Thursday, January 17, 2013

The President on Guns: Ready, shoot, aim.

One of the dispiriting things about the "conversation" that we are supposed to be having about guns in the wake of the Newtown shooting is how much of it posturing as opposed to dialogue.

The President's posturing at yesterday's news conference is no exception. If the past month is any indication, we are about to see a newer and nastier Barack Obama. Notwithstanding his intelligence, he has always been willing to play the demagogue - given to the non sequitur, the ipse dixit and the ad hominem. All signs are that he is doubling down.

For example, the President believes that it is somehow critical that we ban "assault weapons" as if this term had a fixed meaning. He suggests that the only reason that anyone might oppose or question the ban is, quite frankly, a monster who would sell the safety of children for cash from the NRA. (“Ask them what’s more important — doing whatever it takes to get a A grade from the gun lobby that funds their campaigns, or giving parents some peace of mind when they drop their child off for first grade.”) Surrounding himself with children pressed into duty as props, he says that “if we can only save one life” through some proposed action, then it ought to be done. No one really believes this. No one should.
 He spends almost no time explaining what he means by an "assault weapons." He seems relatively uninterested in whether a ban on such weapons will make a difference. Hitting the target seems less important than taking a shot. Doing something trumps doing something that matters.

We had a national ban on statutorily defined "assault weapons" from 1994 to 2004. It seems to have had no discernible income on gun crime. The authors of a University of Pennsylvania study commissioned by the Department of Justice concluded that "we cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”

To be sure, there is always room for argument. Mass shootings were somewhat lower during most years of ban's duration. But mass shootings are such a rare event that it is not possible to attribute this to the ban as opposed to random fluctuation . Some, including authors of the Penn study, argue that the ban had too many loopholes and might have had more of an impact over time.

Perhaps. It is a standard refrain on the left that whatever orthodox nostrum that has failed was a "good idea" that did not go "far enough."

But, then again, it shouldn't surprise us that a ban on "assault weapons" may not have much of an impact. Automatic weapons are already illegal in this country. What we now call "assault weapons" amount to semi-automatic weapons with some feature that is said to be "unnecessary" for legitimate use of the weapon.

Only some of these features are relevant to controlling the incidence or severity of an incidence like Newtown. It is said, for example, that a pistol grip allows a shooter to stay focused on his targets or that an extended clip (generally defined as one containing more than ten rounds) allows more shots to be fired in the same period of time. Perhaps true, but helpful- at best - only at the margin.

But why not do something at the margin? Wouldn't a law be justified if it only saved one life?

It might, but in determining whether reform will actually save one life, we have to consider whether any particular restriction will at the same time cost lives. The things that make these weapons less effective in committing crimes also make them less effective in self defense. It does no good to say that these weapons will not frequently be used in self defense. They won't frequently be used to commit crimes either and, when they are, banning a pistol grip or an extended clip won't make them much less deadly. We know that because of our experience with the prior ban on assault weapons.

So, in weighing the benefit of an assault weapon against its costs, we may be comparing very small numbers.

Supporters of a more comprehensive ban point to the experience in Australia where a ban on most semi-automatic weapons, adopted after a mass shooting there and combined with a massive gun buyback seems to have some impact in reducing gun violence, although the extent of that reduction is a matter of debate.

But Australia is not the U.S. There are approximately one hundred times as many guns in circulation here than there were there prior to the ban. Beyond that, the Australian reform – a ban on all semi-automatic weapons and prohibition of purchasing guns solely for personal protection – are political and constitutional nonstarters in the United States.

This is not to say that some further restrictions on guns that might be characterized as "assault weapons" aren't worth considering. It may, for example, be worth placing some limit on the number of rounds in a clip although my guess is that the value, if any, will be more in confrontations between police and criminals than in mass shootings. Nevertheless, there is presumably a limit on the size of a clip – although I’m not prepared to say that it is ten rounds – that won’t make a weapon much less effective in self defense.

Last month, a trio of Assembly Democrats called for a ban on hollow point bullets. That has nothing to do with Newtown, but it might make some sense. On the other hand, I understand that this type of ammunition is considered by some to be more humane and effective in use for hunting. Perhaps a blanket prohibition would not be in order.

The same groups called for psychological screening for those who sign up for concealed carry permits. This too has nothing to do with mass shootings and, in fact, seems more like a thinly concealed attack on the concealed carry law. It is an attempt to make getting a permit more expensive. The idea that we could effectively eliminate problem permit holders by the type of quick and dirty evaluation that would be done in the course of a training class seems improbable.

I am of the view that more training - including hands on instruction with the applicants' weapon - should be required for concealed carry permits. The value, of course, would not be in reducing crime but in preventing accidental shootings. But fruitless psychological evaluations are just an attempt to undermine a law that these legislators don't like.

There are other things that might make sense. I don't see why background checks aren't required at gun shows or for private sales. I understand that criminals will easily evade such a requirement but there seems to be little reason for the law to facilitate sales of firearms to those that would otherwise be unable to purchase them.

But even here, we ought to be realistic about what can and cannot be accomplished. We can't review the medical history of everyone who wants to buy a gun and, even if we could, the likelihood that we could identify the one in a million who might commit an unspeakable act like the one at Newtown seems fantastical.

In response to a post a few weeks back suggesting that "bans" and "restrictions" may not accomplish much, one commenter posted a remark to the effect of "twenty kids dead - watcha gonna do."
I'm sure that he thought this was very clever.

But wishing or wanting something to be true does not make it so. I suspect that there are a few things that can be done regarding the manufacture and sale of guns. But to pretend that this would solve - or even make much headway - is to adopt a false sense of security. We have had guns in America for most of our history. We have had semi-automatic weapons for decades.

We have tightened - not loosened - the regulation of guns over the past 50 years. Lee Harvey Oswald bought the rifle that he used to kill the President of the United States by mail using a false name without a background check.

I agree that it is too facile to say that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But when it comes to mass shootings, it seems that we have changed more than the hardware has.

The complexity of this issue suggests that we have a meaningful discussion of these issues that does not presume bad faith on the part of those with whom we disagree. Pity that the President of the United States does not seem to want an adult conversation.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Who cares about County Board salaries?

While I run a business that I intentionally decided to locate in the City of Milwaukee, I am not a resident of Milwaukee County. So  whether or not Milwaukee County Board Supervisors are paid a full time salary for a part time job has no direct impact on me. What interests me is the way in which the  controversy has become a liberal/conservative issue. For the most part, it is folks on the left who want Board members to be paid a fairly decent salary for make work.
Let's stop for a moment. I will not take seriously anyone who tries to tell me that the job of a County Board Supervisor is full time. Too many people - of all political persuasions - have done an apparently adequate job of serving on the board while remaining gainfully employed in some other way. One can certainly use a position on the board to enable one to engage in free floating political activism claimed to be for the "benefit" of county residents. But that doesn't mean that it requires forty hours each week to do those things that the County Board must do.
Of course, some people may believe that "activist" supervisors are a good thing. There lies your conservative/liberal breakdown. If you believe that the county government should do more and that people in Milwaukee County need more of what politics can bring, then creating more politicians - people who do politics for a living - might be a good thing. A part-time board may be more likely to stick to knitting and work for a County government that does less. The kind of board members that a part-time salary attracts - because they must earn a living doing something else - may be less likely to see the world as something to be ordered by politics.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Milwaukee's children deserve to learn to read.

I was interested in the post by my fellow Purple Wisconsin blogger Barbara Miner regarding a PBS segment on Rocketship schools. I agree with Barbara that you ought to watch the segment. (This link may work.)

But there are a few things about the story on Rocketship that I might add.

I might point out, for example, that, notwithstanding the concerns expressed by Rocketship itself as to whether its learning labs are as effective as they ought to be, these schools have a fairly impressive record of improving achievement among low income students - as the PBS segment itself reports. By at least some measures, they are the leading schools for low income kids in California. Here's one description:

Rocketship Elementary charter school students devote 100 minutes per day to the Learning Lab. This period combines computer-based, individualized lessons on basic math and literacy skills, independent reading and enrichment programs to focus on areas where students struggle the most. Students are assessed every two months to update their individual learning plan. The results are shocking, given the population they serve. Rocketship Mateo Sheedy serves low-income students in San Jose, nearly 73 percent of who are English Language Learners and 78 percent of who qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. Their 2009 API was 926 out of 1,000, making Rocketship the highest performing low-income elementary school in San Jose and Santa Clara county, and third in California. Rocketship’s operating costs are met entirely by traditional government funding yet the hybrid charter school manages to pay its teachers 20% more than teachers in surrounding districts. Thanks to the daily Learning Lab period, Rocketship saves one teacher and one classroom per grade level, amounting to savings of around $500,000 per school per year. They currently have three schools in San Jose, with plans to grow to 30 schools over the next five years.
As is always the case in the Tower of Babel that house the social sciences, I imagine that people will debate these numbers or try to explain them away.  I don't know that the Rocketship model is a silver bullet. Maybe it's not as strong as it seems to be. But I can understand why it is attracting support.

I appreciate that the standard line in the education establishment is that there are no fundamental problems that money won't cure. This strikes me as highly implausible. We have not starved our elementary and secondary schools. We spend more on them than any other developed nation. We have dramatically increased that spending over the past 40-50 years.

We have not enjoyed improved performance. This suggests that a new approach is required. It tells me that "diverting" resources from traditional public schools to new ideas may not be such a bad idea.

The Rocketship model suggests why. One of the things is does is emphasize teacher quality by treating teachers like professionals. Teachers are paid more and, because they are non-unionized, subject to the demands to which other professionals are subject. This is in sharp distinction to the traditional unionized school which, in adopting an industrial union model developed for assembly line workers in the early to mid twentieth century, emphasizes labor relations characterized by uniformity, standardization and job protection.

I might also add that the individual and self directed instruction that takes place in the learning labs (which, incidentally are not "Dilbert-like" cubicles; they look like stations in a college language lab) did not strike me as all that new. It reminded me of the individualized reading program called SRA  that I followed at St. Sebastian School in the '60s.

Finally, the criticism that Rocketship charter schools lack art and music instruction strikes me as awfully precious. The public education establishment, as a general matter, has fought to ensure that choice and charter schools receive less funding than traditional public schools. Attacking them for what they may be unable to offer seems bad form.

Beyond that, while I agree that Milwaukee's children deserve an opportunity (whether in school or not) for art and music, I think that they have a stronger claim to be taught how to read.

Maybe we should start with that.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.