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Why Everyone Continues to Get the Gun Control Debate Wrong

The United States follows a very familiar formula when it comes to gun violence: mass shooting, outrage, do nothing, repeat. This cycle has a few root causes that contribute to the status quo.

For one, talks of effective gun laws get muddled in partisan rhetoric and overly-simplified (or outright false) data. Secondly, research on gun control has been conflicting and complicated at best, and virtually banned at worst.

Both of these factors prevent meaningful discussion that can lead to better data, analyses, and policy. The small amount of proposals that do gain traction face powerful opposition from the National Rifle Association, a group known to spend millions in lobbying efforts.

As a result, both the public and politicians engage in fruitless discussions that typically involve quick-fix proposals, such as the recent Democratic proposal to expand background checks or the Republican proposal to expand concealed carry laws.

Regardless of the perceived efficacy of the laws, both sides of the aisle miss one key point: gun violence in America consists of a plethora of socioeconomic factors that simple solutions cannot solve.

Solving such a complex issue will require an honest evaluation of the available data that investigates not only the various factors of gun violence, but the various types as well. This data remains limited, though, which warrants additional funding toward investigating gun violence and the impact of different policy proposals.

We do, however, have some important data points:

  • There were roughly 33,636 total deaths due to firearms in 2013.
  • 11,208 of those deaths were homicides.
  • 21,175 were suicides.
  • 505 were accidental.
  • 467 were due to legal intervention
  • 281 were due to undetermined causes.
  • The overall gun death rate has decreased 30% since 1993.
  • Roughly 1.4 million guns were stolen in burglaries from 2005-2010.
  • Many guns are obtained illegally from people who purchased them through proper legal channels (straw purchases).
  • Teens and young adults face the most risk for murder by gun.
  • Firearm-related injuries cost U.S. hospitals almost $630 million in 2010.
  • Blacks were 55% of shooting homicide victims in 2010, but 13% of the population.

With these facts in mind, one should break down gun violence into separate components so that policymakers and analysts can more effectively address its multiple aspects. Below lists three such components, though many more exist.

 

Gangs and Guns

Reformers must not disregard the significance of gun-related gang violence. Data on this issue, like other categories, is difficult to come by; however, statistics show that gangs cause roughly 2,000 homicides a year (not all of them from firearms), meaning a majority of gun-related homicides are not due to gangs.

This has important policy implications. First, it shows that a majority of gun homicides come from other sources (e.g. armed robberies, domestic violence, etc.). This means that policymakers should not solely focus on the gang issue when discussing gun violence.

Secondly, those who do wish to address this particular category of gun violence should look to all the variables that contribute to it. Geography plays a key role, as studies have shown that gun homicides in urban areas remain highly concentrated. As a result, policies that utilize algorithms predicting gang recruitment and activities have shown promising results.

Another variable deals with access to firearms. This remains a vital concern, considering that the FBI reports that gangs commit most of their crimes with the help of firearms. With regards to access, the bureau states:

Gang members acquire firearms through a variety of means, including illegal purchases; straw purchases through surrogates or middle-men; thefts from individuals, vehicles, residences and commercial establishments; theft from law enforcement and military officials, from gang members with connections to military sources of supply, and from other gangs, according to multiple law enforcement and NGIC reporting.

 

Gang members are becoming more sophisticated and methodical in their methods of acquiring and purchasing firearms. Gang members often acquire their firearms through theft or through a middleman, often making a weapons trace more difficult.

As such, proposals to expand background checks would seem to accomplish very little with regards to gang violence, considering gangs have found networks to supply them with firearms.

Instead, to reduce gang violence, policymakers should consider a plethora of options. Obviously, socioeconomic factors matter. Properly addressing the multitude of risk factors, such as poverty, unstable households, drug abuse, personal safety, and more can drastically reduce gang membership, and hence, gang violence.

Not only that, but Congress should fund research that will tackle the illegal access of firearms. Indeed, undocumented purchases, theft, straw purchases, and even illegal sales by retailers serve as the principle means for criminals to acquire guns.

Possible areas of research might investigate the efficacy of more sophisticated tracking techniques, harsher consequences for retailers, or other creative solutions. The research will ideally map out the best policy proposals.

 

Suicides and Guns

As mentioned earlier, an overwhelming majority of firearm-related deaths come from suicides. In fact, more use a firearm to commit suicide (52%) than all other methods combined. It also remains the most deadly method, with less than 1% of nonfatal attempts occurring with a gun. This, when compared with poisoning/overdose (64%), implies that almost everyone who attempts suicide with a gun ends up succeeding.

Gun violence in America consists of a plethora of socioeconomic factors that simple solutions cannot solve.

Considering these statistics, it should not surprise many that most experts agree that gun availability greatly increases the risk for suicide, especially among the youth and males. This combats the false notion that means do not matter, and that those at risk will simply find another way. Research also disproves this, as 90% of survivors do not attempt suicide again.

These findings have major implications for gun-suicide prevention policy. It shows that reducing access to lethal means can drastically reduce suicides, as has been shown numerous times before.

Translating this into policy, though, remains tricky. Of course banning all guns would significantly reduce suicides, as individuals will not have access to the deadliest method of suicide. However, this will never happen with the various legal obstacles and millions of gun owners ready to oppose such a measure.

A more realistic alternative would involve expanding the waiting period in all 50 states. Studies have shown that this would mitigate the risk of suicide, as those suffering from suicidal tendencies will not succumb to a temporary (and most likely one time) lapse of judgment. This also might explain why permit-to-purchase laws could reduce suicides as well.

Still, these laws will not target those who become suicidal after purchasing a gun. Background checks could solve this if they expand to include risk factors for suicide, such as family history and mental illnesses (e.g. bipolar disorder, depression, etc.).

Requiring those at risk to receive psychiatric check-ups could prevent suicidal thoughts from coming to fruition. In addition, continual background checks for gun owners could potentially spot newly developed mental illnesses that prior checks could not detect.

 

Mass Shooters and Guns

The last category I chose to include tends to garner the most media attention. Mass shootings have become increasingly common over the years, despite the overall decrease in gun homicide rates.

In 2013, 364 mass shootings occurred, resulting in 502 deaths. While this makes up less than 5% of total gun homicides and less than 2% of total gun-related deaths in 2013, the issue still warrants attention.

Discussions about mental health often arise after public shootings. For example, James Holmes, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, might not have committed the Aurora shootings had he received proper treatment.

However, attributing every mass shooting to mental health fails to account for the complexities of the issue and histories of the individuals. Mental health reform will definitely decrease the likelihood of such events from occurring, but politicians should consider other policy proposals as well.

This part of the discussion becomes extremely polarizing, as it tends to involve various forms of gun control.

One controversial suggestion involves banning assault rifles and limiting magazine clips. Such a ban occurred in 1994, though eventually expired in 2004. Research has suggested that the ban did not affect overall gun violence rates, though a longer period might have possibly reduced shootings.

In other words, not only did the 20-year ban not greatly diminish the number of mass shootings, but little evidence suggests it did anything at all in reducing gun violence.

On the flip side, gun enthusiasts might advocate for the exact opposite: more armed citizens to hinder shooters from succeeding.

As a policy measure, this would come in the form of lax gun laws, particularly right-to-carry. Research shows, though, that this does not reduce shooting rates (minus a few incidents). In fact, the opposite trend occurs: more guns associate with more violent crime.

While no study definitely proved causation (i.e. more guns cause more crime), multiple studies have found a significant correlation regarding the increase in gun-related crimes with the increase of guns in an area.

This leads some politicians to call for more gun control in the form of background checks and restrictions. However, the effectiveness of such policies remains inconclusive, as some studies suggest such measures have a positive impact, while others find no significant effect from the laws.

As a result, data concerning gun control and mass shootings remain nebulous. More research will better spell out the causal relationship between gun control and mass shootings, if any exists at all. From there, policymakers will have a better understanding of how to best tackle this particular issue.

 

Future and Guns

A central theme in this article revolves around the need for more gun violence research. The research will better identify effective policy measures for the issues listed above, as well as other gun-related issues including accidental deaths, domestic violence, terrorism, and more.

Not only that, but researching new gun technology might prove beneficial. The concept of smart guns warrant attention with regards to their efficacy and impact on gun deaths. Tracking technologies on guns can possibly illuminate gun trafficking paths, though of course research will ideally confirm or deny this.

Lastly, researching different policy measures might have major impacts. Policymakers should test ideas such as enhanced training for gun owners, harsher penalties for gun-related crimes, and more to determine their respective efficacies.

International gun control policy data certainly exists, but comparing different countries does not necessarily allow us to determine the best policy for the United States (i.e. success in one country does not guarantee success in another).

Until then, the public and politicians will continue to argue using incomplete (or simply incorrect) data. The limits on research have greatly hindered progress on mitigating gun violence of all forms. Fixing this is the first step in solving the issue. Failure to do so will only uphold the status quo, which almost everyone can agree is unacceptable.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Frey / shutterstock.com

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