What to do about Gun Violence in Columbia

David Webber, September 26, 2019

Columbia Mayor Brian Treece and our city council should hold a summit of law enforcement, grassroots service providers, church and school personnel to propose how to stop the recent flurry of gun violence and to protect the safety of citizens. A good starting point would be to assess our progress in achieving the recommendations of the 2014 Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence https://www.como.gov/downloadfile.php?id=527 Many of its recommendations appear not to have been achieved.

Reducing gun violence in Columbia is a tall challenge. The six shootings in four separate incidents over the past two weeks is shocking. The fact that several occurred near the downtown is particularly unnerving. Two separate incidents were within two blocks of Hickman High School, one near Ridgeway School where I picked up my sons from school for seven years. Some citizens have become vocal in expressing their concern about these shootings. A new group, Save Our Sons, was formed in Columbia a few weeks ago to engage young African American men in education and their community.

Columbia, of course, is not alone in experiencing gun violence –but that should not be a consolation. We have not yet heard much about the identity of the shooters, their connection to Columbia, and any gang related activities. I imagine there is a connection among them. Maybe it is not “gang violence” but probably “group violence” involving money or drugs or some rite of retaliation among men who know one another.

I don’t know how to stop the gun violence nor do most people I have listened to this week. The best time to have addressed this problem would have been decades ago. My simple approach to understanding gun violence is similar to the “fire triangle” I learned about in Boy Scouts. To have fire, there must be fuel, heat, and oxygen. Take away one element, and the fire goes out. Similarly, gun violence requires guns, a potential shooter, and an inattentive community. Change any, or all, those elements and gun violence will be reduced.

In the immediate near-term, adequate and appropriate police action is necessary. I expect that the Columbia Police Department has a good sense of who might be involved in these shootings. Police need to use appropriate intervention to solve these crimes and establish a presence that prevents further shootings. At a minimum, potential shooters will relocate outside Columbia. Increasing police activity is costly. City leaders need to take a clear look at the city budget to insure we are expending adequate resources.

Longer-term solutions to addressing guns, shooters, and an inattentive community are costly too. Given the current national environment that resists gun controls, local restrictions on the availability of guns is unlikely. The supply of guns needs to be restricted. Some communities have held “gun buy back” events but while there is not evidence that they reduce crime, they probably are beneficial in increasing gun safety. The Missouri General Assembly should require background checks, hold the owner of record liable, and require proper storage of guns.

Most shooters have had some experience, probably unsatisfactory, with schools, the police and community organizations. We need to learn more about the development of potential shooters. Conceivably the mass incarceration of the past 30 years may be responsible for growing the perpetrators of gun violence. Furthermore, it is likely that shooters have limited educational and job opportunities. The best treatment for a potential shooter is a job and social engagement.

Despite their efforts, the public-schools have not achieved equity in education performance. African American high school graduation rates are about 20 percentage points lower than white students rates. The “good” schools have many fewer at-risk students than the “not so good” schools. In 1980, the city of Columbia budget provided about $50 of social services per low income capita; in 2019 it has budgeted $22 per low income person for similar services.

While we hold individuals responsible for their criminal behavior, the community and society at large has contributed to a gun culture. Violent computer games, videos, music and folk heroes have been around for at least two generations. The Rice Road area of Columbia has few public amenities to engage boys and young men in non-violent behavior. The ARC and Cosmos Park are wonderful facilities for those of us who have cars and can spend hours waiting for our kids during soccer practice.

Reducing gun violence seems like an impossibility but there have been American public policy successes that should give us hope. Highway fatalities have been reduced, in part because of DWI enforcement and seat belts requirements. Tobacco use has decreased remarkably through tighter restrictions on youth buying tobacco and through public education.

America needs to adopt reasonable gun control measures such as background checks to reduce gun violence. We need to take a good hard look at our gun culture, and we need to re-store our commitment to high-risk communities so that potential shooters get engaged in promoting the social welfare rather than causing human destruction.

Columbia needs to review 2014 Mayor’s Task Force on Community Violence and ask if we have done enough.

Columbia’s One Read book selection is a good read

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, September 8, 2019

The selection in this year’s Columbia Public Library’s One Read, now in its 18th season, turned out to be a worthy read.

I started “Nomadland” by Jessica Bruder only because I believe community One Read programs are a great idea — lots of people read the same book, attend book-related events and hear the reactions from fellow citizens.
It is sort of like an extra class in high school or college.

I liked the book, but I was expecting a tale of retirees with golf clubs who visit several of our 60 national parks on their way to someplace like Sun City, Arizona. My expectations were off base, in part because I judged the book by its cover, which conveyed a pleasant photo of a sun-drenched camper, and a hard-to-read subtitle: “Surviving America in the Twenty First Century.”
It turns out that “surviving” plays a large part in this nonfiction book about older citizens who take to the road and live in their cars, vans and RVs.
Certainly over-the-road truckers and national park summer hosts have been hitting the road for years, but they often had permanent homes.

It is estimated that about 1 million Americans are nomads. Most are retirement age but without much retirement income due to lack of a pension, a small monthly stipend from Social Security or fallout from the 2008 recession and housing crash that ate up their savings. Often, they took to the road after losing a job, enduring a divorce or surviving a big family emergency. Maybe their RVs should be called SVs — survivor vehicles.

It is not clear how many year-round travelers are wandering by choice and how many are on the road as a last resort because they cannot afford more traditional shelter.
Some are certainly following the spirit of “Walden” and “Blue Highways,” but Henry David Thoreau and William Least Heat-Moon camped and wandered by choice. They had a place to which they returned.

Bruder’s 21st century nomads are different. Their survival often depends on staying out of sight, so they go unnoticed by the police and by society.
They sleep in their vehicle/homes in RV parks, rest stops, Walmart parking lots, Bureau of Land Management land and deserted side streets. Modern nomads consider themselves “houseless,” not “homeless.”
The internet has improved the quality of life on the road. Van dwellers can locate each other, find places to camp and even work remotely in some instances.

Bruder tells the story of Linda May, who traveled for periods over three years and had a budget of $15,000. Bruder also writes about Bob Wells, who organizes an annual gathering of van dwellers called “Rubber Tramp Rendezvous” in Quartsite, Arizona.
Linda and Bob, the two main characters in the book, represent contrasting types of road wanderers. Linda is there by economic necessity; for Bob, it is a choice.
Bob Wells’ website and book, “How to Live in a Car, Van or RV: And Get out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom,” plus his YouTube channel, may make him the guru of the houseless.
Wells sought and has achieved a simpler life by living off the grid and getting rid of unnecessary stuff. He has learned how to find community when he needs to and maintains his RV mostly by himself.
May, on the other hand, struggles to survive. She has worked numerous low-income jobs that always seem to disappear for one reason or another. She has been a truck driver, a cocktail waitress and a “cigarette girl” at a casino where vending machines helped put her out of a job.

Bruder followed May to Amazon’s CampForce — the online mega-collection of local warehouses that recruit and hire seasonal workers as “stowers” and “pickers” at $12.25 an hour. The backbreaking work for 10 hours a day is made less painful by the free supply of over-the-counter pain relievers.
Despite being a frequent user of Amazon to purchase too many books, running shoes and clothing — but not yet food — I was unaware of the company’s exploitation of aging workers.

Apparently, Amazon gets a 25-40% federal income tax credit for hiring workers who are recipients of some form of federal assistance — Social Security, Medicare and/or Medicaid. No wonder Amazon paid NO federal income tax in 2017.

“Nomandland” reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” which was Columbia’s One Read book in 2004.

While reading “Nomadland,” I thought of several public policy issues that have been inadequately addressed. Here are a few:

1. Should local governments be chasing Amazon and similar minimal-paying corporations? What is the local benefit of attracting van dwellers to a community?

2. Affordable and attainable housing is the root cause of houselessness. Gentrification and rapidly increasing house prices force some citizens to the road. Can anything be done about this?

3. Where should van dwellers be counted in the census, and where should they register to vote?

4. Increasingly local ordinances prohibit sleeping in a vehicle. What don’t we make it easier for van dwellers to park safely overnight? There must be unused parking lots at sport stadiums and airports that could serve the needs of van dwellers.

5. As these van dwellers age and can no longer drive and care for themselves, where will they go?

Author Jessica Bruder will talk about her book at 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at Columbia College’s Launer Auditorium. I will be interested to hear if her experience changed her public policy views and to hear other reactions from readers.

For a list of Columbia’s One Read events, go to https://www.dbrl.org/events?fwp_event_type=one-read.