On Violence in America

Speech by Bill Bradley
at the Legal Community Against Violence Dinner

San Francisco, California
June 18, 1999

Bill Bradley
Bob Butler

Two days ago, I talked about the four freedoms I believe we must commit ourselves to guaranteeing for our children: freedom from want, freedom from illness, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from fear. Tonight, I want to talk about fear and the violence that has produced it.

Franklin Roosevelt's four freedoms were of speech, of religion, from fear and from want. The nature of 'freedom' in America is clearly shifting. From the Bill of Rights to FDR to Bradley, one moves from the 'freedom of' civil liberties of Locke and Jefferson, such as freedoms of speech, press, religion and privacy, to more materialistic 'freedom from' guarantees, such as Bradley's freedom from want, illness, ignorance and fear. It was once considered self evident that government existed to guarantee life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness. Bradley seems to be trying to guarantee happiness. The newer 'freedoms from' are no doubt worthy, but should they be sought at the expense of the older 'freedoms of?'

If you've read the newspapers, watched television, talked with parents, had a casual conversation with colleagues, or lived in America over the last two months, you know about the fear of violence that has left a trail of tears, along with broken dreams, broken promises, and broken hearts in communities all across America.

The fear is real. But what you don't hear as much about is the fact that a graduating senior today is less likely to have tried drugs and alcohol than twenty years ago. Today's senior is less likely to get pregnant while still a teen and more likely to believe in God. Our children are basically good children. Our parents are good parents, trying to raise good children. The American people are a good people.

So why is it so difficult in this country to have a rational dialogue about reducing gun violence, built around the commonsense notion that it is in the interests of our children and families to do so? Why are our conversations based on what polls, focus groups, or political calculation tell us is the least likely to offend any voters? Why should our leaders self-censor their proposals on gun violence to what they think Congress might be willing to pass, as opposed to what might work?

I believe a president has to trust the American people enough to be honest about the issues facing our nation. And, let's be honest - any conversation about reducing violence has to begin with talking about guns.

Despite the assassinations of our political leaders and heroes over the last four decades, despite the fact that the number of Americans murdered in the last ten years is double the number killed in the Vietnam War, despite the fact that thirteen children every day are killed by guns - we have allowed the terms of the discussion to be defined within a narrow context that often has little to do with the realities of life in America. Often, it seems as though the only voices heard are the small numbers at either end of the spectrum - those who believe in no guns, and those who believe in no regulation of guns. We end up with a shrill and stale debate that offers false choices and little hope of reducing the carnage in America.

Very true. There are fanatic extremists on either side. Neither group has a clear majority, let alone the supermajority required to legitimately and legally modify the Bill of Rights.

The source of this frustrating and, ultimately, tragic debate is the Second Amendment. The NRA and its allies take the view that the Second Amendment is absolute - that any regulation of any gun, regardless of how deadly or destructive, infringes on their individual right to "bear arms." As a result, they have tenaciously and effectively fought all attempts to regulate the manufacture, distribution, registration, and licensing of guns. They have gone so far as to oppose the banning of assault weapons and cop killer bullets - all weapons that have no sporting or hunting purpose and exist for only one purpose: to destroy human life. They have resorted to slandering the ATF as "jack-booted government thugs" and falsely accused them of wearing "Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms." And just two weeks after the last funeral for the victims of the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, the NRA sent letters to its 2.6 million members warning that President Clinton would "demand that you pay the price for the insanity of the killers."

And indeed, people like Bill Bradley and Bill Clinton have been repeatedly used the Columbine shootings to increase the emotional tensions of the gun debate, to demonize political opponents, to further their political ends. Three times in On Violence in America Bradley exploits the emotion and tragedy of Columbine. While the language of the NRA letter is extreme and unfortunate, Bradley proves again and again that the logic and fact of the warning is absolutely correct.

Prior to the Civil War, there was a spiral of rhetoric and violence as the issues of the time were debated, first with words, and later with bullets. Bleeding Kansas and John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid established that people felt strong for both sides of the issue, and were ready to fight. Each speech had to be answered with heat. Each act of violence had to be avenged.

Waco, Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City marked a similar but aborted spiral of violence. Before that time, the rhetoric of the gun debate had been escalating. It is not surprising that with a values issue the extreme rhetoric eventually overflowed to violence. It is very disappointing that the government stepped over the line first. The cries of the people and press were not for revenge, but that the violence must stop. The FBI's and ATF's rules of engagement were updated. The federal government abuse of lethal force ended, or at least has been considerably restrained. McVeigh became not a hero and martyr for his cause, but an criminal to be repudiated. The gun issue has the potential to spill beyond a war of words and votes and law. At the moment, it has not. Let the cease fire hold.

It is not surprising that when the debate was going violent, that the rhetoric was extreme. I concur with Bradley that extreme emotion is unfortunate, perhaps even dangerous. One might judge the NRA's statements extreme. One might also claim that whatever language necessary to force Washington to moderate the ATF's use lethal force was appropriate. One should with equal vehemence reject the Oklahoma city bombing, but not entirely forget why the bomb went off on the anniversary of Waco.

I view Bradley's "On Violence in America" as inflammatory. His statistics are loaded. His law is questionable. His language is highly emotional. On a values issue, this is almost expected. When one knows deep down in one's heart what must be done, law, fact and language become soft plastic to be twisted and molded to achieve the values driven goal. The Second Amendment advocates know equally deep down that their exact opposite values must prevail. I shan't claim all NRA statistics are fair and balanced, or that their presentation of law is uniquely true. Congress definitely does have the power to organize and discipline the armed body of the people. No one should suggest the NRA and other Second Amendment activists are unemotional and objective.

The line might be drawn at demonizing one's enemies, at presenting black and false motivations. It would be preferred that logic rather than emotion settle the issue. It isn't going to happen. This is an emotional issue. Many feel threatened by violence. Should the threat be reduced by having the government take away the criminal's gun, or by being ready to defend oneself? Does the responsibility for our lives and security rest with the government, or with ourselves? There is not going to be unanimous consent on this. Those who disagree are going to disagree with heat. At least let's all be careful about painting those who disagree with cloven hooves, horns and a tail. Down that path flows fire. If the NRA is over the line in its statements above, so is Bradley throughout his presentation. Unfortunately, this is the norm.

On the other side, there are some in the gun control community who also have an absolutist view of the Second Amendment. They believe that the government has the right to regulate all guns out of existence. They sometimes seem to demonize all gun owners as an extreme faction aligned with the most radical elements of the NRA, when the truth is actually quite different.

So like two lumbering warriors, both sides have been fighting over the same sacred ground of liberty - brandishing the arguments of no guns versus no regulation of guns. The effect of this unproductive debate has produced policy choices that don't reflect the complexity of our jurisprudence or the texture of where we live our lives - in real communities with real people whose lives are shattered every day by the haunting hail of gun fire. And it has produced a thirty-year legislative roadblock that has prevented almost every effective and meaningful reform that would reduce gun violence from being adopted.

This I know for sure: In America, no individual or group can claim to have a monopoly on freedom. We have fought and struggled too long in our own country and around the world to preserve our basic freedom to allow it to be hijacked by any group who seeks to manipulate it for their own political gain at the expense of the public good.

Every now and then, a tragedy occurs like the school shootings and the bombing in Oklahoma City where we react collectively as one nation and one family. Where the event touches a deep chord in the American soul, and we begin to look inward at who we are and what we have become.

Now is such a time and here is what we see. We live in a society with over 200 million guns where thirteen children a day are killed by them in homicides, suicides, or unintentional shootings. In 1996 alone, 4,643 children and teenagers were killed by guns. According to a 1997 Centers for Disease Control report, the rate of children up to fourteen years old killed by guns is nearly twelve times higher in the United States than in twenty-five other industrialized countries combined.

We see a society where, until recently, there were more gun dealers than gas stations and grocery stores. Where there are roughly seven gun dealers for every McDonald's. These dealers sell an estimated 7.5 million guns every year - of which 3.5 million are handguns. In 1996, handguns were used to murder two people in New Zealand, fifteen in Japan, thirty in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, 213 in Germany, and 9,390 in the United States.

Bradley is comparing small countries to large. He is also looking at gun homicide rates, not homicide rates. Yes, gun control laws cause murderers to switch weapons, but do they reduce the risk of homicide? He neglects to mention that New Zealand is not a gun control country, quite the opposite. While his numbers check out, they are clearly selected to create a distorted picture, with no respect to the actual gun policies of the nations mentioned. He is, in short, making no attempt at objectively presenting the problem. The CDC report is equally infamous for distorted statistics. The following chart shows homicide rates per 100,000 population for the countries Bradley lists, plus a Europe heavy sampling of other countries to round out the picture.
X Axis is Homicide Rate per 100,000 population.
Y Axis, for blue countries, gives population of the country.
US and Canada are in Red and Green, Y axis arbitrary.
Click for sources and details.
I'm from New England. At 2.6 per 100,000, the threat to my life is not out of line with the risks encountered in other countries. I'm Caucasian. At 3.8, the risks should I travel the country are high compared to the norm of the developed countries, but not exceedingly high. This is cause for concern and work, but not cause for panic or congressional suppression of the Bill of Rights.

For blacks, at 23 deaths per 100,000, the risk is literally off the above chart. If the width of the chart were doubled, it would still be off the chart. We have a race problem. Problems with civil rights, equality, economic opportunity, drugs and unequal law enforcement are not going to be solved by gun control. Bradley is trying to frighten with very scary looking numbers. The numbers are biased to maximize emotion. The fear and concern are valid, but should be focused on the correct people and the correct problems. Half our homicides come from 20% of our population.

Second Amendment advocates favor internal US statistics to foreign comparisons. In America, there have been several major gun control experiments. These coincide with other government social controls. The Reconstruction, Prohibition and War on Drugs overlap the major periods of gun control. Social controls lead to violence, which leads to gun control, which either fails to help or makes things worse. Some claim the homicide rates during the Reconstruction, Prohibition and War on Drugs indicate a clear failure of gun control. Certainly, gun control did not overcome the effects of the other social experiments on lethal violence. Still, presenting gun control as resulting in increased homicide rates without mentioning other forces involved is no more honest than Bradley's statistics.

US Homicide Rates, 1900 - 1998
Stay the course. Not time for a radical policy change.
Continue passing "shall issue" state laws protecting the right to bear arms.
Continue increasing police presence.
Continue restricting criminal use of guns.
Fully finance prosecution of current gun laws before creating new restrictions.

Prior to 1903, fit males were required to keep arms, ammunition and other military equipment sufficient to answer an emergency. There were no emergencies. The militia, while under arms, faced no real threat. Their training and discipline reflected the degree of threat. The militia became more a social club than an organized force. In 1903, with Teddy Roosevelt considering the militia useless, the militia's budget was withdrawn, its training entirely ceased, its chain of command was abandoned, and the homicide rate started to soar.

While one can know the homicide rates, it is harder to determine what causes the changes. I have called out the Dick Act, Prohibition and War on Drugs as the major factors of the 20th Century. This certainly matches the chart, but causality can be argued. The Clinton administration is a time of rapidly decreasing homicide rates. Is it increased police presence, the Brady Bill, Generation X being replaced in young adulthood by a kinder gentler Millennial Generation, a healthy economy, state concealed carry shall issue laws enforcing the Second Amendment, increased prison populations, or perhaps some combination? John Lott in his book More Guns Less Crime did provide some answers. Based on modern statistical methods and extensive FBI crime records, concealed carry shall issue laws protecting the right to keep and bear arms were shown to be a statistically significant factor in reducing violent crime. The Brady Bill and similar gun restriction regulations are not statistically significant factors.

This is just a brief introduction to the great gun control / Second Amendment statistics throwing contest. Both sides present impressive sounding numbers that can be significantly deflated by counter arguments. John Lott's study uses the largest database and most modern statistical methods. It has thus far withstood scrutiny. Bradley's numbers do not at all reflect the state of the debate. He has to badly distort the numbers to justify the desired tone of fear and panic. The emotional tone of both sides reminds me of the 1950s commie menace witch-hunts. This is unfortunate, but understandable.

Sources and more depth on the use and abuse of statistics in the gun debate may be found in my Liars sure Figure pages.

Furthermore, we see a society where hamburgers and children's cribs have more regulations than guns. There are no federal manufacturing or safety standards that govern how guns are made or marketed. The TEC DC-9 semi-automatic pistol, one of the weapons that was used in the Columbine High School massacre, is made by a Miami-based company. Their ads bragged that the gun's finish is "resistant to fingerprints," a marketing campaign clearly targeted to those who engage in criminal activity.

We could do without the "resistant to fingerprints" feature.

By contrast, think about this: The Consumer Products Safety Commission requires that the slats on cribs be no more than two and three-eighths of an inch apart, to reduce the possibility of children getting stuck between them. The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration recalls children's car seats that are found to be unsafe, or even just unreliable. And the Consumer Products Safety Commission mandates that safety caps be put on medicine bottles to prevent children from accidentally poisoning themselves.

We are willing to regulate to protect our children in many areas - food, toys, clothing, and equipment. But not guns.

There are, of course, no constitutional amendments guaranteeing without infringement the right to keep and bear food, toys, clothing and equipment. The Constitution of the United States of America should not be considered irrelevant.

We have become a culture where in neighborhoods children once played in the streets, police now draw chalk silhouettes on the sidewalks.

Where businesses once thrived, storeowners now speak to customers through grilles and bulletproof glass.

Where neighbors once left their doors unlocked, private security guards now patrol walled-in communities, protecting those who can afford it in gated citadels of illusory security.

The fear of violence stops people from going to a PTA or church meeting at night. It stops us from reaching out to our neighbor. It robs us of our liberty. It destroys the world of trust.

To achieve meaningful compromise and discussion, we have to be careful about excessive emotion and avoid demonizing one's political opponents.


On Violence in America

On Violence in America 2

War Gaming Columbine

Regulating the Militia

War Gaming Columbine 2