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Putting Our Money Where Our Muzzles Are | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

Putting Our Money Where Our Muzzles Are

My new Think Again column is called "More Tea Party Fiction," and it relates to the inability of those people, now down to just 8 percent of the country, to think straight about anything, except how to screw up Congress. Anyway it's here.  

The Nation column, "Hooray for Hagel" is here and perhaps some find it ironic (to put it kindly) that Phyllis Benniss accused me of flacking for AIPAC in last week's magazine. Perhaps one day the magazine will carry reports on Israel/Palestine that are appropriately critical of both sides, instead of blaming Israel for absolutely everything and refusing to acknowledge, much less address, Hamas's horrible human rights record.

Alter-reviews
I've discovered the pleasures of Blur rather late in life, but just in time to be pleased with the arrival of the deluxe edition of The Parklive which is 4cds plus a dvd and includes a complete plus Blur - Live At The 100 Club,' and another of live tracks recorded during the summer this year, including Under The Westway and The Puritan performed live on Twitter from a London rooftop, (just like you know who) and recordings from the band s Wolverhampton warm-up show and BBC Radio Maida Vale sessions. They come inside a sturdy 60-page hardback book with lots of photos, but hey, it's the music. Alas, it ain't cheap, here.

Last year, rather late in life, I discovered the Berkeley based Arhoolie Records via the terrific box set collection, "Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads, & Beyond," which I still recommend. Now, as a tribute to the label's owner and guiding spirit, Chris Strachwitz, there's a new, beautifully produced and packaged box set drawn from the February 4, 5, and 6, 2011 benefit for the Arhoolie Foundation. It's called The All Played for Us got sets from Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Santiago Jimenez Jr., Laurie Lewis, Peter Rowan, Treme Brass Band, Maria Muldaur, Campbell Brothers, Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Country Joe McDonald, Barbara Dane and Bob Mielke's Jazz Allstars, and even more. Ive seen Strachwitz compared to Alan Lomax  and the notion is not crazy. There's a ton a roots here to all kinds of music and some pretty great music as well. And again, the book and packaging give you the necessary context to make sense of all o fit. So Maazel Tov on 50 years! You can find it here.

It's taken me a little while to get Hilary Mantel sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies. Like its predecessor, it's one of those books that is actually far better on audio, because the drama is so intense and profound and also, the accents help. The prose is also quite beautiful.I'm sure you've read the reviews if you're the slighest bit interested but regarding the Macmillan audio, I'd give it a strong recommendation. Read by Simon Vance, here.  So too, the new Alice Munro collection, Dear Life, which I just finished on audio. The characters in these stories are not the people with whom I typically spend time--and it's not because they are Canadian, or even women--and so I have a great deal to learn from them and from Munroe's quiet wit and eloquence. Also well read by Kimberly Farr and Arhtur Morey (who is always great). 

Now here's Reed

Putting Our Money Where Our Muzzles Are
by Reed Richardson

What would real, comprehensive gun control look like in America? And what price would we be willing to pay to achieve it?

As tragic as the Newtown, Conn., shooting was and as outraged as the national mood is right now about gun violence, it’s important to realize that our country is still not really engaging the two questions above in a meaningful way. Instead, the debate over our epidemic of firearms deaths has once again been shrunken and diffused. But to merely focus on narrow, anecdotal fixes—like more rigorous background checks and larger gun sales databases—is to work around rather than at the heart of the problem. To be distracted by red herrings—like violence in video games and Hollywood movies—is to let the conversation by hijacked entirely. Even the promise by Congressional Democrats to re-introduce the ban on assault-style weapons (the so-called Brady Bill) lacks for real efficacy if it is riddled with loopholes, as it was originally

Sadly, there’s a perverse incentive by all parties involved to act as if these cosmetic half-measures amount to substantial action. Republicans and conservatives, of course, want to paint even the slightest step toward reining in the spread of firearms as tantamount to the institution of martial law. This faction’s media id, the Drudge Report, is not so subtle in capturing this paranoid thinking.

Democrats, on the other hand, are by and large still wary of a frontal assault on the lobbying prowess of the NRA. This, despite the fact there’s a strong case to be made that the NRA’s political power has ebbed and is now more myth than actual muscle. Maddeningly, when the vice president signals he’d entertain face-to-face “negotiations” with the NRA on the issue, it only reinforces this myth, elevates their stature, and hardens their will. As a result, many in the White House and on the left in Congress will no doubt end up trumpeting any peripheral movement on gun control as pure, unadulterated progress.

Enabling all this Kabuki theater is an establishment media that intentionally positions its coverage between the two parties and encourages similar, meet-in-the-middle thinking that steadfastly refuses to examine other solutions. That’s why when the White House teased a package of decidedly small-bore reforms this week, the press could nonetheless be found labeling it “ambitious,” “far broader and more comprehensive,” and “sure-to-be controversial.” As a result, what the public won’t encounter in the Beltway media as the gun reform debate enters the legislative phase is much, if any, talk about real, alternative courses of action.

This is itself a tragedy because if the media cared to look there is a compelling precedent for undoing gun violence and staunching out the societal scourge of mass shootings. Right after Newtown there was a small bubble of news coverage here about the Port Arthur, Australia massacre in 1996 and that nation’s legitimately comprehensive response. All told, some two-dozen news articles, op-eds (one in the New York Times), and cable TV shows mentioned the Australian government’s subsequent crackdown on guns. Sadly, only a handful of these news sources referenced this excellent academic analysis of Australia’s gun control regimen, which ran in the journal American Law and Economics Review in 2010. A quick perusal of it thoroughly demonstrates just how anemic our post-Newtown gun control ambitions are:

"Under the National Firearms Agreement (NFA), firearms legislation was tightened and made more consistent across all states and territories. As part of the NFA, it became illegal to hold particular types of firearms, in particular certain long guns. Guns that were no longer legal were subject to a government buyback, with owners being compensated for their newly illegal firearms at market prices. In terms of the absolute numbers of guns destroyed, Australia’ s gun buyback ranks as the largest destruction of civilian firearms in any country over the period 1991– 2006 (Small Arms Survey 2007, Table 2.10). Its effect was to reduce Australia’s firearms stock by around one-fifth, more than 650,000 firearms. In United States terms, this would be equivalent to a reduction in the firearms stock of forty million firearms (Reuter and Mouzos 2003). Although some of the firearms that were handed in came from households with multiple firearms, survey evidence suggests that the buyback nearly halved the share of Australian households with one or more firearms."

Australia saw the clear correlation between more guns and more homicide, in other words, and so it put policies in place that actually decreased the raw number of guns. In addition, the NFA curtailed the public’s ability to buy guns going forward by lengthening waiting periods, tightening gun ownership qualifications, and effectively banning gun sales between private citizens, which would make our nation’s festering “gun show loophole” regarding background checks immediately obsolete.

Tellingly, Australia’s then Prime Minister, John Howard, sold his gun reforms to his citizens in 1996 by saying: “We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.” At the time, Australia’s firearm murder rate was 0.37 per 100,000 people; currently here in the United States the rate is exactly 10 times higher. So, to recap, a nation with a gun problem an order of magnitude lower than ours, implemented a raft of reforms easily an order of magnitude more comprehensive than whatever tentative proposals will eventually reach our Congress (and likely be further weakened or killed off entirely in the process).

This contrast is notable because of what has happened—or more accurately, what hasn’t happened—since the NFA went into effect. The ALEW study found that after the Port Arthur-inspired reforms, Australians have enjoyed substantially lower firearm homicide and suicide deaths—drops of 59% and 65%, respectively, between 1995 and 2006—and have not had to jointly grieve as a nation over a single mass shooting. (Since 1996, the U.S. has suffered through 41 such incidents.) Now, it’s true that that country’s gun violence rates were already on the wane prior to implementing the NFA, but the study’s findings suggest the downward trend in gun deaths was accelerated by the NFA’s new, tougher rules.

In short, the success of Australia’s gun control measures is hard to dismiss, but dismiss them we have. And a big reason involves the one aspect of gun reform that never gets mentioned: cost. Situated alongside the ongoing debt ceiling and sequester debates, it is no coincidence that neither politicians nor the media ever assign a price tag to gun reforms. But nothing in life is free and fixing a problem as big as our nation’s epidemic of gun violence shouldn’t be expected to cost nothing. Yet, that’s the implicit message being sent.

Again, the Australian government took a radically different tack, instead dedicating a substantial sum relative to its budget—A$500 million—to buying back the 650,000 guns the NFA made illegal. Because of fewer guns, the ALEW study estimates the NFA’s impact was to prevent 200 firearm deaths a year. Coincidentally, an actuarial estimate of the economic value of an Australian citizen’s life, done in 2003, settled on A$2.5 million. It’s a rather cold-blooded thing to try to tally, but in doing the math, some quick arithmetic finds the NFA’s “return on investment” broke even after roughly one year. After that, the NFA became a net positive, as all those former gun homicide and suicide victims are instead alive and contributing to the economy.

To be sure, our country’s gun problem presents much more of a challenge. Australia’s gun ownership rates, pre-1996, were around 14 percent, whereas nearly half of all households in the U.S. reported having a gun in 2011. Likewise, the total number of firearms here, estimated by the ATF to be a staggering 310 million (2011), is nearly 100 times Australia’s base of roughly 3.25 million guns in 1995. So, just for a simple comparison, a buyback effort of similar scale here would involve the re-purchasing of more than 60 million firearms.

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At a highly generous market rate of $1,000 per gun, that’s $60 billion. No doubt, that seems like an eye-watering figure in the midst of our current fiscal sniping. Even more so when you consider that $60 billion just so happens to be the amount of the aid package that recalcitrant House Republicans seem loathe to approve for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Here again, though, it’s the connections across the federal budget we don’t make that tell the tale. For instance, $60 billion seems big until you realize it would be easy to find in the bloated defense budget, specifically cutting just 15% from the “unaffordable” F-35 strike fighter program that has nearly doubled in cost since 2001 due to mismanagement and development setbacks. (And, yes, that’s the same fighter the Air Force rushed to buy 32 more of last month to avoid the $500-billion defense cuts in the sequester.)

Such an aggressive reduction in firearms—through enforced purchases of banned weapons and/or voluntary buying of handguns—could make a significant dent in gun violence. What’s more, there’s both short and long term economic advantages. In the short term, direct government purchase of goods from private citizens would effectively act as a kind of stimulus. In the long run, the American lives saved, at an actuarial value of $9.1 million each, would quickly add up. Even if gun deaths by homicide, suicide, and accident declined by a mere 20%—less than half the drop seen in Australia—the buyback’s economic benefit would cover almost its entire cost in the first year. (In 2010, total U.S. gun deaths totaled 31,500, 20% of which is roughly 6500. 6500 lives saved at $9.1 million each = $60 billion.)

How about just banning and buying back all military-style weapons in circulation? A recent Slate blog post broadly estimated that there are something like 3.75-million AR-15-based semi-automatic military rifles in the country. Of course, there are numerous other models of semi-automatic weapons capable of rapid fire and compatible with high-capacity magazines, so the total number of these weapons could very well be double or triple that. Say at a far end total of 10 million weapons, the macroeconomic payback for stopping future sales and buying up all present examples for $10 billion (market price for the notorious Bushmaster currently lists for $700) would be equaled if just 1,100 lives were saved, a mere 3.5% drop in gun deaths.

But there’s more savings to be had from fewer guns and less gun violence. In their 2000 book Gun Violence: The Real Cost, Philip J. Cook and Jens Ludwig estimate the annual societal cost of gun-related crimes and firearms injuries:

"The most straightforward way to determine what people will pay to reduce gun violence is to ask them. When 1,200 American adults were asked such a question in 1998 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, the average household was willing to pay around $240 per year to reduce gun crime by 30% in their community. Multiplying by the total number of households in the United States implies that a 30% reduction in gun assaults is worth nearly $24 billion, or approximately $1 million per gunshot injury. Extrapolating from that, we find the total cost of gunshot injuries from crime is about $80 billion per year."

Approaching the gun violence problem from such a high-level perspective may seem like a pie-in-the-sky thought exercise, but the days of leaving this problem up to individual locales and states is past. The hodgepodge of ineffective state guns laws and even less consistent enforcement, which were undermined further by the Supreme Court’s recent Heller decision, makes the tough posturing of someone like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo all but meaningless. As long as straw man buyers can purchase egregious amounts of weaponry in places like Virginia and then freely transport them to New York, our national gun violence epidemic will never be solved.

At this point, the lives at stake are clearly defined, as are the costs of the most likely solutions to save them. But until we accept our shared responsibility to pay for the latter, the former will continue to pay the ultimate price, and our country will continue to endure more unnecessary funerals. Our public health crisis of gun violence demands we finally put our money where our muzzles are.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

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