Another gun tragedy

Four years ago, I and a graduate student visited a repository of records in the Illinois Violent Death Reporting System. We perused case narratives from 200 consecutive homicides occurring in 2005 where the victims were Chicago adolescents or young adults. 188 out of the victims were listed as African-American or Latino. More than ninety percent were male. We followed this up with media searches in the major Chicago media outlets. Few cases received more than a few paragraphs. We found few cases that elicited more than a mention or two of media follow-up after the initial incident.

None of the cases were mass homicides of the sort that happened yesterday in Colorado. Preventing these atrocities poses quite different challenges from preventing youth homicide, gang- or drug-related violence.

In almost all the cases I read, the murder weapon was a run-of-the-mill handgun. Even without the pictures, I was pretty shocked by the antiseptic accounts of how slugs from a .380 semi-automatic can lacerate the human body. A typical report might describe four sufficiently-lethal wounds caused by two high-velocity bullets that shattered bones, organ, and tissue, leaving gaping exit wounds on the way out.

The Chicago police certainly seize some frightening weapons. Yet gang-bangers don’t generally kill with semi-automatic rifles. You don’t need an AR-15 to kill someone in a rival crew. You don’t need a high-capacity, rapid-reloading clip, either. Criminals generally have little need for military-style weapons. They are ruthless, but they don’t generally seek mass atrocities.

Handgun control raises a host of complicated political, constitutional, and practical concerns. With so many in circulation, we’ll have a serious problem there for years to come under any feasible policy. Fortunately, there’s much we can do to deter the acquisition, possession, and use of these weapons and to disrupt illegal gun markets.  So many murders are committed by rather unsophisticated young offenders whose access to weapons could be reduced.

Semi-automatic rifles and high-capacity ammunition clips strike me as a simpler issue. I don’t understand why someone should have an AR-15, or why we can’t do a better job of clamping down on weapons which randomly but regularly end or alter so many beautiful lives.

Two more points worth mentioning.

First, as I wrote before, let’s not reward the killer by putting his name in lights. I believe publicity provides a powerful motive for apocalyptic crimes.  Let’s keep this guy’s photo off of the magazine covers this time.

Second, this is a good time to note the incredible value and challenge of rehabilitative medicine. Dozens of people survived this shooting but face difficult recoveries in many ways. Let’s support them. Let’s support the men and women who are helping them at this difficult time. Let’s do the same after the spotlight fades, too.

Austin and my colleague Keith Humphreys both work at the VA, where some of the best work in this area is done. Let’s hear more about this good work –and less about the depraved perpetrator—in the weeks to come.

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