At the moment, gun control matters more

Of course the gun nuts, their lobby, and the elected officials who have traded their souls for the money trot out the platitude that mass shootings demonstrate the need for better mental health care, not gun control.

On Saturday morning, a young man with a background full of warning signs walked into the public library in Winchester, Massachusetts, armed with a large knife, and fatally stabbed a young woman who was reading at a table. Bystanders, including a 77-year-old man, rushed to help and were able to keep the man at bay until the police arrived. One is dead, another injured.

It’s awful. But it’s not another 17 dead bodies. Jeffrey Yao lived in Massachusetts where it’s a lot harder to get a gun and there is much less “rah rah, we love guns” in the culture. When the madness seized him, he had only a knife.

Certainly we need a better system for dealing with mentally ill people who behave like Jeffrey Yao and Nikolas Cruz. Perhaps we could ask the psych experts instead of the police and courts to work on a system that protects the public and the individual. That will be a hard task. Gun control is not a hard task. Get it done.


A semiautomatic assault rifle with a big magazine, let alone pockets full of them, is a military arm and has the unique purpose of killing a lot of people. Not punching paper, not killing deer (unless you’re after venisonburger); killing a lot of people, especially people who might be shooting back at you, including peace officers.  If personal protection is what you’re about, you want a shotgun, not an AR-15.

This distinctive purpose entrains the secondary function of watering and fertilizing the sick imaginations of sick people.

The purpose of the NRA is to enrich firearms manufacturers and secondarily to elect Republicans. Not freedom, not firearms recreation, not personal protection: enriching gun makers and merchants.

Target shooting, including trap and skeet, are sports with a long and respectable histories. So is hunting, with a license and appropriate tools (and steel shot, please). I have enjoyed all of these without guilt. But there is no Olympic event of shooting at body outline targets with higher scores for hitting vitals, and a civilized society is not obliged to tolerate whatever hobby any of its citizens wish to pursue (dogfighting, auto donut sideshows, catcalling women in the street…).

I’m not sure what I think about revolvers or automatic pistols with reasonable magazines. Pistol target shooting is very challenging. But in view of the cost in lives and heartbreak of having them around and about as we do, I’m increasingly doubtful as the years go by and the body count goes up.

Bleg on Guns

Some years ago (can it really be 14 years?!) I guest-posted on this website a screed on John Lott, whose integrity, shall we say, leaves a lot of room for improvement. In that same time period I recall seeing a cartoon (it might have been in the NY Times) which had everyone in the street, including babies in their carriages, packing guns. Do any of you remember it, have the URL for it, or have a scan/copy of it? It unfortunately seems to be appropriate once again, with kids shooting kids at an unimaginable pace. If you have copied it but can’t post it here, please send it to me at my gmail address, maltzmd.

Towards Mass De-Incarceration

New data shows continued contraction in the number and rate of Americans being imprisoned. Let’s break it down.

The federal system helpfully updates its inmate count every week, so I was able report on the system up to the present moment. Because the Congress has been so dysfunctional in recent years — even unable to pass criminal justice reform when every key player in the House and Senate supports it — the federal system had been lagging the state-level move toward cutting prison populations, which started around 2008. However, thanks mainly to changes in drug-related sentencing (with icing on the cake from Obama’s clemency initiative), the system is now declining in size at last. The data are summarized below. You can read my full analysis at Washington Post Wonkblog, and read a thoughtful critique of my analysis by Professor Douglas Berman here.

Reporting of state data has a significant lag, so 2016 year end data just came out. What happens in the states matters way, way, more than the federal system because that’s where 7/8 of the prisoners are held. I break down the newly released data in another Washington Post Wonkblog about the now nearly-decade long contraction in that population.

What jumps out the most is the African-American imprisonment rate is at a more than quarter-century low. For Black males, the size of the drop from the peak is equivalent to the entire Black male population age 16 and older of Washington, D.C. plus that of Dallas. There’s a long way to go but this is a big change.

p.s. In addition to comments on the issue, I welcome comments on my charts. Since my Wonkblogs generally only appear on line, I decided to start color coding the text in the chart label to help people tell which line is which. What do you think? Also, like Kevin Drum, I think dual Y-axis charts are boffo. What do you think? Last, I am not mad about the year being in the middle rather the bottom of my federal chart, if anyone knows how to do that I’d appreciate it.
p.p.s. I have updated the second chart based on suggestions. I was not able to implement the suggestion to have only some years on the bottom because when I selected any interval for labels I selected it left off the 2016 label making it seem the data didn’t go as far as it did.

The feds get Shortey

If you’ll get over chortling about the fact that the Oklahoma state senator who just pleaded guilty to child sex trafficking was Donald Trump’s Oklahoma campaign chair last year, the case raises some serious questions about federal law and sentencing.

The facts appear to be simple: a 17-year-old boy met Sen. Shortey on line and asked him for help in earning money. Shortey offered him money for sex. The boy agreed, and they met in a motel room. The boy’s girlfriend, who had followed him to the motel, called his father, who phoned the police, who came and busted the pair in flagrante.

Shortey was first charged under Oklahoma law with “soliciting prostitution of a minor, prostitution within 1,000 feet of church, and transporting for the purpose of prostitution.” (I’d like a slow, careful explanation of why the crime was aggravated by the fact that there was a church within a 333-yard radius of the motel, but perhaps we can leave that for another time.)

The state charges were dropped after he was indicted federally for sex trafficking of a minor and two counts of child pornography: one for sharing videos for with two individuals and another for soliciting a minor for photos of himself. Shortey has just pleaded guilty to the sex trafficking charge, for which he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison (which, with good time, means about 8 1/2 years behind bars). The maximum is life.

Note the elision here. The federal law is designed to get people who run commercial juvenile prostitution enterprises, and in particular enterprises involving interstate or international movement of juvenile sex workers, often involving coercion or deception. That’s as horrible a crime as it’s possible to imagine – morally much more culpable than, for example, homicide done in the heat of passion – and fully justifies extremely harsh sentencing. But Sen. Shortey didn’t do any of that. He purchased sex from a 17-year-old, in a state where the age of consent is 16. (Oklahoma law distinguishes commercial from non-commercial sex, so that the boy’s being under 18 made the offense a more serious one.) Shortey didn’t use coercion or trickery, or in any obvious way abuse his public office. Continue reading “The feds get Shortey”

Is Roy Moore guilty beyond reasonable doubt?

Image result for leigh corfman

Leigh Corfman says that she was fourteen years old and waiting with her mother outside a courtroom before a custody hearing when Roy Moore, then thirty-two and an assistant district attorney, offered to stay with Corfman while her mother went into court. Corfman says Moore used that opportunity to get her phone number, and subsequently took her out on several dates. On one of those occasions, he took her to his home, undressed her down to her underwear, undressed himself to the same extent, fondled her through her bra and panties, and attempted to put her hand on his genitals.

If what Corfman says is true, Moore committed a felony under Alabama law (which hasn’t changed in the meantime). Moore says that none of it happened: “I never knew this woman. I never met this woman.”

Moore’s defenders say that he ought to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and that a “mere accusation” (as Donald Trump called it) shouldn’t block Moore’s election to the U.S. Senate. “It’s just he-said, she-said” is the favored phrase. (Moore and his friends also want to ignore the three other juvenile but barely legal girls who say he took them out and kissed them.)

As Mitt Romney among others has pointed out, this is absurdly confused; it’s an attempt to apply courtroom standards outside their proper realm. No one thinks an ordinary political charge needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt before voters take it into account, and there’s no reason why a charge that happens also to be felony should be any different. (Moore’s attempt, and that of his supporters, to blame the Washington Post for concocting “fake news,” while it might be effective political rhetoric, lost all of its logical force when the Wall Street Journal re-interviewed the Post‘s sources and found that all of them confirmed that the Post had accurately reported their statements.)

Even if this were a criminal trial, Moore might well be convicted. Leigh Corfman’s sworn testimony would be sufficient to establish a prima facie case. It would then be up to the jury to weigh the credibility of the accusation against the credibility of the denial and decide whether they were convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the Moore was guilty. Sometimes the jurors decide that they are so convinced, even if it’s simply the bare word of the accuser against the bare word of the complainant: in a mugging, for example, there may be no other witness or physical evidence. If the victim has no apparent motive to lie – while the accused has the strongest of motives, the desire to escape a felony conviction – it may not be unreasonable for a jury to decide that the accusation is convincing enough to convict.

But Moore’s position is actually much worse than that of our hypothetical robbery suspect. Continue reading “Is Roy Moore guilty beyond reasonable doubt?”

Violent crime up second year in a row

This isn’t good news.

It’s not “carnage,” and it’s not a reason to panic or adopt cruel, stupid policies, but it really isn’t good news.

Yes, year-to-year homicide rates are statistically noisy, especially at the city level, because homicide is a relatively rare event. But an increase of roughly 20% over two years isn’t just statistical noise. And though there are indeed dramatic increases for identifiable local reasons in places such as Chicago, that’s not what’s driving this train: the 2016 increase showed up in small tows as well as big cities. [Update: Robert VerBruggen makes a key observation: white-on-white homicide rose more in percentage terms than black-on-black homicide.]

But the real reason to be concerned isn’t that homicide has gone up for two years in a row; it’s that it was flat in the two previous years, pretty clearly breaking the 20-year downtrend starting in 1994. Yes, even after two bad years, we’re much better off than we used to be. But even at 5 homicides per 100,000 – about half the 1994 rate – our current rate is three times the Canadian rate, five times the UK rate, and ten times the Norwegian rate. That’s nothing to write home about. Getting the homicide rate moving back down ought to count as an important national goal.

But how?

Continue reading “Violent crime up second year in a row”

Slaughter of the innocents

Rick Snyder, the Republican governor of Michigan, set the Flint water crisis in motion by implementing his deeply-felt beliefs (I infer from his behavior, always the best evidence) that spending tax money, or exercising government regulatory power, for the benefit of poor people–especially poor black people who probably vote wrong if you let them grow up–is a moral offense.

He is also a very strong (not the strongest/rape-and-incest) abortion opponent, and we don’t have to infer, because he’s on the record about that. It turns out he and his gang of vicious, reckless, subordinates committed the biggest mass abortion episode in US history; lead in Flint’s water not only damaged thousands of little kids for life, but killed hundreds in utero.

Nice, Rick.

At What Point Mercy?

Some people do truly horrible things that frighten and appall me as much as anyone. But their behavior should not be the moral guide for our behavior; that they failed to show mercy to their victims does not mean that we should sacrifice our own humanity by mimicking them. I think about this principle often, because it’s part of what undergirds my opposition to capital punishment (yes, in all cases) and also part of what sickens me about 75 year olds on dialysis spending their final years in prison.

I suggest a different way forward in Washington Post.