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COMMENTARY: Thoughts on the weapons debate

Like most of us, I've been brooding over school and public space massacres. Probing the causes in my mind, wondering how we can stop them. Some answers: stronger and less individualized communities, better teaching and mentoring of prospective parents, and changes in how we arm and police.

But first, some political economy. As an economist, I've been studying national defense since the 1980s. I wrote four books: "The Rise of the Gunbelt" (1991), documenting how and why most of our military bases and defense plants are in the south and west; "Dismantling the Cold War Economy" (1992), about how to move workers, companies, plants, technologies and shuttered military bases into civilian uses; and two forward-looking policy books, "Arming the Future: A Defense Industry for the 21st Century" (1999) and "America's Peace Dividend" (2000).

As a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, 1995-2000, I convened a monthly study group on the arms trade and defense industry. Group members included the Council's senior military fellows, including a Four-Star Navy admiral; policy leaders from Machinists' Union, the International Red Cross and the Mennonite Peace movement; the chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association; and researchers studying everything from the small arms trade to the nuclear triad, military base closings and the state of our readiness.

I learned that it's possible to limit the spread of weapons, from hand-held to large platforms and nuclear bombs. Strong international agreements limit the export of small arms, capable of great carnage, to many developing countries. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, these have eroded.

Here at home, former New York Republican Mayor Bloomberg led a national effort to limit concealed weapons carriage in cities. That has made many of our largest, most diverse cities, like New York, much safer.

Second, our economy includes large arms manufacturing companies whose operations we rarely read or hear about in the press. They are major exporters of arms, from fighter jets to automatic rifles, as well. The NRA lobbyist would always fly from his West Coast home to our monthly sessions when the topic was the arms trade. Why? Because the NRA receives large contributions from weapons manufacturers and has a record of opposing arms limitation deals.

It is heartening currently to see greater scrutiny of NRA and arms merchants' position on the part of public pension funds, American companies and investors of the political positions of the NRA and arms merchants.

Third, lowering the defense budget, the opposite of the Trump administration's deficit-financed proposals, is good for jobs, consumers and the economy.

In the 1980s, the huge Reagan buildup initiated by Republican President Reagan raised the defense budget from around $350 billion to $550 billion in six short years, doubling the national debt.

In the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, the Clinton administration and the Congress lowered the US defense budget to around $380 billion, a cut of about 40 percent in real terms. The benefits? Lower interest rates as we retired national debt and expanded infrastructure and social services. The economy boomed.

In the 1990s, I and my student and postdoc teams worked across the U.S. with defense companies, workers and communities, helping them adjust to the huge cuts.

After 911, the defense budget ballooned again. Why is President Trump proposing another economy-depressing huge increase in the defense budget, and what is it for?

Still deeper questions: Why do we have so many men who decide to engage in mass slaughter? Disengagement, the absence of community, disparagement in the school system, poor or worse parenting? Could we change these? Could we, in our schools, neighborhoods and towns, learn to and invest in helping the most difficult young people?

And could we limit the carrying, sales and production of the most lethal weapons? During my 2010-11 year as a UK Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Glasgow, I spent time with a young police officer from Los Angeles who was placed, for his Fulbright, with the London Police Force. I asked him what he thought about not arming London cops with guns.

He explained that Britain, though a hunting country and with many who have served in their military, has had strict gun control laws since the 1960s. These have been strengthened, not weakened, over the decades in response to massacres that involved lawfully licensed weapons. Check out the Library of Congress website: loc.gov/law/help/firearms-control/greatbritain.php.

My Fulbright friend was wistful. He wished they could do that in Los Angeles!

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