Category Archives: Small arms

Militias, Munich, and Mayhem

The growing militia scene in the US is, I am increasingly convinced, one of the gravest threats to democratic life here. It will require a reckoning eventually and a firm political willingness to counter it, bar the open carry of weapons in certain public contexts, and (dare I say it) revisit the Second Amendment. It’s time we recognized that militias, like any weapons, are a double-edged sword, potentially used to institute tyranny just as readily as throw it off. Our safeguard against tyranny cannot be arms, but democratic institutions.

I got Volker Ullrich’s recent biography of Adolf Hitler recently for the same reasons everyone is reading about pre-War Germany: I was interested in possible parallels and divergences between Hitler and Trump. After all, I’ve often reassured myself recently with the unexamined thought that “At least Trump is just a political opportunist with no ideology apart from self-worship and aggrandizement. He would be much more dangerous as an ideological zealot like Hitler.” But was it true that Hitler was not such an opportunist? This question of to what extent Hitler simply isolated and amplified ambient political frequencies in order to ride their waves to power, versus articulating a personal ideology that happened to resonate with those ambient frequencies, has been debated back and forth in all of the five major biographies of his life. And while I was surprised to what an extent Hitler seems to have adapted his thinking to his political advantage in his early years — not ever expressing his characteristic antisemitism during his early years as a struggling artist in Vienna — my basic contention about him being an ideological zealot appears to be fairly accurate from early on in his Munich years after WWI… even when he wasn’t at all convinced that he himself was Germany’s “messiah”, but rather just a spokesperson for the eventual incumbent.

More importantly, though, this biography really struck me with its descriptions of the political climate in Munich, and Bavaria more generally, in the 20s — descriptions that have clear parallels to the US political climate today, especially in the South. Frustration with a seemingly feckless, elite-serving Weimar government in cosmopolitan, internationalized Berlin burned among many of the young struggling in a stalled, hyperinflating economy. A long history of administrative separation from the north leading many to think that a unified Germany either implied that Berlin would eventually march on Munich, or Munich would march on Berlin. Conspiracy theories, including those about international Jewery, were being flogged by inflammatory publishing houses with tight, behind-the-scenes connections to right-wing political parties, including the early DAP or German Workers’ Party that Hitler would join and transform into the NSDAP, and which took its swastika symbol from the Münchener Beobachter (later the Volkischer Beobachter) publication. There were heated arguments among the dizzying array of right wing groups flirting with National Socialism as to whether they were socialist first (though never Communist of course, for that was associated with international Jewish hegemony and the Russian revolution — socialist was rather used as a shorthand for non-democratic and ostensibly unified, or basically fascist) or ethno-nationalist first — and here Hitler was unequivocal and unwilling to give an inch in his contention that no socialist project would be possible until the German people were purified.

But, importantly, a shocking array of militia groups, often illegally armed with military stockpiles and whose ranks were filled by former — or sometimes even current — military with traumatic experiences from WWI. I had known about the Sturmabteilung, but not just how common such militias were (e.g. other Freikorps groups like the Bund Oberland and Reichsflagge). They ruled the streets of Bavarian cities, often terrorizing people at will, and Hitler was then called the King of Munich. The SA under Hitler made a famous display of armed force during Labor Day festivities in 1923 — essentially trolling and threatening the Communist Left — but had their weapons removed by Bavarian police. This defeat was essentially what drove Hitler to realize that a putsch against the Bavarian government itself was necessary, and he then took advantage of a pre-existing effort to unite the militias under a single umbrella organization.

It is this rhetoric around “uniting the right” (by which they mean the violent alt-right) that worries me here, too, particularly if that unification then facilitates an “annexation” of the umbrella organization into the apparatus of government. There’s clearly an effort underway to find a figure capable of uniting the ultra right. Trump is not that — rising as he did so quickly to a position where he has to moderate his tone to appeal multiple constituencies — though he’s doing a great job of sending not-so-subtle signs to Southern state and municipal governments that they needn’t crackdown on violent militias too much if they don’t want to.

Probably the single greatest resource to unite such groups from a data perspective is the membership database of the NRA. It is likely to be able to distinguish moderate from extreme views of its members, and may have a decent sense of who owns the most guns. This, after all, is one of the cruxes of of the power struggle: of the 300+ million guns in private hands in the US (over one per person), half are owned by just three percent of the population — so-called “super owners”. The ability to send tailored messages to disparate cohorts of gun owners based on political leaning, geographic location, and other demographic factors could make Wayne La Pierre a potentially critical tool for someone who wanted to follow the Nazi blueprint for a power grab.


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Thoughts on university campus militarization

I first noticed a shift in attitudes after the Umpqua Community College shooting last October. Sure, there was the usual news cycle evincing shock, then anger, then sadness, provoking the tired old debates about whether gun laws would do anything to prevent that sort of atrocity. But the shock seemed play-acted, and the anger a kind of diluted atavism echoing past anger. People seemed suddenly to believe at that moment that this confirmed a status quo that needed to be lived with, coped with, endured. I heard friends discuss seriously whether they should spend hundreds of dollars on Bullet Blocker backpacks for their kids. And my university colleagues agitated for active shooter trainings and the retrofitting of classrooms with emergency buttons, bullet-proof windows, and lock-down equipment.

The fact that campus shooters are most often students – as with the disgruntled UCLA PhD student last month – hasn’t deterred Colorado, Utah, and now Texas from passing campus concealed carry legislation. Such legislation obviously runs counter to the wishes of the great majority of people who actually spend any time at universities – not least of all the professors, who tend to be targets of frustration when they give out grades below, say, A- to increasingly clientelist-minded students – and has obvious adverse impacts on the ability of students and professors alike to concentrate on their work in relative peace of mind. And to those who think that more guns somehow bring about less violence in a massively multiplayer deterrence game, the price tag for increased police presence in the this Chronicle of Higher Education piece tells a different story.

One of the ironies of this militarization of US university campuses is that while it is racking up costs, state budget cuts are jeopardizing the reason anyone is on campus in the first place. In Wisconsin, state legislators have stripped tenure protection and $250 million from public universities, for instance.

The long-run effect of these twin processes in many states can only be to drive out those professors who are talented, reputable, and just plain lucky enough to leave public universities. Same goes for students, though they may also need to be rich enough to attend a private school. Education regresses to being the private luxury good it was in previous centuries instead of the commonplace public good required in contemporary society.

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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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Putting a price on small arms could be an invaluable policy tool

In 2015, the United Nations adopted a set of 17 new “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), number 16 of which is calls for the promotion of peaceful and just societies. Illicit small arms and ammunition supplies are commonly thought to be destabilizing factors in many areas of the world, making violent conflict potentially more likely, longer-lasting, and more intense. Some areas of Mexico, a quick 15 drive from here, are testament to this fact. And Mexico’s small arms problem pales in comparison with those of some other countries. Accordingly, target 16.4 under SDG 16 states: “By 2030, significantly reduce illicit […] arms flows”.

But what does that mean? And how will we know? There is currently no good way of detecting and quantifying international illicit arms trades. Illicit trades are notoriously difficult to detect and quantify: obviously participants have incentives to shield their activities from public scrutiny. This being the case, numbers of seizures of illicit small arms have become the UNODC’s major metric for inferring volumes of illicit arms flows. But such statistics are highly flawed: Cross-country comparisons may be flawed due to divergent capacities or corruption levels, for instance. And even comparisons between time periods within a single jurisdiction may not hold if regulatory priorities change.

These problems lead to a kind of reverse moral hazard: countries may actually be discouraged from intercepting illicit arms and ammunition flows for fear that the increase in official seizures will be interpreted as a real rise in illicit flows.

The Solution

Some colleagues and I – collectively founders of a research consortium called the Small Arms Data Observatory (SADO) – have proposed a new method for detecting and quantifying illicit trade volumes by testing econometrically for price changes on the black market. Ours is the first effort I know of to quantify illicit global flows of small arms, and it seeks to do so without relying on problematic seizure data.

Our idea in a nutshell is statement of simple microeconomic theory: if demand factors – homicide rates, per capita income, government transparency, and ongoing violent conflicts, to name a few – and licit supply can be perfectly controlled for in a given market and time period, negative and positive deviations from predicted prices will respectively indicate net illicit imports to, and net illicit exports from, that market.

We have now created beta versions of two pioneering datasets on illicit small arms prices. The first compiles thousands of individual transactions from dozens of countries around the world, culled from media outlets, reports, journal articles (See Figure 1). Encouragingly, we’ve found that small arms prices show great variation from place to place, and year to year. Counter to one popular and resilient myth of small arms availability in the developing world, you can’t, in fact, buy an AK for a chicken. You might have to pay 2 or 3 cows in Uganda, or a loaf of cocaine in Colombia. The second dataset derives from the first, but is generalized to the country level, in theory allowing for analyses that will yield net illicit arms flows.


Figure 1. Illicit transactions of small arms by type and price, 1965-2015.

We’re not there yet. But in the meanwhile, we can already tell a few interesting stories with price signals. Let’s take a few examples from our neighbors in Latin America. Prices for small arms rose steeply in Haiti following the re-instatement of Aristide in 1994, dropped for about a decade, then spiked again in the wake of a UN Stabilization Mission (MINUSTAH) from 2004 onward. Colombia saw a sharp rise in prices for assault rifles following a 2004 amnesty/buy-back program for paramilitaries and guerrillas.


Figure 2. Small arms price indices in four Latin American countries.

Very generally, where prices are low there is likely a surfeit of weapons: in economic terms, gun supply exceeds consumer demand. But low prices can translate into lethal consequences. In Brazil, after a long period of generally high prices, costs started dropping since the mid-1990s. The county now has on average 42,000 gun homicides a year. In Mexico, there has been a gradual decline in prices over the past 25 years, likely owing to a lively traffic in arms across the U.S.-Mexico border. The country has experienced over 138,000 homicides since 2006, 95% of which have been committed by firearm.

Accompanied by data on illicit arms seizures, this approach has the potential to rate the effectiveness of countries at intercepting illicit small arms trades. Even more promisingly, we may also be able to identify the most flagrant violators of international laws such as the Arms Trade Treaty and staunch these deadly flows.

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