This morning I listened to the president’s press conference on his gun control proposals. By and large I found his proposals inoffensive, commonsensical, and, unfortunately, unlikely to have much effect even if enacted in toto. The highlights of his proposal, at least to my ear, were:
- Ban on assault weapons
- 10 round limit on magazines
- End the “gun show exception” and require background checks of anyone purchasing a firearm
I’m sure that many individuals, much more radicalized with respect to gun ownership than I am, will see those as intolerable assaults on basic freedoms.
As I’ve written before homicides using firearms can be divided into two broad classifications: the actions of “pseudocommando” spree killers like the murderer who killed 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, and the sad, too ordinary murder of family members, coworkers, or members of competing gangs that goes in day-in, day-out. I care as much about the 20 young people who will be shot this weekend in Chicago, mostly poor, young black men, as I do about the 20 schoolchildren from prosperous families who were murdered at Sandy Hook School. Reducing or preventing those two different kinds of homicides using firearms require different strategies.
That brings me to the one thing the president said with which I disagreed:
Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.
The emphasis is mine. As a rhetorical flourish that’s fine. As the foundation of policy, I couldn’t disagree more.
If we were to forcibly institutionalize the mentally ill, those who had suicidal ideation, or who had thought about killing other people, it would almost certainly save more than one life. It would also be cruel, offensive to freedom, horrifically expensive, and probably counter-productive since it would discourage people who needed help from seeking it. Do we have an obligation to try to impose such a regime? I don’t think so.
One of the basic principles of optimization is to divide a process into its components, identify the requirements and costs of the parts, and develop ways of doing them more effectively and cheaper. It’s easiest to optimize where there’s something to optimize. You can’t get a dollar’s worth of cost reduction by optimizing the production of a $.25 part.
If you divide gun homicides into its components, about half of all gun homicides are committed by young, black men in cities. The victims, too, are mostly young, black men in cities. I recognize that some people find pointing that out reprehensible. To me it’s basic optimization. The one thing we should do to reduce the homicide rate is end gang violence.
In his talk the president referred obliquely to that when he spoke about putting more police officers on the streets. Unfortunately, there is no obvious inverse relationship between the number of police officers on the streets and the number of gun homicides. Chicago has the largest number of police officers per 100,000 population of any country in the nation. We also lead the nation among big cities in gun homicides. We need to think harder about this problem. Then we need to act.