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  • Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Thoughts and Facts on Gun Violence


As Jews and as Americans, we are deeply distressed by the violence we are witnessing. In Israel, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have whipped up an intense bout of hatred for Jews by claiming that somehow Israel had intentions of taking over the Temple Mount. The result has been both organized cells and "lone-wolf" attacks on Jews that have left several dead. The PA has renounced the Oslo accords, effectively resuming a state of war with Israel. Israel, of course, has to take defensive measures. My sense is that things will get a lot worse before things get better.

Here at home, of course, we feel abhorrence at the recent mass murder in Oregon. The mass shootings that we have witnessed over the years have all the markings of terrorist attacks, but usually without a movement or cause. While the outrage is accompanied by demands for more gun control, I have seen no actual suggestions for legislation that would have prevented these murders. I should note that I am in favor of gun control - extensive background checks for all purchasers, banning automatic weapons, banning certain kinds of ammo, limiting magazine size, etc.

I can conceive of no gun control legislation, however, that could prevent such shootings, short of a complete ban and confiscation of all firearms. The shooters can pass background checks or steal the weapons. They can patiently accumulate weapons in locales that have a one gun a month limit - or simply travel to another jurisdiction.

These mass shootings distract our attention, however, from a much more abhorrent problem. If we care about gun violence in American, I think we should take the focus off of terrorism. The number of victims of terrorism by Islamic terror groups since the terror attack of 9/11 is almost negligible. I know it is hard to accept it, but the number of victims of mass shootings is likewise negligible in comparison to the number of homicides in the United States per year. About 12,000 Americans are murdered a year, about 9,000 of them with firearms, almost all of those with handguns. Mass shootings rivet our attention. I think our attention should be riveted to the daily carnage.

What is the cause? What should we do? The first thing is to start with facts, not conclusions. Clearly, if there were no guns in America there would no gun violence. There are, however, some three hundred million guns owned by Americans by best estimates, with a few million more being sold every year. If we assume that each homicide was committed with a different gun (not true, but if we assume it for a moment), then only three out of every one hundred thousand guns is used in a homicide. There is no evidence that, in general, areas with higher proportion of gun ownership (e.g. Orange County) have higher rates of homicide than areas of lower gun ownership. Only a tiny number of all the guns out there are ever used in any crime. If guns themselves were the cause, we would not have seen a general large drop in homicide in past decades, with an accompanying large rise in firearms being purchased. (There is tragically a rise in homicides recently, mostly among African Americans.)

Short of a creating a society with no guns, the main factor seems to be not the existence of guns, but who has the gun and in what context. Gun violence, in general, is due to the use of a gun in the committing of a crime (robbery for example), domestic violence, gang wars (including territorial issues) and violence connected with drug trafficking.

Furthermore, a large majority of homicides are committed by young men. One could say, to start with, that gun violence is at least in part a gender and age issue. A survey of gun owners would reveal that the profile of the average gun owner is white man in his 50's, married or was married, without a college degree. White men in their 50's commit a miniscule amount of homicide.

Bureau of Justice statistics show that lower economic class (determined by neighborhood), black and Hispanic young men between 14 and about 30, are far over represented as both perpetrators and victims of gun violence. In general, blacks and Hispanics, men and women, of all ages, are disproportionately perpetrators and victims of gun violence. If we take out black and Hispanic victims of gun violence, the current rate in the United States, about 4.5 per hundred thousand drops to about 2.2 per hundred thousand - about the rate of Finland. (It would benefit the reader to research which nations have the greatest amount of non-warfare gun violence. The United States is actually among the lesser gun violent nations in the Americas.)

While the banning and confiscation of all guns, especially handguns, would certainly reduce gun violence, our focus in the interim should be on who the victims are and who perpetrators are. While our attention is riveted to Oregon, Aurora and Sandy Hook, there is a carnage being committed right here in Los Angeles that attracts almost none of our attention. This inattention actually disgusts me.

Here is one fast fact. More blacks have been murdered in just LA County alone, (mostly killed by young black men, and most within a few square miles) since 2001, than all the American military personnel killed in action in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Do you care about the lives of African Americans and Hispanics? Then ask yourself why neighborhoods of poor people of color are vastly over represented as locations of gun violence. The reason is not a profusion of gun stores.

In addition to the presence of guns, a disproportionate amount of gun violence is a gender, race, class, age and geographic issue. Let's start here.


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