flwyd: (rose silhouette)
Trigger warning: guns, violence, murder, game theory.

Last night, a 64-year-old Nevadan killed at least 59 people and wounded more than 500 by shooting several (semi-?) automatic rifles into a large crowd at an outdoor country music festival across the Las Vegas strip. This terrible act was the deadliest mass shooting so far in modern America.

When I hear gun rights advocates talk about how guns can make us safer and that a well-armed populace is the best defense against tyranny, it often sounds like they have specific scenarios in mind. Maybe it's an attacker in a dark alley, or a home intruder, or someone opens fire in a crowded restaurant. And I often get the sense that they've mentally played through this scenario, and have a plan for how they would use a firearm in response. (The use might not involve shooting: the mere presence of a firearm can change the dynamics of a situation and get an attacker to change their course of action.)

I'm having trouble imagining how citizens bearing arms would have made this situation any safer or less deadly.

The shooter was 300 feet above ground and more than 1000 feet away from the victims. Response from someone in the concert area would be difficult under the best of circumstances. A handgun would be a completely ineffective. A high-powered rifle could return fire, but it would require a very good marksman, who would also need to locate the attacker's position. The shooter didn't seem to care who he hit, but a defender would need to make sure they got the right room; otherwise they're just shooting already scared people in the Mandalay Bay hotel. Plus, bringing an assault rifle to a concert (even if it were allowed) doesn't seem like a recipe for enjoying the show, not to mention putting the crowd at grater risk of accidental discharge.

Armed citizens inside the hotel perhaps could have taken action. But that would have required a lot of bravery and/or recklessness: if someone busts through a guy's door who's been shooting rapid-fire across the street, it seems just as likely that he'll whirl and unload into the would-be hero as the hero is to stop the shooter. For anyone concerned primarily with their own safety, getting away from the hallway that a shooter might emerge into seems the only rational move.

In the end, it sounds like the police responded within minutes and confronted the gunman… who then committed suicide. This highlights another incongruity between the scenario I hear from gun rights advocates and the experience America has had with mass shooters. In the scenario, the shooter is often concerned with his own life and will back down when confronted by an armed opponent. Yet game theory assumes a rational and self-interested actor. When the attacker intends to kill himself, or if his mind is willing to die, bodily harm is little deterrent and all bets on rationality are off. Shooting the attacker may disable his body, preventing the number of dead from rising further. But "I might get shot" is kind of the point for someone who wants to go out in a blaze of glory, so the presence of more firearms nearby isn't likely to stop him from starting the scene.

The situation was, of course, resolved by trained people with guns. It sounds like the police responded to the shooter's room in remarkable time—I think it would take me more than two minutes to get from the lobby to a particular room on the 32nd floor of a building even if I knew exactly where I was going. The police have some significant advantages that an armed citizen response would lack. First, they've received extensive crisis response training for situations like this. In theory, militia members would have similar training; in practice, when someone in plain clothes pulls out a gun in an active situation, it's hard to judge how well trained he his, whereas a certain level can be assumed of an officer in uniform. Second, the police are acting as a team, both with folks on scene and folks on the other end of the radio who can coordinate more resources. Third, the police have a social dispensation to use force in an emergent situation. The social contract entrusts official emergency responders to make decisions that the society doesn't trust ordinary citizens to make.

When someone's goal is to kill a lot of people and they're willing to become the final tally in the body count, it's very difficult to prevent a mass shooting on the scene; the most we one can usually accomplish is to shorten it. Preventing a gunman massacre requires intervening before the killer is ready to take action. I don't have a novel solution to offer, and I suspect that there are dozens of different things (none of them easy) that need to be done to reach the dozens of potential shooters. I am reminded of President Obama's comment after the Sandy Hook shooting:
We are going to need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to guns.
flwyd: (intense aztec drummer DNC 2008)
Senator Bennet,

I am writing you regarding this week’s American missile attack on a Syrian air base in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria. Thank you for your statement on Thursday condemning the attacks and calling for action to be taken only with proper approval.
Senator Gardner,

I am writing you regarding this week’s American missile attack on a Syrian air base in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the people of Syria. Thank you for your statement on Thursday in support of “saving the Syrian people from slaughter.” I share your goal of ending the suffering of the people of Syria and effecting an end to the civil war which has ravaged their lives for the last six years.

I have three concerns about this situation, and I would like you to address them through the Senate and in conversations with members of the administration.

First—Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress, not the executive, the power to declare war and to punish offenses against the law of nations. President Trump launched this missile strike without Congressional approval and news reports indicate that he didn’t inform any in Congress about the action until it had completed. This attack on Syria was thus unconstitutional and not in accordance with the separation of powers granted by our founding fathers. I urge you to insist that any further military action be taken only after approval from Congress and in accordance with the Constitution. In matters of military action and foreign intervention, the American people deserve to have our voice heard through our elected representatives.

Second—American military intervention in Syria does not have a clear path to success and is likely to make things worse before they get better. Iran, long-term allies of Assad’s Alawite government, and Russia with its sole Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, are unlikely to let the present regime fall. Additionally, the opposition groups best positioned to defeat the government are aligned with Salafist jihadi movements. A military defeat of the Assad government could easily lead to an even bloodier battle between the Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-aligned Army of Conquest factions. An eventual victory by either would likely lead to brutal crimes against religious and ethnic minorities across Syria. Rather than American military escalation, please urge President Trump to apply his famed skill in negotiation through talks with the Syrian factions and their international backers, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Successful negotiations will involve groups with which the U.S. is not on friendly terms—including designated terrorist groups—but military de-escalation and broad support for a peace deal is the only path to long-term stability in Syria.

Third—one of the most important actions the United States can take to help the people of Syria is to provide support to the more than 3 million refugees who have fled the country’s conflict in the last six years. President Trump has sought twice to ban Syrian entry into the United States. I urge you to instead support expansion of the U.S. Refugee Admission Program. The Department of State is well positioned to evaluate refugee applications—no traveler to the United States is subject to more rigorous security screening than the refugees the U.S. Government considers for admission.[1] Additionally, I hope you will support humanitarian and financial aid in concert with our allies in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, and elsewhere who play host to millions of Syrians in refugee camps. The cost of Thursday’s missile attack has been reported at $90 million. A similar sum could provide a great deal of food, clothing, and shelter for those affected by the conflict.

Thank you for your consideration,
Trevor Stone
Boulder, CO 80304

[1] From the State Department’s USRAP FAQ
flwyd: (intense aztec drummer DNC 2008)
This TED talk by Rodrigo Canales draws parallels between prominent Mexican drug cartels and more ordinary businesses. Brand, markets, and social involvement all play a key role. Canales describes Los Zetas as a franchise business for ex-military members and local gangs. They're credited with many of the most gruesome killings in the drug war, and part of that is their brand. There are parallels here with Al Qaeda, which is also a franchise organization with an interest in tooting their own horn about how destructive they are.

Los Caballeros Templarios Guardia Michoacana (Knights Templar Cartel, successor to La Familia Michoacana) control some very important transit territory. They operate on a very local basis with social programs, and are loved by many in the communities. They portray many of their killings as community defense (petty criminals, local drug dealers, outside organized crime) and have played a significant role in local politics. This sounds to me a lot like Hezbollah, which operates schools, hospitals, and other social capital-building enterprises along side their long-running battles with Israel and arab governments. Other paramilitary organizations have had similar success with social programs and local support including the IRA and loyalists in Ireland and the Basque ETA. It's very hard to destroy an organization like this; they have the benefits of guerrilla warriors plus the financial resources of a major corporation.

The Sinaloa Federation operates a lot like a multinational corporation, including an executive on the Forbes billionaires list. They innovate in product delivery technology, they have executives (aka family members) supervise new ventures, they outsource tasks that would damage their brand, and so forth. In addition to parallels with legal corporations like oil companies I think they also bear a striking resemblance to historic organized crime groups like the Mafia and Yakuza. The salient feature is the organized part moreso than the crime. The latter is only present because the business's products happen to be illegal.

I think it's helpful to think of these groups as companies with violence as one of their business methods rather than a grand version of random street violence. It also suggests that tourist fears about travel in Mexico may be unnecessarily elevated: would killing you further the business interests of the cartels?

A TED blog post about this video links to a few others on similar topics, including a suggestion that the best way to fight these organizations is to devalue their brands.

One interesting twist in the Mexican drug war is that the Americans are funding both sides. The cartels make most of their money by selling drugs to the U.S. distribution network, not to mention side businesses like smuggling migrants for the labor market. Meanwhile, the U.S. government subsidizes the Mexican government's anti-cartel activities, with gun manufacturers from the States profiting from sales to both sides. Not to mention the money spent on border enforcement and anti-drug efforts north of the border, a chunk of which also goes to American arms dealers.
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: (intense aztec drummer DNC 2008)
Movie recommendation: The Interrupters. I just saw it at IFS. It's playing short engagements around the country and in the U.K. The credits include Frontline, so I assume it's either been on PBS or will be soon. It's intense–I was crying a lot more than I was laughing. It's also important–it's a documentary about people taking action and getting results on a major social problem: inner-city violence, especially the cycle of revenge killings.

The Interrupters is a documentary about the organization CeaseFire in Chicago. Their goal is to stop the spread of violence by interrupting situations that could escalate into somebody getting killed. To do this effectively, the interrupters have to be people that the potentially violent folks can relate to–former gangbangers, hustlers, and convicts. Just as only a recovering alcoholic can effectively lead an AA meeting, these are guys (and a couple women) who participated in the cycle of violence, paid the consequences, and realized they need to help their community understand that those consequences aren't worth whatever benefits folks see in the moment.

This movie goes deep with a handful of interrupters, catching amazingly candid discussions. They start by diffusing an immediate situation, from two groups about to clash in the street to folks who call up feeling they've been wronged and want to kill the punks who messed things up. And while the immediate interventions are a great way to reduce murders one at a time, the real strength of the program is how the interrupters stay involved with the people they've intervened with. The documentary follows several of these long-term relationships, where the goal is to defuse not just a situation, but someone's attitude and outlook on life. And it works: 41-73% reductions in killings in neighborhoods where CeaseFire was working with a 16-35% drop directly attributable to CeaseFire. That speaks to what they call "a public health model to stop shootings and killings." They're working to build up herd immunity to violence in the neighborhood, but instead of vaccinations and doctors they use conversations and role models.

Where I'm Coming From

I was interested in this movie in part because it's similar to the work I do as a Black Rock Ranger at Burning Man, though these guys have orders of magnitude more intense situations, more personal connections, and more long-term value on the line. Some similarities:
Mediation, not authority
In both cases, many the folks we're reaching out to don't always have a good relationship with authority figures in general and police in particular. As mediators, we're not telling people what not to do; we're helping them think through why their first instinct may not be a good idea.
Social capital as a tool: community members, not outsiders
People are more likely to listen to folks they can identify with. As ex-gang leaders and hustlers, the people walking the streets for CeaseFire share a common background, skin color, and communication style as the folks they're reaching out to. As Burners who like to spend their vacation helping out, the Rangers share the aesthetics and lingo of the folks we're interacting with. And despite training and experience, both of us would do worse if we switched scenarios. I can create a much better connection with hippies and ravers and drunks and nerds and artists than I can with African Americans from the inner city. And vice versa, I expect.
It's not about you
This is a phrase the Rangers use in training to remind ourselves that the Ranger isn't the important one in an interaction: we leave our ego in camp and focus on the needs of the participants having a challenge. The movie didn't raise this point explicitly, but I noticed that the interrupters they followed were completely focused on the folks they were trying to help. When they talked about themselves, it was to illustrate a point, to let the person know they'd been there and they'd come around. It's not about trying to be a hero, it's about doing what you can to make things better.
Community acknowledgment
Through the social capital they've built through past actions, both groups are recognized as important mediators. While the movie had a scene of a hospital visit to an interrupter who'd been shot, it seemed the communities generally respected them; both sides in a conflict would listen to a guy with a CeaseFire logo. Rangers similarly focus on social capital, and have created a situation where someone in a khaki shirt and a floppy hat will usually be listened to with respect.
Focus on the immediate problem with an eye to education for the long term
One way the Rangers have it a lot easier than CeaseFire is that our solutions only need to work for a week. If two camps are driving each other crazy with their music, we can mediate a solution that will keep everyone from coming to blows until Sunday, when they get to pack up and not be neighbors any more. We try to educate so that participants will be less likely to have the same problem next year, but our main concern is the immediate situation. CeaseFire's first goal is to make sure nobody gets shot right now. They then take it a day and a week at a time, checking in on their new friends and finding ways to show them how to make progress.
I'm not claiming to be in the same league as these guys–my week in the desert contributing to public safety is nothing compared to stepping into potentially lethal situations, year round, day in and day out. But I'm glad to see that we've independently developed a similar approach to community conflict resolution. This style works well in inner city environments with decades of social baggage from unemployment, challenged schools, and cycles of violence. It also works in a radical experimental city with a demographic slanted towards the college-educated, the middle-class, the artistic, and the broadly-traveled. Maybe that's evidence that it can work in communities all over the country and throughout the world.
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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