Normative Narratives


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RIP NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

New York City lost two hero’s yesterday. Officers Ramos and Liu were murdered execution style by a mad gunman, whose name I care not to learn. Both of these men are survived by their families, who after mourning must try to pick up the pieces of their lives. I have no doubt that the city of New York will make sure these families are given all the support they need.

After these cold-blooded murders, the gunman took his own life; there will be no trial, no answers. Unsurprisingly, this coward took the cowards way out.

It is natural in times like these to look for scapegoats. I have heard people calling for Mayor De Blasio to step down. I have heard people placing blame on Al Sharpton (a man who I take little pleasure in defending). The “other side” of the argument could place blame on the Staten Island Grand jury which failed to indict Officer Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

There should not be “sides” to this conflict. Nobody benefits when an innocent person, a police officer or civilian, dies. I often hear people speak of Officers or Army vets as if they should be above the law because of their contributions to society (I am thinking of an often shared video of an army vet saying “my right trumps your dead” in response to the passing of the NY SAFE Act). People volunteer for these jobs, they receive pay and benefits, and are revered as hero’s by the vast majority of society–these are the benefits.

Being considered above the law, or “better” than those you serve and protect, is not part of the job description. No one American’s rights are greater than another, regardless of your sacrifices. Anybody who believes otherwise has a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles which guide this great nation.

Having said that, all rights have limitations. The first amendment, which protects the rights of protestors, is no exception. Free speech cannot come at the expense of public safety–you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, and you should not be able to march down the streets of NYC chanting “What do we want? Dead Cops“. I have no reservations in saying these chants galvanized the murderer of officers Ramos and Liu.

If any third party should shoulder some blame in these senseless murders, it is people who participated in this chant. That “protest” was a bastardization of both first amendment rights generally, and the peaceful social-justice based protest in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown specifically.

Back to my original point on scapegoating; all this finger pointing, while understandable, is destructive. It trivializes the role of the actual culprit–the man who pulled the trigger.

After senseless tragedies like this, the best way forward, in my opinion, is to figure out how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. It has become quite clear that treating social media postings as serious threats could help achieve this goal.

While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from some of the most infamous killings in recent American history: Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, UC Santa Barbara and now the murders of NYPD Officers Ramos and Liu. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need.

Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube. The NYPD cop killer made instragram posts making his intentions publicly known.

We have to ask ourselves, at what point does protecting a persons freedom of expression infringe upon the ability to protect another persons right to life? As an economist, I am constantly looking for “perfect information” to make the best decisions. While we will never have “perfect information”, is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable and readily available source of information in social media posts?

Perhaps police departments could employ social media specialist to identify potential threats without compromising a departments ability to fulfill traditional police duties?

Would monitoring social media produce false positives? Yes. But even so, anybody who threatens to harm someone on social media–whether they intend to make good on that threat or not–is probably in need of mental healthcare (or at very least needs to be made aware how serious their threat was).

Furthermore, by setting the precedent that social media postings are serious threats that can lead to incarceration / institutionalization, we would increase the perceived “cost” of making such threats. This would deter people from making empty threats / “venting”, leaving (for the most part) only serious threats that actually need to be acted on.

The law often lags behind technological advance. Are we, as a country, ready to police social media? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a debate worth having.

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Transparency Report: In Opposition of Reduced Gun Penalties

Support for Various Proposals to Prevent Gun Violence, by Party ID, January 2013

Last Friday I went shooting at a gun range with some friends, the first time I had ever done so, and I had a blast. This experience reinforced what I have always known–there are legitimate reasons to own a firearm (recreational shooting, hunting and self-defense come to mind, although IMO “stand your ground” is not self-defense).

When considering the forces holding back common sense gun reform in America, those who argue there is never a legitimate reason for owning a firearm are as much to blame as those who argue there can never be any new regulations on guns. Instead of forging strong laws through compromise, the two sides talk past each other, and the silent majority is left without the laws they favor. The extremes dominate the debate, blocking the very deliberative process the legislative branch was built upon. Unfortunately this is nothing new and it is not confined to the debate over gun-related laws.

Still, every now and then Congress actually passes laws. One idea which has recently gained bipartisan support are sentence reductions for non-violent offenders (specifically for drug related offenses). There are a number of reasons such reform is popular: harsher penalties have been ineffective, it reverses the trend of mass incarceration, it breaks “poverty traps” (what I have coined “the Prisoner Paradox“), and it saves money. Prison reform is a rare instance where the ideologies of fiscal responsibility and socioeconomic justice intersect.

However, the line must be drawn somewhere on prison reform. Shorter sentences for non-violent drug offenders is a good idea; reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership (as advocated in a recent NYT Op-Ed), is not:

We are accustomed to hearing about exorbitant mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses, but similar sentencing for gun possession is less frequently mentioned, though its effects are often just as devastating, especially for poor people and people of color. In fact, a black person is nearly twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum carrying charge than a white person who is prosecuted for the same conduct.

Mandatory minimum gun laws have historically been favored by gun control advocates and gun rights proponents alike. Supporters insist that mandatory minimums diminish violence via incapacitation (putting potential shooters in prison) and deterrence.

But there is no good evidence that mandatory minimum gun laws actually have this effect. A recent report issued by the Bluhm Legal Clinic of the Northwestern University Law School concluded that “decades of empirical evidence and evaluations of specific state experiences demonstrate that mandatory sentences will not reduce gun violence.” Studies of the impact of such laws in Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia and Michigan found no discernible effect on violent crime rates. In return for issuing these sentences, society reaps only the heavy burdens that come with lengthy incarceration, perhaps the least of which is higher costs to taxpayers.

Opposition to mandatory sentencing for drug-related offenses is steadily growing. Now we must widen our criticism to encompass mandatory minimums for firearms. These laws are not reducing violence. They’re simply fueling a different kind of violence: the banishment and isolation of large numbers of people, especially people of color and poor people, tearing apart their lives, families and communities.

There are two reasons why I cannot support reduced gun sentencing for illegal gun ownership:

1) The Non-Violent Aspect: While there is no denying that drugs can be very harmful, even deadly, there is a qualitative difference between gun related deaths and drug related deaths. Theelement of personal accountability that cannot be overlooked when it comes to drug use. Except for the instances when someone is “drugged”, people willfully taking a substance should know the risks.

This is simply not the case gun related crime; guns are inherently lethal. A person can be walking down the street minding there own business and be killed by a gun in cold-blood. There is no choice being made, no time to consider ones actions, no element of personal accountability. Drugs kill their users, guns can kill indiscriminatelyIllegal gun ownership is a “non-violent crime” only until it enables a violent crime. 

2) Undermining Legitimate Gun Ownership: Despite my enjoyable time at the gun range last week, I am far from the biggest gun advocate in the world. However, part of any meaningful compromise is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; there are people who love their guns and use them responsibly. These people overwhelming support common sense gun reform, because it can put to ease their concerns that “THE GOVERNMENT IS COMING FOR YOUR GUNS!!!!

Reduced sentences for illegal gun ownership would inadvertently undermine universal background checks and other common sense gun-registration related initiatives. By reducing the penalty for illegal gun ownership, you are conversely increasing the benefits of circumventing gun laws. American politicians should be trying to find the balance between respecting peoples rights to enjoy guns responsibly, while keeping guns out of the hands of criminals. Reducing penalties for people who violate gun laws would be counter-productive in achieving these goals.

Simply put, there is no legitimate reason to own an unregistered gun.

In today’s 24 hour news cycle, there is a lot of pressure to be ahead of the game. Perhaps the writer of the NYT Op-Ed, seizing on increased public support for reduced mandatory drug sentences, though she’d make a splash by proposing something radical.

I am not saying we couldn’t save money by having more lenient gun penalties–of course we could. I am saying we would be exposing law abiding citizens to greater risks, while simultaneously undermining common sense gun reforms that ultimately protect the right to bear arms. Thankfully, I cannot see this plan gaining any real popular support.

(Another way to look at this argument is that there should never be mandatory sentences for ANY crime. One could argue that context always matters, and given the high costs of incarceration judges should be given complete discretion in all sentencing. This is a much broader argument, and not what the NYT Op-Ed was arguing.)