December 21, 2012

Some Thoughts on the Newtown Shooting and Gun Control

Our 300 Million Guns Aren’t Making Us Safer

Ezra Klein points out that “[m]ore guns tend to mean more homicide.” The Harvard Injury Control Research Center, he writes, has “assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there’s substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you’re looking at different countries or different states” (“Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States,” Washington Post, December 14, 2012).

Lynn Stuart Parramore: “Consider a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers sought to determine whether having a firearm increases the risk of a violent death in the home and whether risk varies by storage practice, type of gun, or the number of guns in the home. Among the findings:

  • “People with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home.
  • “They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide (risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death).
  • “The risk of dying from a suicide in the home was greater for males in homes with guns than for males without guns in the home.
  • “People with guns in the home were more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from suicide using a different method.

“Bottom line: Researchers found that no matter what kind of storage was used, no matter the type or number of guns, having a gun in the home increased the risk of firearms homicide and suicide” (“Does Having a Gun in the Home Put Your Life at Risk,” AlterNet, December 17, 2012).

Smart Gun Control Measures Do Work

The New York Times: “In 1996, a ‘pathetic social misfit,’ as a judge described the lone gunman, killed 35 people [in Port Arthur, Australia] with a spray of bullets from semiautomatic weapons. Within weeks, the Australian government was working on gun reform laws that banned assault weapons and shotguns, tightened licensing and financed gun amnesty and buyback programs.

“At the time, the prime minister, John Howard, said, “We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.’ The laws have worked. The American Journal of Law and Economics reported in 2010 that firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 percent between 1995 and 2006. In the 18 years before the 1996 laws, there were 13 gun massacres resulting in 102 deaths, according to Harvard researchers, with none in that category since.

“Similarly, after 16 children and their teacher were killed by a gunman in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, the British government banned all private ownership of automatic weapons and virtually all handguns. Those changes gave Britain some of the toughest gun control laws in the developed world on top of already strict rules. Hours of exhaustive paperwork are required if anyone wants to own even a shotgun or rifle for hunting. The result has been a decline in murders involving firearms.

In Japan, which has very strict laws, only 11 people killed with guns in 2008, compared with 12,000 deaths by firearms that year in the United States—a huge disparity even accounting for the difference in population” (“In Other Countries, Laws Are Strict and Work,” December 17, 2012).

Ezra Klein points out that “[s]tates with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence”: “Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive” (“Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States,” Washington Post, December 14, 2012).

One Gun Control Measure That Would Make Us Safer: Banning Assault Weapons and High-Capacity Magazines

There really isn’t a legitimate civilian use for military-style assault weapons (for instance, the rifles used by the Sandy Hook and Aurora killers). Nor is there a legitimate civilian use for high-capacity magazines, which enable such killers to inflict far more damage than if they were forced to reload more often (William Saletan, “The Volume Killers,” Slate, December 18, 2012). Robert Wright writes: “Imagine the following world, which it’s within our power to create: It’s illegal to sell or possess a firearm—rifle or pistol—that can hold more than six bullets. And it’s illegal to sell or possess a firearm with a detachable magazine. In other words, once a shooter exhausted the six rounds, he couldn't just snap in another six-round magazine; he’d have to put six more bullets in the gun one by one.

“In this world, a significant number of those 20 Newtown first graders would almost certainly be alive. Lanza reportedly fired six bullets from his AR-15 just to get inside the locked school. So, in the alternative universe I just described, he would then have to more or less exhaust one of his two pistols to kill the principal and school psychologist he encountered after entering. At that point, as he headed for the classrooms, he’d have six more rapid-fire bullets left, after which he’d have to reload his guns bullet by bullet.

“Is there a single legitimate use of firearms that requires more than six rounds of continuous fire? Certainly not hunting. And not any sort of self-defense that’s realistically imaginable, unless you’ve recently antagonized a Mexican drug cartel” (“A Gun Control Law That Would Actually Work,” The Atlantic, December 17, 2012).

Another Gun Control Measures Would Make Us Safer: Requiring Mandatory Background Checks

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg points out that “nearly half of all gun sales in the U.S. are conducted without a background check. Criminals, the mentally ill, minors and domestic abusers are all prohibited from purchasing guns, but they all can do so as easily as attending a gun show or going online. The check takes only a few seconds, and it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s rights. That’s why polls show that more than 80% of gun owners support a change in law to require background checks for all gun sales.

“Fixing the background check system also requires the federal government to compel states to submit all necessary records on felons, domestic abusers, the seriously mentally ill and others to the background check system. Right now, far too many records are not in the system, which allows dangerous people—including the Virginia Tech shooter—to pass the background check and buy guns” (“Michael Bloomberg: 6 ways to stop gun madness,” USA Today, December 19, 2012).

Even Most NRA Members Support Many Sensible Gun Control Measures

Most NRA members, for instance, support closing the gun-show loophole. Most NRA members support prohibiting people on the terror watch list from purchasing firearms (Yes, it’s legal for people on the terror watch list to buy firearms, and the NRA supports this “right” of theirs.) Also contrary to the organization’s leaders, most NRA members think people should be required to report lost or stolen guns. And most NRA members support Mayor Bloomberg's plan to update the background check system (Cliff Schecter, 5 Issues that Divide Gun Owners and NRA Leadership,AlterNet, July 22, 2012).

The 2nd Amendment Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

Robert Parry: “Indeed, when the Second Amendment was passed in the First Congress as part of the Bill of Rights, firearms were single-shot mechanisms that took time to load and reload. It was also clear that Madison and the others viewed the “right to bear arms” in the context of “a well-regulated militia” to defend communities from massacres, not as a means to enable such massacres…

“The intent of the Second Amendment was clarified during the Second Congress when the U.S. government enacted the Militia Acts, which mandated that all white males of military age obtain a musket, shot and other equipment for service in militias.

“The idea was to enable the young country to resist aggression from European powers, to confront Native American tribes on the frontier and to put down internal rebellions, including slave revolts. There was nothing particularly idealistic in this provision; the goal was the “security” of the young nation…

“But does anyone really believe that Madison and like-minded Framers would have stood by and let deranged killers mow down civilians, including children, by using guns vastly more lethal than any that existed in the Revolutionary era? If someone had wielded a single-shot musket or pistol in 1791, the person might get off one volley but would then have to reload. No one had repeat-firing revolvers, let alone assault rifles with large magazines of bullets” (“How the Right Has Twisted the 2nd Amendment,” AlterNet, December 15, 2012).

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After reading the study cited by Parramore, I feel the need to point out that things are more nuanced then she implies. It’s true that those who have a firearm in their home are more likely than those without a firearm of being murdered. As Linda Dahlberg, et al. concluded in their study, “Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.” However, it’s important to keep in mind that the study merely showed a correlation, not a causal relationship, between owning a firearm and being murdered. As the authors conceded: “it is possible that the association between a gun in the home and risk of a violent death may be related to other factors that we were unable to control for in our analysis. For instance, with homicide, the association may be related to certain neighborhood characteristics or the decedent’s previous involvement in other violent or illegal behaviors. Persons living in high-crime neighborhoods or involved in illegal behaviors may acquire a gun for protection. The risk comes not necessarily from the presence of the gun in the house but from these types of environmental factors and exposures” (Linda L. Dahlberg, Robin M. Ikeda, and Marcie-jo Kresnow, "Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study," American Journal of Epidemiology, 2004, 160 (10): 929-936.

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