Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

Seized guns at the 7th district police station, May 6, 2013

When news about PRISM broke last week, a number of people, myself included, had this reaction among others: "for a reportedly intrusive data-mining program, $20 million is quite a bargain." In terms of the unfathomable and sometimes black-budgeted money spent on preventing terrorist violence, $20 million is nothing, as much as a single shipment of barely-controlled U.S. currency shipped to Iraq during the war. Among the shocks of the NSA leaks was how the reported price of PRISM barely registered a shrug.

Today Conor Friedersdorf suggests that, given how few people are killed by terrorists, it's "irrational cowardice" to cede as much liberty as we do to the federal government. If so, a fair number of people are irrational cowards:

In 2002, 45 percent said they supported e-mail monitoring, while 47 percent said they didn't support that. In June 2013, 45 percent still indicated they supported e-mail monitoring, but the number of Americans opposed to it rose to 52 percent.

Friedersdorf's reaction is not a new one, but it's worth considering the other view: the arguments against intrusive data mining are powerful but abstract. In essence, it's trading an abstract sense of liberty for an abstract sense of security. If either ends up directly impacting your life, the effects are profound, but the odds are vanishingly small.

On the other hand, there's this:

So far in 2013, Chicago homicides, which outnumbered slayings in the larger cities of New York and Los Angeles last year, are down 34 percent from the same period in 2012. As of Sunday night, 146 people had been killed in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest city — 76 fewer than in the same stretch in 2012 and 16 fewer than in 2011, a year that was among the lowest for homicides during the same period in 50 years. 


Critics question whether the city can continue to pay for the added police presence. By the end of April, $31.9 million of the $38 million set aside in the city budget for police overtime for the year had been spent, city records show. 

Gun violence is recognized as a problem, but it's basically left to state and local authorities to deal with, authorities that have seen federal government support decline for decades. At the federal level, there's very little money or interest in the subject:

Back in 1996, Congress worked with the National Rifle Association to enact a law banning CDC funding for any research to “advocate or promote gun control.” Technically speaking, that wasn’t a ban on all gun research, but the law was vague enough that the centers shied away from the topic altogether. Funding for gun-violence research by the Centers for Disease Control dropped from $2.5 million per year in the early 1990s to a mere $100,000 per year today.

Since federal funding was the primary source of support for gun-violence research, the entire field withered as a result. Gun studies as a percentage of peer-reviewed research dropped 60 percent since 1996.

The National Academies of Science recently released a report covering all the stuff we don't know about guns. We spend lots of money to know granular metadata to lead us to potential terrorist threats, but very little on critical questions about violence here at home:

* "Risk stratification with respect to mental health and the use of firearms is imprecise and not well understood. Although the risk associated with some specific psychiatric diagnoses is better understood now than in the past, mental health issues that foster a propensity toward violence and risk taking are not well defined and not readily recognized by authorities."

* "Because different forms of firearm violence respond to different strategies, without good data it is virtually impossible to answer fundamental questions about occurrence and risk factors or to effectively evaluate programs intended to reduce violence and harm. Data about the sources of guns used in crimes are important, given that studies suggest that the mechanism by which an individual acquires a gun may predict future violent use of that gun. The National Violent Death Reporting System is a beginning but it covers only one-third of U.S. states."

* "[T]he lack of comprehensive datasets and the wide variety of sources and the fact that the data lead to contradictory conclusions call into question the reliability and validity of gun-violence data. Technological opportunities and recent advances that can enhance linkages among datasets from other federal, state, and local sources may enable better predictive analytics, real-time information sharing, and reduction of data noise."

The reduction of gun violence in New York City over the past few decades is one of the great achievements of public policy, only we don't have a great sense of what policies actually caused it. Not to mention the overall drop in crime everywhere:

Between 1991 and the year 2000, crime dropped everywhere in the United States, and it dropped rather mysteriously in the United States. There were a lot of different theories of causes but no good science that shows anything principally that would be a persuasive explanation. The general size of that decline was a little tiny bit under 40 percent. But that then becomes a very important tailwind for the New York crime decline. Because that means that about half of everything that happened in New York City was happening everywhere, and that you can't very well say the New York police weren't happening everywhere; so that half of the crime decline probably had nothing to do with New York's specific changes….

It would be nice to know that. Emily Badger has another list of things it would be nice to know about guns, and a comparison of NIH grants for firearm-injury research compared to the research of various diseases. These are tangible questions, with very little real money to answer them.