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When It Comes to Preventing Gun Violence, Good Intentions Aren’t Enough

Punitive policies like active shooter drills and stop-and-frisk do more harm than good.

pistolKreangkrai Indarodom/Dreamstime.comToo many people are injured or killed as a result of gun violence in this country. Although the number of gun deaths has generally declined in recent decades, the recent spate of spree shootings in schools and concentrated violence in certain American cities reinforce the necessity that more can and should be done.

Unfortunately, many of the policies aimed at reducing gun violence have little or no measurable impact on safety. Some, in fact, may even inflict other harms while doing so. The unintended consequences of these proposals serve as a reminder that when it comes to reducing gun deaths, good intentions aren't enough.

School shootings, for example, have resulted in wall-to-wall media coverage. And that, in turn, has led schools to over-react to perceived threats because parents and their kids feel threatened by what should be an unthinkable menace. "Active shooter drills," in which kids and teachers simulate a response to a school gunman, have become common in schools around the country.

These drills are intended to prepare students for the unthinkable. But the main effect is to repeatedly terrify schoolchildren.

A Washington Post reporter recently said in an interview that "kids don't feel safe" in schools because school shootings "keep happening over and over." He recounted stories of children who were writing out wills during school lockdowns despite no active shooter in their schools. In Alaska, one school even had a police officer walk the halls firing blanks, using on the sound of gunfire to simulate the horrifying stress these situations create. No wonder kids are scared!

In fact, a student is far more likely to die in a motor vehicle accident on the way to or from school than from a school shooting. Disease and severe sports injuries are also rare, yet are much greater statistical threats to children's lives than school shootings. One risk assessment published in the Post estimated the odds of a public school student being fatally shot at school on any given day since 1999 at 1 in 614,000,000. It's still reasonable to want to make schools safer from shootings, but schools and parents are traumatizing children in their attempts to do so.

Meanwhile, most gun violence happens outside of schools—particularly in cities plagued by violent crime and gang activity. Yet many of the policies designed to combat urban street crime are questionably effective, and in some cases they can even make the public less safe.

Several large metropolitan police departments, for example, have developed gang databases, which are supposed to identify individuals who belong to criminal organizations or are at high-risk for violence. But as Alex Vitale noted in Friday's New York Times, these lists suffer from numerous constitutional and logistical problems.

Rather than engaging the at-risk youth in the community with evidence-based policies to prevent violence, too many departments create lists of young men—mostly young men of color—who may or may not be active in gangs. Vitale writes that inclusion on these lists can lead to dubious conspiracy charges and stifle release pending trial which, among other things, increases the coercive power of plea offers by the prosecutor irrespective of guilt or innocence.

Not all of the bad policies are new. New York City's now-former mayor Michael Bloomberg touted the notorious "stop-and-frisk" program as a proactive anti-gun tactic. In 2013, Bloomberg claimed stop-and-frisk was responsible for getting 8,000 guns off of New York City streets since 2002. Although that may appear to be a large number, New York City police used to stop and frisk on roughly four million people—mostly black and brown men—which yielded a firearm hit rate of about 0.2 percent.

During one year of the program, the NYPD stopped more young black men in the City than the number that live there, the vast majority of whom carried no weapons and were found to have no connection to any crime. Since the suspension of the program, violent crime in New York has continued its decades-long decline, undermining the argument that the tactic was effective—let alone necessary—in reducing violent crime. Although a recent report suggests that the court-ordered cessation of stop-and-frisk in Chicago drove the spate of gun violence in 2016, a National Institute of Justice study that tracked homicide spikes over the same period nationwide (i.e., in cities unaffected by the court order) indicates the increases were likely driven by diminished trust in police as a result of high-profile shootings by police officers and the opioid crisis.

Stop-and-frisk and similar aggressive policing tactics throughout the country are invasive violations of individual rights that erode public trust in the police. Journalist Jill Leovy wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the simultaneous over-policing and under-policing of black neighborhoods, and how the two interact. As Leovy describes in her true crime book, Ghettoside, frontline officers are often effective at making arrests for low-level offenses, often by harassing young black men, but homicide detectives have difficulty solving murders in those same neighborhoods because the aggressive tactics front-line officers use to prevent crime breed hostility and resentment. The unintended consequence is that young black men often face shakedowns and arrests on petty charges, but their murders go virtually unpunished by the system that's supposed to protect them.

Schools have a legitimate interest in keeping their students safe. Likewise, police and local governments should pursue policies to decrease gang and other street-level gun violence. But these noble goals do not excuse any and all tactics in their name. Too often, the methods employed to stop gun violence harm far more innocent people than the underlying threat presents.

Any new policy aimed at curbing gun violence should balance the actual risks at stake against the costs to the physical and mental well-being of those it is supposed to protect, while respecting the dignity of individuals. People who face a higher risk of physical danger should not have that compounded by a violation of their constitutional rights.

Jonathan Blanks is a Research Associate in Cato's Project on Criminal Justice.

Photo Credit: Kreangkrai Indarodom/Dreamstime.com

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  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    And, as many have pointed out, before we take drastic legislative action to 'prevent gun deaths' it might be nice to hold the various levels of government accountable for failures associated with measures already taken to do just that.

    It's always going to come down to; the best way for citizens to protect themselves from violence is defend themselves.

  • flyfishnevada||

    That kind of flies in the face of the whole "government will protect and take care of you" idea being propagated by our ever expanding government and the sycophants who benefit from such a scheme.

  • Al Bendova||

    Like they were held accountable in Florida? The government doesn't care about gun deaths. They care about gun control. Once they have our guns, they will be firmly in control.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    A Washington Post reporter recently said in an interview that "kids don't feel safe" in schools because school shootings "keep happening over and over."

    Shut down all public schools.

    Problem solved.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    It would also save a shitload of money. No more DoEd, and the feds could just return the money to the states where they can set up their own backpack voucher system so parents can buy their own kid's primary education.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Newsflash: gang members typically don't carry legal firearms and would not be affected by any prohibition. If anything, prohibitions always grow black markets—it's pretty much a law of economics.

    But the current crop of protesters don't really care at all about inner city violence. That doesn't affect them, never mind that the odds of an innocent black child being shot on a city street are doubtless higher than an innocent middle class white child being shot in a suburban school. These protesters think black lives DON'T matter, unless it's a classmate of theirs whose dad is has an MBA.

  • colorblindkid||

    We could completely shut down all gun manufacturers in America and gangs would just start importing them from China. Mexico is already increasing its reliance on guns from China instead of America, because they're cheaper. Let's just give the drug smugglers yet another market to give them power. Sounds like a great idea.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    I like telling liberals that if I could blink my eyes and make all the guns disappear I would. Because I'm pretty good with a sword and I could take your stuff at will.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    I to would disproportionately benefit from a lack of firearms. I do want one of those flamethrowers Elon Musk was giving out recently.

  • Linda C||

    Elias you would only benefit from more gun laws if you are a criminal. As gun laws only affect the law abiding, and disarming them makes it easier for criminals

  • Elias Fakaname||

    My point refers to me being over twice as strong as the average adult male, and skilled in multiple hand to hand combat systems, as well as knife fighting, blunt weapons,etc.. absent firearms, I am usually near the top of the food chain in a physical confrontation, even if outnumbered.

    Not being a criminal.

  • Chasman1965||

    Yup, that's why the 17 deaths of these young suburbanites has caused huge marches. The weekly deaths of minorities means nothing.

  • Jerryskids||

    You know, we laugh about Reefer Madness and shake our heads over the Satanic Cult Daycare Center hysteria, perhaps this too shall pass. Along with the bath salts zombie infestation, the Slender Man massacres, the opioid epidemic, and the Tide pods decimation. It's bound to when we're losing millions of people every single day to this endless parade of horrible ways to die.

  • Happy Chandler||

    You talk about evidence based policies, but you are very selective about the ones you mention. The Rand study on gun violence is one example. Evidence showed that various gun control measures reduce crime. Evidence showed that stand your ground laws and concealed carry laws increase accidents and homicides. Studies of Connecticut showed permit to purchase reduced homicide and Missouri showed that its repeal increased it.

    Although, I don't see evidence that increased death is an unintended consequence among some factions.

  • Linda C||

    Connecticut both greatly increased incarceration rates of violent criminals right before those new laws. And your data on Missouri is old, in fact homicide there fell
    We know from the actual data comparing same demographic areas with similar incarceration rates that more guns means less crime and less gun control means less crime too.

  • Linda C||

    And we don't need to go with any more evidence tht gun control does not work than Australia. They found a decade later, after they thought they reduced suicide, that they had just shifted gun suicide to other means.
    And 42% decrease in homicide in Australia's from its 1990's peak to today? the US had a 61% decrease in homicide in the same period as the US increased guns.

    Australia increased incarceration numbers by 250% and the US by 300%. That is what drove down homicide in both countries.

  • Linda C||

    And we don't need to go with any more evidence tht gun control does not work than Australia. They found a decade later, after they thought they reduced suicide, that they had just shifted gun suicide to other means.
    And 42% decrease in homicide in Australia's from its 1990's peak to today? the US had a 61% decrease in homicide in the same period as the US increased guns.

    Australia increased incarceration numbers by 250% and the US by 300%. That is what drove down homicide in both countries.

  • DajjaI||

    If I was a student I'd refuse to participate in these drills and I'd go around the neighborhood and round up the homeschool kids and drag them to school with me and tell their mothers to do a book club or something.

  • Alcibiades||

    If I was a student I'd refuse to participate in these drills and I'd go around the neighborhood and round up the homeschool kids and drag them to school with me and tell their mothers to do a book club or something.

    And be charged with kidnapping/child abduction etc...

  • DajjaI||

    You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet. That's one thing I learned from you libertarians.

  • Linda C||

    US homicide rate of kids 5-22 is down to less than a third of the rate 25 years ago.

    These Bloomberg bots wanting to reduce e second, fourth, fifth and sixth amendment rights will do nothing but increase guns

  • Elias Fakaname||

    And I'll tell you what, some cheese, meat and vegetable help a helluva lot too.

  • Alcibiades||

    You gotta break some eggs to make an omelet. That's one thing I learned from you libertarians.

    Something's sure broken here, and it's not eggs.

  • DajjaI||

    You're probably the kid who runs fastest to the corner of the room during the drill.

  • Alcibiades||

    You're probably the kid who runs fastest to the corner of the room during the drill.

    yawn

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""You're probably the kid who runs fastest to the corner of the room during the drill."'

    Why would you complain about that. That's exactly what you expect kids to do in the real life situation.

  • NoVaNick||

    For a while during the 1990s, teenage girls were given sugar sack "babies" to care for, hoping that making them do this would reduce teen pregnancies. It turned out to have the opposite effect, as some girls certainly liked the idea.
    Wonder if these active shooter drills, which have been happening for a while now, might be inspiring some kids to become shooters themselves?

  • ||

    It fits in to the theory that most of these are copy cat shootings. The killer who has no self-esteem, sees what would happen if there was a shooter, and knows he could cause all of that.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    "Too many people are injured or killed as a result of gun violence in this country. Although the number of gun deaths has generally declined in recent decades, the recent spate of spree shootings in schools and concentrated violence in certain American cities reinforce the necessity that more can and should be done."

    So (semi-) seriously, if the real issue is the rare occurrence of media-hungry killing sprees plus the psychological fall-out when these are publicized (and maybe spawning more copy-cat killers), then how about media censorship?

    I mean, we have that stupid first amendment and all, but we can change that, plus the Founders never intended any modern broadcasting to be included, just single shot printing presses and un-amplified human speech.

  • Robert||

    I've been saying for a long time that public policy would be better if we had no news reporting. Of course that'd be bad for the biz, so how about instead we have fake news—all good? Doesn't have to be censorship, just the media themselves deciding fake good news, & 0 but, is good biz. Hardly anyone'll ever be in position to contradict them.

  • Jima||

    Well, if your eventual goal is to outlaw guns, terrifying children repeatedly is a good way to ingrain the "anti" stance at a young age. The gun banners are playing the long game along with the short game. 15 years from now, they'll all remember their fearful youth hiding from imaginary firearm wielding madmen. At least some of them. Others will hopefully grow up and realize it was BS, just like when we were kids hiding under our desks during nuclear drills. I never felt safe from a nuke under a desk, but it's what they told us to do. I guess it would be easier to identify the bodies if they're all shielded from the thermal effects by desks...

  • Echospinner||

    I remember those also.

    I had that poster in my bedroom. The one that looked like official instructions then ended with "and kiss your ass goodby".

    It was probably decent advice in any case depending on how far away you were from the initial blast. Every soldier knows what "hit the dirt" means. In any case it might help to stay low and seek shelter for other things like a tornado.

    The CDC still has a page up on how to prepare for a zombie invasion. If we were ready for that we would be fairly well prepared for a natural disaster.

  • Robert||

    When I was a kid, playing w violence—whether cowboys & Indians or nuclear attack—was fun. Didn't you ever want a gun or bomb to go off so you could be part of the excitement? It'd be better than an amusement park ride! You could be blown thru the air, just like the cartoons! Your head could wind up looking at the rest of your body far away! What's scary to most kids is the opposite: health care. Except when you played being the doctor.

  • See.More||

    SOME School shootings, for example, have resulted in wall-to-wall media coverage. . .

    FIFY.


    Last week's shooting at a school in Maryland has barely made any noise and definitely has not generated the kind of pushback FL's shooting has. I wonder if the fact that the shooter was confronted by an armed RSO prompting him to fatally shoot himself, thus ending the spree... or that his weapon of choice was not a scary, black rifle... or that there wasn't much of a body count... have anything to do with that.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Of course "good intentions" aren't enough. If they were, then the "thoughts and prayers" would have kicked in by now.

    Makes me think of some politician's response a few years back (can't remember who it was, but I think it was a -R). Someone asked him "what should be done", and he basically said "these things happen. It's the price we pay for freedom. There's nothing to be done."

    He got a lot of flak for it, but he wasn't actually wrong. Unless you change America's gun culture, these things will happen and there's nothing to be done. Until we change that culture, we can only play with the margins.

    So until there is a large enough social will to change our national culture when it comes to guns, "thoughts and prayers" are all we have. And it's obviously not enough. But until we're willing to make some serious† changes, it's all we have.
    ________
    †And to be clear, not a one of the proposed legislative "fixes" is "serious" in my book. It's all just fiddling with the margins.

  • Linda C||

    Changing US gun culture by increasing guns has reduced crime. Homicide of school kids has in fact fallen by almost 75%.

    gun owners prevent between 500,000 to three million crimes a year. One major cultural shift is a near 20x increase in gun carriers which is a major shift in gun culture and reduces violent crime.

  • Violent Sociopath||

    Unless you change America's gun culture, these things will happen and there's nothing to be done.

    Which gun culture are you talking about? The gun culture I belong to, that preaches individual liberty combined with the safe and responsible use of firearms, doesn't produce school shooters and deplores violent crime and murder. If you're insinuating that we're the problem, or that we have some special obligation to fix the other gun culture in this country -- which, as the product of left-wing urban and education policy, we didn't create and have no control over -- then allow me to suggest that you go fuck yourself.

  • FlameCCT||

    I notice you don't discuss fire drills and fire inspections of school facilities as frightening kids. Yet these are done every year and first started because of children being killed and injured in school fires.

    I notice that you don't discuss that schools are the only government bldgs that do not have a threat assessment nor any security measures. Yet you have no problem whining about Active Shooter program that was a direct result of the assessment made after Columbine. Which program was implemented in MD school that stopped an active shooter by the resource officer and I also note was not implemented at Parkland ISD nor supported by Broward County. Just as Parkland ISD and Broward County failed to enforce all law enforcement against students.

  • FlameCCT||

    I should add that the difference between fire drills and active shooter, both life saving programs, is the attitude of the teachers and administration as well as communication with the parents and children. In most cases, it is the teacher(s) that scare the crap out of the children as well as whining about the program.

  • Robert||

    There's a much bigger dif: Fires are common & usu. accidental, shootings are rare & deliberate. It's foolish to have a routine to evade someone who's deliberately trying to hurt you.

  • MaleMatters||

    Re: "many of the policies aimed at reducing gun violence have little or no measurable impact on safety. Some may even inflict other harms while doing so."

    Gun-control advocates need to pay heed to history:

    From Skeptic.com:

    A national effort to reduce mass murders, the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, produced this consequence:

    "The ban didn't appear to have a significant impact on the number of mass murder incidents in that decade compared to other decades, and within the decade, there was no downward trend. This only shows that the availability of assault weapons doesn't change the number of mass murder incidents, which means that killers just switched to different weapons, obtained illegal weapons, or made improvised weapons.

    During the ban, large attacks like the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park Bombing occurred, and the average number of people killed per incident increased from 9.4 pre-ban to 11.3 during the ban, then decreasing to 7.6 after the ban expired. The average number of people injured per incident increased from 8.0 to 35.0 during the ban and decreased to 5.6 after the ban.

    More consequences detailed in:

    "Gun Control and Mass Killers"
    https://relevantmatters.wordpress.com/
    2016/06/30/rush-draft-why-gun-control-
    fails-against-mass-killers/

    Merge the links and delete the spaces.

  • ||

    I think I found someone who can think.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Personally, I don't think there are any good intentions in wanting to "prevent" gun violence while ignoring violence by means other than guns. Good intentions would look for ways to prevent violence by any means, but then your run straight into the issue that trying to ban means is pointless.

  • Linda C||

    The simple fact is all the arguments being used by a handful of parkland kids backed by bloomberg's Everytown can be used to sharply reduce fourth fifth and sixth amendment rights.

    I heard German, Japan, Australia mentioned. You have no right to a jury in Germany, you are subject to double jeopardy in all of those coutnries, and warrant requirements and evidence outside of warrants thresholds are way lower -- as are thresholds to adjudicate someone dangerously mentally ill (and it is a slam dunk that if we had the adjudication thresholds of the UK or Australia this parkland event would never have happened). The NRA is not the issue for these kids, the ACLU is their real enemy.

    And Japan? The one kid on the stage cited a US gun "lethal violence" number that is gun suicide+homicide. Why not be honest and count ALL suicide+homicide as "lethal violence"? If you do Japan, S. Korea and many other coutnries have higher rates and scores of developed democracies +/1 10% of the US. rate

  • Robert||

    Mr. Blanks, when you got this assignment, did you instantly groan at how readers would react to your byline? Couldn't you have traded with Ace Marksman or Dottie Target?

  • JFDeplorable||

    In Cook County, Illinois (Chicago) the average prison sentence for a violent offender is 3 years. They may be sentenced to 10-15, but with "good behavior" and a push to clear out cells due to overcrowding, offenders serve a small fraction of the sentence. Even the aldercreatures in that city are complaining that the consequences of getting caught, charged and sentenced for gun violence is chalked off as a cost of doing business rather than a deterrent or motivation to rehabilitate.

    As for "school safety," it also appears that Chicago schoolkids have more to fear from school lunches and going to the bathroom than mass shootings. The Sun-Times published a report that over 250 public schools couldn't pass a health and safety inspection: rats running loose, fresh droppings in the cafeteria and germ-ridden restrooms that looked like something at a run-down truck stop.

    Clouted DAs and city contractors hard at work; it's the Chicago way.

  • PBinLostAngeles||

    People can debate this topic for millennium, and they'll never see the connection between perpetrator and a fatherless household.In the U.S. virtually every major personal and social pathology can be traced to fatherlessness more than to any other single factor: Violent crime, substance abuse, unwed pregnancy, truancy, suicide, and more. Fatherlessness far surpasses both poverty and race as a predictor of social deviance.
    On the other hand, as Lt. Joe Kenda says: "There's one thing that never changes - murder. A life has been taken." What gun control advocates really want is human behavior control, and 21st Century science tells us that isn't going to be a capability anytime soon; the Constitutional ramifications of such "control" notwithstanding. What these advocates further ignore or fail to comprehend, is the fact that the most heinously vicious killers in the recorded history of our great Nation, including Gary Ridgway - who savagely murdered more people by himself than were lost at Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino combined - never used a firearm during the commission of their brutality.
    John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Edward Gein, Donald Harvey, Lawrence Bittaker, Roy Norris, Kenneth Bianchi, Angelo Buono, OJ Simpson and on and on. The list of murder-intent monsters - who never used a firearm - is a horrifically long one.
    Frighteningly, that list silently grows - each and every day.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "...should balance the actual risks at stake against the costs to the physical and mental well-being of those it is supposed to protect, while respecting the dignity of individuals."

    So we're going to quibble about people's rights when children are being gunned down practically on a daily basis? You self serving cowards, DO SOMETHING!!!

    oh yeah, SARC

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