Thursday, May 17, 2012

Public Policy

I am not going to identify this speaker from yesterday’s conference, as his professional knowledge is excellent, and I don’t want anyone googling him to be put off as if his information might not be valuable.  In the area of risk assessment for violence among the mentally ill he is well worth attending to.

It is his considerable ability to accept surprising and counterintuitive information within his specialty and apply it practically that makes him a good example for my purpose, in fact, for once he was outside his specialty – and not very far outside – this seemed to vanish.  The overall homicide rate among young men went up at the same time as handgun sales, and went down when handgun sales declined.  His remarks seemed to rather vaguely imply that if we didn’t market, glorify, and produce handguns at such a rate, we would have fewer homicides. Perhaps he thinks that the decline over the last two decades was in fact the result of some change in advertising or production or cultural attitudes, though he didn’t mention any data there.

That spike in the 80’s coincides quite nicely with the introduction of crack cocaine to the streets.  That seems more likely to me.  There were more young men who suddenly felt a need to protect themselves or threaten others, so they bought handguns.  Making them less easily available, or even unavailable, might have reduced the number of homicides somewhat.  Other means of protection and threat are less efficient – which is why people buy guns.  But I doubt strenuously that with the amount of money at stake, territory to defend, and desperation of the addicts that the homicide rate would have been much less.  People would get guns at higher price, or used other weapons.

There were a few other issues where the good doctor’s opinion was a rather unimaginative version of the default position of non-radicals on the left, and all were public policy issues.  He is capable of imaginative and counterintuitive thought, as he ably demonstrated, yet once out of the area where he has to apply serious application of the little grey cells to earn his daily bread and understand complicated issues, he just falls into tribal mode.

If he, then me.  Such shortcuts in thinking are how we all get through in the world.  Yet they mislead.

I may do a post or two on violence, BTW, as there are different ideas running around in my head, plus info to share that might not be generally known by those who don't have to keep up with these things.


Sam L. said...

As the bumper sticker says, "Don't Believe Everything You Think". Expertise goes to the cliff's edge; no further. Be skeptical of thine own self. Especially of thine own self.

karrde said...

Um...have murder rates continued to track handgun sales, or was this a one-off correlation?

And how did violence and murder rates correlate to the fraction of the general population between the ages of 16 and 30?

What about the fraction of the population in that age range who lived in dense urban cores?

...You're right, it is dreadfully easy for an expert in one field to unknowingly make himself look foolish in another.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't know, but I would imagine that handgun sales rise in response to people's perception of how much danger they are in, which should follow increases in violent crime (or at least, people's sense of whether crime is rising). Something like a reverse direction of causality seems to be common among gun control folks: that Americans have a love affair with guns and so get lots of them for primitive psychological reasons, and all these guns lying around changes our characters and makes us more likely to be violent. Could be, but I have lots of exercise stuff and power tools around and it doesn't seem to influence me to do stuff with those all that much. It might feel obvious to some folks, but the buy guns::resort to violence connection doesn't look that tight to me. It seems you would agree.

Sam L. said...

I have had guns since my early 20's, and I haven't even shot myself, let alone someone else. Used to wear a pistol on duty for a number of years, too.

Sam L. said...

And I didn't shoot myself or anyone else then, either.

Cameras, though--different story. Nobody injured, but maybe embarrassed.

karrde said...

Well...I've long known that gun ownership is higher per-capita in suburban/rural areas, while violence (especially murder, whether or not by firearm) is strongly urban.

And I've been a gun-owner for a while. I've also been an observer in lots of internet discussions about gun rights.

That claim--that the decline in murder rates (in the 1990s, I assume) is correlated with pistol sales--is one I'd never seen before.

And I thought I'd seen all the poorly-thought-out sound bites about guns and crime...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Violence has a large cultural component. New England has had low crime rates since colonial times (the Canadian Maritimes lowest in Canada also), while the Appalachian crime rate was higher wherever they went: Belfast, Glasgow, the American Southwest. That does translate somewhat into later settlement patterns as well. Different regions of Europe have different levels of violence, and that holds true for Asia as well. I don't know about Africa and South America.