Liberty and Death Sticks

Saturday, May 6th, 2017 04:53 pm
flwyd: (spencer hot springs feet)
I'm sympathetic to a lot of libertarian arguments, but I've always felt put off by the prominent position in which American libertarians place firearms. I just thought of a punchy way to express why it bothers me.

You're not at liberty as long as someone's pointing a gun at your head.

Libertarians tend to focus on unchecked power in government hands. But I'm worried about unchecked power in anyone's hands, particularly if I don't trust their trigger reflexes.

(Previous thinking about libertarian gun arguments.)
flwyd: (raven temple of moon)
In February, This American Life aired two one-hour shows about Harper High School. You can listen to part one and part two. The school is in the Englewood neighborhood of south Chicago. It looks like an old residential neighborhood, with houses from the first half of the century, mature trees, and small patches of grass. In many cities around the country, this would be a neighborhood with a mix of hipsters and retirees. In South Side Chicago, though, this is a neighborhood run by a patchwork of gangs with endemic gun violence. This American Life spent a semester reporting at Harper because in the previous year eight current and recent students had been murdered; 21 more had been wounded by bullets.

From my standpoint as an outsider to this world, I found several key insights.

Most importantly, the administrators, teachers, and staff at the school have a lot of social capital. First, they speak the same language–African American Vernacular English. Second, they know the social scene the students are living in–which gangs students are in, the alliances and rivalries, and the territory maps. They know all the students on a personal basis and they keep an eye on their social networks: if someone who didn't attend the school gets shot, the staff can map out which students might get caught up in retribution and who might need proactive outreach. After hearing the Harper staff talk with students, I'm starting to think that programs like Teach for America are coming from the wrong angle. In a school like this, social capital is key to helping students succeed. Someone who grew up in white suburbia and attended a prestigious college coming in to an "underprivileged" urban school will have no social capital to work with, no matter how well they know math or English.

I've blogged about social capital in the context of violence reduction efforts in South Side Chicago before. A year and a half ago I wrote about The Interrupters, a documentary about CeaseFire, an organization of former gangbangers, hustlers, and convicts. These are people with social capital–they've lived in the violent neighborhoods, they know the emotional state folks are in, they've done violent things, and they've paid a price. A kid that's struggling with the urge for retributive violence is a lot more likely to listen to someone with a shared vocabulary, style, and background than to a Nancy Reagan-style "Just say no to gang violence."

Second, gangs are the social structure. At the beginning of the first part, This American Life explains that this isn't the gang landscape that the middle class might assume, with the Crips and the Bloods maintaining city-wide hierarchies and drug distribution networks. The reporters said Chicago police have been fairly effective at arresting big-time gang leaders, yet scores of small local gangs flourish, often with a territory of a couple square blocks. The gangs often don't have significant criminal involvement or other revenue streams. They're just local kids banding together, making it safer to navigate through territory controlled by other gangs. Gangs are the social support system, the guys a guy can rely on when he gets into a jam. There's not a lot of choice in gang membership; opting out is nearly impossible. If you live in a particular neighborhood, when you reach a certain age, you're a member of the local gang.

School officials recognize this endemic environment and they smartly don't preach a message of "stay out of gangs." Their focus is on keeping the kids safe, supporting kids when they're affected by violence and stressful events, and encouraging them to make good decisions (there's a difference between a gang member who's part of a social group and a gangbanger who's involved in crime and initiates or threatens violence). Gangs aren't a unique social structure that's limited to poor ethnic neighborhoods in America. Certainly a lot of the details of gang life are based on the urban environment. Yet if you take a step back, you can see an evolution from tribes to gangs. Chicago is certainly no stranger to violent gangs; Al Capone was one of its most famous residents. West Side Story highlighted the similarities between mid-century gang conflict and Renaissance Italy qua Romeo and Juliet. Much of Shakespeare's work can be seen as gang and tribal conflict, from Macbeth to the War of the Roses. White people spent centuries on large-scale gang violence, first with swords and later with guns. Tribes and gangs thrive today in the Afghan warlord system, bands of Somali pirates, Hamas and Hezbollah networks, prisons, and other places where people don't have a formal social system or government they feel they can rely on. To an outsider, tribal and gang battles usually don't make sense. The gangs in the story were sometimes said to be fighting over territory, which (from a historic perspective) seems an odd thing to do in a residential area with no agricultural or mineral resources. Other times, the gangs are in a long-running feud of back-and-forth revenge and nobody can remember what the initial problem was. That doesn't sound too different than the Montagues and the Capulets.

Third, the presence of guns is a major factor differentiating contemporary gangs from gang and tribal conflict in the past. Teenagers getting in fights over girls, insults, and perceived harm to their friends is far from new. School in the British Isles is somewhat famous for kids getting in fistfights and rolling around in the mud (leading, I suppose, to the sport of rugby). American media as wholesome as Lil' Rascals portrays boys in gangs that support each other, yet don't lead to kids getting murdered in high school. A gun is a tool with a remarkable power to amplify a rash decision. When fists are the most dangerous weapons in a stupid fight, the worst physical outcome is usually lost teeth or a broken bone. When guns are involved in a stupid fight, the outcome is often death, paralyzation, or functional loss of a limb. There's a silver lining: the story mentions that many of the kids have terrible aim, so a lot more kids get shot at than actually get shot. But that also means there are a lot of stray bullets, and someone with no gang association can die when a stray bullet flies through a living room window.

Finally, it's interesting to look at this story through the lens of NRA rhetoric. One common gun liberalization argument is that criminals will ignore restrictions on gun sales, so we should make guns legal so that non-criminals can buy them. In practice, things are a little more complicated. Even though Chicago has strong anti-gun laws, with no gun shops in city limits and no firing ranges, kids interviewed in the story said it wasn't hard to get a gun for less than $100 or even free, a gift from another member of the gang. Yet before the NRA claims this as vindication of their argument, one reason it's easy for these kids to get a gun from Indiana or elsewhere is because the NRA has the political standing to ensure laws intended to make it hard to buy a gun stay weak. And in many cases, the kids who get a gun aren't criminals yet, but once you've got a gun it's a lot easier to end up with a criminal charge, ranging from unlawful possession to accidental manslaughter to murder. When you're fighting with fists, you've got to do a lot of damage before you end up with much jail time.

So what does this mean for gun laws? I don't know if stricter gun laws would improve things in America. But I don't think adding more guns to Englewood will make the neighborhood safer. Part of the gun rights activist narrative is that people won't shoot you if they think you might shoot back. Rival gangs with decade-long cycles of revenge killings definitely seem like a factual counterpoint. When C shoots B for shooting C's pal A, C must know there's a good chance he'll get shot before too long. And even if nobody shoots C, they'll probably get his homie D. A gang functions in some ways like an informal government, providing services to the local community when the formal government structures can't or won't come through. But gang-administered justice ignores modern judicial principles: punishing your brother for your own transgressions is far too common.

What's the solution? I don't know. Harper High School is doing a commendable job, but it can't change the situation alone. The neighborhoods need better economic opportunities. The kids need strong people in their life who can convince them not to fall into the trap of violence. People need to overcome their tribal instincts for revenge and bury the hatchet and the .45. None of these avenues have a magic bullet, so to speak, and one of them alone is probably inadequate. America can do better, but we don't yet know how. After the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama said it should be at least as easy to get mental health counseling as it is to get a gun. Add conflict mediation to mental health and that would be a good first step.
flwyd: (bug eyed earl)
Gun advocates often suggest that society would be safer if everyone carried[1] a gun, because would-be attackers would think twice about going after an armed target. I was thinking about this, and it seems like the past three hundred years or so featured plenty of countries who started a war, even though the other side had a bunch of guns.

On a similar subject, a national army is really a form of socialized insurance with an opportunity for high risk investments. If the Nazis invade, it's really not efficient to have each citizen expend the resources for self defense; the collective power of a large organization pooling resources from individual contributors is the way to go. So while the Tea Partiers are on the Electric Kool-Aid Antacid Trip across the country complaining bitterly about the government collecting money to provide services to the general populace, perhaps they should take a department that provides lots of cheap health care[2] and education[3].

[1] And knew how to properly use…
[2] The VA's budget is close to $90 billion
[3] Of course, many recipients must first survive a death panel: A room full of guys at the Pentagon who decide which divisions to send to combat zones.
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
I just read Bruce Schneier's post about the Boston Police wanting semi-automatic assault rifles. Police in Guatemala and Honduras carry semi-automatics (not to mention security guards at banks, department stores, and McDonalds with shotguns), and it doesn't really make me feel safe. Sure, it might deter armed robbers from attacking tourists, but I'm more worried about what they do while nothing exciting is happening. I feel rather uncomfortable when I'm sitting next to a police officer eating lunch with an AK-47 across his lap. Molly chewed out a guard sitting on the steps outside a bank, twiddling with his rifle´s safety. We shook our heads in disbelief as a uniformed army soldier used his assault rifle as a walking stick. I get nervous when the guy guarding an appliance store doesn´t take his finger off the trigger. I'm sure the Boston Police have better gun safety training than Guatemalan security guards, but I don't think the plan improves public safety.

But hey, at least the Guatemalans are using the presents we sent them in the '80s...

Carpe Arma

Sunday, April 6th, 2008 12:35 am
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
Now is your opportunity to get Charlton Heston's gun. May the prying begin.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
Americans who posture about immigrants and drugs crossing from Mexico into the U.S. ought to consider what moves in the other direction. It's easy to get drugs in Mexico. It's easy to get guns in the U.S. Drug smugglers want guns to protect them from law enforcement. Guess what they can trade?

Incidentally, it's not just a North American Secret Trade Agreement issue. It's easy for soldiers to score heroin in Afghanistan. Soldiers have some even more impressive technology to trade for drugs. I wonder how many steps it takes for the Taliban to get their hands on American military toys.

Drugs, guns, and gems form the tripod upon which international crime stands. They can be mutually exchanged without tax or easy tracing, easily concealed and transported, and are highly desired by the those who use them.

Dealing with the problems of weapon, drug, and diamond smuggling is not easy. I suspect that legalizing drug use and possession would take a lot of power away from the criminals: nobody packs heat and smuggles fruit into the U.S. because it can be legally imported or grown locally. The expenses of growing marijuana in California, shipping it to Missouri, and paying sales tax at a strip mall probably are probably lower than the cost of growing marijuana in Guatemala, shipping it to the border, bribing officials, smuggling it through the desert, and letting every dealer it passes through take a cut. Legal drugs may be safer and healthier.

Demand-side changes could also affect the profitability of diamonds, and therefore their usefulness to international criminals and African warlords. If diamond consumers chose man-made diamonds on the grounds of price, social responsibility, and environmental impact, the (cartel-driven) artificially high price of diamonds would drop, making them far less lucrative as a black market currency. As a side effect, it might make your computer faster, too.

But I don't think a purist market approach is a complete solution. Guns are readily available in the U.S., but they still cause problems where they're legal and illegal. Just as the mob moved in on legal gambling in Nevada, I don't expect well-armed, well-paid drug smugglers to take undercutting lightly. And sudden legalization of drugs, especially easily overdosed ones like heroin and cocaine, without a simultaneous public health and education outreach could easily kill more folks than smuggler/DEA conflagrations and drug dealer turf wars.

Undercutting the diamond trade isn't so simple either. A significant portion of the value of a diamond is its price. People buy diamonds to show that they can afford to buy diamonds. If everyone could afford to buy diamonds, rich people would buy something else hard to find. And if it's hard to find, criminals are probably willing to kill for it.
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