Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Lives Which Change in a Few Seconds of Rage: Programs for Impulse Control

NPR had a fascinating piece about a study done by two sociologists who tried to understand the origins of "Black on Black" murder by gun.  

The author of the study, Jens Ludwig, asked the NPR host this question: "Suppose I have a cookie in my hand and you want that cookie. How would you proceed?"

The NPR host said, "Well, I'd say: 'I'm really hungry and I'd like that cookie very much. Would you give it to me, or perhaps share it?"

When the Professor Ludwig,  gathered a group of inner city youths, from a high murder district,  and asked that question of one of the boys. The study subject walked over to the boy with the imaginary cookie and started pounding him with his fists.  After a few minutes of mayhem, Professor Ludwig settled the boys down and asked:  "Why did you not simply ask for the cookie, first?"

The answer from the boys in the study indicated none of them ever expect a positive response from a social encounter. And if they had asked nicely,  they would have been considered a "punk."

After a training period of 6 weeks, inner city youth who were taught through practice sessions to think of alternatives to violence and coercion, to consider alternative approaches, were compared to a control group of boys who had no training. Over the next 6 months, the trained group had a 50% lower incarceration rate than the untrained,  control group.  Of course, the effect lasted only 6 months. After that, the trained kids slid back into old habits.

What this suggests, the Professor Ludwig said, is the reason for gun violence in the ghetto is that young men who confront each other begin with the maximum confrontation tactic--violence--and if they have a gun in their belt, well the results are predictable. 

In fact, the study began when the professor tracked down every boy convicted of murder in a given precinct and  asked each youth why he shot his victim: Usually, the explanation was the other boy had disrespected him, i.e. it was a very unplanned, volatile flare rather than a murder as a settling of scores, a tactic to achieve a specific goal.

He said, "It's not what you see in 'The Wire,' where the murder usually makes sense to eliminate a snitch, or to seize a prime drug selling territory."

 (In fact, of course, the authors of "The Wire" are very much aware of this sort of ghetto culture--a boy is shot to death because he makes a disparaging remark about another boy's new sneakers. But Professor Ludwig can be forgiven his lapse where "The Wire" is concerned. He is emphasizing what happens most commonly, not what is most interesting in a story.)

The professor's focus is on what happens in the majority of cases-- shootings emanate from unplanned, tantrums. Young men, boys wind up in prison for life because of a minute or two of rage,  for which they would very much like a do over.

If this is true, ought not our gun  policies and our youth programs reflect this? 

We do not prevent the careful planner, the psychopath, from mowing down innocents on playgrounds or in shopping malls,  with current practices. There may never be a program or a law which will deter that sort of gun violence. 

We do not prevent the lethally explosive inner city youth who may be, statistically, responsible for most gun deaths. But there may be interventions in this culture which might make a difference. 

So what sort of laws could we pass, what sort of programs, policies might work  to address he under-parented inner city  boy with a gun in his waistband,  who is responsible for the large majority of gun deaths?

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