Violence In America

Gun Control

These related subjects have become more and more in the news lately. Experts struggle to find "answers" to these matters. They are looking at the wrong questions! With incorrect perceptions, no amount of perfect logic will achieve the complete understandings desired.

The problem is systemic to the human race. The diversity of mankind and the creative thought capable within the human mind are central to truly understanding the problem of violence in modern society.

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Any statistician can tell you that virtually every characteristic in Nature exhibits a distribution often called a "Bell-shaped curve." This is a term that describes the distribution of the results of nearly any repetitive experiment that can be done. It equally describes the distribution of measurable characteristics for an incredible diversity of Natural phenomena and things. This certainly includes all living things, including people. An amazing number of characteristics of humans exhibit Bell-shaped curve distribution (which is also referred to as Normal or Gaussian distribution).

For example, American adult men each have a height measurement that describes how tall they are. A very few are over seven feet tall. A very few are under four feet tall. When the heights of thousands of adult American men are displayed on a graph, the results always display a distribution that is a Bell-shaped curve.

Such curves are called histograms, and they have several features that are often extremely useful. The curve is symmetric, so an Average height may be determined. There is a measurement, called the Standard Deviation, which specifies a difference in height from the Average. If the line for those two heights (one greater than the Average and one less than it) are drawn on the distribution curve, a known and fixed fraction of all the results lie between the two new lines. In the case of adult men's height, this means that about 2/3 of all of the men measured will have heights within that range.

This same situation is true for whatever characteristic was measured and graphed. Science and statistics came together long ago to use this knowledge to predict and document countless phenomena. The list of applications of this is virtually endless. Even political poll analysis relies on this very consistent situation. If just 1500 people are polled, about virtually ANYTHING, the results will always display as a Bell-shaped curve, with the width of the curve being the only variable. Generally 1500 people are polled, because that number is large enough to ensure results that accurately reflect the results that would occur if millions of people were polled, to within a level of accuracy of three percent.

We're not going to go into the whole field of statistics here, but a result is that the Standard Deviation for a particular set of data values can be used to create "Confidence intervals".

If we consider anti-social behavior, we can see a similar bell-shaped curve. Specifically, while most people are within a couple Standard Deviations from a "normal" behavior, there are always a certain percentage who are not. In reality, there are exceptional people in both directions! There are invariably people who behave FAR better than society expects. Such people virtually never cause any trouble, and they tend seldom to be even heard about. We are considering here the people that are exceptional in the other direction, the ones that society considers trouble-makers.

For discussion's sake, let's say that 3% of people have personalities that have such anti-social characteristics.

Now, let's consider a small community of 200 years ago, where maybe 50 families lived. Such communities tended to be isolated, geographically, personally and by information, from the outside world. Fifty families would have around 200 total people. Three percent of them is therefore six individuals.

Females had very little personal freedom then, so, however rebellious or trouble-making they might have been by nature, very severe punishments followed even minor infractions, and they tended to represent little in the way of social problems. As adults, they sometimes became prostitutes, and were generally disowned by their families, but otherwise didn't cause spectacular problems.

The three remaining male individual 'trouble-makers' were therefore the significant source of trouble for the community. These three were likely to be of different generations, maybe being 10, 30 and 50 years old. The point being made here is that very little peer-group encouragement occurred among them. With virtually no contact with the outside world, the creativeness of an individual's trouble-making was pretty much limited to his own creative abilities, in other words, pretty limited.

Whenever any of those three 'trouble-makers' actually did something anti-social, like starting a fight, or stealing something, the leaders of the community (or later, the Sheriff) would immediately and intensely apply punishment and retribution. This acted to be somewhat of a deterrent for future repeats of the same actions.

Flash forward to today. Where that small community only had three people to keep an eye one, the 3% represents a significant number today. In a metropolitan area like Chicago, where around 8 million people live, 3% is 240,000 people! Even if we temporarily set aside the 120,000 of them that are female, that's still 120,000 'trouble-makers' for the greater Chicago community!

Now, if each of them were isolated, and unaware of the outside world, the situation could still possibly be like in that old village. Even as recent as the 1950s, this situation still greatly existed, even in large cities like Chicago. But several things have changed to alter the dynamics now.

Physical movements of individuals is now extremely broad. Of those 120,000 'trouble-makers' in the Chicago area, it is now extremely easy for some group of ten of them to find each other. Given that they share some attitudes toward society and authority and Police, it seems natural that they could quickly establish some level of closeness. Where, in all other segments of their lives, they are looked down on and criticized and punished, here is a group of people who are actually interested in them and what they might have to say or do! It seems obvious that society has created a circumstance where they would gravitate toward one another.

This now creates at least two secondary effects.

Yet another modern contribution exists that adds to this situation. Mass media, including Nightly News, action movies, rap music, graphic advertising, and countless other examples, also contribute toward that 'communication' area. In this case, the creativity of some distant criminal, whom one would be unlikely to ever meet, becomes available to every 'un-creative' criminal. Suddenly, the idea of pouring gasoline on someone and lighting it becomes a real possibility. Few individuals would think of such a thing on their own. But, suddenly, we hear of dozens of such cases. This is a direct result of communication. Those dozens of minor criminals wouldn't have thought of killing someone in such a way, because they just aren't creative enough on their own. But now, they see it being done, and even see how to do it.

For gasoline bombs, which have become a common weapon of rebels around the world, the vast majority of those people wouldn't have thought of that, and wouldn't have known how to make one, on their own, without blowing themselves up in the process. But, news media, movies, books, the Internet, etc, all make the instructions available to them, what kinds of bottles to use, how to arrange the wick, how to throw it, etc.

The media actually contribute two different inputs in this environment. First, the knowledge of the concept and of how to accomplish the deed, as has been discussed. Second, Nightly news programs (and sometimes movies), show the RESULTS of using such a concept or device. This feedback is extremely instructive to criminals. If ten newscasts were to describe people wrapping logging chains around ATM machines and tearing them out of the ground with a Chevy pick-up truck, then there would be a LOT of attempts to do just that! In the first few years when ATMs existed, that exact situation happened. Some newscast described someone stealing an ATM, and they would describe pretty thoroughly how they did it, and immediately, ATMs everywhere were being attacked in very similar ways. Again, if left to their own, individual criminals would seldom think of trying to rip a whole ATM out of the concrete.

This means that ALL the ways that modern communications are done, they all contribute toward increasing the data-base of criminals. A beginning 14-year old criminal quite possibly knows how to avoid leaving fingerprints or even skin or hair samples where he could ever later be identified. He probably already knows what he could do to be un-recognizable on store security camera tapes. He probably knows precisely what to say, what to do, and how to establish absolute control in any criminal activity, whether robbing a convenience store, car-jacking, rape, murder, arson, etc. In his very first effort, he could have virtually 100% success of success.

The criminals are also given extremely good information regarding how many convenience store robbbers get caught; get arrested; get convicted; get jail time. So they even know all the probabilities that enter the equation. In this regard, sometimes the unintended results of newscasts has been tragic. While I was in College, a punk 14-year old kid named Jeff Fort was terrorizing a good portion of Chicago. At that time, courts were ALWAYS trying kids under 18 as juveniles, which meant that the worst possible situation was being sent to some juvenile home, with its free meals and free bed. Since he was 14, and he knew about this from newscasts, he was merrily killing people randomly. When he was 16, in an interview with a reporter, he mentioned that he tried to avoid shooting people in the face and preferred to shoot them in the chest, so he could watch their expressions as they were dying. He calmly mentioned that he had intentionally shot and killed 50 people, just because of his curiosity about those expressions, which he apparently enjoyed watching.

That was many years ago, and I believe he is now dead. But it seems like a useful example to mention. Should those newspapers or TV news shows have NOT mentioned the 18/juvenile rule that was being applied on an absolute basis? Should any of them have been blamed for causing 50 meaningless deaths?

Given our ideas on personal freedoms in America, the answers are obviously no. There is absolutely no possibility that America will ever restrict such things, because of our general understanding of First Amendment rights.

The comments up to here have been meant to indicate that there is little point in trying to 'establish blame' for some particular source for a particular crime. Even if there was an extremely clear source, virtually nothing could be accomplished by efforts in that direction. Future behavior by the various media is not likely to change, and it's almost unimaginable that a source could ever be convicted by any judge or jury, for such a claim.

That means that our society just does not have ANY way of keeping those 3% of people from behaving anti-socially.

It gets worse!

There is essentially zero deterrent for such behavior. For examples of spectacular crimes, where innocent people die, most of the criminals are fed and clothed for 12-15 years in prison, until they are either executed or given 'life in prison'. For a 16-year old kid, fifteen years in the future might as well be infinity. On the street, he's seldom assured of his survival for a given week, and he is CERTAINLY not concerned about what might be done to him 15 years in the future. For lesser crimes, since the prison system is so filled, judges have tended to give probation for a wide variety of crimes.

The intermediate situation is even worse. Remember the two 'communications' sources discussed above? A relatively inexperienced criminal, sent to jail or prison, is essentially FORCED to interact with many dozens of other criminals, many with FAR more experience, of both success and failure. Jail and prison effectively represents a 'college' for criminals, where they can learn an assortment of skills they could never learn anywhere else.

This presentation was first placed on the Internet in April 2000.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago