Bob and Mary live in rural northern California. Neither graduated college and they struggle to make ends meet in the economic wasteland that prevailed after the logging and manufacturing industries pulled up stakes in the 1980s. But a new industry swept in to take their place – the California Department of Corrections threw up a lot of prisons in which to house the bounty of Orange County's war on the state's underclass, and state governments know from experience that the best places to build a Big House are A) far away from the suburbs and B) in areas so desperate economically that they'll accept state dollars in any form with open arms.

Being a prison guard pays more than anything a person with limited skills and education can find in rural areas, so Bob is happy to have the job. But it's brutally difficult work. Violence, paranoia, and the constant threat of more violence tend to wear down even the most mentally stable people. Bob isn't well equipped to handle it. He starts to drink quite a bit in his off hours. He becomes more violent and difficult to deal with; a few times he even slaps his wife around.

Everyone understands that there is a problem here. Bob knows he drinks too much and needs help. Mary knows that she should call the cops on her abusive husband. The problem is that if Bob is named in a domestic violence call, he'll lose his job. And she knows how much both of them need his paycheck. Alternatively, if he tells the CDC that he is an alcoholic who needs help with anger and violence, he goes on suspension and the possibility of future advancement disappears. So a system designed to help people – there state funded resources available for domestic violence victims and employees like Bob who have psychological problems – ends up driving them away. The incentive to get mental help is never going to be stronger than the incentive to remain employed.

This is not an isolated example. Just this past summer the FAA finally changed a longstanding policy of barring commercial pilots on antidepressants from the cockpit. The primary effect of the regulation was to prevent pilots who thought about getting psychological help from getting it. This is a lesson the FAA should have learned from its earlier experience with the issue of alcoholism, wherein a ban served mostly to make pilots really good at hiding their heavy drinking.

Now that we have predictably concluded that having 200,000,000 firearms circulating in our society is not a contributing factor to firearm-related violence, 2nd Amendment Patriots have succeeded in re-framing the argument to focus on mental illness. Are we really Doing Enough to ensure that a few Bad Apples like the Tucson shooter don't end up with guns they shouldn't have? Obviously we collectively accept that a mentally disturbed person shouldn't be able to walk into a gun shop and buy whatever he wants. Nonetheless, the focus on the shooter's apparent craziness fits the NRA gameplan to a tee. Aside from the likelihood that "tougher" restrictions on guns for people with diagnosed mental disorders will just encourage a larger number of people to deny that they need help, the NRA knows that:

1. Any discussion of the mental illness issue reduces the focus on guns themselves
2. A crackdown on mental health issues feeds directly into the paranoia that is popular among the hardcore NRA crowd ("Some librul judge and some Jew psychiatrist is gonna decide that yer crazy, and then the FBI and the Army and the Police and the surviving members of the Warren Commission are gonna come and a-take yer guns!")
3. We already know that laws banning individuals from owning guns are terribly effective
4. In the end everyone will talk in circles for a week or two and nothing at all will happen, and the status quo is always their preferred outcome

Good times. At best we'd end up with an easily circumvented system after a lengthy witch hunt against the mentally ill. More realistically we'll just get a whole lot more of the same.

25 thoughts on “PERVERSE INCENTIVES”

  • "3. We already know that laws banning individuals from owning guns are terribly effective"

    Do we actually have this data though, Ed?

    While I do agree that it is obvious that psychopaths with 10-round magazines will be less efficient killers than psychopaths with 30-round magazines when they're going on a shooting spree, I don't know if I completely agree with the idea that gun bans reduce instances of violent crime on the individual level.

    By that I mean, most gun killings aren't the kind of crazy killstreak jobs that spark debate on gun bans, but rather individual incidents where one person shoots one, perhaps two other people. And in *those* cases, I think it is safe to say that a substantial number of them would simply use a knife or bat if the gun wasn't available.

    Anecdotally, I have a close friend who got shot late one night slash early one morning in his apartment's parking complex. The guys that shot him (there were two assailants) did not take his wallet or cellphone, or anything at all. They did not know him in any way. They shot him just to do it, the police posit that it was probably a gang initiation. Sans gun, there's no doubt in my mind that they would just have stabbed him instead.

    I would be interested, though, to see data on the subject, particularly an emphasis on violent crime rates in an area pre- and post-ban. If the data doesn't exist, we should probably pick an area and gather said data.

  • John: I don't have data offhand for all countries or states, but as an example here's Washington DC's crime rates from 1960-2009: DC's handgun ban, along with draconian restrictions on ownership of other firearms, went into effect in 1976. Since then, there have only been a few years where the number of murders was less than in 1976, and only two where the per capita murder rate was lower.

    Similarly, England enacted their most restrictive firearms laws after the 1996 Dunblane massacre. Handguns are entirely banned, long guns are limited to single-shot and bolt-action varieties, and all gun owners must register with the government, be a member of a government-licensed gun club, and have a six-month trial period as a member of that club before being allowed to purchase a firearm. According to the Telegraph (, "Since 1997, firearms crimes have risen from 12,410 to 21,521 in 2005/06 (an increase of 73 per cent), including incidents involving handguns, which have nearly doubled in this period, from 2,636 to 4,671, despite their being banned."

    Even if you discount the argument that another weapon could be used in violent crime, it would seem that gun laws aren't really the determining factor in gun crime.

    Ed: Actually, following Virginia Tech the NRA supported adding provisions to the National Instant Background Check that would restrict the sale of firearms to those who had been determined by a court of law to be mentally ill or who had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution. I also don't see how the debate over mental illness and treatment is somehow irrelevant to this discussion. As John points out, the majority of violent crime is not of the high-profile rampage type, and those shootings are almost invariably committed by someone who was or seemed to be mentally ill. I suspect that getting people the treatment they need and maybe undoing some of the damage Reagan did to the nation's mental health system would do much more to prevent high-profile shootings like the one in Tucson than any sort of gun law.

  • You forgot a big part of this story, though. You forgot that the prison is privatized, owned by Corrections Corp. of America. And CCA along with other industry buddies funds the American Legislative Exchage Council, through which it basically writes its own state laws favorable to itself. Which means things like "tougher sentencing laws" and "three strikes and you're out" laws and anti-immigrant laws like the one in Arizona. And a gullible public swallows it whole because even though crime is decreasing people keep believing the opposite because the news media inflates every little thing into a national crime spree story. So states get MORE prisons to house all of the poor we incarcerate for things like stealing a slice of pizza.

    Huzzah. Is this a great country or WHAT?

  • Where I work, if you have mental health issues, you don't get cleared for work. Needless to say, because of this fact, a lot of the folks with whom I work are social freaks. American society is arguably the most socially screwed up society in the history of mankind except for perhaps Afghanistan. When I was in Kabul back in '04, it was clear from my time there that the entire city was suffering from PTSD. Of course, that was never discussed with regard to helping the country pick itself up off the ground. To segue a bit further, in retrospect, looking back upon that time, asking America to help Afghanistan break away from its warring culture was like asking the perverted drunk Uncle to talk to his nephew about excessive drinking over a few drinks. In addition to that, when I worked in Georgia visiting guys in the state prisons there back in 98-99, the guards were clearly the most phucked up people in the joint. Mental health issues are pervasive in this country, this is especially true when you clearly have to be insane to run for office these days.

  • If it weren't for real and affecting real people the Catch-22 of this whole thing would be funny.

    @DaMoose: I'm presently studying GIS, and one of my instructors went to a ProDev talk. One of the speakers is with the ADF, and has been mapping who's aligned with who and what tribe/group/family/organisations etc. According to this guy under *normal* circumstances through out the Mid-east and Central Asia there clear and distinct fault lines through out communities. Eg. tribe, family, groups, language, etc. therefore all one has to do is get to the right people and groups will fall into line behind them. It seems that in Afghanistan, *all* bets are off. Sons don't necessarily toe the line under fathers, and grandfathers and so-on-and-so forth. Then today they're your friend, tomorrow well if a fly doesn't fart they're still on your side, or perhaps not, it's anyone's guess. So it's made mapping these things a real pain. However, we can draw some comfort in the simple fact that it's always been this way. Read the Persian history of the area and you'll find that they too had to leave the area to itself.

  • @Arslan: Maybe that's the attraction of guns then. Like "social" media, tv, WoW, IRC, video games, etc. we don't like to get "up close n personal". With a knife, you really need to "be there" don't you?

    Here are some Australian stats (a little dated, will try to get something better) on the use of guns in violent crime. As guns are the exception, when they do get used, they really make headlines. Knives tend to be the weapon of choice.$file/CJB98.pdf

    From the analysis we can conclude that if one wants to avoid being gun violence then one needs to avoid: businesses/commercial premises, residences and outdoor/public spaces.
    To be really safe then one is best off on marine transport. I'm assuming that it may have to do with the fact that despite Australian not having a death penalty, the act of piracy still attracts a penalty of "death by hanging" in NSW.

    @Southern: Ah! So what you're saying is that *if* the cost of running a prison was directly upon the public books then these "warehouse" forms of punishments wouldn't be happening. Then what needs to be done is show the reality of how much this "small government" costs. but they won't see it.

  • @Nick: Some forms of "mental illness" are highly treatable and can even be situational.
    The idea here is that *if* one is having a rough go of it, loss of work, break down of relationship, whatever the idea that some how this would cause someone to lose their right to own and keep a firearm, then they ***won't*** seek help. Then because of the stresses do snap, and go kill their ex-wife.

    Also the NRA only allows for those who are "legally determined" or involuntarily hospitalised. Usually, those people are at the extreme end of the spectrum. Someone like Loughner passed muster because he *hadn't* gone so far as to have these things happen to him.

    Criminals will *always* be able to get their hands on those things that they shouldn't. That's why they're called *criminals*. In 95% of all criminal uses of a firearm, it being used by someone on someone who's "involved" eg. another criminal or police/security officer. Non-gang related murders are most likely a domestic relationship gone extremely south.
    So Nick, are *you* involved in gang or expecting an ex to hunt your arse down and kill you?

    Because firearms are so flippin' difficult to get a hold of here, they only get used in *big* crime. Right now there's something like 10 additional handguns floating around in Sydney's criminal circles. Why? Because they hit armoured vans. How? Because they took them off the security guys. But they only took them off 10 people, out of a limited pool of people allowed to carry a firearm.

    Let's give this some thought: if 1 house has a gun in the bedside table, and someone breaks in while the owner's away, and finds said gun, there're how many guns in criminal hands and *not* where it should be? Will the criminal leave it at home the next time they go to "work"? Doubt it. Now because he's armed, he will either become more brazen and hit a shop or a pub, or go for something bigger.

    Now how many houses in America do you suppose there are where they really don't practice proper gun securing measures?? Yup a whole lot!

    Now then let's do some maths: pretend a community of say 100,000, 45% have 1 gun in the home, and of them 30% do not securely store their hand gun. What are the odds that a break and enter will come up with a gun? Pretty good odds eh? So the reality is, is that it's extremely *negligent* gun owners who are feeding the problem.

    In a way, even crime responds to economic theory. The higher the initial costs, the less likely to resort to violence. As in a break and enter will try to avoid the owner being home, as opposed to one who's packing.

  • "4. In the end everyone will talk in circles for a week or two and nothing at all will happen, and the status quo is always their preferred outcome"

    Bingo. Hierarchy wins, again.

  • This is my experience, so obvsly, make of it what you will. I am English, live in DC (where I was a victim of an attempted mugging- it's not a fancy-schmancy area), and cover international conflicts both large and small for a living. And I have to tell you, whenever an American blathers on about how they need a gun "for personal protection", I howl with laughter, sometimes inside, often outside. I have been to, variously, Iraq, Afghanistan, Naxal controlled areas of India, Sri Lanka during her ongoing civil war, Burma-border areas, Aceh, PNG, etc., etc. Always unarmed. Often alone. Almost never with any kind of security, unless I am embedded. And when you're as small as me, a knife isn't much of an option. I have created my own version of personal protection, but, frankly, when you consider the actual risks of what I do versus the average American's chances of being caught in a terrorist attack, mass shooting, what have you, in America, I can't help but think, "what a bunch of big girl's blouses!".

  • airguitarnightmare says:

    Knives and baseball bats don't accidentally end up killing bystanders when the assailant misses or they pass clean through the target. Guns make killing and injuring much easier, and much less easy to control. That said, an outright ban probably won't work in this country, and it isn't constitutional anyway (thanks, right-wing SCOTUS). So I guess there are no good answers.

    Am I the only one who thinks having a private prison system is nucking futs?

  • What seems to come to light from Ed's blog is that government in the US, at all levels, tends more to react to a social-cultural problem by finding a way to generate a revenue stream, rather than a meaningful solution to the issue. For instance, the huge prison population in the US is largely a result of the 'war on drugs' as opposed to 'plain old anti-social violent offenders. Lots of money passing hands in the black market, gun trade, law enforcement, legal system, and corrections. Why would anyone want to 'fix' that, eh?Our public officals are actually double and even tripple dipping. How lucrative. Why would they ever want to actually provide meanigful solutions to these social problems? And, in fact, I would assert that even the 'solutions' are not considered seriously unless they are, first and foremost, generating a nice fat cash flow for some special interest group with political clout. B oth parties in the U.S pander to this money machine. No heros on either side of the aisle.

    SO…with such thieves running the system, I will keep my guns, thank you very much. 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you!'

  • And no, I am not missing the fact that Ms. Giffords doesn't seem to fit this cynical point of view. Government refers to these people as 'colateral damage' if they are US detractors and 'public servants tragically struck down in their prime' if they are US officials.

  • The hidden assumption in your argument was:

    5. Any social or civic problem will only be treated for a single root/contributing cause.

    That is, the successful reframing you speak of suggests that Americans refuse to simultaneously accept:
    – The AZ shootings highlight the need for proactive mental healthcare
    – Our gun laws are broken

    And also, Americans seem to think that a 100% success rate is reasonable. (Bad stuff is going to happen, no matter what. If you cannot accept any failure, especially a severe one, than you need to understand that nothing will get done, and the society will crumble out of being unproductive.)

    Of course, I'm also entertained at the conflating of rural, Northern California with Orange County, and with a hillbilly dialect. Ed, for consistency, you should have changed Orange County to Blackhawk or something, and it will work better if us northern Californians take on a more homosexual speaking affectation.

  • The next time Liberals have full control, I believe a Constitutional way out of the Gun Control Woods is ammunition and re-loading materials restrictions.

    Without ammo, a gun is just metal, wood, and plastic.

    With extra-legislative agency actions (a la EPA) availble to the Feds, we could get control through environmental effects of lead, explosives, the various chemicals involved, etc.

    Although such restrictions would produce a thriving illegal trade in the items, but unlike drugs, the finished product and the constituent parts are much more dense than most other contraband. Any significant volume of the goods are going to be very heavy.

    Further, the metals are relatively easy to detect and so are many of the chemicals. Maybe I'm underselling criminal ingenuity…

    Is this too facile Constitutional mental gymnastics to try to separate the ammo from the gun?


  • Hazy Davy- I don't think there is a hidden assumption. I don't think 'the' solution is anymore complex, however, than the mess we live with now. It just may not be as profitable or politically desireable for the ruling class.

    Nor does anyone in America need a mass murder to recognize the need for proactive mental health care. We have our celebrities to make it crystal clear.

    As to the pursuit of 100% success rates, as someone else has pointed out, there are approx 200,000,000 guns in the US. (Is that only in the hands of civilians, legally?) So with 'only' -say-2 million violent crimes committed with a firearm, then we are looking at a 'problem' of 1%of the guns.

    And lastly, as to the hillbilly dialect and homosexual affectation for northern California, They are not incongruous. I can remember the wonderful scene in 'Deliverance' (yes filmed near my home in Georgia) 'Yew gotta purdy mouth boy. Squeel like a pig for me boy…!' Now THAT is an affectation.

  • xynzee: Your argument (and Ed's) that people won't seek help for mental health issues is exactly why restrictions must be limited to those who are legally determined to be mentally ill or who have been involuntarily committed. People need to know that they won't lose their rights if they see a psychiatrist. Loughner may not have been stopped (though we'll never know what might have happened had police followed up on his threats and ramblings prior to the shooting), but as Hazy Davy says expecting a 100% success rate from any measure is unreasonable.

    As for why I own a gun, self-defense isn't the primary reason. I own them mostly for recreation, as well as the Constitutional issues outlined in the 90-something comments of Ed's other gun post. I am glad I have them in some instances. Back when I lived in a much crappier building than I do now, I worked the late shift. I'd get home around 1 AM and stay up until about 4. The only other person up that late was the building's drug dealer (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what was going on–I'm not sure why else someone would drive up at 3AM, flash their lights three times, and have someone come out and hand them something through the window). Luckily, there was never an incident. But being on a ground-floor apartment with a big bay window in front and people buying drugs outside made me want something handy.

    As for theft, I agree that firearms should be properly secured. But holding a gun owner responsible for the criminal actions of another person–actions of which the gun owner was a victim, no less–is not the way to do it. Education is a better option that criminal prosecution.

  • I wonder how long before our economy consists of locking up half the population and paying the other half to watch them?

  • displaced Capitalist says:

    @Major Kong: that would make for an interesting work of Sci-fi. Maybe Philip K. Dick already wrote about it?

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