When nearly 4,000 people were killed on September 11, 2001, no one argued that the United States ought to be content with the status quo. In seeking to ensure that there would be no sequel to 9/11, particularly of the nuclear variety, the American taxpayers have spent somewhere between one and four trillion dollars in the spirit of “never again.”
Amazingly, that same year, more than 20,000 American citizens lost their lives as the result of a fatal gunshot wound. And yet no public policy officials called for action. Each year since, similar numbers of Americans have lost their lives at the end of a barrel of a gun. More than half of these deaths are suicides.
This debate is not new and the factions on either side are firmly entrenched in their positions, but the tragic events at Newtown, CT have brought the gun control debate back into the mainstream spotlight.
Unfortunately, the debate is almost never properly framed.
There are two main problems with the present state of the gun control debate; first, the nature of the problem is rarely defined in a way that lends itself to clear public policy analysis. In other words, it is not quite clear what exactly the problem is. Second, partly because they don’t agree on what specifically the problem is, the two camps in the debate (what might be called the “pro-gun control” and “pro-gun rights” sides) vehemently disagree with one another on the role of legislation.
Furthermore, debates over gun control very quickly escalate into the land of character assassination and absurdly constructed straw men. The sensible, workable arguments go unheard and are instead drowned out by ludicrous, inaccurate mischaracterizations.
This is particularly troubling given that by 2015, according to a study done last year, the average American is, statistically, more likely to die from a gunshot wound than in a car accident. This has less to do with growing gun violence, the study finds, and has more to do with public policy measures that have made car travel much safer. This augurs well for a legislative answer to gun violence.
So, how should the gun violence problem be measured? For starters, it is worth pointing out that per capita gun deaths (as measured per 100,000) are vastly higher in the United States than they are in most other rich countries. To put it in context, the U.S. ranks just ahead of Mexico but behind many of its peers like Japan, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Norway.
Without question, the U.S. has a bigger problem with gun violence than one would expect when compared to other similar countries.
This is the problem that should bother citizens and should be the thing that inspires policy responses. Sadly, it rarely ever is. The tragedy of Newtown notwithstanding, the better metric for success is not the number of high-profile murders; rather, the true measure of success is comparative murder rates from year-to-year as well as gun deaths per capita.
Thus, tragedies like Aurora, Columbine, and Newtown should be wake-up calls, examples of the worst case scenarios. However, the real problem is in the aggregate data and the comparatively high number of gun deaths in the U.S. each year.
What, then, are the policy solutions? Definitive answers to that question are beyond the scope of this little blog (hopefully to be filled in by readers’ comments?), but there are a few myths worth debunking that both sides of the debate need to come to grips with if the problem—and indeed there is a problem—is ever to be resolved.
Three myths need debunking, two of them by the pro-gun rights people, and one of them by the pro-gun control people.
Myth #1: Adding guns to the general public will decrease the number of gun deaths.
Those who argue this point usually point to Florida where the state legislature passed a law authorizing conceal and carry during the 1980s. Indeed, violent crime seemed to have decreased as a result. The key point of this argument is that when law-breakers or would be murders are unaware of who is armed and who is not, they become risk-averse and are less willing to act violently. This is not wrong, but it is deeply flawed because it fails to take into account two important factors. First, many other states have passed similar laws but have seen no corresponding drop in gun violence indicating that conceal-and-carry laws may be serendipitous. Second, would-be murderers would have to be well-versed in their state and county’s laws on gun usage. It may be difficult for some to ascertain this information. Moreover, anyone who is angry enough to kill in the first place is unlikely to suddenly have a change of heart because of the slight chance his target might be armed. In fact, conceal and carry gives all the more reason to shoot first, hence the advantage of having “the fastest gun in the west.”
Myth #2: Strong gun control laws cause gun violence to increase.
This is the inverse of the first myth. In the way that more guns increase the costs of trying to shoot someone because he/she might be armed, so it is argued that more stringent gun laws will make the world more dangerous. The causal mechanism is that only law-abiding citizens would turn in their weapons thus inadvertently emboldening murders who don’t respect the law as it is. While applicable in some circumstances, this argument overlooks some hugely important factors. First, strong control laws are almost always in response to an already-violent situation. In other words, gun control laws tend to come after the fact, are often too-little-too-late, but almost always correlate with high gun murder rates. Second, stringent gun control regulations may correspond with high murder rates in some cases, but in many others, strong gun control laws work extraordinarily well. To get a general sense of gun control laws’ effectiveness, you need to look at cases where it works as well as cases where it fails and then try to figure where your city or state lies. To categorically dismiss all increases in gun control laws is irresponsible.
Myth #3: Gun laws in places like Australia and Great Britain should be the model in the United States.
It is 100% true that Australia and Great Britain (and even China) have much fewer gun deaths than the U.S. (for the best articulation of this position, see Fareed Zakaria’s Op-Ed in the Washington Post from December 19th). It is also true that they have stronger gun laws; however, it is wrong to think that what worked in one place will work perfectly well when applied to a totally different locale. First, passing federal regulations is much more difficult in the United States where so much power is delegated to state governments. Second, the places where these regulations would have the most teeth, in the state legislatures, can be offset by the ease of transfer from one state to another. Growing up 45 minutes from Connecticut, I know how easy it is to smuggle sales-tax-exempt clothing from the Danbury Mall back across the porous New York State line. Third, America has a deeply embedded gun culture that has no analogue in most other countries. In other words, there is no Texas in Great Britain. Additionally, most people who own guns, perhaps the majority of them, are quite responsible.
I can think of at least three things that would help frame a more useful way of looking at this problem. First, pro-gun control people need to take a different approach to restricting public access to guns. Typically, they argue things like “why would anyone need an assault rifle?” “magazines should be limited to 10 rounds per clip,” or “certain high caliber rounds should be banned,” say anything higher than .223. This is a good start but still does not address the fact that someone armed with a .22 holding 10 bullets can still kill 10 people. It’s the old adage “don’t blame the arrows, blame the Indian.”
Second, pro-gun rightsfolks need to have a better perspective on the 2nd amendment. Your right to own a fire arm is not equal to your right to free speech. The idea that guns don’t kill people and that people kill people is simply ridiculous. A gun exists solely to kill. Someone bent on killing a mass number of people is hard pressed to find something as efficient and easy to handle as a gun. It takes time and expertise to build a bomb and it is hard to do so with any kind of stealth. I don’t know if it’s ever been tried, probably not because it would be so frightening, but you could probably train a monkey how to fire a gun.
Third, and finally, as alluded to before, the horror of Newtown notwithstanding, the real troubling statistic is the staggeringly high number of gun deaths that take place each year in this country, many of which are suicides and so are totally unaffected by measures like conceal and carry legislation. As a result, policy success should be measured by that aggregate number. Diminishing the 30,000-something number slowly but surely should be how we think about gun control success in this country.
Significantly more people die with guns each year than have died in the entire War on Terror. It would be nice to see the 27 deaths at Newtown spur a long-awaited for debate on gun violence that measures success in the right way and that emphasizes the good effects of public policy. Otherwise there will surely be more. This is a problem that can be solved but it requires the two sides to first understand what is at stake and then, more importantly, to understand each other.