You catch more flies with honey

ImageI walked across the Brooklyn Bridge today with members of Moms Demand Action who are working to raise awareness for “common-sense” gun legislation.  Ironically, since the vast majority of Americans agree with them, one wonders why the issue still needs that much effort.  Yet, here they were, nearly 600 strong – growing in numbers from previous events I have attended – and clearer than ever in their message.  From their speeches, I concluded that their primary take on the crisis is to demand legislative action.  Yet I came away wondering if that’s the right approach.

When I first got involved in this subject, after Sandy Hook as so many of us did, I came to it with no skin in the game.  I had not lost anyone to gun violence nor had I been shot myself.  I just had a crushing feeling that this was a big issue for our common life together as Americans and that I needed to know more.  And after extensive research, I put my journey of inquiry into a book, Unsafe In Human Hands.

My principle conclusion was this: you are more in danger from the gun in your own home than the gun of an intruder.  That’s because the person most likely to shoot you in your lifetime you already know.  The vast majority of all persons shot have a relationship with the shooter.  Here are just three sample statistics;

  • Homes with guns are 12 times more likely to have household members or guests killed or injured by their own weapon than by an intruder’s weapon. (Southern Medical Journal in 2010)
  • There is a three-fold greater risk of homicide and a five-fold greater risk of suicide for residents in homes with firearms versus homes without firearms (American Journal of Epidemiology)( Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2004)
  • In 72% of unintentional deaths and injuries, suicide, and suicide attempts with a firearm of 0-19 year-olds, the firearm was stored in the residence of the victim, a relative, or a friend (Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center Study, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, August 1999)

Yet the majority of gun owners believe the opposite, that a gun in the home provides increased personal safety – presumably against some outside force.  In a Washington Post/ABC poll last April, 75% of those who lived in households with guns thought the presence of those guns made it a safer place to be.  This result was higher among largely white and conservative men living in the south, and less among women and more liberal populations in the West and Northeast.  Among all adults, the question of safety was split almost evenly (51/49).  I must confess that after reading so much research to the contrary, I am amazed that we are still on the fence about this.

This begs the question of best strategy; do we try to enforce change through largely hostile legislative action or do we try to win hearts and minds through education using a public health model?  You can clearly guess my preference.  And I’m pleased to report, we are already making inroads.  The General Social Survey, a biannual public opinion survey, has shown a steady drop in gun ownership rates for decades.  This move away from gun ownership can reflect a lot of things, from the increasing urbanization of America (people in cities tend to own less guns) to a general reduction in violent crime.  But it might also indicate that attitudes are changing too.  It’s a general maxim in consumer research that you get a more accurate tell on what consumers do rather than what they say.  So if people are already moving in this direction, maybe their attitudes are in flux and all we need is a nudge, rather than a body blow.

Some states are taking initiatives that are notable.  Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services, for example, does a particularly nice job with a short document on Gun Safety for Families (  It highlights the need for locking up guns and keeping them away from young people.  By my own calculations, if all guns in homes were locked up and the access was restricted to those between 25 and 70 years old (thereby protecting the two most vulnerable age groups; young and elderly), we would save about 10,000 lives per year!  Yet according to a Rand Corporation study, of families in the United States with children and firearms, fewer than half store their firearms unloaded, locked, and away from ammunition.  Again, there is a perception gap – most gun owners, when surveyed, have the perception that an unloaded gun is useless in an emergency.

I don’t believe imposing legislation alone will change this perception.  Yet I’m willing to admit exceptions – especially with background checks.  For example, according to the FBI, in states where a background check is required for every handgun sale, 38 percent fewer women are shot and killed by abusive partners.  And in states that require background checks for private handgun sales, 39 percent fewer law enforcement officers are shot to death with handguns.  So OK, maybe a mix of legislation and education.

Either way, I think change will come mostly through the women in this country.  That’s why I am so pleased to hang with Mom’s Demand Action.  They and their children are the most vulnerable.  Certainly, the statistics regarding guns in homes as they affect women are chilling.

  • the risk of homicide against women goes up 5 times when a gun is present in domestic violence situations (American Journal of Public Health, 2003)
  • 64 percent of women murdered with guns were killed by a current or former intimate partner (FBI, 2010)
  • the number of women shot and killed by partners was six times higher than the number killed by strangers using all other weapons combined. (Violence Policy Center reports that in 2010).

So here I was with this group of women, highly mobilized and determined to bring a public health problem to our attention – one that kills more than 30,000 Americans a year.    And I think they’re wonderful.  I just ask that they add to their focus a more public health and education approach. There are existing models available to follow, such as the one we used to teach that smoking causes cancer or the battle to get seat belts adopted or MADD’s efforts to combat drunken driving.  We can persuade as well as force and I believe we will ultimately secure more permanent change with an educated and informed public than a legislatively restricted one.

Christopher L. Johnson is the author of Unsafe In Human Hands, which tries to contribute to the debate on violence and gun ownership in America both by dispelling myths and by sharing real research on a human level. We need to inform the gun owning public of the risks these things pose to their families so that they can make the best choices possible.  100% of the Author’s proceeds are donated to Cure Violence, Chicago

We have met the enemy and he is us.

PogoWe, the American family, have a problem. By our own hands, we kill as many of our own kind every month as the hijackers did just once back on 9/11. That’s thousands every single month! And the vast majority of these deaths come at the hands of family, friends, neighbors and coworkers. Not strangers. As Pogo once said, we have met the enemy and he is us.

This blog is a continuation of my book “Unsafe In Human Hands” where I try to contribute to the debate on violence and gun ownership in America by dispelling myths and sharing real research on a human level. And the data seems clear; guns pose a threat to their owners. Here are just two examples;

  • Homes with guns are 12 times more likely to have household members or guests killed or injured by their own weapon than by an intruder’s weapon. (Southern Medical Journal in 2010)
  • And there is a three-fold greater risk of homicide and a five-fold greater risk of suicide for residents in homes with firearms versus homes without firearms (American Journal of Epidemiology)( Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2004)

Yet despite all the evidence, there is a perception gap; 71 percent of gun owners think a gun in the house makes them more safe, compared with 23 percent of non-owners (Gallup 2005 survey). This represents an enormous failure of perception. I’m not one for legislative action since Congress doesn’t seem to respond to public sentiment anymore. This is more of a public health issue anyway, requiring a comprehensive education effort. There are existing models available to follow, such as the one we used to teach that smoking causes cancer (remember how the tobacco industry fought that one?).

We need to inform the gun owning public of the risks these things pose to their families so that they can make the best choices possible. Hopefully this blog, as well as my book, can contribute to this public debate.

Global Gun Trade

ImageThe role of guns & violence in America may be a hot topic these days, but I’d like to make it more international. Did you know that the United States is in fact the world’s number one weapons dealer with 40% market share for conventional weapons? Globally, there are approximately 639 million small arms and light weapons. Access to these weapons in troubled hot spots has allowed devastating human rights violations in places like Sudan, Syria and Congo. And it is estimated, these guns cause the killing of one person every minute.

It would be disingenuous of us to try to address firearm deaths in our own country without considering the consequences of US made products killing people in other countries. Later this month (March 2013), the UN will hold the final and concluding conference on the Arms Trade Treaty. The United Nations points out that its peacekeeping efforts alone costs the world $7 billion per year, and the global annual burden of armed violence stands at $400 billion. The UN goes on to say, “Without adequate regulation of international arms transfers and high common standards to guide national export decisions, the human tolls and financial costs will remain colossal.”

The NRA has taken great measures to oppose this treaty as potentially endangering domestic gun sales. So great has been their opposition, that the Obama administration pulled out of talks on this treaty last summer. The December 2012, the Hill reported, “The arms-trade treaty stalled in July, with gun-control activists accusing the Obama administration of sandbagging support for the bill to avoid criticism from Republicans and pro-gun-rights Democrats ahead of the election.” Whether that reason is true or not, certainly, this treaty cannot move forward without the largest gun supplier being a party to it now.

It is a frequent bias of America, when considering our public policies, that we look only to the consequences for our own people and not for others around the world. Consider the recent debate about whether drones are legal when targeting Americans. The moral issue of killing others does not seem to surface.

How can we live up to our ideals as a people, if we are the foremost global marketers of death? Consider the troubled border towns of northern Mexico, where the vast majority of weapons can be traced back to the US. Mexico has long complained that the United States is responsible for arming the drug cartels resulting in the deaths of more than 47,000 people in the last six years. And the lax weapons laws of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona result in 50 to 100 percent more homicides in cities that border those states than ones that border California with its tighter gun laws. It’s obvious where the weapons come from, and if they weren’t there, it’s also obvious that homicide rates would drop.

So we citizens have skin in this game. We are complicit to violence in countries we might never even visit. And it isn’t sufficient to only address violence in America since our gun culture has become a contagion causing fatalities in other countries. At the very least, we need to vote in favor of the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty. And maybe look ourselves in the mirror.

Keeping your eye on the ball; the case of Mali and Algeria

When I was in business school, we did a lot of case studies. I don’t know about military academies, but I really hope they do the same. Certainly the following cautionary tale should be added immediately to any military curriculum that trains its students in strategy and decision making.

The rise of Islamists is an old story now, and has caused far more pain and suffering to every day Muslims than it has to the US. From Central Asia to North Africa, this radical and intolerant variant on Islamic tradition is unwelcome to most. But still it persists. Like a pillow, you push down on it in one place and it pops up in another. And it seems to feed off failed states like Afghanistan and Mali and Somalia, like the flu which can kill the elderly or a lion who takes down the weakest of the herd. So what’s different now? Why did all this flair up so recently in Mali and Algeria? In short, it is the increased availability of weapons.

libyaWe now know the Arab Spring had unintended consequences, especially in Libya. Countries like Egypt and Tunisia have millennia of national identity giving them a sense of unity. But Libya was a construct of European colonialism and was a new country, created by foreigners, drawing lines on the map. The identity and loyalty of Libyans was to their clan, not nation. And there were no national institutions to give stability during the collapse of the central government in the way that Egypt’s army gave continuity and control. Weapon caches in Egypt never were open to pilfering, since the Army was always in control of them. But in Libya, the weapon armories were maintained by mercenaries and the weapons themselves just disappeared.

Evidence is scant but some of it is clear and disturbing. It turns out that much of what is being used by Islamists in Mali seems to have come from Libya. Even the raid on the oil refinery in Algeria which caused the death of more than 90 people involved former Libyan arms. In January 2013, the UK newspaper The Guardian reports “In one striking case, Belgian-manufactured landmines originally supplied to Gaddafi’s army appear to have been used by the jihadi militants who attacked BP’s In Amenas gas facility in Algeria last week.”

During the fall of Gaddafi, Britain, France and the US were perhaps overly focused on securing shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. One can perhaps forgive this error since we were supporting the revolution from the air, so anti-aircraft missiles were perceived to be the greatest threat. But there were impassioned pleas from various non-governmental groups in both the security fields and human rights organizations, telling the US to secure all the other types of weapons. Unfortunately these pleas went unheeded. The Guardian quotes Peter Bouckaert, of Human Rights Watch as saying, “”The arrival of new weapons changes the game. One day the rebels fight with AK47s and the next day they show up with anti-aircraft guns and other weapons and it’s a completely different conflict.

“In a lot of these conflicts the focus is on the most exotic weapons, whether chemical weapons in Syria or Manpads [anti-aircraft missiles] in Libya, but we have to go back to Iraq in 2003 and look at the carnage caused by much more conventional weapons in the aftermath of the war.

“Two artillery shells can make a car bomb, and there are hundreds of thousands of them missing in Libya. For 10 years the US and its allies lost soldiers in Iraq to the weapons that they failed to secure in 2003, and now the same thing has happened on a more massive scale in Libya.”

Our own military’s increasing use of exotic weapons perhaps distorts our view, making us blind to the threat of conventional weapons. Whether in business or war, being able to correctly identify anything that has the potential to create or destroy future value will govern the sustainability of one’s current strategy. Twice now, we’ve gotten this wrong in the fight against Islamists. Hopefully, it’s the last time.