William Katz:  Urgent Agenda

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PAINFUL TRUTHS – AT 11:01 A.M. ET:  President Obama will be in Newtown, Connecticut today to comfort residents in light of Friday's shooting tragedy.  That is proper. 

What is not proper is the attempt by some politicians and other public figures to exploit this tragedy to advance political positions.  Certainly a discussion on gun violence is in order, and I hope it results in thoughtful, effective measures that actually address the problem.  This discussion, though, must be fact-based, and facts don't always conform to what people want or believe. 

No amount of data can lessen the pain of those who grieve because of Friday's madness.  But understanding the reality, not the myths, can help us to solutions, no matter how partial or incomplete they may be.  For example, we assume there's been some explosion in mass killings in America.  Not so.  From AP:

...those who study mass shootings say they are not becoming more common.

"There is no pattern, there is no increase," says criminologist James Allen Fox of Boston's Northeastern University, who has been studying the subject since the 1980s, spurred by a rash of mass shootings in post offices.

The random mass shootings that get the most media attention are the rarest, Fox says. Most people who die of bullet wounds knew the identity of their killer.

Society moves on, he says, because of our ability to distance ourselves from the horror of the day, and because people believe that these tragedies are "one of the unfortunate prices we pay for our freedoms."

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota Department of Corrections who has written a history of mass murders in America, said that while mass shootings rose between the 1960s and the 1990s, they actually dropped in the 2000s. And mass killings actually reached their peak in 1929, according to his data. He estimates that there were 32 in the 1980s, 42 in the 1990s and 26 in the first decade of the century.

Chances of being killed in a mass shooting, he says, are probably no greater than being struck by lightning.

Still, he understands the public perception - and extensive media coverage - when mass shootings occur in places like malls and schools. "There is this feeling that could have been me. It makes it so much more frightening."

And...

Duwe says the cycle has gone on for generations.

"Mass shootings provoke instant debates about violence and guns and mental health and that's been the case since Charles Whitman climbed the tower at the University of Texas in 1966," he said, referring to the engineering student and former Marine who killed 13 people and an unborn child and wounded 32 others in a shooting rampage on campus. "It becomes mind-numbingly repetitive."

"Rampage violence seems to lead to repeated cycles of anguish, investigation, recrimination, and heated debate, with little real progress in prevention," wrote John Harris, clinical assistant professor of medicine in the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona, in the June issue of American Journal of Public Health. "These types of events can lead to despair about their inevitability and unpredictability."

COMMENT:  There is no one answer.  As in crime control generally, there are usually several steps that can be taken to produce a positive effect.   Violent crime has been cut dramatically in New York City over the past several decades, but Chicago is a shooting gallery.  So we know that some things work in some places, if there's a will to make them work.

We would not put a sign on our home saying "Doors unlocked, we are unarmed."  That would be madness.  Yet, we do it with our schools and colleges each day.  We do it by establishing "gun-free zones," which are nothing more than invitations for someone to come in and start shooting, knowing he will not be resisted.  Why do we do it?  It makes some people feel good about themselves, which is part of the psychological problem we face in addressing this issue.  Do-gooders often don't do good, they just think they do.

The discussion ahead will be painful all around.  I doubt if it will be honest.

December 16, 2012