This week in the online course “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Evidence for Change” is a real rollercoaster. Week Five is titled “Regulating Gun Design, Enforcing Gun Laws, and Reducing Police-Involved Shootings” covers so-called assault weapons, smart guns, and technology so cutting edge it doesn’t even actually exist. There are several unexpected acknowledgements of reality this week, and we’ll point those out whenever possible. We’d like to be fair to the Bloomberg School and we know our readers appreciate brief rays of sunshine in a storm of nonsense.
Doctor Alex McCourt lectures on so-called “assault weapons” and admits that they are rarely used in crime. This unfortunately starts off a common theme this week: blaming a policy’s lack of impact on some fact other than the easy truth that criminals don’t follow gun laws. McCourt laments the ability of gun manufacturers to design firearms that were not prohibited under the 1994 ban as well as the fact that law-abiding gun owners were allowed to “continue owning that assault weapon for the duration of the ban.” McCourt brings up an analysis of that 1994 ban but neglects to mention the key finding: the ban had no impact on crime.
Next up is a comparatively lengthy presentation on so-called smart guns. Doctor Daniel Webster and Doctor Cassandra Crifasi spend twenty minutes talking about smart guns and they are – surprisingly – not wholeheartedly endorsing “smart gun” mandates. The NRA’s primary objection to so-called smart guns centers on governments mandating the sale of unreliable firearms, but Webster and Crifasi report that increased sales of smart guns may lead to more suicides, as the number of gun owners would increase. In public health terms, more people would be exposed to firearms. The description sounds like an outbreak of legally owned firearms. Crifasi does mention, in passing, gun owners’ concerns about reliability but the Bloomberg School staffers spend more time discussing how the increased cost of so-called smart guns is a barrier to adoption.
The presentation on smart guns was surprising in that the Bloomberg crew was not firmly behind the concept. Smart guns are just that – a concept. A different and somehow less realistic concept is presented as fact when Joshua Horwitz talks about microstamping. Horwitz’s biography on the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence website claims “his research and advocacy were instrumental in enacting a first-of-its-kind microstamping law in California. This revolutionary technology allows law enforcement to trace guns from expended cartridge casings left at crime scenes.” That’s a bold claim to make considering the technology does not exist. In reality, any criminal in possession of such a firearm could just file off the microstamp or pick up his or her shell casings. Horwitz’s pet project could be so easily defeated by criminals – if the technology actually existed – that it clearly only serves as a mechanism to drive up the cost of firearms for law-abiding gun owners and to reduce the number of firearms legally available for purchase in California.
An approach that does exist is focused deterrence, and this is another bright spot in the Bloomberg School program. Webster says that he thinks focused deterrence is the intervention that has the most consistent strong evidence of reducing “gun violence.” The concept of focused deterrence is simple. Law enforcement often know who are involved in gang activity, or they identify people who should be targeted by these deterrence programs. The targets – think gang members, people on probation or parole, and other people who are likely involved in criminal activity – are then invited to a meeting where law enforcement essentially tells them “‘we know who you are, do not shoot. You and your network should not shoot. Take this message back to your community and share it, because we will come down hard on you.’” Stiff penalties are imposed after violence, but resources are made available to help the targets and their networks change their criminal lifestyle. Such programs have been successful in large cities across the country.
Of course, this is a Bloomberg School program so gun control is the answer. A lecture on prohibited persons and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) quickly turns into a Bloomberg talking point about private sales. The argument is that so-called universal background checks don’t work because they’re not commonly used and so prohibited people can still acquire firearms. Except we know where criminals get their guns, and it isn’t through private sales. Interestingly, this presentation came after those on focused deterrence. It isn’t a secret that focusing on criminals yields public safety results but this presenter is still pushing a policy that has been found to be ineffective.
Crifasi says in the weekly wrap-up presentation, “You can design the best prevention strategies, but there will always be people who will want to harm someone else or otherwise violate the law, and we need to have structures to hold them accountable but it needs to be done in a Constitutional, fair, and effective way.”
We have those structures – an entire system dedicated to investigating crime and punishing those responsible. Still, that’s the most refreshing acknowledgement we’ll probably ever see from the Bloomberg School.