On good guys and bad guys in gun violence

I study, among other things, the markets for small arms – have done since Newtown. And while I usually don’t weigh in after horrid massacres like Orlando, I’ll make an exception here because of a simple question a friend asked me:

“What is the breakout of gun homicides in terms of assailants and victims? Bad-guy-shoots-bad-guy? Bad-guy-shoots-good guy?”

If you’re wondering where his framing language comes from, my friend is a conscientious, well-educated, liberal public defender from an economically and racially marginalized community. But he’s now getting in debates with right-leaning colleagues who invoke the “God-given right to self-defense” against the NRA-fueled specter of home invasion. Using their own terminology (“good guys” / “bad guys”), my friend would basically like to argue that most firearms violence is not directed at home owners, so you don’t really need a gun.

Let me start by saying that I have no clue what the breakout of gun homicides is in those terms. I’m not a “firearms researcher”, nor a criminologist. I don’t really like bean-counting, and like even less cross-tabulating the frequencies of death by typology. I’m an economist and I mostly deal with price data and such. Moreover, it’s actually pretty difficult to break out in those terms: most available domestic crime data sets focus either on victims or on perpetrators, but not *incidents* constructed dydically by aggressor/ victim relationship. This is actually in contrast to many data sets on global armed conflict. But my best attempt at answering the question (without actually doing any work) would be something like this:

First, don’t forget that the human costs of firearms violence vastly outstrip the sub-category of homicides. Roughly 65% of all gun-related fatalities in the US are suicides, and someone is three times as likely to commit suicide if there is a gun in their house. There are also relatively small numbers of horrific firearms accidents each year – 500 or so, often killing toddlers and children, inadvertently perpetrated by them, or both. And firearms-related injuries – the proverbial GSW – outnumber firearms homicides by around 8 to 1.

Second, the economic costs of gun violence in this country have been estimated at $229 *billion* each year, or around 10 times more than the total annual economic benefits from sales, wages, and ripple effects throughout the national economy. Not really surprising, given that a gun may cost as little as $100 and, if it takes just one life, has deprived the economy of an entire lifetime’s earnings and productivity contributions.

Third, the number of victims of mass shootings is generally dwarfed by that of “garden variety” violence: often, though not always, gang-related; often, though not always, urban; often, though not always, in under-served areas with large minority populations. (And, while I’m at it, I’ll also mention that while mass shootings are often carried out by assault rifle, the vast majority of firearms homicides are carried out by handgun – it’s a ratio of 16-to-1. To a certain degree, then, the call to ban assault weapons is a call to defend the relatively privileged from gun violence. Which I support. But why not extend the protection to others, as well?)

But – and it pains me to have to state the obvious here – the good guy / bad guy dichotomy is unhelpfully simplistic. What about one of the 484 deaths caused by police this year, most of which by firearm? Anyone who has followed the litany of stories – take the one of a couple of days ago of Michael Moore, a black kid shot allegedly for talking on a cell phone mistaken for a gun, or that of Walter Scott last year, on whose dying body a gun was intentionally planted – will find it racist and morally repugnant to place these in the “good guy shoots bad guy” category. But just denouncing police as “bad guys” (though some surely are) is equally counterproductive if real reform is to be made.

And what about domestic firearms violence? The fact that, all else equal, you are more likely to be killed by a gun if you have one in your house than not has a lot to do with domestic violence that merely escalates in the presence of firearms. And while it’s theoretically possible that such escalation is gender-neutral, in fact it’s usually not. And surveys indicate that if women answer for a household, they are less likely to say there is a gun in the house than if men answer for the household. While it’s possible women are, for whatever reason, more apt to lie on this point, a more likely explanation is that men keep guns that their partners don’t know about. In any case, slapping a “good guy” or “bad guy” label on either party in a domestic violence scenario misses the point.

But more than just simplistic and unhelpful, the tendency to recreate the good guy / bad guy dichotomy is downright pathological, and on a massive scale. Calling a homicide victim a “bad guy” just because he was a young black man who belonged to a gang doesn’t exculpate the rest of us. In fact it does the opposite. We are all culpable to the extent that we do not reject a system that dehumanizes sizeable portions of our young, discriminates against them, ghettoizes them, underfunds their educational systems, gives them no good options (some are even forcibly recruited into gangs), floods their communities with guns, and then blames them for the violence that takes place there. We are culpable to the extent that we, consciously or no, believe that “they should just all kill each other”, or that someone “got what was coming to them”. We are culpable if we fail to recognize that no one deserves to die violently at the hands of their fellow person.

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