Joe Doakes from Como Park writes about this piece (which started as a monologue on the NARN a few days before the blog post was published).
Your end-of-show reading of Rep. Paymar’s column got me to thinking: we know background checks won’t work, but saying so doesn’t make it so. Can we better explain to Low Information Voters WHY they won’t work? Some thoughts for your future columns:
Background checks stop people from committing violence with guns, but only if (a) the shooter submits to the background check and (b) the database is accurate.
There are at least five kinds of gun violence. They occur for different reasons so they have different solutions.
Enterprise Violence is a business decision. When Al Capone found Bugs Moran taking over saloons to sell bootleg liquor in Capone’s territory, Capone didn’t have the option of bringing a lawsuit to restrain his competitor, as Microsoft might do today. He didn’t have the option of buying a city council members to grant him a city-wide franchise, as the cable company might do today. Capone was left with “alternative dispute resolution” to handle competitors: he shot them. Drug dealers today have the same business problem – illegal product, no recourse to courts – so when they have problems with competitors, they use the same business model that has proven so effective for the last 100 years: they shoot them.
Drug dealers by definition routinely import, manufacture, transport, buy and sell illegal items. If they’re successful, it’s because they have learned how to avoid law enforcement. Buying illegal guns presents no different logistical problems from buying illegal drugs.
The employee who pulls the trigger won’t be the guy who submits to the background check. Instead, the gang will use a person with a clean record – a new hire, or perhaps a wife or girlfriend – who can pass the background check to buy the weapon then hand the weapon to the eventual shooter. These “straw man” purchases will look completely legal on paper and even if law enforcement catches them, they’re just little fish, quickly replaced.
One solution to Enterprise Violence committed by dealers in illegal drugs may be the same as the solution to illegal liquor: repeal Prohibition. Background checks is not a solution.
Idiot Violence. Nizzel George was a 5-year old boy in North Minneapolis. He was sleeping on his grandmother’s couch when 17-year-old Stephon Shannon and 16-year-old Julian Anderson walked up the sidewalk and fired 10 shots from .40 caliber handguns at the house. One of the bullets punched through the siding and hit the sleeping child in the back. Shannon said he was a gang member and that he shot at the house in retaliation for the earlier shooting of a fellow gang member. He didn’t mean to kill Nizzel, didn’t even know he was in the house.
Hadiya Pendleton was a 15-year old girl from Chicago. She was an honor student and majorette who performed for President Obama’s inauguration. She was chatting with friends in Harsh Park on January 29, 2013 when she was struck by bullets fired by Michael Ward, age 18, also of Chicago. Ward and his getaway driver, Kenneth Williams, age 20 of Chicago, told police the shooting was in retaliation for earlier gang violence but Hadiya’s group was not the intended victims, her group was mistaken for other people.
President Obama mentioned Nizzel George and Hadiya Pendleton as reasons why new gun control laws are needed, including universal background checks but that makes no logical sense.
You must be 21 years old to buy a handgun. None of these shooters should have had one. Plainly, they didn’t submit to a background check. They most likely obtained their weapons the same way the Enterprise does – theft or straw purchase. They used guns to redress insults because that’s how things are done in their violent little sub-culture.
The solution to Idiot Violence may require massive social change to eliminate that violent sub-culture. Certainly, background checks alone won’t make any difference.
Mental Illness Violence. The Aurora Theater, Newtown School and Accent Signage shooters had histories of mental health problems but had not been formally committed. You cannot commit someone to a mental institution based on gossip or rumor or even the parent’s concerns because being committed for mental illness means the patient is locked up as securely as if he were being sent to prison. The law requires a judge to rule that the person is a danger to himself or others at that moment, based on admissible evidence from the patient’s history. Fear that the patient might someday snap is not admissible evidence. This sets a high standard of proof to deprive a person of his liberty and makes civil commitment difficult.
The background check database includes people who already have been committed for mental illness but these shooters hadn’t been committed so they wouldn’t be in the system. A background check would not have stopped them from buying weapons.
The solution to Mental Illness violence involves an overhaul of the mental health treatment system and re-evaluation of commitment law, none of which was included in Rep. Paymar’s proposal.
Suicide By Gun. There has been an increase in rates of suicide committed by middle-aged White men who are not drug dealers or gang members and had no prior history of mental illness. Nobody knows why although armchair psychologists speculate losing their life savings in the housing crash or job in the Recession make that generation of men feel like failures, or perhaps something unique to Baby Boomers (who already have higher rates of depression than earlier generations), or maybe a “tough-it-out” cultural reluctance to seeking mental health treatment. Since guns are the tool used, gun control advocates seek to control guns to reduce suicide rates.
The background check database does not include people who lost money or jobs. It does not include people who are depressed and decline treatment. Most middle-aged White men who commit suicide by firearm have owned their guns for years. The solution to Suicide By Gun might be similar to that for Mental Illness, but background checks won’t help.
Government Violence. Andrea Rebello, a 21-year old Hofstra University student, was being held hostage by a man who broke into her home when she was shot in the head by a cop, killing her instead of the man holding her. Ibragim Todashev was shot dead by an FBI agent in Orlando just as he was about to confess to helping the Boston Bomber commit murder.
Jeff Johnson, a laid-off employee, shot Steven Ercolino, the vice-president of the company, outside the Empire State Building. Police pursued Johnson and shot at him 16 times, killing Johnson and also wounding 9 innocent bystanders when bullets ricocheted off the stone building.
After Chris Dorner shot an off-duty cop in Los Angeles, police officers fired approximately 100 shots at a blue Toyota pickup truck in which Margie Carranza and her 71-year-old mother, Emma Hernandez, were delivering newspapers. The officers mistook their truck for the gray Nissan Titan Dorner was believed to be driving. Hernandez was hit and Carranza suffered injuries from flying glass. On the same morning, Torrance police opened fire on the truck of a surfer headed for the beach.
Vang Khang’s family counted 22 bullet holes when police raided the wrong home in Minneapolis in 2008. Roberto Franco’s family lost their dog and nearly a daughter to a diabetic reaction when police raided the wrong house in St. Paul in 2012, shot the family pet, handcuffed the children and denied the diabetic girl her medicine. When Alden Anderson killed a police dog named Toby earlier this year, St. Paul police shot Anderson to death.
Rodney Balko at Cato Institute has an interactive map online showing botched paramilitary raids are an epidemic and innocent deaths are frequent. If it were occurring in any other country, we’d be aghast at the level of violence government directs at its own people.
The solution to Government Violence probably involves de-militarizing ordinary police, ending the War on Drugs and extending personal liability to careless police officers, but none of these shootings would have been prevented by background checks.
I’m sure you can think of more categories and examples but perhaps the mental exercise of breaking gun violence into small units will make it easier to explain why a universal blanket solution not only won’t solve the problem, it will divert attention from real solutions.