talks Gun Control and Politics with UCLA Professor Mark Kleiman (VIDEO)

Who is Mark Kleiman?  

Well, if you read his professional bio, you’ll find out that he is the “Professor of Public Policy in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. He teaches courses on methods of policy analysis, on imperfectly rational decision-making at the individual and social level, and on drug abuse and crime control policy.”

Mark Kleiman-1

Mark Kleiman

He is also the author of some ground-breaking books, in particular Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control; of Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results; and of When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment, which The Economist cited as on of the “Books of the Year” for 2009.

If you do some more research on Prof. Kleiman, you’ll find out he’s a Harvard grad – B.A. magna cum laude (high honors in political science, honors in economics, honors in philosophy), Haverford College, 1972 M.P.P., Harvard Kennedy School, 1974. Ph.D. (public policy), Harvard, 1983 – and a regular blogger on the popular website: The Reality-Based (you should definitely check out his work there).

What you may not recognize about Prof. Kleiman, or at least not initially, is that he has a sarcastic sense of humor.  Put more candidly, he’s a smart aleck.  Of course, I mean that in the best possible way.  See, in discussing politics and public policy, i.e. gun control, things can get pretty heated, as we all know.  That’s why talking with Prof. Kleiman is so refreshing, he brings levity to a subject that is often marked by contentiousness.

Like me, you may not agree with everything Prof. Kleiman says, but that said I hope you find his analysis, commentary, and sense of humor as thought-provoking and as captivating as I did.


S.H. Blannelberry:  Well, the first question is rather obvious, since it’s our readers are always curious to know whether the interviewee is a gun owner, so do you own a firearm?  And if so, what type/make/model?  

Prof. Kleiman:  My open-carry sidearm is a .45 Glock G30 Gen4 with the standard 10-round clip, loaded with the 230-grain MagTech hollow-point. For concealed carry, I prefer the North American Arms Black Widow loaded with the hollow-point Critical Defense 45-grain FTX. Still, if someone insists on getting really up close and personal, no firearm outperforms the classic Bowie knife. But you have to keep in practice; I’m down to about a second and a half drawing from a boot, three seconds and change from a calf holster.

For home defense, there’s no substitute for a shotgun, and I like the Benelli Super Vinci 12-gauge with Remington Green Box 00 buckshot.

So far, I haven’t had the need to take out dozens of schoolchildren at once, but for that application you need something with manageable recoil and a decent rate of fire. I know it’s slightly unpatriotic, but I really prefer the Kalashnikov to any of the American designs. I’m not worried about a ban on high-capacity clips; I’ve already got a few.

All that is fine for self-defense and hunting, but of course the Second Amendment is really about the work of the militia: defense against invasion and tyranny. I was able to pick up a nominally disarmed Sherman tank as surplus, and returning it to working condition wasn’t nearly as hard or as expensive as I’d feared it might be. (So far no luck upgrading to the Abrams.) Getting my hands on an RPG launcher was a little bit trickier, but well worth the effort. And when and if it becomes time to “do whatever’s necessary” against the gun-grabbers, I’ve got line on a few Predator drones. But if I told you the model numbers, I’d have to kill you.

SHB:  Do you hunt or frequent any local shooting ranges? 

Prof. Kleiman:  I confine my hunting to two-legged varmints, so on the advice of my lawyer I don’t think I want to say any more in print. But let’s just say I take my Second Amendment rights seriously.

[In real life, I don’t own a firearm. I’ve been to the range a few times, and even got some real training back when I worked DoJ. I can get eight out of ten in the target with a .38 auto at 25 yards, but no one’s going to mistake me for a marksman. Haven’t used a long gun since summer camp a million years ago, and I’ve never shot at anything that was breathing.]

SHB:  You’ve been critical of the NRA leadership in the past but if you were in Wayne LaPierre’s shoes, how would you handle the current debate on gun control?  Would you come to the table prepared to negotiate or would you dig in and prepare for a protracted battle in Congress? 

If you’re Wayne LaPierre and you want to stand up for the rights of law-abiding gun-owners, you make a deal that sacrifices the non-law-abiding: universal background checks, better record-keeping and data analysis, stronger gun-tracing, tough penalties for scofflaw gun dealers and straw purchasers who knowingly arm criminals. But if you’re Wayne LaPierre and your job is making sure the dollars keep flowing from customers to your gun-manufacturer sponsors and from those sponsors to the NRA’s bank account (and your own), then you mount a national scare campaign to stimulate gun sales. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which Wayne LaPierre is actually running the NRA.

SHB: Is choosing controversy over compromise a bad move politically for the NRA in the long run?

Prof. Kleiman: In the long run, we’re all dead. In the short run, controversy keeps the big bucks rolling in, and that’s what the NRA management cares about. Good strategy for the NRA; for gun owners, not so much.

SHB:  Let’s talk about the meat and potatoes of the President’s proposal to curb gun violence.  From your perspective, would any of the four main measures on the table – a ban on high-capacity magazines, a ban on ‘assault’ weapons, a law requiring universal background checks or tougher laws for straw purchasers  – have a measurable impact on crime? 

Prof. Kleiman: Clips and “assault weapons” link the legislation with Newtown, which is what everyone’s talking about. Maybe tough rules would prevent some massacres or reduce their lethality; it’s hard to know until you know what the rules are. But in any case that’s a tiny fraction of criminal gun violence. The straw-purchaser rules (to which I’d add the scofflaw gun-dealer rules), background checks, and data-gathering/data-processing stuff would all matter some. You’d have to ask someone like Jens Ludwig or Phil Cook or Rick Rosenfeld or John Donahue what’s likely to be “measurable.” But would it save some non-trivial number of lives? Of course it would.

On the other hand, higher alcohol taxes or smarter drug enforcement or testing-and-sanctions for drug-involved offenders would all save more lives.

SHB:  Even if there is no clear answer to that question, do you believe that any of those policies should be enacted on principle (or for a moral/common sense reason)?

Prof. Kleiman:  Do I think that people who deliberately sell guns to murderers ought to go to prison for it? Hell, yes!

SHB:  To follow up, are there gun control measures that work at reducing crime?

Prof. Kleiman:  Anything that makes it harder for bad guys to get guns will reduce the number of guns bad guys have and use. That’s got to be a gain. The question is, what can we actually do, and at what cost in expense or inconvenience for the law-abiding? If I were running a local police department, I’d think hard about bounties for tips leading to seizures of illegally-possessed guns. Nationally, I think we should follow up on James Q. Wilson’s old idea of metal-detectors for street cops to replace stop-and-frisk as a way of discouraging illegal carry. Part of the deal for a concealed-carry permit should be showing to the cops if they ask to see it.

SHB:  National crime rates (property crime, violent crime, the homicide rate) have been declining over the past two decades as gun ownership has increased across the country (so has the number of states that allow concealed carry), do you (a) acknowledge this correlation and (b) do you think there is any causation between the trends?

Prof. Kleiman:  It’s true that there’s a long-term decline in crime and a loosening of some gun rules. (I don’t think there’s an increase in the number of gun owners, as opposed to an increase in the number of guns.) But there’s the same long-term decline in crime in lots of countries where guns aren’t much of a factor. No one has ever shown that increasing gun ownership decreases crime.

SHB: Generally speaking, do you support concealed carry for law-abiding citizens (or open carry)?

Prof. Kleiman:  Yes, if you add “trained and licensed” to “law-abiding”: i.e., the Texas model, not the Arizona model. There’s no evidence that people who can get a license and who actually go through the training and do get a license commit any substantial number of gun crimes. So I don’t see any moral justification for denying them permission to do something that matters to them. (Again, I’d require them to show the permit to law enforcement on request.)

By the same token, I’d allow any property owner to establish a “no-guns” rule, and require places that serve alcohol by the drink to have a “hang ‘em here” rule. And I think that being armed while under the influence should be as much of a crime as driving under the influence.

SHB:  In the ongoing debate over how to reduce gun-related violence, two points often get neglected (or so it seems): the first is the impact that drugs and the drug trade (by extension gangs as well) have on gun-related violence and second is the issue that certain races are disproportionately affected by gun-related violence (as Sam Harris noted in his brilliant essay – “The Riddle of the Gun” – on the subject: “According to the Children’s Defense Fund, gun deaths among white children and teens have decreased by 44 percent over the past three decades, while deaths among black children and teens increased by 30 percent. Blacks account for only 15 percent of the youth population but suffer 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths. Black males aged 15 to 19 are eight times as likely as their white peers, and two-and-a-half-times as likely as Hispanics, to die by a bullet.)

Okay, first off, do you agree that these two points are being overlooked in the national debate on gun violence?  If so, why are they being overlooked?   What impact does the drug trade have on gun violence?  Assuming that the impact is quite large, what public policies should the country be focusing on to address the drug trade?  Obviously, these questions bleed into the whole debate on the legalization and/or decriminalization of illicit drugs, in particular, marijuana.  Do you believe that legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana would reduce crime rates and gun-related violence?

Prof. Kleiman:  Well, I haven’t been neglecting those issues.

Yes, the illicit drug trade generates violence, including gun violence, and we ought to re-think drug policy with that in mind. On the other hand, the alcohol trade generates violence, including gun violence, among its customers. It’s not as if legalization were a free lunch in the violence department.

We should make alcohol more expensive and harder to get if you’re a drunk driver or drunken assailant (often overlapping groups). We should require drug-involved (which includes alcohol-involved) offenders on probation or parole or pretrial release to stay clean and sober, with testing and a quick trip to jail every time they backslide. And we should focus drug enforcement on violence reduction – going after the most violent dealers – rather than imagining we could create a drug-free society by arresting users and dealers.

And yes, violence, including gun violence, is racially concentrated. Talking about race is always hard, except for those who find it all too easy.

SHB:  Overall, what do you make of the national conversation on gun control and how to reduce gun-related violence?

Prof. Kleiman:  Pretty damned depressing. Too much culture war, not enough policy analysis.

SHB:  I don’t know if you like to make predictions about what’s likely to happen, but what are your predictions for 2013 with respect to gun control?  Does the President have enough political capital to push Congress into ratifying an assault weapons ban, universal background checks or a ban on high-capacity magazines?

Prof. Kleiman:  I lost my prophet’s license a few years back for reckless predicting, but my money would be on passage of something reasonably tough on universal background checks, scofflaw dealers, straw purchasers, and maybe data-gathering and analysis, with the AWB and the high-capacity magazine ban getting sacrificed. But since that’s pretty much what I want, I don’t trust my belief that it’s going to happen.

What I’d really like is to get, on top of that, some form of limitation on guns useful for mass killing (better designed than the old AWB), and in return have a national shall-issue for concealed carry, and interstate carry from any state whose concealed-carry rules meet minimal standards about background checks and training. But believing in that as a political possibility under current conditions would require more chemical assistance than the current drug laws allow.


Big thanks to Prof. Kleiman.  It was a real pleasure to hear his take on gun control and ways to reduce crime and gun-related violence. Hopefully, we can do it again in the near future.

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