October 19th, 2016, 07:08 AM
Join Date: Feb 2014
What liberals don’t want to admit about gun control
Following the fatal shooting of nine people at a community college in southern Oregon last week, President Obama renewed his call for "sufficient, common-sense gun-safety laws." Yet there is only limited evidence that piecemeal regulation of the kind that policymakers in Washington and in state houses around the country are considering would substantially reduce gun fatalities. |
Take a prohibition on assault weapons, one of the most common proposals. The ban might make mass shootings less deadly, but most homicides are committed with handguns. A rule that owners must store their guns under lock and key -- if it were followed -- would help keep guns away from suicidal adolescents, but wouldn't protect adults in a violent domestic dispute. Requiring background checks for private sales and transfers would make it harder for convicted felons to buy guns secondhand, but some would still buy guns as a favor to brothers or boyfriends who wouldn't qualify themselves.
Civilians in the United States already own more than enough guns to arm every American man, woman and child. Each of those weapons could end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result, experts say, the main reason that guns cause the deaths of so many Americans is just that America has so many guns. And while most gun-control proposals aim to keep guns out of the wrong hands -- measures that could certainly save lives -- they do not generally address the sheer quantity of guns in this country.
"The big problem is the guns," said David Hemenway, a professor of public health at Harvard University.
"Guns are incredibly lethal," he said. "It's easy to kill with a gun." There aren't other ways to take a life that are equally effective. A knife wound is about eight times less likely, for instance, to take a life than a gunshot wound.
A mandatory buy-back program, along the lines of Australia's highly successful ban on shotguns and semiautomatic and automatic rifles, could be effective in reducing the number of firearms. In Australia's case, a mass shooting at a tourist destination on the island of Tasmania led the country's conservative prime minister to require owners to sell their guns to the government in 1996. The government seized at least 650,000 guns -- about one in five guns in civilian hands at the time. The result was a reduction of nearly 80 percent in the rate of suicides by firearm. And the data suggest that Australians didn't simply use other methods besides guns to commit suicide. The policy likely saved hundreds of lives a year.
[Read more: Did gun control work in Australia?]
Homicides by firearm also declined sharply, although since there were so few homicides in Australia before the ban, it is hard to know what to make of the data. Yet such broad programs aren't discussed in the current political climate in the United States.
On Monday, Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out a plan to require buyers at gun shows to pass background checks. And Obama is considering similar measures, The Washington Post reported -- bypassing Congress through his executive authority as president to expand background checks into what are currently considered private sales.
There is reason to believe that requiring background checks for all purchases -- not just for transactions at licensed retailers, as current law requires -- could prevent some firearms deaths, though it is not clear how many.
"The best we can do is say, 'The evidence is very suggestive, and it seems to make sense,' " Hemenway said.
Researchers have studied laws in Connecticut and Missouri requiring a purchaser to pass a background check and get a permit in order to buy guns privately. These laws prevented about a few dozen homicides a year, according to those studies. In the case of Connecticut, the law appeared to cause a substantial, 40 percent decline in the gun homicide rate, but again, in a small state with relatively few homicides to begin with, researchers need more information to determine whether the background checks would have a similar effect elsewhere. In Missouri's case, the change in the gun homicide rate was smaller, and it is unclear whether background checks reduce the rate of suicide.
And shootings such as the one last week show that background checks sometimes aren't enough to avert violence.
Authorities say Chris Harper Mercer had 13 guns and took six with him on his rampage at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. He or members of his family reportedly acquired all of the weapons from retailers, meaning that they passed background checks. Adam Lanza, who authorities say shot and killed 26 at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. in 2012, is said to have killed his mother before taking guns she had purchased.
Maybe more thorough background checks, involving more than just a review of a buyer's criminal and medical records, could have prevented these killings, but it's hard to say. Dylann Roof, the young man who allegedly killed 9 people at a church in Charleston, S.C. in June, passed a background check despite his arrest on a narcotics charge. The arrest should have barred him from purchasing a weapon.
No system of background checks will be perfect at capturing the rare person who sets out to kill many. That said, most gun related deaths a year aren't mass killings, but disputes involving one or two people that go wrong. So far this year, there have been fewer than 400 deaths in shootings in which four or more people were killed or wounded, and about 10,000 firearm homicides in total, according to organizations that monitor gun violence in the United States.
Clinton's plan also calls for revoking the licenses of dealers who "knowingly supply" guns to the black market. It's difficult, though, for law enforcement to prove that a dealer knows who is buying his wares and to what end, said Jay Wachtel, a former agent at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who spent much of his career on the trail of gun traffickers in Los Angeles.
[Read more: So far in 2015, we’ve had 274 days and 294 mass shootings]
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It is true that there are far fewer deaths involving guns in states with more restrictive rules on firearms, according to Hemenway and his colleagues, who thoroughly examined the issue in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2013. At the same time, there are also far fewer guns in those states to begin with. So it's hard to know what to make of the connection.
The study noted that deaths involving firearms (including both suicides and homicides) were more than twice as common in the states with the most lax laws on guns compared to the states with the most stringent laws. Yet when adjusting for the number of guns -- along with demographic variables and the rate of violent deaths not involving firearms -- these two groups of states had identical rates of gun fatalities.
It could be that where fewer people own firearms, more people are willing to support gun-control legislation. That legislation itself might not reduce the rate of fatalities, but because there are fewer guns, there are fewer deaths.
In any case, as long as guns remain so prevalent in American life, it appears that violent shooting deaths will continue. Another shooting, this time on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, wounded three people and killed another Friday morning.
"The availability of firearms feeds this problem, but then, what the hell are you going to do about it?" asked Wachtel, who now teaches criminal justice at California State University, Fullerton. Meaningful changes to the nation's firearms policy aren't politically feasible, he said: "We're screwed. This is America."