not surprising that Florida’s gun-licensing authority, which sets out the circumstances under which citizens can use firearms in self-defense, anticipated just that situation when it warned permit holders not to act like vigilantes:

    The law permits you to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense.  Carrying a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman or a “good samaritan.”

     As one might expect, not arresting Zimmerman incensed Trayvon’s family and friends. They question whether a shooter would have received the same kid-gloves treatment from police had the victim been white. Their concern – that Trayvon’s race was the deciding factor in his death, if not in his treatment by police – isn’t without foundation.  Frank Taafe, a local resident, told a reporter that black youth have been a problem: “Young black males have been seen in burglaries here, they’ve been seen in drug dealings here, and Sanford police is well aware of everything, and they’ve been called out here on numerous occasions.  And I believe it was just the perfect storm....”

     Now let’s imagine that Florida wasn’t a “shall issue” state, where CCW permits must be granted to nearly every adult who wants one (including all the angry ones Mr. Taafe mentions.)  If so, Zimmerman wouldn’t have had a gun while on “patrol.” Lacking his safety blanket, he might have been more inclined to let a real cop check things out.  Once one did and found nothing untoward, they could have all watched the rest of the game together. Trayvon would be alive, his family wouldn’t be devastated, and Zimmerman could continue pursuing his studies, so that maybe he could be a real cop someday.

     Just imagine.

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Walking While Black (Part II)     Turn Off the Spigot     When a Pharmacist Kills


Posted 3/4/12

TURN OFF THE SPIGOT

As guns flood our communities, trying to change hearts and minds is a non-starter

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  On January 31 a woman and her 19-year old son came to the Detroit apartment where Kade’jah Davis, 12, lived with her mother. Moments later Kade’jah, an honor student, was dead, struck by a bullet that tore through the front door. Police later arrested the youth for first-degree murder and his mother as an accessory. It seems that the pair and Kade’jah’s mom had quarreled over a missing cell phone.

     During the early morning hours of February 20 Delric Waymon Miller IV, age nine months, was asleep in bed when gang members riddled his Detroit home with thirty-seven rounds from an assault rifle (see above video). A bullet struck Delric in the arm and coursed through his body.  He was pronounced dead at the hospital. Police believe that the intended victim was connected with the residence. At this writing the killers remain at large.

     On February 26 a car with two adults and two small children was set upon by a pair of Detroit hoodlums who had committed two robberies and two carjackings during the previous day.  For reasons that are unclear the bandits opened fire with an assault rifle, critically wounding a six-year old boy, who at last word is still hanging on.  Both robbers were caught. Each was fifteen years old.

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     Determined to keep her troubled 14-year old son on the straight and narrow, a Detroit mother had forbidden him from running around with toughs. Neither was he to bring over his girlfriends.  So on February 27, while his mother slept on the couch, the angry youth took her fiancée’s shotgun and shot his mother dead. He then drove off in the family car. Police soon stopped the vehicle and arrested the youth. His uncle, the victim’s brother, said he still loved the boy.

     Things have indeed been getting worse in the once-proud “Motor City.” There were 344 homicides in 2011, a twelve percent increase from 2010.  Forty-nine murders have taken place so far this year, versus 39 during the same period in 2011.  Mayor Dave Bing is outraged.  “We cannot just cannot stand idly by and accept this. We have to be enraged at this point.”  At a hastily-called news conference police and the Feds pledged to expand a six-month old initiative to process gun-carrying felons through the Federal system, where resources are more plentiful and penalties more stringent. “I made it my personal resolution in 2012 to reduce homicides in the city of Detroit,” said the U.S. Attorney. “This is not a bunch of talking heads up here.  We mean this,” said the local DEA chief.  ATF offered $5,000 for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the nine-month old boy’s murder.  Another $5,000 was pitched in by Crimestoppers.

     This is nothing new.  Authorities in Detroit have repeatedly tightened the screws.  Police chief Ralph Goodbee remarked that bringing down the hammer requires “a community willing to come up with information,” which by implication Detroit isn’t.  “When you’ve got parents afraid of their kids,” said Mayor Bing, “you know you have not done a good job as a parent.  You need to start disciplining those young people when they come out of the womb,” which by implication Detroit’s parents aren’t doing. Exactly how these deficiencies will be corrected wasn’t said.


     Of course, it’s not just Detroit. So far this year homicide has claimed seven lives in the gang-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood of Wilmington.  Others have been wounded but survived.  Those killed include a 16-year old couple, gunned down February 26; a 41-year old man, shot dead January 28; a 21-year old man, gunned down January 22; and a 28-year old woman, stabbed to death January 2.  No arrests have been made.

     Authorities held a community meeting February 28. It was packed with frightened residents. Police expressed frustration at the lack of leads and implored those with information to come forward.  Residents also staged a “take back the streets walk,” which will be expanded to a weekly event.

     More shots rang out that evening, and another innocent Wilmingtonian fell wounded.


     One would expect such troubles in Detroit and L.A.  But Seattle?  On February 27 Seattle officials held a community meeting to discuss a troubling rise in murders to nine this year, six more than at the same point in 2011.  While victims are comparatively few – at 600,000 Seattle’s population is two-thirds that of Detroit and six times Wilmington’s – Mayor Mike McGinn nonetheless declared a “public safety emergency.” Deputy police chief Nick Metz promised increased attention to crime hotspots.  “We are going to be constitutional in our policing, but we are going to be aggressive.”  When pressed for a more comprehensive plan the mayor pointed to existing programs for troubled and underprivileged youths.


     Gun violence isn’t just a problem in the big cities.  On February 27, in the archetypical rural American community of Chardon, Ohio, a 17-year old student opened fire inside a high school cafeteria, killing three students and seriously wounding two (one remains paralyzed.) An intended victim who escaped with a grazed ear said that the shooter, who attended an alternative school for troubled teens, had “gone Goth” after middle school.

     Prosecutors have apparently concluded that the shooter is mentally ill. His weapon, a Ruger .22 caliber pistol, had been legally purchased by an uncle and was reportedly left in a family barn.


     What’s to be done?  There seem to be no shortage of recommendations.  Toughen up law enforcement. Severely punish criminals. Encourage citizens to cooperate with the authorities.  Provide better social and mental health services.  Get parents to do their jobs. Police have responded with a hodgepodge of strategies (for a review see “Forty Years After Kansas City.”)  Some are directed at places, others at bad people, and others at bad people with guns.  There’s even a Federal agency, ATF, which is charged with interdicting the illegal flow of firearms.

     Yet gun violence persists.  That’s to be expected.  According to ATF, more than five and one-half million firearms were manufactured in the U.S. in 2010.  About the same number were produced in 2009.  And while firearms sales seem stronger than ever, with background checks hitting an all-time high of 16.4 million in 2011, gun regulations grow weaker. Loopholes such as unrestricted gun transfers between private persons and at gun shows and no limits on purchase quantity assure massive gun flows even into states with restrictive regulations.

     We’ve written extensively about these issues. (For example, see “Where Do They Come From?”) Here we’ll merely point out the obvious: that by virtue of their ubiquity, it’s become impossible to keep guns from criminals and youth, let alone from otherwise good people who might misuse them. One could mount well-meaning campaigns from here to eternity, and in the end it will still be the same.  Unless the never-ending flow of firearms is miraculously stemmed, or regulations are so tightened that gun possession and transfer are treated at least as seriously as driver licensing and vehicle registration, society doesn’t stand a chance against gun violence.

     Not one little bit.

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Do Gun Laws Work?     Half-Hearted Measures     An Inconvenient Truth     Three Perfect Storms

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Forty Years After Kansas City     See No Evil, Speak No Evil     Too Much of a Good Thing

Where Do They Come From?

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CBS: Shooting Sprees in 2012     The New Yorker: Battleground America     Gail Collins, NY Times

Gun Nation

 


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