Connecting The Gun Dots…

Nothing that happens, happens in isolation. That’s sometimes called “the butterfly effect,” the controversial assertion (linked to chaos theory) that a butterfly flapping its wings will eventually cause a hurricane in China.

The various human and social consequences of gun ownership are much less theoretical. A recent study conducted by Vox connects America’s widespread gun ownership to our epidemic of police shootings.

The study was prompted by the recent shooting of Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s back yard. Police thought the cellphone he was holding was a gun. This fatal error is increasingly common.

Officers have shot people after mistaking wrenches and badges for guns. Cops have shot people thinking that they’re reaching for a firearm when they’re really pulling up loose-fitting shorts. Police have shot multiple people thinking that a toy gun was a real firearm.

In all fairness, police have plenty of reasons to believe a target is armed. The United States has more guns  in the hands of its citizens than any other country in the world.  According to recent estimates, America has more guns than people.

“Police officers in the United States in reality need to be conscious of and are trained to be conscious of the fact that literally every single person they come in contact with may be carrying a concealed firearm,” David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, told me. “That’s true for a 911 call. It’s true for a barking dog call. It’s true for a domestic violence incident. It’s true for a traffic stop. It’s true for everything.”

This is one potential reason, experts said, that the US has far more police shootings than other developed nations. A 2015 analysis by the Guardian found that “US police kill more in days than other countries do in years.” Between 1990 and 2014, police in England and Wales shot and killed 55 people.

The Vox study, conducted with a researcher at the University of Chicago, established  a correlation between weaker gun laws that facilitate higher rates of gun ownership and elevated numbers of killings by police officers. Correlation, of course, is not causation, but the results are suggestive. The researchers compared state-level gun laws to each state’s fatal police shootings.

The results: There is a correlation between killings by police officers and states’ gun control laws and gun ownership rates. The stronger the gun control laws, the fewer police killings. The higher the gun ownership rates, the more police killings. (You can see the raw data here and the comparison data here.)

As the researchers noted,

That suggests that while America has to address a whole host of issues to bring down its levels of police killings — from department-level policies to systemic racism — it also may be prudent to start thinking of police killings as inherently linked to America’s gun problem in general.

According to the article, the U.S. doesn’t have appreciably more crime than other countries, but we do have more violence associated with that crime. As one expert put it, people everywhere get into arguments and fights. But in the US, it’s much more likely that when a guy gets angry, he’ll pull out a gun and shoot someone.

There’s an old saying that even paranoids have enemies. Police who mistake wrenches and cell phones for guns are wrong, and they need to be trained to verify first rather than shoot first. But America’s gun culture is one reason they’re paranoid.


  1. I hope to someday to see the results of other gun studies. I would like to know the percentage of the population that owns one gun, the percentage that owns multiple guns, the percentage who keep an arsenal. And a study on the characteristics of gun owners. I want to know where the keepers of arsenals live. I want to know about the NRA, their membership, and there relationship with gun manufacturers and sellers. I want to know more about the psychology of people who kill other humans.

    Until we know more, we will continue to blindly fight gun violence.

  2. Sheila; your last paragraph says it all. America has defined the 2nd Amendment term “militia” to mean anyone who has the desire, money or valid credit card has the right to buy all the weapons they want.

    I am a former licensed to carry gun owner; “former” because when I no longer felt the need for that level of protection, I sold it. I have one armed family member who would pass the most stringent of background checks but it bothers me deeply that she carries a gun. On the other hand, I have two women friends who are always armed when we visit and go out to dinner, they pose no threat to anyone. They must travel to their jobs at 3:30 a.m.; and they live in a secluded rural area.

    In my personal dealings with local police; my neighbors and I have been unprotected by either poorly trained or uncaring officers…and detectives. The physical attack with permanent injuries and robbery on my own driveway at 11:00 in the morning was accomplished by a couple who had been “followed” 24/7 for four days by undercover officers who missed my attack and the attack of another woman as they “watched” the couple’s car but didn’t see him get out to attack and rob another elderly woman in a very small parking lot. This lack of protection I have seen and been subjected to spans decades. I will also point out that for the third year in a row, Indianapolis has had history making numbers of murders, mostly gun deaths. Prosecutors are also at fault here; there is now discussion as to murder charges being valid against two men who fired 21 shots into an inhabited home, killing a 1 year old sleeping baby and injuring another person. The question by prosecutors is their “intent”?

    “…it also may be prudent to start thinking of police killings as inherently linked to America’s gun problem in general.”

    “…to START thinking…”??? The gun problem in this country has been widely publicized in all media over the past few years; we are late in considering this as part of the problem. And we must connect the lack of full and proper training of all public safety officers and prosecution – or lack of prosecution – as being part of the escalating problem.

  3. Supposedly, everyone is “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law”. Yet, police treat people as if they are guilty.

    Isn’t that the basis of the problem? They “assume” everyone is doing something they shouldn’t be doing, or that they are threat? We hope this is based on evidence, proper training, or even experience on the job. But it’s more likely based on fear.

    Policing is a scary and thankless profession. The culture toward police officers in this country is atrocious. Heck, I’m a law abiding person, but cops still scare me.. you never know what kind of person they are or what they might do.

    So, we’re both scared and distrusting of one another. They assume we’re all criminals, we assume they’re all bad cops. Would that honestly change if the gun laws changed? Or, would we all be better off if we could do something to change the culture toward police officers?

  4. Opinion: that gun-free civilized societies spend their treasure on parks, playgrounds, schools and infrastructure, are not shoot-em-up macho cowboy societies, and do not provide fodder for the gun industry or its friends such as the NRA and a craven congress.
    If memory serves, it was Australia’s parliament that legislated for a government (societal) buy-back of firearms “way back” in the 20th Century.
    Wonder what American push-back would be for such a plan. It would be bedlam, don’tcha think?

  5. How many white teenagers have been shot by police “accidentally”?

    Also, how many of the cops shooting black people “accidentally” were white vs black?

    And finally, how many courts have found white cops guilty of “accidentally” shooting an unarmed black person?

  6. Gun worship is a religion of death. People frightened of everything arm themselves to the teeth. The NRA and the craven Congress feed those fears, because fear removes logic and careful analysis, thus helping get them elected. It is perverse to civilization, but normal for the primitive aspects of the human mind.

    Combine those things with unregulated capitalism, and you have the fascist’s approach to guns: Sell, sell, sell.

  7. you do realize what it would take to get all the guns registered and only in the hands of ‘responsible citizens’ don’t you? Martial Law – and at that point this country ceases to be a Democracy of any kind. Guns – always people talking about ‘guns’… listen if you stop and count all the incidents of cop shootings of individuals that are UNARMED they are the vast majority around or in urban centers. We who live rural and who have an entirely different perspective on this thing about ‘guns’. It is reasonable to assume we have controls in place – however there are loopholes and you can thank THE PEOPLE YOU VOTED IN for that. Don’t blame the ‘gun’ – it is the Human Element that is responsible. A ‘gun’ is a tool, and a sport and a HOBBY. So I am done with this constant banter about ‘guns’ and ‘gun control’ – NO what we need is better control of ourselves – and for god’s sake!!! Open the communications between departments across the country. IF we were to allow information that involved someone dangerous or who has a record in need of watching shared among all police departments – made available to them – that might just HELP. ya think? – And furthermore; If you go back and look at the transcripts of the last few mass killings – in all of them AT LEAST ONE PERSON KNEW WHAT WAS COMING DOWN! or called the police or the FBI! – and was met with – ‘Meh!’… Tell me it was the goddamn gun!

  8. When does correlation become cause? I think the ready availability of guns in a fearful society is one of many causes for our slaughter of one another, from road rage to police error, and agree that one of the answers is to reduce the quantity of guns available for purchase. With fewer guns, perhaps the police would be reconditioned not to “shoot first,” not to mention a likely reduction in general homicides due to lack of armament.

    A gun, like a car, is not an inherently dangerous instrumentality. It only becomes dangerous with misuse. A gun in a bank lockbox or a car in a driveway poses no threat to public order, but we require, for instance, that the sale or gift of cars go through a registration process for many good and different reasons, but to my knowledge make no such requirements for guns on the informal secondary market. I can buy a gun, for instance, and give it to a nephew who holds up the bank and shoots a teller. Am I an aider or abettor of such criminal acts or otherwise criminally liable? Probably not due to lack of mens rea and remoteness.

    Should I be? Should the state license and register the sale and gift of guns on both primary and secondary markets – as they do cars? I vote yes. Second Amendment violation? Not at all. We regulate other dangerous instrumentalities by various means and routinely, such as (tickets for broken tail lights, special safety requirements for tanks of deadly chemicals and atomic waste transported by rail and truck etc.), so there is precedent in licensing and regulating the transfer of guns as a potentially dangerous instrumentality whether by sale or gift.
    I have gone beyond the scope of Sheila’s topic for the day, i.e., Vox’s recitation of research showing a strong correlation of how many guns are out there and our homicide rate, but I think we all need to consider not just quantity of guns but quality of their transfer as well, hence my expansion of topic.

  9. Manuel; as I mentioned in my comments, I have an armed family member who would legally pass the most stringent of background checks, but has no business with a gun. The background checks would only weed out the obvious to deny; remember Sandy Hook’s shooter who was mentally ill but his “sane” mother armed them and taught him how to use all level of weapons. But the most recent mass school shooting is an example; if Ctuz had been denied legally purchasing his weapons there would be 17 more people alive. There is and will never be a perfect solution to this problem…all we can do is all we can do. But we are not at this time doing all that we can do.

  10. Theresa, about one household in 4 owns guns and 3% of the population own half the guns.

    To me the problem is less about killing machines per se and more about the propganda spread by the gun industry’s ad agency to sell them. What I call Ramboporn.

    Propganda is based on attaching strong emotions like fear and hate to scapegoats and conspiracy theory to create knee jerk reactions from the world around us.

    The gun people that I spar with on Facebook seem to believe that there is a racial uprising in the offing and they dream of successfully defending their castle and family from the onslaught.

    Of course the two personality traits that fall for that fantasy most readily are authoritarians and racists.

    I don’t think that the underlying marketing is much different than selling high performance cars. Power is the drug of choice for authoritarians.

    Of course it also contains a pinch of truth as the other demographic that loves dealing death is the urban gang culture.

    Caught between are the police who now have to be suspicious of everyone. Their lives depend on it and fearful people are mistake prone.

    It’s a mess that requires the best of civic problem solving to mitigate.

  11. Per Vernon’s comment, the incident of an older white resident shooting at the 14 yr old black child asking for help in getting to Rochester High School in Rochester Hills, MI, this past week is a perfect example of someone frightened enough to shoot at a child asking for help. The man assumed that he was under threat by a black child who knocked at his door to ask for directions. Thankfully, there was home security video to affirm the boy’s account.

    The man is under arrest. My guess is that he will get off without penalty.

  12. SK:”According to the article, the U.S. doesn’t have appreciably more crime than other countries, but we do have more violence associated with that crime. As one expert put it, people everywhere get into arguments and fights. But in the US, it’s much more likely that when a guy gets angry, he’ll pull out a gun and shoot someone.”

    Why be so surprised? That exact mindset has been our preferred method wrt foreign policy.

    Why spend time on diplomacy when we can just blow up entire countries? America is a weaponized nation. Violence is seemingly our prefered export.

  13. “The man is under arrest. My guess is that he will get off without penalty.”

    JD; your comment above is what I meant about prosecutors being part of the problem. Just as an example; the attack and permanent injuries I suffered on April 21, 2014, have left me in pain day and night since 11:00 that morning. The prosecutor refused to file Battery charge because, “The more charges we file, the more charges we have to prove.” That is an exact quote. And my case is minor in comparison with what we witness daily in the media. Which white officer who killed an unarmed black – or Hispanic or white – citizen have you heard of being convicted of a crime. Being put on “administrative leave” means time off with pay.

  14. Web Site on Gun Violence –

    Yes, it does take a human to kill another human with a fire arm. You can blame video games, rambo movies, gang wars over turf and a general lack of mental heath access for people, but with out a firearm their ability to inflict harm on some else is severely limited.

    Given the fact since 1945 the USA has been without a close second the most violent nation on earth, it not surprising we have violence in our own country.

  15. Most police act pursuant to their training. Some are loose cannons and shoot before asking questions or commanding suspects to drop whatever they are holding. They are also trained to shoot to kill rather than shoot to disarm or disable from attack. Even in the old Saturday morning cowboy shows, they would shoot to disarm. Everyone with a gun needs THAT training.

  16. We will never reason our way to safer lives as long as we invalidate our reasoning with facsimiles of these two statements: 1) “Enacting this law will stop violence and killing.”
    and its counter: 2) “People who want to kill will find a way to kill, and nothing will stop them.”

    It’s the word “STOP” that does the damage. We need to make our argument in terms of percentages, odds, reductions, decreases, diminishings and curtailings. For instance:

    Stricter and universal background checks will DIMINISH the number of Americans who are murdered.

    Outlawing bump-stocks will REDUCE the number of Americans who can be murdered by one shooter in a matter of seconds.

    Even one fewer gun in America will DECREASE the ODDS of being murdered by a person with a gun.

    And keep this one up your sleeve for use as the closer: “Slippery slopes can be fun; ask an avid skier.”

  17. Not a great source but we can’t ask this man why he thought it was a good idea to run from two police officers. We also don’t know why he was out breaking windows, if he was in fact so doing. I imagine that the police were summoned to protect society’s interest in the secure possession of their life and property. I further imagine that if Mr. Clark had not taken off running from the police he’d still be very much alive.

  18. I’ve never heard gun owners address the obvious conflict in their belief that more gun ownership makes all of us safer. If that were true, considering that Americans own upwards of 300,000,000 guns, we’d probably be the safest country in the world.

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