Commentary: Annie get your camcorder | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Annie get your camcorder

Jul 8, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 9, 2008 -  It's been more than a year since the local chapter of the ACLU launched "Project Vigilant" in the Fairgrounds Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. This initiative, which issued video cameras to private citizens to record police misconduct, was announced with almost giddy fanfare and garnered widespread press coverage in June 2007.

At the time, self-proclaimed community activists enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame by appearing on local newscasts to relate anecdotal accounts of the endemic police abuse suffered by the beleaguered residents of the area. In fact, I got in on the act when I was invited to appear on KMOV-TV to discuss the program with a representative of the ACLU. To hear him tell it, the neighborhood must have been a garden spot before the cops arrived.

Though much has transpired in the interim, the one thing that hasn't materialized is one inch of videotape documenting any sort of police transgression. Nothing. Zero. Zip. Nada. The mainstream media, afflicted as usual with institutional amnesia, have neglected to report the anti-climatic outcome of the effort. Their audiences are thus left with the vague recollection that the police did something wrong, and the ACLU got on their case. Then again, with Madonna rumored to be dating A-Rod, who has time for boring details like verifiable facts and follow-up coverage?

Just because no video was turned in in the ACLU's target neighborhood, doesn't mean that nobody was shooting. Three people were murdered there in the first five months of this year. Unfortunately, nobody got any of those incidents on camera either. Though we lack cinematic evidence, we can be pretty sure these killings took place because the medical examiner has the corpses. And there are plenty of those to go around.

During the first half of 2008, St. Louis recorded 87 homicides -- a tally that's up 45 percent from a year ago. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately two-thirds of all murders involve firearms. That figure holds true locally.

Sound

Availing themselves of a $250,000 Department of Justice grant, St. Louis police have just installed a Shotspotter Gunshot Location System in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. Last year, 14 people were slaughtered in that locale just west of Fairgrounds Park. The automated Shotspotter system uses hidden microphones linked to a central computer to pinpoint the exact location of shots fired within a given area. It's in use in 30 American cities.

In an interview published in the Post-Dispatch, the Midwest sales director of Shotspotter, Lynn Barousse, says the system reports 100 - 500 percent more gunfire than does the public. "Lots of people are numb to the sounds of gun violence," he explains, "and therefore ... a lot (of shooting incidents) go unreported ..."

Murder

Apparently numb from the sounds of gun violence, state Rep. T.D. El-Amin has called for the governor to mobilize the National Guard to patrol his north St. Louis district -- which, incidentally, includes Fairgrounds Park. While the ACLU searches for rude cops, an elected official advocates martial law in his home town to stem the bloodshed.

The FBI reports that 17,034 Americans were murdered in 2006, the last year for which complete statistics are available. At a rate of 5.7 victims per 100,000 residents, that's up marginally from the three years prior but nowhere near the record-setting totals of 1991 when 24,703 citizens (9.8 per 100K) left this mortal coil at the hands of an assailant.

Guns

Nobody really knows how many guns are in circulation nationally. Surveys indicate that just less than one-half of U.S. households have firearms, though the reliability of that figure is suspect. The number of people who admit gun ownership, for instance, declines immediately after incidents like the Virginia Tech massacre. It's also likely that a significant number of individuals are unwilling to tell a stranger (the pollster) whether or not they keep guns in their home.

To the extent that the same surveys indicate that the average gun owner has between three and four weapons, if we accept the "almost half of households" estimate as a reasonable minimum, it's a fair guess that there are more guns than adults in this country.

Laws governing firearms ownership vary by locality. Gun enthusiasts make much of the fact that places with strict gun laws tend to have the highest rates of violent crime. From this, they infer that gun laws serve only to disarm honest citizens thus making such crime more likely. In making this argument, they conveniently transpose cause and effect.

Laws are enacted in response to a perceived need. Localities where violence is prevalent are more likely to restrict weapons ownership than are places where violent crime is a rarity. The offending behavior generates the law, not the other way around. The same principle explains why there are so few boating regulations in the Mojave Desert.

The Supreme Court recently joined the national shoot-out by ruling in a 5-4 decision that the Second Amendment confers the right to privately own guns (District of Columbia v. Heller). We'll never know for sure whether the court correctly interpreted the framers' original intent because when they gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution, the ACLU wasn't around to hand out camcorders.

M.W. Guzy, spokesman for the St. Louis sheriff's department, is a former city policeman who writes regularly for the Beacon.