Back in the early 17th century, 400 years ago, Johannes Kepler was arguing why it is true that the Earth travels around the Sun — the so-called Copernican World System — rather than, as our common sense appears to tell us, that the Sun goes around the Earth — the Ptolemaic World System.
I bring the method of persuasion up because I believe it can help us to compare the two competing World Systems we confront in our conceptual world of today, what I might call, with special reference to the sphincter muscle, the Constipated World System and the Green World System (at this level of poetry, your faeces are Green).
Kepler famously [discussed on pp. 132-135 of Koestler’s biography, and pp. 126-129 of Caspar‘s] made the best attempt he could to model the orbit of the planet Mars within the Ptolemaic system, with the Earth at rest; he found that there remained an error of 8 minutes of arc, 2/15 of one degree, which could not be arranged away.
Henceforth I shall lead the way . . . according to my own ideas.
Koestler quotes (as does Caspar) Kepler as saying in Book II of Astronomia Nova.
For, if I had believed we could ignore these eight minutes, I would have patched up my hypothesis accordingly. But since it is not permissible to ignore them, those eight minutes point the road to a complete reformation of astronomy: they have become the building material for a large part of this work.
Upon that 2/15 of one degree of ineradicable error in the orbit of Mars Kepler based an investigation which produced Kepler’s 3 Laws of planetary motion, which in turn form the basis for Isaac Newton’s mathematical formulation of the Law of Gravity (cf. the 3rd sentence in the wikipedia article on Kepler cited above).
What I want to do here today is, making use of a similar way of arguing, to examine one of the best-regarded founts of Accepted Wisdom on the interpretation of the recent mass murder of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, that is, Charles Krauthammer’s long op-ed which appeared in the Oregonian a couple of days ago. Once the examination is over, I will in my next post turn to what I will characterize as a Green Movement representative (whether or not a Green Party member is irrelevant), the apparently Portland-resident Sharif Abdullah.
Krauthammer is no ordinary conservative pundit: London’s Financial Times named him the most influential commentator in the United States in 2006; the prominent conservative columnists Ben Smith, of Politico, and David Brooks, of The New York Times, put him at the top of the heap [Smith: a “kind of leader of the opposition…a coherent, sophisticated and implacable critic of [Barack Obama]”; Brooks: “he’s the most important conservative columnist.”]; even former President Bill Clinton called Krauthammer, a certified psychiatrist with chapters in medical textbooks and peer-reviewed published research among his accomplishments, “a brilliant man.”
Krauthammer begins by separating the discussion; “let’s be serious,” he writes, there’s the weapon, there’s the killer, and there is the culture.
I have no problem in principle with gun control. Congress enacted (and I supported) an assault weapons ben in 1994. The problem: It didn’t work (so concluded a University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by the Justice Department).
That’s one study. If it was undertaken at the behest of the George W. Bush Justice Department it might have been biased. In any case, the chart below, from the current Economist,
seems to indicate pretty substantial evidence that the years after 1994 were positively influenced by something. Then the ban was repealed, and the deaths due to firearms increased again.
Notice that the “brilliant” Dr. Krauthammer [now I should indicate that while he is allowed to by convention, Mr Krauthammer never prefaces his name with the title his M.D. degree — from Harvard, yet — allows him, to bolster his authority; the usage is purely mine] chooses not to address the fact that the single study appears to contradict the prima facie historical record. The one study settles it, since it supports his view; he continues immediately:
The reason is simple. Unless you are prepared to confiscate all existing firearms, disarm the citizenry and repeal the Second Amendment, it’s almost impossible to craft a law that will be effective.
I note the rhetorical device of placing a sweeping judgmental statement immediately following the invocation of a scholarly study. If any one thing is certain in academic usage, it’s that that University of Pennsylvania study, no matter what its findings, didn’t say anything of the sort which Mr Krauthammer’s juxtaposition suggests. After indicating that all the recent laws, both proposed and enacted, had loopholes, our conservative spokesman says there are too darn many weapons:
Most fatal [certainly an awkward choice of word — MM], however, is the grandfathering of existing weapons and magazines. That’s one of the reasons the ’94 law failed. At the time, there were 1.5 million assault weapons in circulation and 25 million large-capacity (i.e., more than 10 bullets) magazines. A reservoir that immense can take 100 years to draw down.
End of discussion. He never returns to the possibility of gun control, since “it’s almost impossible to craft a law that will be effective.” How strange, to promote gun control in theory, but then to drop it because it presents a bigger problem than you had at first thought!
On this sort of logic, it is of course “almost impossible” to craft a law that will eliminate discrimination against women in the job market. Their children, their temperament, their good looks, all have complicated the subject. Nonetheless all civilized countries have implemented such laws.
You see why I suggest that the Krauthammer point of view can be mockingly called the Constipated World System. Hold on to what you’ve got. Make sure it isn’t taken from you. Don’t try anything if it isn’t assured. Of course gun control cannot assure an end to the murder of innocents — but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried! And if we even grant that the assault weapon ban of 1994 did not go far enough, that is certainly no reason to drop the effort!
Ah, but that’s more than enough of successive exclamation points: let me return to the examination of Charles Krauthammer’s analysis. He next takes up the question of the killer.
Why do you think we have so many homeless? Destitution? Poverty has declined since the 1950s. The majority of those sleeping on grates are mentally ill. In the name of civil liberties, we let them die with their rights on.
Here’s the historical record on the rate of poverty in the U.S.
As you can see, while it’s quite true — the honest Dr. Krauthammer would not lie — that the rate of poverty is lower now than in the 1950s, it has stayed the same since about 1968. For 45 years. If we had answered the rhetorical question question, Why do you think we have so many homeless, with the answer, Because there’s not enough affordable housing for poor people: — we would have been a whole lot closer to the facts.
And by what definition do you suppose Dr Krauthammer can decide that the majority of those street people are mentally ill? The civil liberty he treats with such scorn adjudges a person who is not a danger to himself or to others to be entitled to release from the custody of the state.
Monsters shall always be with us, but in earlier days they did not roam free. As a psychiatrist in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I committed people — often right out of the emergency room — as a danger to themselves or to others. I never did so lightly, but I labored under none of the crushing bureaucratic and legal constraints that make involuntary commitment infinitely more difficult today.
Lock ’em up. Throw away the key.
Random mass killings were three times more common in the 2000s than in the 1980s, when gun laws were actually weaker.
The repeal of the assault-weapon ban did not make gun laws stricter. And we saw that the deaths by firearm had been growing steadily throughout the 80s and early 90s. After the assault-weapon ban deaths by firearm dropped substantially. Examination of the record of mass shootings [random? what’s that mean? was the killing of 170 people in Oklahoma City in 1995, as a revenge for the mass killing of David Koresh’s Branch Dravidian Church in Waco, Texas “random”?] produces:
which shows a lot of scatter and steady growth, with more in the 1990s than the 1980s, and in the 2000s than in the 1990s. Interestingly, except for the Columbine killings, the period of the assault-weapon ban [1994-2004] appears to have been lower than the overall average.
And if I may, let’s look at the last clause, “when gun laws were actually weaker”. The Mother Jones report in which the above chart appears, notes that there were a lot more guns around:
A precise count isn’t possible because most guns in the United States aren’t registered and the government has scant ability to track them, thanks to a legislative landscape shaped by powerful pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association. But through a combination of national surveys and manufacturing and sales data, we know that the increase in firearms has far outpaced population growth. In 1995 there were an estimated 200 million guns in private hands. Today, there are around 300 million—about a 50 percent jump. The US population, now over 314 million, grew by about 20 percent in that period. At this rate, there will be a gun for every man, woman, and child before the decade ends.
One is left to speculate how stricter gun laws could have let loose a flood of guns upon the population. A more reasonable conclusion would be — as the Mother Jones authors claim — that gun laws have become weaker.
Directly following the “Random mass killings” statement, with its unsubstantiated statistic, our conservative commentator states:
Yet a 2011 University of California at Berkeley study found that states with strong civil commitment laws have about a one-third lower homicide rate.
This statement concludes the second of the three parts of Dr Krauthammer’s article. You see that “strong civil commitment laws” — if we assume a logic at work — means that people can be locked up with fewer civil protections or appeals. That’s of course the opposite of the usual ida of a “strong civil commitment law,” which is usually taken to mean that the patient has greater civil protection. Up becomes down. The meaning of civil protection waffles. But through it, we do get the sense that locking people up is what our good doctor recommends. The Constipated World System at work.
“The Culture” is Dr Krauthammer’s third topic, and in considering it he begins to wrap his argument up.
If we’re serious about curtailing future Columbines and Newtowns, everything — guns, commitment, culture — must be on the table. It’s not hard for President Obama to cll out the NRA. But will he call out the ACLU? And will he call out his Hollywood friends?
The irony is that over the past 30 years, the U.S. homicide rate has declined by 50 percent. Gun murders as well. We’re living not through an epidemic of gun violence, but through a historic decline.
For the deaths by firearms, you can see from the first chart above that the last 30 years have not witnessed any 50 percent decline. No doubt there is some arrangement of the facts that contains some number close to the claim; but more importantly, the fact is that the really substantial drop, which took place in the 1990s, has ended; there has been a palpable increase both in suicides by firearm and in homicides since about 2000.
Law Professor Franklin Zimring of the University of California at Berkeley wrote a 2007 book about The Great American Crime Decline. His scores of charts (pp. 5 & 6, for example) show a national decline in homicide rate of 39% — in the 1990s. The decline stopped in the 2000s.
Let us continue with Mr Krauthammer, allowing him some looseness in his references. He continues directly:
Except for those unfathomable mass murders. But those are infinitely more difficult to prevent.
Really? “Infinitely more difficult”? One of Professor Zimring’s points is, that in 1989 no one predicted an unbroken sequence of decline in the national violent rate for the next ten years. We tried a variety of approaches. Zimring found an increase in violent crime in Canada during the 1960s and 70s, paralleling the rise in the U.S., and a decline during the 1990s, almost but not quite as deep as the decline here.
I’ll get back to Zimring; let us note at this point that the historic decline in violent crime of which Dr Krauthammer speaks was quite unexpected at the time. In his immediately next sentence Dr Krauthammer elaborates on the point.
While law deters the rational, it has far less effect on the psychotic. The best we can do is to try to detain them, disarm them, and discourage “entertainment” that can intensify already murderous impulses.
Rigidify. Detain, disarm, discourage. That’s “the best we can do”. Those murderous impulses are somehow already there, even in kids in their teenage years, as in Columbine, or 20 years old, as at Newtown. The Constipated World System comes into clear focus in Dr Krauthammer’s final three paragraphs, which immediately follow the above quote.
But there’s a cost. Gun control impinges upon the Second Amendment; involuntary commitment impinges upon the liberty clause of the Fifth Amendment; curbing “entertainment” violence impinges upon First Amendment free speech.
That’s a lot of impingement, a lot of amendments. But there’s no free lunch. Increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties.
We made that trade after 9/11. We make it every time the TSA invades your your body at the airport. How much are we prepared to trade away after Newtown?