Monday, June 25, 2007

In Jesse We Trust - If you could MapQuest the intersection of race and politics on a cultural map of the United States, you would invariably find Jesse Jackson at the crossroads. Such was the case over the weekend, as Rev. Jackson was arrested during a scuffle at a protest of a suburban Chicago gun shop, as reported by the Chicago Tribune. (Fr. Michael Pfleger - perhaps imagining himself playing both Andrew Goodman and Micheal Schwerner to Jackson's James Cheney - was also taken into custody.) The protest itself was in connection with a larger effort to stem the tide of gun violence that has taken the lives of at least 24 Chicago Public School students this school year.

I must admit that the video associated with this story was a bit difficult to watch. Understandably perhaps, a portion of the video evoked images of Southern Dixiecrats blocking the doors of schools and colleges to blacks; John Riggio,
owner of Chuck's Gun Shop, was a perfect stand-in for George Wallace or Bull Connor as he blocked Jackson's entry into his establishment. However, all similarities between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and Jackson's latter-day civil wrongs movement fade under any sort of scrutiny. For his part, Jackson avers that the close proximity of a gun shop to the city limits of Chicago is a causative factor in the deaths of both students and adults, and argues for tougher firearms laws.

Of course if availability of guns (or proximity of gun shops) had a direct impact on the rate of gun violence in a particular community, wouldn't the tranquil Village of Riverdale be beset with its own wave of gun crimes? If anything the citizens of Riverdale should worry about unsavory elements from the Big City, as some of the latest occupants of the village's Greybar Hotel were a duo of Chicago-based provocateurs, neither of whom is a stranger to a jail cell.

But to the point about correlations between guns and violent crime, the available research might well suggest that there is an inverse relationship between the two. That is to say, more guns lead to less crime, particularly violent crime. In a 1998 interview conducted for the University of Chicago Press, professor John R. Lott (formerly of the University of Chicago and soon to be at The University of Maryland) contends that states with the greatest increases in gun ownership have experienced the greatest reductions in violent crime, and in his book More Guns, Less Crime, Dr. Lott argues for the right of citizens to carry concealed handguns.

Criminals are deterred by higher penalties. Just as higher arrest and conviction rates deter crime, so does the risk that someone committing a crime will confront someone able to defend him or herself. There is a strong negative relationship between the number of law-abiding citizens with permits and the crime rate—as more people obtain permits there is a greater decline in violent crime rates. For each additional year that a concealed handgun law is in effect the murder rate declines by 3 percent, rape by 2 percent, and robberies by over 2 percent.

Concealed handgun laws reduce violent crime for two reasons. First, they reduce the number of attempted crimes because criminals are uncertain which potential victims can defend themselves. Second, victims who have guns are in a much better position to defend themselves.
And while Dr. Lott's proposition is contradicted by other data sets, to be sure, the idea that a direct causal relationship between guns and violence is confounded by research presented in Medical Sentinel by Dr. David Stolinsky, MD. Dr. Stolinsky reviews data from the United Nations' 1996 Demographic Yearbook, and concludes that many nations have both greater access to guns and lower rates of violent crime than the U.S.
Israel and Switzerland, where most adult males keep military-type guns at home, have low homicide rates, so easy access to guns cannot be the key factor in homicide. Some nations with strict anti-gun laws also have low homicide rates, but is this cause and effect? The low homicide rate in the United Kingdom holds for both gun and non-gun homicides; strict gun laws cannot account for a low rate of fatal beatings. Japan has harsh anti-gun and anti-crime laws and a low homicide rate, but Japanese-Americans, who live under our laws and have access to guns, also have a low homicide rate. Japanese immigrants bring something with them that inhibits homicide and is transmitted to their children and grandchildren. It may be self-control or love of education, but it has nothing to do with laws. Cultural factors are clearly important. To study the effect of gun laws, statisticians would first have to correct for all the cultural differences between various nations. Not enough is known to do this. The best we can do is observing what happens when new gun laws are passed in the U.S. and Germany, or when Japanese live in the U.S. In these cases, little effect of gun laws is seen. (Emphasis added.)
And so, in spite of our best efforts to the contrary, we stumble upon the truth. To his credit, Jackson occasionally addresses the issue of individual responsibility amongst African Americans. But the cultural critic is but a "Mini-Me" to the Jackson that indicts white gun shop owners and brays a la Dr. Seuss about systemic racism. But as discussed here, here and elsewhere, it is not legislation governing sale and possession of guns, but the culture of much of black America that is in need of much reform. This is not a task that can be handed off to government or to sympathetic whites; African Americans must do the heavy lifting. Should Rev. Jackson wish to earn the mantle of black leadership, there is still time and occasion for him to be of assistance in this effort.

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