Friday, December 4, 2015

Can the problem of mass shootings ever be "solved"?

Lately, the issue of gun control has again become topical on social media in the wake of recent mass shooting deaths.  It seems likely that very few people have changed their stance in response to the current spate of incidents.  And it seems likely that social media posts for and against increasing gun control will continue to be posted after events happen - and the US continues to experience a high frequency of mass killings with firearms.  Evidently the highest in the world, along with a large per capita percentage of gun owners.

I won't be rehashing all the old arguments for and against enhancements to existing gun regulation.  It seems pretty clear that existing gun regulations have been notably ineffective at preventing mass shootings.  There are three fundamentally different motives for mass shooting incidents:

1.  Violent acts aimed at promoting some political or religious objective
2.  Violent acts committed by individuals who feel they have been done some wrong
3.  Violent act committed by people engaged in criminal activities

I'm not including herein any discussion of mass suicides using firearms.  The incidents under #1 could be considered to be terrorist acts.  The perpetrators often (not always) are willing to die in carrying out their violence, owing to a deep commitment to their cause, which can make it difficult to stop.   Terrorism promotes the causes of governments or religious sects by instilling fear in their target population.  Killing innocents is not only acceptable, but is often precisely the aim of the terrorists.  Those engaging in terrorism see no meaningful distinction between innocent bystanders and military forces, insofar as they have little or no concern for anyone opposing their cause.  A violent response to terrorism only aids the terrorists in recruitment of new terrorists to their ranks.  Yes, self-defense is a reasonable response if one becomes involved in a terrorist attack, but it does nothing to prevent more terrorist attacks.  Violence only begets more violence, in a perpetual circle of pointless vengeance.

Incidents under #2 are especially troubling because we aren't mind readers and have no capability for precognition (as in the movie Minority Report).  Most gun owners have no criminal record and are not certifiably insane.  By far the majority of them can experience personal setbacks (like divorce and being fired) without "going postal" - and they'll have little or no trouble passing a background check to obtain firearms and ammunition legally.  A small fraction of them suddenly lose control and lash out with violence, many times with substantial firepower (e.g., assault rifles with large-capacity magazines, thereby enhancing their ability to kill many people).  Many of them are not very concerned about being killed in the process of their vengeance, which (again) makes them difficult to stop.

Criminals, of course, recognize no particular obligation to obey any laws, and are more than willing to obtain firearms illegally.  These days, it seems that despite stiff penalties for crimes committed while armed, most criminals carry firearms.  They use them to ward off any efforts at self-defense by their victims, and to engage in "warfare" against their competitors in the crime business.  Most are not very concerned about casualties among bystanders.  Many firearms in the hands of criminals are obtained from non-criminal gun owners, often by those breaking in and entering homes (and businesses) to commit robbery.  The "war" by police on criminals can result in racial profiling (leading to excessive police violence) and "collateral damage" to innocent bystanders.  Most of them are not willing to die and, in fact, carry firearms as a self-defense measure (!) during their criminal activities.

Yes, it's a truism that guns are but a tool, and they don't kill without being in the hands of a human (except for firearm accidents).  Nevertheless, the rampant proliferation of guns in American society has many impacts that lead directly or indirectly to mass shootings.  It's easier to obtain a firearm than it is to become a legal motor vehicle operator (which includes penalties for irresponsible behavior, including forfeiture of the driving privilege).  Contrary to a popular slogan, an armed society is not a polite society - it's a violent society!

It seems impossible to have a dialog on the issue of controlling firearms with the aim of reducing firearm violence.  The topic is a deeply divisive one, with advocates on both sides adamantly resisting one another, challenging positions with the same old talking points without ever changing anyone's mind.  The NRA has been such an effective lobby that any hint of enhanced gun control cannot make it through Congress, so national enhancements to gun contral seem out of the question.  There's considerable variability among states regarding gun control, and at least superficially, there doesn't seem to be any consistent result associated with different levels of gun control.  It's a complicated topic!

What we need is research into the topic of mass shootings, but in fact, legislation to prevent such research by the Centers for Disease Control has been pushed through Congress and signed into law.  The issue of mass shootings is a challenge that has resisted any simple-minded "solutions" proposed and implemented.  Spewing the same old talking points back and forth is pointless but we seem unable to get beyond the talking points and slogans on both sides.

We owe it to ourselves and our children and grandchildren to stop the pointless arguments and come together for a real dialog.  Let most ideas at least be on the table, and let's think scientifically about what might work (or not).  If after due consideration and on the basis of credible evidence, some notion is unworkable or ineffective, put it aside and move on.  It's not worth repeating that this or that solution will not end all gun violence.  Real solutions don't have to be 100% effective to offer real progress on reducing the frequency of mass shootings.  It's not realistic to think that we can ever reduce the frequency to zero, so let's put that aside and start putting our efforts into finding methods to cut down on the massive number of mass shootings we have every year, without any requirement that it be 100% effective. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The evil of white privilege

Some recent news has revealed that some police have been planting drugs as evidence in prosecuting young black men and, as we have seen on numerous occasions, have been all too willing to use deadly force (or excessive force) preferentially on blacks and latinos.  Yes, of course, this sort of racist behavior is not typical of all (or even most) police officers.  And yes, of course, being a cop is dangerous and involves having to make split-second decisions.  But the widespread existence of tolerance for this behavior when it occurs is simply shameful.

I grew up in a lily-white Chicago suburb, with virtually no blacks or latinos and only a few Jews.  Hence, I had almost no experience with racial/cultural diversity.  My first real contact with a diverse sample of Americans came when I was inducted into the Army.  This turned out to be an unexpected benefit of my military service!  In that experience, I actually got to know and become friends with a quite diverse group of people.  The stereotypes I had heard as a boy were shattered by the reality of the experiences I had, and the main lesson I learned was that race is a meaningless notion.  Knowing that someone is within a particular ethnic group is to provide no meaningful information about that person.  You can only make meaningful judgments about someone after you get to know them personally and see by their actions just who they truly are.  Most evolutionary biologists recognize that race has little or no substantive scientific value - apart from superficial physical characteristics and cultural differences, you simply can't assume you know anything useful about a person when you recognize their racial background.  Default assumptions are often faulty.

As a white heterosexual male, I've experienced virtually nothing of the subtle and continuous discrimination that racial and gender stereotypes enable.  No opportunities closed to me.  No unjustified assumptions about my intentions and abilities.  No barriers to the chance to pursue my dreams.  It's only recently that I've begun to understand and appreciate the impact of the pernicious and pervasive treatment that many people experience on a daily basis as a result of white heterosexual male privilege (or "white privilege" for short).  Imagine, if you can, my white heterosexual male friends, the effect of being stereotyped on a daily basis, by police, by employers, by strangers, and many others while simply going about the business of living.  Imagine being seen by many as likely to be a drug dealer, a gang-banger, a vicious criminal, an ignorant laborer, an incompetent, a thief, a lazy welfare cheat - all by people who actually know nothing of who you are and what you truly represent as a human being.  All they see are stereotypes.

When someone speaks up to defend themselves from this sort of treatment, they're often labeled a racist (an ironic twist) and a dangerous trouble-maker!  The victims of this contempt and even hatred from certain segments of American society have to explain to their children why they're being subjected to ill treatment, having done nothing to deserve it.  They have to train their children in how to deal with police who should be protecting their rights, not violating them.  They have to take special care in how they dress, how they talk, and how they carry themselves in public to avoid the unwarranted default assumptions tied to racial and gender stereotypes that can lead to violence being visited upon them.

This is mostly invisible to most white, heterosexual males.  It's apparently not happening to us, so it's convenient and comforting to assume that white privilege doesn't really exist; to conclude that it's just some "politically correct" notion being foisted upon us.  We don't feel "privileged" because our privileged status is so pervasive, it's simply a constant background note.  Only if we could spend time in someone else's place might we come to understand and appreciate what white privilege does for us on a daily basis.  If we can picture what white privilege does for us by recognizing the impact of its absence, then we might be more willing to denounce the practice wherever and whenever it occurs.  The police tend to line up in a "blue wall of silence" when they see it happening - no doubt by a misplaced loyalty to their biased colleagues and by the threat of being ostracized by those colleagues who engage in discriminatory practices.  The majority of good cops should welcome the effort to cleanse bad cops from their midst.  As the old saying goes ... evil is perpetuated when good persons stand by and say or do nothing to prevent evil.

If we become close to someone with a different racial/gender background, we can learn from them just what their actual experiences have been.  It's not quite the same as experiencing it for oneself, but when hearing about what your friends actually have to deal with, anyone can begin to recognize white privilege for what it is - simple prejudice without any real justification.  Stereotypes and default assumptions about someone are not a justifiable basis for genuine human interaction.  For my white heterosexual male friends:  get to know your diverse acquaintances.  Among them you'll find people you want to have as friends, and some you don't want as friends - in the identical way your white heterosexual male acquaintances include people you like as well as those you don't like.  Pre-judgment on the superficial basis of race or gender is simply not consistent with reality.  Put such notions aside, if you can, and reach out to find friends among all your acquaintances.  You can learn much from their experiences, if you're willing to listen and try to understand.

A footnote:  if someone makes the default assumption that I fit some stereotype of a white heterosexual male (i.e, a "redneck"), without actually taking the time to know me as a person, that would also be a form of prejudicial discrimination.  Hence, there are some people who are not white heterosexual males, who actually are racists.  Sadly, such prejudices can be found within any group of humans.