Gun Violence: No Single Answer

By Mike Koetting March 1, 2019

I recently attended a summit of groups working on reducing gun violence in Illinois. Much of what was said underlined that we know ways to reduce gun violence without unduly limiting civil liberties. The problem is that, as a society, we are not willing to do what it takes. The majority of society, and certainly most readers of this blog, disagree that the loss of thousands of extra lives a year is an acceptable price to pay for relatively uncontrolled access to guns. But they haven’t yet expressed this belief so strongly that politicians feel no choice but to change their calculations. That may be coming, but it is not here yet.

In any event, that is old news and this blog will focus on a few other things from this meeting.

The first is kind of obvious, but I hadn’t really organized my thoughts before. Gun deaths have three relatively distinct etiologies.

  • First, criminal activity. This is both the classic “bad guy with a gun” scenario and the kind of perverted, intra-criminal mayhem that is all too common in Chicago.
  • Second, mass murders. Of course these perpetrators are “criminals” in the legal sense. But their motivations are much more complicated, and usually scrambled.
  • Finally, far larger than the first two in number of victims, are the shootings that involve individuals or small groups, such as domestic violence and accidental shootings. Suicides are a special case accounting for more than 60% of victims.

While these are not iron-clad distinctions, the larger principle is that each form of gun violence requires different strategies to combat. Much of the discussion—both in favor and opposed to regulation of guns—blurs these differences.

For instance, controlling automatic weapons and high capacity magazines won’t have much impact on the bulk of gun deaths. But it has the potential to reduce mass murders and the lethality of criminal activity. Rigorous background checks, on the other hand, will probably slow down would-be mass murders, but are unlikely to slow criminal activity given the policy incoherence among states and the number of guns already in circulation.

This is not to say any one of these issues is more important or less deserving of our attention. We need to work on all. But it is to say:

  • There is no “one size fits all” solution so…
  • We need to tailor our rhetoric to that fact because….
  • We want to avoid arguments where gun-rights advocates attack one measure we are proposing by showing how it is not likely to significantly impact all gun violence.

Thinking about the issue in this dissected way helped focus me on the importance of dealing with criminals and guns. For me, this is unfamiliar territory. Typically I am more concerned about the people who are in jail and shouldn’t be there, than the people who should be in jail and aren’t. (I am not at all sure jail is the right place for all these people; but roaming the streets armed to the teeth certainly isn’t the right place either.) It appears about 16% of all homicides in the country involve gang members, a number surely higher in Illinois and hugely higher in Chicago.

This, in turn, got me to pay more attention to two representatives from Cook County State’s Attorney’s office who were talking about what it took to prosecute gang members.

After their presentation, I asked them what were the most important practical steps that would support their work. They were prosecutors, so I shouldn’t be surprised that prevention was not at the top of their list. But what was at the top of their list was:

  • Better data and information exchange capabilities
  • More community trust

They said for the most part they knew who were the worst lawbreakers. The problem was actually convicting them. To do that, they needed to be able to get timely data and people willing to give tips and testify.

One can imagine solving the problem of getting better data. The prosecutors needed something like real-time access to information the police had. They said waiting for a week, or more, for a copy of a hard-to read report from the police was a major handicap. (I got validation this was a real problem two weeks later when the exact issue—inability to get timely information between the police and the DA–was a sub-plot element on CBS’ Blue Bloods, the New York City family/police procedural.)

Fixing this is not easy. But neither is it impossible. It is roughly analogous to the electronic medical records that I have worked on the past. It is expensive–not so much for the software itself, but for the costs of actually implementing. Effective implementation must include a very large amount for training, which is inevitably the first thing the budget-cutters want to reduce. Note that training also encompasses actually selling the people who will have to use it on why the new system is in their best interest. The truth is, no one likes change and no matter how good the new system, it has to have buy-in.

Gaining more community trust is another matter. The community at large obviously benefits from reducing the homicide rate, and the attendant fear. In fact, there are regular complaints that the police don’t do an adequate job of protecting people in minority communities. On the other hand, the community is sometimes reluctant to work with the police to get offenders off the street—even though they may be known. The result is a vicious circle where the community blames the police for not doing their job but the police blame the community for not contributing what they should.

I have no difficulty imagining reasons why the community doesn’t trust the police. Some are obvious—such persistent racism and fear the police can’t protect against retaliation. Some less obvious. But I suspect a lot people will be hurt by gun violence while we wait to resolve all the issues involved. We need some way to cut through the Gordian Knot.

Perhaps those who study this issue more closely have expertise-based ideas. But in my naïve view, it seems a truly community-based approach is necessary, something like Community Policing on steroids. It will require police to work with community leaders to define basic strategies for preventing violence. Note that in this case “communities” must refer to specific community neighborhoods.

Earlier in this century, many police departments centrally adopted a “broken windows” approach that entailed the police addressing all forms of disorder, however minor. Whether or not this approach worked at reducing crime, it’s likely that it came at the expense of reduced citizen satisfaction and damage to the community perceptions of the legitimacy of the police. One of the first advocates of “broken window” policy, George Kelling, has been forthright in acknowledging its problems. While he says there may be some value, it can’t be applied in a formulistic way. it’s imperative, he says, that

…in order to determine how to police a community, residents should identify their top concerns, and police should — assuming those issues are legitimate — patrol accordingly.

It is difficult for big city police departments to allow these kinds of determination at the community level. Police departments are bureaucracies and seek centralization. Even the logistics of allowing individual neighborhoods to develop their own priorities will be challenging, let alone implementing them. But I am guessing something like this is essential if there is going to be a functioning relationship that can develop sufficient community trust to get cooperation in getting the worst offenders off the street.

I would never suggest this should replace multi-faceted efforts to enact and enforce laws that provide common-sense regulation of guns. But, as long as the citizens of Missouri, Wisconsin and Indiana are unwilling to even consider those issues, we in Illinois—and no doubt many of you in other similar states—need a strategy to reduce the terror that stalks too many big city neighborhoods. Failure to figure out a way of reducing the violence is in itself a form of discrimination.

Author: mkbhhw

Mike Koetting’s career has been in health care policy and administration. But it has always been on the fringes of politics. His first job out of graduate school was conducting an evaluation of the Illinois Medicaid program for the Illinois Legislative Budget Office. In the following 40 years, he has been a health care provider, a researcher, a teacher, a regulator, a consultant and a payor. The biggest part of his career was 24 years as Vice President of Planning for the University of Chicago Medical Center. He retired from there in 2008, but in 2010 was asked to implement the ACA Medicaid expansion in Illinois, which kept him busy for another 5 years.

One thought on “Gun Violence: No Single Answer”

  1. Martyrs of the Second Amendment continue to pile up, just about literally, but on the other hand a very large percentage of gun owners are perfectly harmless persons who keep their firearms responsibly unavailable to the inadvisable. There are many homicides that don’t involve firearms, but on the other hand there are very few drive-by stabbings. As Michael has been saying for at least the 40-plus years that I’ve known him, this little corner of the universe would be a lot pleasanter if a lot fewer issues were treated as if there were only two possible positions, all the way Fer and all the way Agin. Pretty much every day, one is reminded that some of our metaphors are just all the way wrong: Rocket science and brain surgery are child’s play compared to government.

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