“This society has chosen to live with guns,” Dr. William Schwab was saying in July, as he stood before a roomful of reporters in a Penn Law classroom. “There are over 220 million guns in circulation in the United States of America. There is nothing that’s going to take those guns away.”It starts off well, discussing that the problem of gun violence is related to the culture:
Schwab, a professor of surgery and the chief of traumatology and surgical critical care at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, is intimate with the consequences of that number. Over the past decade, he and his surgical team have treated over 3,000 gunshot wounds—and that’s only a fraction of Philadelphia’s total.
“This city in the last year has had 2,000 people admitted to its trauma centers for gunshot wounds,” he went on. “What’s interesting is that if you do the numbers and you believe the FBI, only 11 percent of bullets ever strike the person they’re aimed at … Just do the multiplier there, and you’ll say that we had people shooting at each other 20,000 times this year. This is a phenomenal epidemic and something that has to be dealt with.”
If that sounds like the wind-up for a proposal to gut the Second Amendment, get ready for a curveball. Because Schwab isn’t really interested in “gun control,” which, after all, is right up there with abortion and gay marriage atop the list of issues that most polarize the American electorate. What he wants is to reduce gun violence and the impact it has on its victims. And like the other half-dozen panelists at this media seminar, Schwab has concluded that talking about firearm bans is a dead end in that quest.
Of course, the environments in which most gun homicides take place are typically urban and poor. A high proportion of the young men in such neighborhoods are unemployed, giving them ample leisure time to become involved in contests of honor and personal disputes. And there is evidence to suggest that gun ownership is attractive even to law-abiding citizens in such areas, who may reason that police protection is an insufficient guarantor of their safety. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this feedback loop can take on the contour of an arms race.At this point, I was hoping to see some serious discussion of what can be done to solve the unemployment problem, or deal with the honor culture that drives much of the violence.
No, the solution is a police state:
High gun density is a good predictor of elevated gun violence, according to Dr. Lawrence Sherman, director of the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology and professor of sociology at Penn. But there’s also a substantial level of spontaneity in gun-mediated arguments, he added, and the large majority of disputes don’t last long enough to allow someone without a firearm to go home and fetch one.Why is it so painful to look at the economic and cultural problems that are driving this that these doubtless very liberal academics would rather authorize the police to stop and frisk everyone walking down the street?
“The rule seems to be that if you don’t have the gun at the point of time you’re confronting somebody and you’re angry at them, you’re much less likely to end up killing them,” Sherman said.
One challenge, therefore, is finding a way to reduce the level of gun-carrying in public, where most of these homicides happen.
This idea played a role in Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary campaign, during which eventual winner Michael Nutter W’79 proposed expanding the police’s ability to stop and frisk people on the streets. Sherman presented several experimental studies indicating that such a policy can be very effective at reducing gun violence—even, somewhat surprisingly, if there’s no increase in the number of guns seized.
“There’s kind of two different models,” he said. The first is “the idea of a ‘take-away’ model, where the more guns seized, the less guns are carried. But I think what’s really working is a ‘keep-away’ model. That is, if you are deterred from carrying your gun into an area where police might take it away from you, you don’t want lose it, even for the week or two it takes to replace it, because somebody might hear that the cops took your gun, and they might come after you because you’re unarmed.”
In other words, a policing tactic that has stood up to Supreme Court scrutiny in the past, if applied without racial bias, might work without changing the laws regulating gun ownership. In a sense, the goal would be to bring city streets closer in line with airports and courtrooms, from which guns have been successfully excluded.