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Inside The Conservative Campaign To Stop Cops From Enforcing Federal Gun Laws

Dana Liebelson   |   February 26, 2015    7:34 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Conservative lawmakers in at least 11 states are pushing legislation that would prevent state law enforcement from enforcing some or all federal gun restrictions. Proponents of these bills are emboldened by the success of marijuana legalization at the state level and claim that federal law enforcement is stretched too thin to stop them.

Right now, there are a number of federal laws restricting various kinds of gun use. For example, felons, fugitives, people convicted of domestic abuse misdemeanors and people subject to certain domestic restraining orders are restricted from buying guns under federal law. And no civilians are allowed to buy newly manufactured machine guns.

In Montana, the state House passed legislation earlier this month that would prohibit the enforcement of any potential federal ban or restriction on firearms and magazines. If a Montana cop did enforce such a federal law, it would be considered theft of public money. The Montana bill says that state employees are still allowed to enforce some federal laws -- for example, the ban on machine guns. But most states that have introduced this type of legislation have used broader language.

An Arizona bill that passed two state Senate committees this month says that state employees can't enforce "all federal [laws]... that are in violation of the Second Amendment" if they "violate the Second Amendment's true meaning." That bill does not address federal restrictions on domestic abusers or felons. And Arizona state law is weaker than the federal law in some respects. The state does prohibit people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning firearms -- but only while they are serving their probation.

The so-called "nullification" movement isn't entirely new, but it has taken off since President Barack Obama was elected, and it appears to have been further spurred on by the anti-gun sentiments many people expressed after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

"I am concerned with Obama, his admin[istration] has been hostile to gun rights," state Rep. Art Wittich (R), the sponsor of the Montana legislation, told The Huffington Post in an email.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, was involved in writing the first draft of that bill. He said he discussed the concept in 2009 while waiting to appear on Glenn Beck's Fox News show with Andrew Napolitano, the senior judicial analyst for Fox News, in New York City. As Marbut remembers it, Napolitano told him: "All you need to do is don't help [the federal government] enforce these federal laws, because they don't have the manpower to do it."

Napolitano did not respond to a request for comment, although The Huffington Post verified that he did appear on Beck's show with Marbut in 2009 to discuss gun legislation.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that bills like the one in Montana could have effects beyond a simple symbolic statement. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in Printz v. United States that the federal government cannot force local chief law enforcement officers to fulfill federal tasks. And the resources of the federal government are stretched thin. In that sense, backers of these bills say they are relying on the same reasoning that allows states to flout the federal ban on marijuana possession.

"I've seen how quickly the federal government had to back off in response to marijuana legalization measures in Colorado and Washington state, and found this to be a good strategy in support of our right to keep and bear arms as well," said state Sen. Kelli Ward (R), who introduced the legislation in Arizona.

Ward said she consulted with representatives from the Arizona Citizens Defense League, the Tenth Amendment Center and the National Rifle Association. Michael Boldin, founder and executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, also pointed to the Obama administration's failure to enforce marijuana laws as evidence that these bills could succeed.

The way this could play out, said David Kopel, an adjunct constitutional law professor at the University of Denver, is that if the federal government were to ban assault weapons, and then a local cop pulled someone over for a traffic violation and saw an assault weapon in the car, the cop could simply give the guy a ticket for the traffic violation and send him on his way.

A handful of states have passed nullification laws in the last few years. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is challenging a Kansas law that goes so far as to declare that Kansas firearms and accessories are "not subject to any federal law, treaty, federal regulation, or federal executive action." (A similar Montana law was struck down in 2013 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)

The Brady Campaign argues that the Kansas law is reminiscent of certain states' efforts in the 1950s to fight federal law requiring the integration of African-American students into all-white schools. Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Campaign, told HuffPost that these kinds of gun laws are "blatantly unconstitutional" and "extraordinarily dangerous" if permitted by the courts.

The Obama administration has agreed that the Kansas law is unconstitutional. "I am writing to inform you that federal law enforcement agencies... will continue to execute their duties to enforce all federal firearm laws," Attorney General Eric Holder told Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in an April 2013 letter.

Better Than Somalia -- How to Feel Good About Gun Violence

Evan DeFilippis   |   February 23, 2015    3:59 PM ET

A YouTube video entitled, "Number One With A Bullet", recently made rounds on the Internet. It defended American gun policy on the basis that, despite having high levels of per capita gun ownership, the United States has relatively low levels of per capita murders compared to other countries. The video immediately became viral, receiving over 300,000 views in a week, and was touted by pro-gun sites as definitive proof that firearms are innocuous.

In the video, Bill Whittle, a conservative blogger, shows that the United States ranks No. 111 in the world in terms of per capita murder rates (as evidenced by a neat Wikipedia table), which "puts us near the top of the bottom half [internationally]." Whittle then uses this methodology to re-assure Americans, "maybe it's not the guns..."

Whittle is not the only gun apologist who has made some variation of this comparison. Social media abounds with infographics purporting to demonstrate that the United States really isn't all that violent. John Lott, a discredited pro-gun academic, has drawn favorable comparisons of the U.S. with violence-torn Mexico. A widely cited yet thoroughly debunked law review article by Don Kates and Gary Mauser invokes Russia to let America off the hook. All of these attempts though violate the central imperative in statistical analysis of comparing likes to likes.

How Not To Compare International Homicide Rates

Unsurprisingly, the United States does indeed have a lower homicide rate than countries in the middle of civil war, run by despots, or struggling with crippling poverty. Should we really be patting ourselves on the back though that our homicide rate just barely beats out Yemen, number 109 on the list, and the fifth most dangerous country in the world? Should we be bragging that our country has less per capita murder than Somalia or Zimbabwe -- countries that are literally run by warlords? Comparing the U.S. with countries that have nothing in common only guarantees that whatever the true relationship between guns and homicide is, we won't be able to find it.

Indeed, using Whittle's methodology, you can make almost all of America's problems disappear overnight by simply expanding our peer group. For example, our infant mortality rate is the highest among industrialized nations, but if we include all of the world's countries in our comparison, including those where children regularly die from diarrhea and measles within a couple months of being born, we rank No. 34!

Further, a closer inspection of the most violent countries on the list actually undermines Whittle's case. As Elisabeth Rosenthal reported for the New York Times, the Central American countries topping the violence charts are not gun-free socialist utopias gone wrong, but rather are suffering from a plague of heavily armed security guards. While these countries do have strict gun laws on paper, these are rarely enforced, leading to a guns-everywhere free-for-all. For example, Guatemala, which has the 6th highest homicide rate, has an estimated 900,000 unregistered firearms in circulation. While the country only has 20,000 police officers, they have 41,000 registered private security guards with another 80,000 unregistered guards. With all of these ostensible "good guys with guns," Guatemala is not a "gun-free zone" by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, the US Travel Department issues the following warning about Guatemala: "Violent crime is a serious concern due to endemic poverty, an abundance of weapons, a legacy of societal violence, and weak law enforcement and judicial systems" (emphasis added).

What A Valid Analysis Reveals

But that's clearly not the appropriate way to think about public health problems. Serious academics restrict their analysis to countries that have attained a certain level of gross national income (GNI). This is extremely important because it enables researchers to control for confounding variables that may drive the homicide rate upwards, such as the presence of ethnic or religious conflict, or widespread poverty. One way to do this is by using the World Bank's definition of a high-income OECD country. Thirty-one countries meet the criteria of a per capita GNI >$12,616.

When academics further refine this list of countries using socio-economic factors they reveal a harrowing picture. Compared with other high-income countries, the United States has a homicide rate 6.9 times higher, a difference driven almost exclusively by firearm homicide rates that are 19.5 times higher. The same is true for firearm suicide and unintentional firearm death, for which the United States has rates that are 5.8 and 5.2 times higher, respectively, than other industrialized countries. A 2013 study also showed that among the highest income countries "there was a significant positive correlation between guns per capita per country and the rate of firearm-related deaths." A recent study in the American Journal of Medicine also showed that among the highest income countries, "there was a significant positive correlation between guns per capita per country and the rate of firearm-related deaths." The authors concluded that: "the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer."

Research on female homicide victimization reveals an even more startling picture: the United States is the sole outlier in female homicide rates among high-income countries. Even though American females represent only 32 percent of the overall female population among industrialized nations, the United States accounts for 84 percent of all female firearm homicides.

Ironically, when unflattering comparisons have been made between the United States and our industrialized peers in the past, gun advocates are quick to point out cultural and demographic differences that ostensibly make such comparisons unfair. Gun advocates often mutter something about gangs or African Americans to explain away the differences between the United States and its peers. It is instructive to note that gun advocates will insist that the United States can't be compared to our industrialized peers, and then reassure us that the United States is doing a little bit better than countries in the middle of civil war.

A Gun Violence Vaccine

Mike Weisser   |   February 23, 2015   11:09 AM ET

Sean Palfrey is a Boston-based pediatrician who has been a long-time advocate for improving children's welfare through aggressive public health strategies, including the use of vaccinations to protect kids from all sorts of disease. His latest comment in this regard appeared last week in HuffPost, and while you might wonder what this has to do with guns, indulge me for a few paragraphs and let me explain.

The recent public spat over the efficacy of vaccinating children erupted after a measles outbreak was traced to an amusement park in Southern California, which then prompted the Republicans to try and score a few anti-immigration points by forecasting a potential catastrophe due to infections spread by unvaccinated illegal immigrants, which then led to the usual Republican pandering about why government should be getting into the vaccination game at all. And that a physician turned presidential candidate used to be against vaccinations but now isn't sure what he's for or against, has just muddied the waters a little more.

For a moment, let's put all that nonsense behind us and focus on what Sean Palfrey really says. The point he's making about vaccinations is they protect the human species against diseases for which there is no cure once the infection occurs. In this respect, vaccines become the cure for certain diseases through prevention, whereas we usually think of being cured as what doctors do to us after we get sick. We wouldn't need government-mandated vaccinations if everyone shared Sean Palfrey's belief about the positive effects of this proactive response to medical risk. But prevention of disease is simply too important to be left to everybody's individual choice.

One disease which continues to escape government-mandated controls is something called gun violence, which kills more than 30,000 Americans each year. And if the NRA and other pro-gun folks want to continue to debase this discussion by claiming that these deaths have nothing to do with guns, that's fine. But notice that I'm not casting blame on anyone for these gun deaths; I'm not saying that people with guns are good or bad. I'm simply saying that, at the end of the day, if someone puts a loaded gun to their own head or to someone else's head and pulls the trigger, I guarantee you that someone will be dead. And death from anything other than natural causes is a medical issue and if it is not brought under control, it constitutes a medical risk.

A recent study confirms what I have long suspected, namely, that most people who visit doctors really don't care, nor are they insulted or angered when the physician asks them whether they own guns. And while the study was based on a small sample of patients, it was conducted in Texas, where opposition to more restrictive gun laws ranges from fierce to worse. The fact is that nobody ever committed an act of gun violence, no matter how it's defined, without first getting hold of a gun. And since, by definition, none of the 31,000 Americans who will die from gunshots this year will die a natural death, physicians need to adopt, in the words of Sean Palfrey, the strongest possible defense in order to go on the offense regarding the medical risks of guns.

If a gun-owning patient believes that anything said by a doctor about guns is out of bounds, he's not required to accept the doctor's advice. And God knows there are plenty of us walking around, sicut me, refusing to follow medical advice about our smoking, our drinking, our guns or our weight. But the government's inability to go on the offense about gun violence has absolutely nothing to do with any evidence-based knowledge that having guns around reduces medical risk. And until a credible, evidence-based argument proving that guns reduce harm is produced by the pro-gun side, physicians should continue to ask patients to immunize themselves against gun violence by getting rid of the guns.

Six Thoughts on Guns and Freedom

Peter Schwartz   |   February 18, 2015   12:51 AM ET

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player 
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage 
And then is heard no more: it is a tale 
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 
Signifying nothing. - Macbeth

I first drafted this essay nearly one year ago, following the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association in Indianapolis in April 2014. With the NRA now publicizing its 2015 annual meeting in Nashville, seems like a good time to revisit last year's frenzied, speaking-in-tongues tent revival, along with some of the ideas on the relationship between guns and freedom prompted by NRA nuttiness. Because... ya know... nothing much has changed.

* * *

The National Rifle Association held its annual meeting in Indianapolis this weekend, which quickly devolved into a kind of last days ecstasy. Highlights included a day-long seminar on how to evade laws that restrict access to guns, the unveiling of a television advertisement that depicts the United States as a place where filthy crimes go unpunished and killers and con-artists prey upon anyone who still follows the rules, and Sarah Palin memorably telling us that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists. The fierce piety that can allow NRA members to oorah to this chaos invites modest scrutiny.

1. Demographics

The demographics of gun ownership clearly are evolving, and they don't favor gun owners, who are predominantly older white males in rural parts of the South and Midwest. In the next 50 years, the nation will become more urban and less white. More young people will grow up in an environment where there is no functional need to own a gun and where the idea of owning a gun seems alien. For these reasons, trend lines do not favor gun owners.

Of course, guns are prevalent with young minorities who live in cities, but gun possession among this population is largely associated with gangs and drugs. In other words, gun possession within this urban youth population is an immensely destructive accoutrement of youth, not an article of religious faith. Revamping our drug and incarceration policies to keep kids in school and out of jail, and to remove the market incentives for illegal drug trafficking, would likely make a big dent in the percentage of young minorities living in cities who possess firearms.

2. Protection

Notably, the percentage of Americans who say they own a gun for protection has risen precipitously at the same time that crime has fallen dramatically. For this reason, it is difficult to make the argument that the perceived need for "protection" is based in reality, on actual probabilities of meaningful threat. Instead, we must wonder whether the urge to own a gun for personal security rests more on a different, less concrete understanding of what constitutes a threat, and how best to handle that threat, whether it is imagined or real.

Guns give people the fantasy of control, not the reality of control, so to understand the firearms ownership obsession, we need to appreciate what fantasies are at work. For example, there is a significant fear among whites of black youths. But most violence involving young black males is seemingly geographically specific, committed against other black males, who more than likely know each other personally. This reality removes any reasonable argument for stand-your-ground laws, concealed weapons laws, open carry laws, and let's-allow-guns-in-schools-parks-churches-and-bars laws.

3. Constitution

Second Amendment zealots appear not to understand how far they have removed themselves from the global mainstream when it comes to opinions about gun ownership. Citizens of other nations generally feel no need to own guns and their rate of gun violence is far lower than it is in the United States. For this reason, we should not underestimate how weird and creepy our national obsession with firearms appears to people in other countries around the world.

Appealing to an abstract "Constitutional" or "God-given" right to own guns in response to the condemnation of pretty much everyone else in the world really is not useful. Most legal scholars would agree our 225-year-old Constitution, which is one of the oldest in existence, and which has never had a fixed meaning but has always been in instrument of political conflict, is long-past due for an overhaul. The U.S. Constitution was drafted for a nation entirely different from the country in which we now live. As for our right to own guns being God-given, well, maybe we should let God speak for herself on this matter.

4. Politics

People in the United States generally don't question the need for our state governments to license both cars and their drivers. It is self-evident to just about everyone that cars in poor condition, or in the possession of the wrong people, become weapons that menace our safety.

The logic for gun-control laws is virtually identical to the logic for licensing cars and drivers. And so it should not surprise us that one of the biggest obstacles to reasonable gun-control laws, particularly in less densely populated states, is the outsized influence within their governing bodies of white, male, and rural representatives. It is precisely among these populations where one would expect the logic for regulating ownership and use of both firearms and motor vehicles to be almost equally suspect.

The intimidating rhetoric and organizational virtuosity of the National Rifle Association reinforces the rural-white-male bias within state legislatures. The effect has been to give interests favoring extreme gun rights disproportionate power to open the floodgates to gun ownership and to block laws that would enact even the mildest background check or gun safety provisions. Of course the other major source of influence in this debate, when one looks further under the skirts of the NRA, is the firearms industry.

5. Human Nature

Guns don't kill people, people do.

When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

For decades, gun rights advocates have parroted these slogans without really feeling any need to justify their claims logically or support them with evidence. Indeed, logic and evidence both clearly indicate that the abstract concept of a "person" is woefully inadequate for capturing the range of psychological circumstances and conditions to which every one of us is subject on a daily basis. At any given moment, even the most rational or disciplined or experienced among us is capable of acting irresponsibly or dangerously -- out of rage or despair or incompetence or inattention or indifference.

We are imperfect beings. Put a perfect tool of destruction and mayhem in our hands, and you can well predict the havoc we are capable of unleashing.

6. Freedom

Gun rights advocates in the United States sequester their odd claims under the sheltering canopy of faith and freedom. Gun ownership has become a bizarre, frenzied religion. A cargo cult that worships the smooth barrel of a gun, a false idol, with its prosthetic, prophetic promise that we can blast our way into Heaven. The language of the Second Amendment has itself become fundamentalist literalism, obsessively parsed for divine meanings and prophecies, the authority that justifies itself. To paraphrase Sarah Palin, violence is how we baptize our enemies and confirm our freedom.

However, neither gun ownership nor the Second Amendment can confer, exalt, or secure freedom. Enhanced destructive capabilities do not make us free. Nor can we subsist on parchment freedoms inscribed in the Constitution. Indeed, to make a piece of technology or a piece of sheepskin the enabling condition for our freedom is to trivialize beyond recognition the meaning of freedom, and its importance to our nation.

Freedom is a spiritual condition of awareness, an intellectual endowment of foresight and reflection, a physical gift of health and wholeness, and a social capacity for conversation and communion. We are free when we can trust the spaces and the silences that separate us from our brothers and sisters, an interim that lets us fully see ourselves, and know ourselves, in the whites of their eyes and in the rise and fall of their breasts.

The gun destroys the interim. The gun takes away our freedom.

Stop Arguing With Guns: The Importance of Knowing When to Back Down

Mike Weisser   |   February 16, 2015    9:17 AM ET

As soon as the word got around last week that a middle-aged, white man allegedly shot three young Muslim-Americans in Chapel Hill, the net exploded with the usual speculation about whether it was a hate crime, an attack on the Muslim religion, a civil rights assault, and so forth and so on. While the police haven't yet ruled out the possibility of religious or ethnic bigotry, the preliminary indication is that the gunfire erupted during a dispute over a parking a car. It seems three young, lovely human beings are dead because nobody could figure out how to find an empty parking space in a wide-open suburban parking zone.

Last year, a highly-decorated, retired police officer walked into a matinee showing of a movie in a suburb of Tampa and found himself sitting behind a young man who was texting messages to his daughter before the movie began. An argument over whether the younger man should continue texting erupted, one thing led to another, the retired cop pulled out a gun and that was that. At the time that these two gentlemen decided that staying put was more important than one of them moving to another location and thus avoiding any problem altogether, the theater audience filled less than 30 seats.

If you haven't figured out the parallel between these two utterly senseless shootings, let me tell you what it is: Nobody knows how to back down. In each situation, a man was legally armed, no doubt walking around with a weapon to protect himself against crime. Of course, the armed guys weren't going to back down. Why should they? They had guns. As for the victims, they weren't about to walk away either. After all, who were they to back down from a dispute in which they no doubt were in the right?

For all the talk about why the good guys need guns to protect everyone from the bad guys, the truth is that more than 90 percent of the 31,000 gun homicides that occur each year are the result of someone's inability to back down. It's what we call a lack of anger management, and if your anger gets out of control, being able to put your hands on a gun won't result in protecting yourself against crime or against anything else, including anger directed at yourself. It will probably result in you or someone else being seriously injured or seriously dead.

According to the FBI, less than 15 percent of homicides each year occur during the commission of a serious crime; i.e., robbery, larceny, burglary or rape. On the other hand, at least 4 out of 5 homicides grow out of arguments, and these arguments involve people who know each other. And we aren't talking about casual acquaintances -- we're talking about people who knew each other on a continuous basis and had been arguing and fighting over a period of time. The personal connection between shooter and victim in domestic disputes accounts for virtually every single killing in which the victim is a female (who are 15 percent of all murder victims each year) and accounts for 100 percent of all suicide victims who, by definition, have allowed their anger at themselves or others to get out of control.

It's important to remember that even when we are dealing with violence as a criminal offense, more than 1 million violent crimes were reported to the police in 2013, of which only 1 percent involved homicides using a gun. And the fact that someone has a propensity to behave violently doesn't ipso facto mean that they would ever express this anger by using a gun. But there is no other form of personal behavior that is as dangerous and costly as pulling a trigger at yourself or someone else. And I don't think we will get very far just by trying to identify the most violent among us and then figuring out how to keep guns out of their hands. Wouldn't it be much easier to just get rid of the guns?

Killing of Muslims at Chapel Hill Used by Inside Edition to Set Up Segment on Parking

Negar Mojtahedi   |   February 13, 2015    4:32 PM ET

2015-02-13-northcarolina.jpg Friends and family sharing victims' photos on Facebook

Outrage is growing online after Inside Edition used the deaths of three North Carolina students to give advice on parking.

The host, Deborah Norville, gave a seemingly quick 20 second voice over, giving bare-bones background information on their murder to segue a segment on how to find parking quicker in the mall while avoiding disputes.

As Norville said, "finding a parking space is one of those things that can push some people over the edge, but there is always a way to find a spot at the mall."

The victims, identified as 23-year-old Deah Shaddy Barakat, his 21-year-old wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister 19-year-old Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were shot to death at a residential complex of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The 46-year-old suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, was arrested and charged with killing the three Muslim students.

Police believe the killing may have been motivated by a neighbor's long-simmering anger over parking, but hate crime has not been ruled out.

Hicks describes himself on social media as a supporter of "Atheists for Equality" and as a "gun- toting" atheist, expressing hate towards all faiths. The whole notion of three people being shot repeatedly in the head has been downplayed to sensitivities over parking. He may not have been a religious fanatic, but he had an ideology. Should we all ignore that he appears to be an anti-religious fanatic? Has the word terrorism by definition now changed to only include Muslims committing heinous crimes?

Whatever your answers may be, one thing's for sure, equating the deaths of three young students to trying to find a parking spot faster at the mall is simply tasteless. Would Inside Edition have presented the story in this manner if the roles were reversed? What if a "gun-toting" Muslim with open hatred towards secularism killed an innocent family of three atheists...?

Excerpt from Inside Edition:

"A tragic shooting over, of all things, police say, a parking space. Three college students in North Carolina are dead. Their neighbor has been charged. Initially, some said it was a hate crime because the victims were Muslim. The cops say they believe the dispute was over parking at an apartment complex. Now, finding a parking space is one of those things that can push some people over the edge, but there is always a way to find a spot at the mall. Jim Moret helps you break the code." Petition

Newlyweds Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Deah Barakat. Source: Facebook page called "Our Three Winners"

Itchy Trigger Finger? How About Itchy Brain?

Wray Herbert   |   February 10, 2015    1:15 PM ET

Police work is very dangerous, often involving bad people with guns, and one of the most dangerous policing tasks is searching and clearing a house. This is where the police go through a building room to room in pursuit of a suspect who may be armed and dangerous. The police officer must be fully prepared to shoot -- finger on the trigger, mind alert -- in case he or she does confront a suspect who is armed and ready to shoot. But the officer must also have the self-restraint to refrain from pulling the trigger if he or she bursts into a room and confronts an innocent bystander.

Getting this right is cognitively challenging, which is one reason innocent people get shot -- not just by the police but by soldiers as well. Shooting a gun involves a complex cascade of actions, each linked to a specific cognitive ability. From a psychological perspective, a police officer in this frightening situation must mentally inhibit an already initiated action -- stop in his tracks, cognitively -- in order to keep from sqeezing the trigger if an innocent person is detected. And it all happens instantaneously.

Psychological scientist Adams Biggs of Duke University has been studying shooting performance and cognition. As part of this project, he has been working with colleagues to link civilian casualties to failures of response inhibition -- and, more importantly, to see if civilian casualties might be reduced by improving trainees' cognitive inhibition abilities. Here's a description of their work:

The scientists recruited young men and women to play a video game called Reload: Target Down. This game is played on Nintendo Wii, which allows players to move a mock firearm in real space and squeeze a realistic trigger. Shooters enter either a simulated apartment or embassy and attempt to kill the bad guys without inadvertently killing innocent civilians or hostages. Each successful killing of a hostile target earns up to 100 points, depending on accuracy, while each accidental killing of a civilian costs 1,000 points. Shooters also earn points by killing the hostile targets quickly, so players are trying for both speed and accuracy at once. The competition for points is merely an incentive for shooters to perform their best under pressure.

The important statistic is total civilian casualties, which the scientists tallied for each volunteer over four rounds of Reload. After the simulated shooting, each volunteer completed four computer tasks, all meant to assess attention and response inhibition. Finally, they completed self-reports on impulsivity, ADHD and autism symptoms.

The idea was to compare each volunteer's response inhibition ability with his or her total civilian casualties to see if this specific cognitive skill is indeed linked to innocent deaths. And it is, clearly. Those with poor inhibitory control and high attentional impulsivity were more likely to shoot civilians in the simulated scenarios. What's more, attention deficits -- but not motor impulsivity deficits -- were significantly linked to innocent deaths, suggesting "an itchy brain more so than an itchy trigger finger."

This is intriguing in itself, but Biggs wanted to go further, to see if cognitive training might actually improve shooting accuracy and decrease civilian casualties. Only some of the volunteers were given three one-hour training sessions on two different inhibition tasks. Others, who served as controls, were trained in visual search techniques. Then all the volunteers played Reload again.

The results, reported in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, were dramatic. Those trained in cognitive inhibition killed significantly fewer innocent civilians this time around, while the controls showed no change. Importantly, subjects with high levels of ADHD symptoms benefited most from the training, suggesting that those with attentional deficits might be identified for training.

These findings could find a practical application, and soon, since response-inhibition training shows exciting potential as a training method for police and the military. The findings might also lead to more insights into cognition and firearms, insights with the potential to reduce society's death toll.

Follow Wray Herbert's reporting on psychological science on The Huffington Post and on Twitter @wrayherbert.

Constitutional Carry: Are the Inmates Finally Taking Over the Asylum?

Mike Weisser   |   February 9, 2015    8:55 AM ET

Before the ink was even dry on the 2008 Heller decision, the gun lobby began to agitate for an extension of this Second Amendment right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense to carrying concealed weapons outside the home as well. The CCW movement, as it is called, spread throughout the United States but with the exception of five states -- AK, AR, AZ, VT, WY. The residents of all the other 45 states must receive a permit for CCW that is separate from any licensing required simply to own a gun.

It's estimated that somewhere around 10 million people now have CCW permits, or roughly 10 percent of the people who admit to legal ownership of guns. To listen to the gun lobby you would think that armed citizens are responsible for the continued decline in violent crime, even though it's anyone's guess as to how many people are actually walking around armed each day. In 2013, roughly 450 people used guns in what is referred to as "justifiable homicide," while that same year at least 500 people accidentally killed themselves or others with guns. The FBI and CDC numbers may be a little off, but this is the only apples-to-apples comparison that can be made about whether guns help us or hurt us -- and please don't waste my time with the nonsense about how millions of crimes are prevented each year by people walking around with guns.

This hasn't stopped the NRA from endlessly screaming that "good guys" with guns will always stop "bad guys" with guns to the point that the movement to issue everyone a CCW license has now begun to shift to the idea that we should be able to walk around with guns, concealed or unconcealed at our option, with no licensing required at all. Called "constitutional carry," as opposed to "concealed carry," the loudest and most active proponents of this new credo can be found in the Lone Star State where this nutty idea sprang from a group of dissident NRA members who took issue with the gun organization's refusal to back the open carry of handguns. And the result was a series of guerrilla-theater events at which these dopes paraded outside and inside stores and fast-food franchises toting their ARs and AKs to show that they had the constitutional right to behave like jerks.

To their credit, Shannon Watts and her ladies have begun a social media campaign about this idiocy with the target being the Raising Cane fast-food chain, which seems to be a particular favorite venue for the crazies who want to show off both their guns and their lack of brains. The leader of this lunatic fringe appears to be Kory Watkins, who briefly posted a video showing him taunting a gun-owning state legislator, accusing the lawmaker of treason, and then stipulating that treason was punishable by "death."

Posting and then quickly deleting controversial messages is a favorite tactic employed by the folks who like to lecture America about their constitutional right to own and carry a gun. Last year, the NRA posted a statement that called the Texas crazies "weird" and asked them to keep their guns out of plain sight. The text was then quickly deleted and in its place appeared an apology to open carry activists in Texas for any "confusion" that the original statement may have caused.

Let me break the news gently to my friends at the NRA: You have only yourselves to blame for spending the last 20 years angrily denouncing anyone who dares to challenge your belief that guns represent a social good. You have only yourselves to blame for shamelessly pandering to imbeciles like Kory Watkins who is probably too much of a nitwit to understand the damage he causes people who genuinely want to legally own and use guns. You accuse Shannon Watts of not representing gun owners when she asks Raising Cane to make their venues gun-free zones. Whom exactly do you now represent?

Are We Really Safer From The Gun Threat?

John A. Tures   |   February 9, 2015    8:35 AM ET

Shortly after the latest school shooting, a murder-suicide, the University of South Carolina announced "the threat has passed." But has it? A rash of potential suicidal gun wielders may make us rethink our safety. And it's been on my mind since we've had two murder-suicides within four miles of my house.

Four miles from where I live in LaGrange, a man, Thomas Jesse Lee, is suspected of gunning down several members of his family, and a girl staying with his step-daughter (who he allegedly asphyxiated), which had our whole county on edge. Two of my students who had graduated were his neighbors. My daughter, who heard it at church, was trembling that night as we tried to tuck her in. Within seconds of learning that the suspect was captured on Monday night, our Cub Scout Den parents happily relayed the news to everyone. The threat had seemingly passed.

But it was the second such shooting in our neighborhood. Four miles in the other direction from our house, another potential murder suicide happened in January, where a man is suspected of killing his girlfriend during the argument and then turning the gun on himself.

As I began writing this column, another man is suspected of killing his ex-wife and several children before shooting himself, just an hour north of us in Douglasville, Georgia. At least five are dead, and we're told on local news that the number could climb, as seven were shot.

In each of these cases, we're told that threat passed, as the alleged shooter kills himself, or herself (an ex-wife is suspected of killing a University of South Carolina professor, and then is suspected of shooting herself). But has it?

The good news is that crime is going down, including violent crime, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Murders are down six percent from the first half of 2014, below the first six months of 2013, though the violent crime rate declined more in the Midwest and Northeast, than in the South and West.

According to the National Institute of Justice, "familicide" is often perpetrated by a white male. The NIJ cited research from the Violence Policy Center where "in 591 murder-suicides, 92 percent were committed with a gun. States with less restrictive gun control laws have as much as eight times the rate of murder-suicides as those with the most restrictive gun control laws. Compared to Canada, the United States has three times more familicide; compared to Britain, eight times more; and compare to Australia, 15 more."

It would be nice if we had a simple solution. The alleged LaGrange shooter, Thomas Jesse Lee, went to a church in Mississippi after killing his family. They were kind enough to buy him a ticket to Alabama, and drive him to the bus station, not suspecting his past or motives.

And why would someone, who fled all the way to Mississippi, be heading back to east Alabama? The threat for this particular case might be gone, but not in general.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at

  |   February 5, 2015    4:39 PM ET

It’s been two years since the push to expand background checks for gun purchases in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre fell short in the Senate. Since then, the gun-law debate has receded in Washington.

Where's the Gun Ban Predicted by Republicans?

Jason Salzman   |   February 2, 2015   12:27 PM ET

ColoradoPols did us a favor yesterday by trotting out some of the ridiculous misinformation delivered by opponents of gun-safety laws when Democrats passed those laws in 2013. And Pols pleaded with local reporters to correct such falsehoods if they pop up this year.

As a example of what should be done, see a 2013 Denver Post editorial that corrected GOP Sen. Kent Lambert's statement, cited in the Pols post yesterday, that lawmakers had "effectively banned gun ownership."

Labert's statement, the Post wrote, was "not supported by the facts."

Duh, you say, but as Pols pointed out, that's what we need when our elected leaders stray from the obvious facts.

And it's also what we need when elected officials stray into wild hyperbole that may not be demonstrably incorrect per se but should be called out... as wild hyperbole.

Last time around, for example, we heard this from respectable people under the gold dome:

  • Lambert said, "And now, you know, with everybody having their guns confiscated or taken away here over the next couple years, almost completely overturning the Second Amendment, what's going to happen to our crime rate?" (BigMedia editorial comment: Two years have passed! Every legal gun owner still has her gun.)
  • State Rep. Kevin Priola compared banning some ammunition magazines to putting Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.
  • State Rep. Kevin Lundberg said on the radio that Colorado is getting "so close" to the point where he'll be having his gun pried away from his "cold, dead hands."

It's bad when a guy like State Sen. Randy Baumgardner claims falsely, as he did in 2013, that "hammers and bats" killed more people in America in 2012 than guns did.

His facts should be corrected.

But the scare tactics about gun confiscation should be confronted as well,  with the simple fact that it's been two years now and not a single legal gun holder has lost her weapon.

Mike Bloomberg Wants to Indoctrinate the Media, But He Can't Fool the NRA

Mike Weisser   |   February 2, 2015   10:09 AM ET

In mid-January the NRA warned its members about an insidious effort by Enemy Numero Uno (Mike Bloomberg) to make yet another attempt to rob Americans of their Constitutional right to gun ownership by sponsoring what they call an "anti-gun indoctrination camp" to teach gullible reporters and other media folks how to research and write about guns. What Bloomberg's really trying to do is foist his own 'discredited' research on attendees at this conference in yet another effort to distort and cover up the real (i.e., positive) truth about guns.

The program is organized by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia School of Journalism ( and during this two-day workshop in Phoenix this coming May, attendees will actually hear from both sides in the gun debate, a significant and I believe first-time coming together of scholars and influencers whose views run the spectrum of the good news and the bad news about guns. On the one hand we have Garen Wintemute, an ER physician out of California, who has been a thorn in the side of the gun industry since he published studies on the manufacture of small, cheap handguns whose only real use was to arm people who wanted to commit crimes. At the other end of the spectrum, showing up to push the "guns are good" message, will be S.E. Cupp, whose attacks on Bloomberg and other gun-control 'threats' gets her airtime on the usual red meat outlets like Fox and Blaze, while also showing up on the other side with appearances on MSNBC.

Standing in the middle will be an economist by training but a remarkable gun researcher by vocation named Philip Cook, who has been conducting important and valid research on the social utility of guns for more than forty years. In general, Cook's work has focused on the economic costs of gun violence and his conclusions in these studies, as well as other work on gun violence, leaves no doubt as to where he stands; i.e., he's no friend of the folks who claim that Americans need to own more guns. But this past year Cook and his colleague, Kristin Goss, published a balanced and reasoned summary of the gun debate, and while they didn't attempt to hide their own concerns about the proliferation of guns in American society, they also found good reasons why many Americans don't want to give up their guns.

The fact that the NRA should attempt to malign a public conference whose speaker's list contains one of their most ardent supporters shows you how unwilling or unable they have become when it comes to listening to any voice other than their own. But a quick look at some of the information that has lately appeared on their own website makes me think that perhaps the NRA research and editorial staff might benefit from attending a conference where they might learn how to understand and explain facts.

I am referring to a story that just appeared on the NRA-ILA website attacking Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, for what the NRA says is a 'bogus' claim that the number of people who die from gunshots each year equals the number of people killed in accidents involving cars. The story is bogus, according to the NRA, because the number of people who die from shootings that are ruled as accidents are a tiny fraction of the number of dead people pulled from vehicular wrecks. But of course that's not the point of the ARS story at all, unless perhaps we should figure out and compare gun deaths to the number of car accidents in which a driver actually tried to kill someone else using his car.

That Mike Bloomberg is asking professional media folks to come together and listen to both sides of the gun debate is a refreshing and important event. Refreshing because it hasn't happened previously, important because public policy is only successful when it reflects every valid point of view. I hope the conference is a great success.

Stray Bullets Are No Accident

Robert Muggah   |   February 2, 2015    8:43 AM ET

Thirty-two bullets. That's all it took to shatter the lives of just as many innocent men, women and children in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro last month. It is an unspeakable tragedy. The victims consist of toddlers and senior citizens -- all of them going about their own business. Most of them are residents of low-income neighborhoods, especially the city's sprawling north zone.

The blame game is in full swing. The state's Secretary for Public Security has condemned drug trafficking groups, alluding to a "nation of criminals" with brazen disregard for human life. Meanwhile, human rights activists say that the military police are also to blame. Caught in the crossfire, locals are throwing up their hands in resignation. Yet there is nothing accidental about these incidents -- they are indicative of a failure of public policy.

The January shooting spree is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider the statistics. According to public data, there were 61 victims of "stray bullets" in Rio de Janeiro in the first six months of 2012, the last year for which official information is available. This compares to 88 in 2011, 139 in 2010, 193 in 2009 and 236 in 2008. Since the government does not collect data on a regular basis, it is impossible to tell which direction the trend is moving.

A closer inspection of these incidents reveals that most shooting incidents occur in the poorest parts of Rio de Janeiro. A small proportion of them -- less than 5 percent -- result in fatalities while the rest generate terrible physical and psychological scars. Yet these cold statistics conceal the reign of terror generated by shoot-outs. Citizens are no longer able to move about for fear of falling victim. School absenteeism in dangerous neighborhoods is increasing and locals are reluctant to make the perilous journey to work.

Brazilians are not the only ones gunned down by stray bullets. While surely an under-estimate, the United Nations recorded 617 victims of stray bullets in 27 Latin American and Caribbean countries between 2009 and 2013. About 47 per cent of them died of their gunshot wounds. Half of the victims were male while the rest were women and girls -- most of them under 18. Although gangs played a role, police were involved in a disturbingly high proportion of reported cases.

Stray bullets can be prevented. To do so requires national, state- and metropolitan-level strategies that prioritize violence reduction, especially in poor and unstable neighborhoods. This should not translate into more forceful police operations. Instead, interventions should focus purposefully on hot spots, support at-risk youth, and guarantee the protection of civilians. These measures must also be pursued alongside targeted efforts to regulate illegal firearms and ammunition and destroy surplus to prevent leakage into criminal networks.

Brazil's current approach to dealing with stray bullets borders on negligence. Supposedly random shootings are treated as collateral damage -- an unavoidable outcome of a tough on crime approach. If this gun-violence epidemic is to be reversed, urgent steps must be taken. This includes enforcing a coherent doctrine regarding the proportional use of force by the military police. It also means rethinking the wisdom of arming police with high-caliber military-style weapons with a range of 2-3 kilometers. And rather than reducing the state´s spending on public security -- as is currently anticipated in the 2015 budget -- Rio's politicians need to dramatically increase it, alongside social and economic investments in making the city safer.

Nationwide Wants Us Afraid of the Wrong Things

David M. Perry   |   February 2, 2015   12:00 AM ET

Nationwide wants us to be afraid of the wrong things.

During the Super Bowl, Nationwide showed an ad that showed cute kids saying they never got to do things, with the kicker, "because I died." Then they showed an overflowing bathtub, an open cabinet under the sink, and a crashed flatscreen TV.

What they didn't show was a gun. Of course, they don't want to offend the gun lobby. But what they also didn't show is the #1 danger to children in America. Read down to find out what it is. Do you know?

Here's the commercial.

According to the Children's Defense Fund report, a child or teen is injured by a gun every 30 minutes. Seven are killed every day. And this number is apparently often under reported.

Now, falling TVs do send a child to the ER every 30 minutes, but only 215 died from 2000-2011. A relatively tiny number.

There are about 20,000 accidental child-poisoning-related calls every year, but the "most serious" ones all involve adults.

So firearms are definitely an issue, but it turns out that most of the 0-19 year old deaths from firearms are homicides. Here's the whole data on unintentional injury from the National MCH Center for Child Death Review:

  • In 2010, there were 83,267,556 children aged 0-19, of which 45,091 died.
  • 8,684 died from unintentional injury. 1027 from drowning, 365 from fires, 1,176 from suffocation and strangulation, and 134 from firearms.
  • 4,419 from motor vehicles.

So let's get real. Not only could Nationwide have shown us a gun, but if they really wanted to show us what kills children, all we have to do is look to all those lovely cars featured in about 50 percent of the Super Bowl ads throughout the night.

Cross-posted from