Almost every day we read about gun deaths. What’s behind this problem? The National Rifle Association tells us, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” Let’s go with that. The FBI reports that in 2012, people killed 144 babies, 422 kids age 12 and under, 1327 teenagers, 96 husbands, 498 wives, 140 mothers, 126 fathers, 168 boyfriends, 494 girlfriends, and thousands of others, for a grand total of 12,723 people—with guns.
The numbers will not go down dramatically until we change our focus. If we’re serious about reducing gun deaths, we need to stop debating whether more guns in the hands of law abiding citizens result in less crime. It’s the wrong issue, and the evidence is inconclusive.
Economist John Lott was perhaps the first to champion the idea that more guns means less crime; others are in his camp. In response, scholars Ian Ayres and John J. Donohue III and others have refuted Lott’s conclusion. The National Research Council concluded in 2004 that there is “no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime.” The council also found that statistics concerning defensive gun use were unreliable because of “disagreement over the definition of defensive gun use and uncertainty over the accuracy of survey responses to sensitive questions and the methods of data collection.”
Lott’s credibility is also subject to question. He created a pseudonym, “Mary Rosh,” a supposed former student, to defend his theories online. Posing as Rosh, Lott stated about himself on line, “he was the best professor I ever had.” Lott sued the publisher and one of the authors of Freakonomics in federal court for defamation concerning his research, but not about the Mary Rosh story. Upon reviewing the case, the appellate court found the Mary Rosh matter to be “an embarrassing charge, but one that was apparently true as Lott takes no issue with it in this case.”
So, what’s the best way to reduce how often “people kill people” with guns? Let’s start analyzing how we can reduce gun deaths. David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, advocates treating gun violence as a public health issue. Forget about attributing blame for gun deaths. Hemenway suggests that we evaluate why certain segments of society are at risk and analyze how to prevent gun deaths for those groups. Instead of focusing on the last person or opportunity that might have prevented a death, Hemenway says we should search several steps earlier in the chain of events for those opportunities that could have made a difference.
Part of the challenge is that we don’t know enough about gun violence to immediately come up with answers. Complicating the problem is that gun violence is multi-faceted. CNN columnist LZ Granderson doesn’t see a single cure for gun violence because each form of violence has its own unique characteristics. Think about it. People are shot in armed robberies, domestic violence, mass murders and gangland killings; children are killed by guns left unlocked, and guns are used to commit suicide.
What might work for one type of gun violence might not work for another. Banning assault weapons might help reduce mass murders, but assault weapons aren’t the reason so many kids are killed when guns are left unattended. Requiring that weapons be locked at home might reduce the numbers of kids who are accidentally shot, but it won’t change the number of deaths perpetrated by gang bangers. Background checks will help keep guns out of the hand of felons but won’t do anything about stolen guns.
Columnist David Brooks believes we should start with a series of policies to reinforce gun-trafficking laws and reassert police control over zones of concentrated violence. The Department of Justice reports that over 230,000 guns are stolen each year. Based on polling data, Mayors Against Illegal Guns puts the number at 600,000. Exempt from federal licensing requirements, private sales do not require background checks, meaning countless guns are sold with no records.
A 2013 CNN documentary illustrated how easy a journalist could purchase three semi-automatic handguns and a semi-automatic rifle—no ID or paperwork required, no background check, and no possibility of tracing the weapons. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported in 2000 that during a 30 month period, it investigated traffickers who had diverted 84,128 firearms from legal to illegal commerce. Note how the ATF report begins: Virtually every gun used in a crime in the United States starts off as a legal firearm.
Arguing about whether guns are good or bad locks us in an emotional argument that goes nowhere. Let’s start talking about reducing gun deaths and directing our efforts at research, analysis and changing norms.
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