A Few Thoughts on Gun Control

Whenever a public mass shooting occurs in the United States, especially one, like the Charleston church shooting on June 17, that touches on racism and other dark aspects of our culture and history, the topic of gun control almost invariably comes to the fore.  People wonder why something like that could happen and what could be done to prevent it in the future.  For some people, the weapon of choice makes for an easy target.  Others then rush to the defense of their Second Amendment rights, and the end result is a lot of heated words that at best go nowhere.  I admit to having a “side” here, but I am going to try my best to offer and evaluate the evidence for both sides before giving my own conclusions.

First of all–and I do not mean to make light of this criminal tragedy at all when I say this–let’s not try to panic here.  A study from just two years ago by the Pew Research Center indicates that gun homicide, non-fatal gun-related violent crime, and overall non-fatal violent crime rates have declined sharply since their peak in the early 1990s, though the rate of decline has slowed significantly since the start of the 21st century.  Moreover, a report by the Crime Prevention Research Center suggests that there was even a slight decline in public mass shootings between January 2009 and July 2014, with an average of 4.5 attacks per year and 7.2 deaths per attack or 32.4 public mass shooting deaths per year.  By comparison, in 2011 alone, 21,175 people committed suicide using a firearm.  A significant majority of all gun-related deaths are suicides, about 64 percent as of 2012.  That is alarming in its own right, I admit, but we shouldn’t let overblown media rhetoric about public mass shootings, something that only 0.00007% of gun owners are likely to perpetrate, dictate policy for the masses.  Let’s use this as an opportunity to have a good discussion, not an excuse to demonize people or make the situation out to be worse than it actually is.

Secondly, I would humbly request that you open-minded readers out there not resort to definitional trickery to advocate for your position.  The infamous Everytown study relies on a rather broad definition of “mass shooting” as “any incident where at least four people were murdered with a gun” to boost the number of incidents to 110 incidents between January 2009 and July 2014, but in doing so, it combines domestic disputes, drug deals gone (fatally) wrong, and incidents like the recent Charleston church shooting.  It should not be that difficult to see that Mookey shooting Pookey and Pookey’s henchmen for an easy crack score might have a different background and motivations for killing someone with a gun than acknowledged white supremacist Dylann Roof shooting nine members of a traditionally black church.  The study that I mentioned earlier notes that the Everytown study uses a questionable definition of the term “assault weapon,” as well.  Such tactics may win some notoriety and shock-value points, but in the end, you will wind up looking more like a shill for Michael Bloomberg (or the NRA, if you use similar tricks to bolster a “pro-gun” point of view) than a serious, fair-minded participant in the gun policy debate.

Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of more stringent gun regulation is this:  At least some research conducted on the subject suggests that gun ownership increases one’s risk of being killed by a non-stranger while not really being linked to reducing stranger-on-stranger homicide.  This would contradict the common argument by the pro-gun lobby that gun ownership reduces crime, and it would also suggest that more regulation is needed.  A 2004 peer-reviewed study supports this line of reasoning, though it also points out some important limitations to such studies:

  1. There is always some risk of misinformation or bias.  Deaths can be classified incorrectly, and people may have incomplete or inaccurate information or be tempted to give socially desired responses to certain questions.
  2. The gun in the home may not be the one that killed the victim.  If the gun that the victim or member of the victim’s household owned wasn’t the one that killed the victim, the victim’s gun ownership may well have had nothing to do with the fact that he or she was killed.
  3. There may be confounding variables.  To the extent that a victim’s choice to own a gun may be linked to other environmental factors also associated with an elevated gun homicide risk, such as living in a dangerous neighborhood, or having some involvement in dangerous illegal activities, those factors may have had more to do with the victim’s demise than the victim’s gun ownership status.  Drug or alcohol use may also have an effect on one’s likelihood of becoming a gun homicide victim.

It should be noted that, though violence at the hands of a stranger isn’t exactly uncommon, a violent crime offender is more likely to be known to the victim than to be a stranger, and so-called stranger violence has actually declined a fair bit since the early ’90s (both gun-related and non-gun-related violence).  One possible argument (though admittedly not the only one) for why this pattern has emerged is that laws intended to reduce stranger-on-stranger gun violence have had at least a moderately positive effect and that further efforts should be focused on reducing non-stranger gun violence.  One obvious target for such efforts is domestic violence.  Early last year, the Los Angeles Times reported on a study indicating that women are “close to three times likelier to die by homicide” and “typically know their assailant.”  It’s not a huge leap to surmise that domestic violence may be at play here.  A Johns Hopkins fact sheet on intimate partner violence endorses this view and even goes so far as to say that “limiting access to guns will result in less lethal family and intimate assaults.”

That same fact sheet, however, concedes that abusers (including those accused of stalking, harassing, or threatening an intimate partner) with restraining orders against them already are “prohibited from possessing or purchasing” firearms under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act enacted in 1994, and since the 1996 passage of the Lautenberg Amendment, individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors are prohibited from possessing firearms, as well.  Yet “[n]o effect on intimate partner homicide was measured for laws that restrict firearm access for domestic violence misdemeanants,” and any benefit from restricting firearm access to firearms from abusers with restraining orders is only realized when there is an effective system in place to “screen potential firearms purchasers for restraining orders.”  Thus, assuming gun control measures are the best response here, it would appear that the best course of action, short of prosecuting “pre-crime,” is to better enforce the laws (and better implement the systems) that already exist at the federal level.

Another common target is the mentally ill. Mentally disturbed individuals are often the central figures in the much-sensationalized public mass shootings, and some of them can present a danger to their loved ones, as well.  Thus it is understandable why people would be pushing for extra efforts to keep guns out of their hands.  However, Jacob Sullum, a senior editor at Reason magazine and nationally syndicated columnist, makes a very good case for why this disarming of the mentally ill may be a bit wrongheaded. Here is a summary of his points:

  1. Over half the population qualifies for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point.  And if you include fuzzy terms like “angry” or “confused,” that number would likely be much higher.  Psychiatrists are, on average, no better than chance at predicting violence, so it isn’t as if we can rely on them to narrow the field.  Is stripping that many people of their Second Amendment rights, and piling on further stigma in the process, a good idea?
  2. Only 4-5% of violent crime can be attributed to people with mental illness.  Yes, offenders in public mass shootings are much more likely than average to be mentally ill, but most mentally ill people are not violent, and public mass shootings are relatively rare events.
  3. There are much better predictors of violence than a mental illness diagnosis.  Drug or alcohol abuse is one big risk factor.  Another big one, unsurprisingly, is a past history of violence.  That’s a shocker, I know.
  4. There are already legal restrictions on some mentally ill individuals’ access to guns.  People who have been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment are already barred from having guns, due in part to one of the conditions of involuntary commitment:  The person must be judged by licensed mental health professionals to present a danger to himself or others.  However, involuntary commitment data is often missing from the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System.  Assuming that you are willing to rely on sometimes-fallible professionals’ predictions of violence to self and others, and you have no qualms about restricting the rights of the suicidal folk along with those of the potentially homicidal ones, it would be much easier to impose the restrictions already on the books and update the databases than to set up a completely new system of laws for the mentally ill.  (Perhaps anticipating this suggestion, a CNN commentator and legal analyst has recently pushed for the adoption of “a nationwide standard for involuntary civil commitment.”)

One of the more common arguments fielded by gun rights activists–those who can move beyond “muh Second Amendment,” anyway (I support the Bill of Rights, but I understand the frustration felt by the other side when that is the only supporting argument offered)–is the “greater benefit than harm” idea. That is, though guns are often used wrongfully, costing many lives and great loss of property, these harmful uses are outweighed by the many legitimate uses of guns by law-abiding people to defend themselves, their loved ones (or other innocent people), and their property.  This argument is not without its staunch critics, however, and to discredit this pro-gun rights argument, they have made use of a study by the Violence Policy Center to claim that actual ” gun self-defense incidents” are much less common than the gun lobby typically indicates and to show that unlawful gun homicides greatly outnumber the number of justifiable gun homicides in any given year.

Even if the VPC’s self-defense numbers are correct (and that is a very BIG “if,” as there is a distinct possibility that the VPC used unreliable data in its study), is it really fair to limit the notion of self-defense to the “bad guy body count” or to imply that any use of a gun other than to use lethal force to prevent certain impending death is illegitimate?  Roughly three-fourths of the time, one need not even fire the gun to send the would-be offender running, and in many cases, an attempted crime that ends that way will go unreported.  Moreover, some benefits of gun ownership may well be more indirect or societal. As an example, an opinion piece written by Larry Bell for Forbes on gun control myths notes that in Britain and Canada, places known for severe gun control laws (and thus a rather low gun ownership rate, at least for the law-abiding segment of the population), “nearly half of all burglaries occur when residents are present,” as opposed to 13% for the United States, which is known for widespread gun ownership.  Surely the ability to feel more comfortable and less worried about home invasion while you are at home is a beneficial (and normally non-lethal) byproduct of legal gun ownership?

Some problems transcend the mere numbers, however.  I don’t think that you can put a figure on someone’s being able to breathe a bit more easily because they can carry a weapon to defend themselves if the need ever arises.  One number that the total amount of guns out there never will be, I can assure you, is zero.  To paraphrase a quip I recently read via social media, you can’t un-bottle the gun genie.  Brian Doherty of Reason puts an eloquent spin on this notion:

Guns are tools that exist in the world. They cannot be fantasized or legislated away, neither constitutionally nor actually. They can be used to harm the innocent or guilty, and they can be used to defend the innocent or guilty. And no number of other people misusing them, or even better never using, their weapons has any bearing on whether you should be able to have one if you think you need it.

My take from all of this: guns are not going away, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Guns are an equalizer, a means for a well-meaning underdog to hold those who mean him (or her) harm at bay. Should we be a bit concerned about how guns are brandished and used in public?  Yes, certainly. Even well-meaning folk can unintentionally and needlessly escalate situations.  That is not a justification for taking away their right to self-defense, however.

I would be among the first to say that America has a long way to go with respect to dealing with violence, mental illness, and suicide.  I grow tired of the endless confusion of symptoms of societal problems with their causes, though, and I grow tired of the people who would ignore the fact that, without guns, we would all be at the mercy of the ape with the biggest stick, or as Sam Harris puts it, in “a world in which a man with a knife can rape and murder a woman in the presence of a dozen witnesses, and none will find the courage to intervene.”  We would be ill advised to allow our government to play the role of the overbearing father that we never wanted and create the next-worst dystopia, in which only the lawless thugs and the oft inept or corrupt government enforcement agents have the means to defend themselves.  Government cannot solve all of our problems  Using the force of the law isn’t always the answer.  And in cases in which the force of the law does appear to be needed to solve or palliate a problem, it would be a good idea for society to analyze current laws and systems relating to the problem in question before piling on new laws and systems that could prove to be even more burdensome, ineffective, and inefficient than those that already exist.


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