Guns, criminal justice, and a national agenda

Guest Commentary

| December 26, 2012
John Klofas.
John Klofas.

On January 21, Barack Obama begins his second term as president. While for many Americans that milestone brings a sense of optimism and anticipation, there is also concern, growing out of a disappointment over opportunities not addressed in his first term. In this space in the weeks leading up to that milestone, three Rochesterians will address key issues that need to be on the agenda of the president and Congress.

Our guest columnists: RIT Criminal Justice Professor John Klofas, on the issues of gun control and criminal justice; Rochester Mayor Tom Richards on the needs of cities; and the Rev. Marvin McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, on poverty. Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal column will return in mid-January.

There are things that are simply too terrible. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, qualifies. The nation, and the world, now wrestles with how to make sense of it and what to do. I choose to be optimistic, largely because there seems to be no other choice. To think that the world we live in will not change now is simply unbearable. The only question to be considered is how we move forward.

Nothing in the long presidential campaign that we just closed would seem to prepare us for this question. There was almost no mention of crime and justice. How could candidates who sat through a string of mass shootings avoid any mention of the problem of guns in the United States? Between the end of 2010, when the Republican primary came into full swing, and the November election, there were nine mass shooting incidents in the US, including the one in a Colorado movie theatre. In the wake of Sandy Hook, the candidates, the press, and the rest of us should all feel shame for the failure of our democratic process.

But presidential campaigns may be the wrong place to look to for sound policy proposals. Ever since Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater added crime to the national political agenda in 1964, Republicans and Democrats have fought for the title as toughest, not smartest, on crime. Our brand of political discourse has almost always meant more crime laws, more drug laws, more prisons, longer sentences, and of course, flirtation with state-sponsored death. As a result, the population of prisons and jails grew from 350,000 to over 2 million in less than 4 1/2 decades. Today, with budgets in mind, we are now trying to undo those indulgences.

So the question remains: How do we move forward? There is reason for optimism. As in the past, forces outside electoral politics can drive the agenda. It happened with drunk driving. On that issue, there has been sea change in American attitudes and behavior. It started with victims, their family members, and concerned and sensible citizens demanding to be heard, and it began with the death of a 13-year-old girl and the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. Since then, yearly drunk driving fatalities have fallen by more than half.

It also happened with domestic violence, something only whispered about until the early 1970's. The feminist movement changed that, and the battered-women's movement grew from a handful of shelters across the country to producing major legislative changes in social policy, criminal justice, and health care. Although the concept of "legitimate rape" did make its way into the recent political campaign, that ended well enough, with electoral defeats of its defenders.

In important ways, our problem with guns looks like those two issues before the public outcry. Domestic violence advocates and drunk-driving reformers created change that overcame longstanding culture and tradition. While there was little political will at the start, that deficit was eventually overwhelmed by public will.

There are also other, even more current reasons to be optimistic. Crime policy has almost always been promoted as a statement of unimpeachable values, just like gun values. It has been especially true when it comes to drugs. Yet in the same election season where the pols sat still on crime, two states voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and others joined the now 18 states where laws support its medical use. Regardless of how the US Department of Justice responds to this state-by-state insurrection, it is a powerful statement of disaffection. It says loudly that marijuana is the people's business in the same way tax increases, spending cuts, and guns are.

There is also other evidence that a populist push can take on the toughest, most complicated issues. The concept of "mass incarceration" has moved out of the specialized lexicon of left-leaning academics and into the mainstream. With that has come a growing awareness, and, for some, deep concern, that the US leads the world in the rate at which nations imprison their own citizens. That, in turn, has forced many to confront the raw fact that incarceration rates for minorities are more than seven times that of whites. This may turn out to be the first time since the Attica aftermath that the clash of criminal and social justice has come under such wide public scrutiny.

Intolerance for the idea that the cure for crime can have toxic side effects, just as our Second Amendment rights may, is also behind the ongoing controversy over stop-and-frisk policies in New York City. There the issue is brought sharply into focus by the reality of urban violence and its devastating effects in poor, largely minority neighborhoods. It is mostly in those neighborhoods where police made nearly 700,000 stops in 2011. Ninety percent of the time, those stopped were black or Latino, and only two percent of the time were guns or other contraband seized.

Opponents argue that those outcomes don't justify the practice. Supporters say the neighborhoods want it; it is crime prevention that matters, not arrests; and on that, NYPD has led the nation. But increasingly the case is being made to look beyond both versions of the policeman's view of the world. A human rights issue is being raised in which the exigency argument is itself biased – an unacceptable-under-any-circumstances compromise applied only in poor neighborhoods. If the public dialogue can handle that issue, there is certainly room for a vision beyond the narrowest interpretation of the Second Amendment.

So optimism in the wake of Sandy Hook need not grow only out of the need for psychological comfort. It does not take a leap of faith to be optimistic. Perhaps electoral politics do not show a way forward, but we have done it before, and we have continued to demonstrate our ability to deal with the most complex and difficult questions. Guns cannot be the American exception to sensibility and reason.

John Klofas is professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology.


Comments (8)

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Mr. Klofas, like many who have engaged in this debate, have done the classic "pivot". This is where somebody responds to a question by turning it to the topic they really wanted to talk about. Candidates do it constantly in the debates.

Trying to solve the crime problem in America by addressing guns, is like trying to cure the flu with some aspirin - you're addressing the symptom, not the cause.

The real issue is mental health diagnosis and treatment. Whether it's Newtown, Webster, Columbine or any number of other tragedies, the people who perpetrated the violence gave friends and relatives previous indicators of a lack of positive mental health.

The answer to these tragedies is not to attack people's liberties and freedoms. The TSA, body scans and shoe removal isn't the way to prevent hijackings. Prohibition was no way to treat America's love of alcohol, nor is it any way to address the drug "problem" in America. The Alien and Sedition Acts were not the way to deal with political dissent, Gun "control" is not the way to deal with crime or mass violence.

Gun violence in America can be addressed most effectively by ending the prohibition on drugs and dealing more effectively with mental health. There are quite literally MILLIONS of guns in America, of which only a tiny tiny fraction of a percentage get used in any kind of illegal manner.

Some people illegally copy and burn DVDs. We're not about to outlaw DVD burners or movie rentals.

Again... the real issue here is mental health assessment and treatment. First and foremost we need to ramp up the destigmatization of getting help. Second, mental health care needs to be as easy to access as regular health care. It needs to be part of every single health insurance policy, and people need to be encouraged to get screened on a regular basis for various problems. People with serious issues need to be addressed, and need to be monitored. We need to find a happy medium between forced hospitalization and the really laissez faire attitude of the post-80s environment. I'm a huge libertarian, but there are some things the government needs to do. Gun control ain't one of them.

The thing is, looking to more gun control laws is the easy way out. It takes little effort on the part of legislators (and presidents and governors), and costs far less than does mental health. Because mental health counseling and treatment is expensive, complicated and difficult, it's just not going to be a genuine part of the discussion. Until it is, more people will be killed by mentally ill people who daily give out signals that they need help, regardless of what laws manage to get passed.

Which is a damn shame.

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Posted by Yugoboy on 12/26/2012 at 11:21 PM

So the Webster shooter murdered his grandmother by smashing in her skull with a hammer, and he get out of prison after a few years? With no parole supervision? And now we're "shocked, shocked" he killed again?

At some point NYS is going to bring back the death penalty and increase the use of life without parole, or we're going to continue seeing homicidal maniacs commit carnage, whether because they are drug dealers or just plain violently mentally ill. New York's liberal sentencing laws and a broken parole system gave us the tragedy in Webster, plain and simple.

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Posted by bob s. on 12/27/2012 at 6:43 AM

Klofas says: 'Although the concept of "legitimate rape" did make its way into the recent political campaign, that ended well enough, with electoral defeats of its defenders.'

Either that statement is an outright despicable lie, or it betrays a staggering ignorance of what happened.

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Posted by j.a.m. on 12/27/2012 at 10:54 PM

Regarding the Webster shootings, why is it that sex offenders must register with the state even and yet murderers like Spengler do not? He murdered his grandmother, served his time, completed his parole and was free to go anywhere he wanted to without answering to any authority. One use of a murderer's registry would be to check it when any 911 call is made. If a released murderer is in the area, the responding service, such as firefighters, could be met there by police, just in case.

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Posted by Bart on 12/28/2012 at 11:08 AM

In the wake of the tragic events at Newtown (and in the wake of every mass shooting in the past decade) I've read countless op-ed pieces written by advocates of gun ownership, all of which carry the same basic theme- the idea that if only somebody had treated the shooter for mental illness, or prevented him from obtaining arms through "background checks, or been armed at the scene prior to the attack, etc. etc.- lives could've been saved. These points are all valid to some degree. But every excuse given to deflect criticism of our nation's culture of gun ownership sounds like just that: an excuse. The fact remains that if Adam Lanza or others like him hadn't been able to acquire deadly weapons and ammunition with such minimal effort, far fewer lives would've been lost.
Gun rights advocates are always quick to claim that our high rate of gun ownership has nothing to do with these mass killings, nothing to do with a homicide rate far above any other country with a comparative level of development. But where do they think that the guns used in these murders originated, exactly? Russia? Mexico? Secretive, illicit gun factories funded by criminals and the like? Nearly every gun used to kill an American on a street corner in the ghetto or in a school or shopping mall was at some point in time legally purchased. In fact, most of the guns used to carry out acts of unspeakable violence even in Mexico were bought at American gun stores and then smuggled south to serve in the drug war. Whether these weapons were stolen from their legitimate owner or bought and intentionally funneled to criminals, they were available thanks to this nation's tolerance of deadly firearms. All other factors aside, Adam Lanza would not have been able to steal so many precious children away from their loved ones if he didn't have a family member who legally purchased an AR-15 rifle from her local gun store.
The sentiment "guns don't kill people, people kill people" may (technically) be true. But people wouldn't be able to kill others so easily without guns. It's time to stop making excuses and restrict the sale of firearms- to everybody.

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Posted by eastofwest on 12/28/2012 at 12:55 PM

"people wouldn't be able to kill others so easily without guns"

And drunks wouldn't be able to kill others so easily without cars. Sorry, but it's just a meaningless assertion.

If you don't approve of gun ownership, then by all means don't own one.

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Posted by j.a.m. on 12/28/2012 at 3:10 PM

We need to have a "national conversation" about nut control, not gun control.

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Posted by j.a.m. on 12/28/2012 at 3:13 PM

There is a direct correlation between the rise in the prison population and closure of the state hospital system.

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Posted by youbetcha on 01/08/2013 at 11:46 AM
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