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Does Anyone Have a Solution to Gun Violence?

Sources: Centers for Disease Control (2015); Everytown for Gun Safety (2014).

On June 17, the U.S. experienced yet another mass shooting, this time in Charleston, South Carolina, which was followed by yet another round of the same arguments and inadequate remedies from gun-control and gun-rights advocates alike.

More guns for everyone? The National Rifle Association’s legendary “good guy with a gun” never seems to be around when needed to stop the “bad guy with a gun.” Scores of mass shootings and thousands of daily shootings plague “open carry” states like Texas, Arizona, and South Carolina, where high proportions of residents are armed.

Controlled guns? Background checks of gun purchasers advocated by President Obama and gun-control groups likewise have not prevented scores of mass shootings and thousands of daily shootings in states like Connecticut, California, and Illinois, where many fewer residents have firearms.

If no one’s remedies have shown great success in preventing gun murders, how do they compare to each other? The 17 states (aggregate population, 149 million) that require background checks of gun purchasers have an aggregate grade by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence of “B” on the strength of their gun control laws. The 33 states (aggregate population, 166 million) that do not require background checks receive a solid “F”. In the background-check states, 25 percent of households report having guns, compared to nearly 40 percent in the no-check states.

The most common reasons groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demanding Gun Sense in America, and the White House cite for requiring background checks of gun purchasers are to reduce public shootings, murders, and gun fatalities among children and youths. However, none of these key measures of gun violence were shown in Everytown’s widely-cited “Background Checks” report comparing gun violence rates in states with and without background checks. When I repeated the method* used in that report to include these measures, I found background checks are not connected with reducing any of these problems (see above Figure).

Similarly, the FBI tabulation of active public shooter cases (in which a gunman commits or attempts to commit a mass public killing to which both law enforcement and citizens can respond) from 2000-2013 showed states with and without background checks had identical rates (see below Figure).

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation (2013).

However, background checks are associated with distinctly better outcomes for two major safety issues: gun suicides (which comprise two-thirds of all gun deaths) and gun murders victimizing women (many of which result from domestic violence). Gun-control commentators have included the higher rates of gun suicide in low-control states to argue that overall gun fatality rates are higher -- which is true, but a misleading conflation of very different types of violence.

The stronger case for background checks is their association not with fewer murders and mass shootings, but with reduced domestic use of guns for suicide and family violence. These associations certainly merit further study.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine gun-control lobbies jettisoning their misleading “save our children” theme, or to confronting the disturbing reality that children most need saving from murders (including those in murder-suicides) by parents and parents’ intimate partners — not from strangers. While groups do occasionally mention domestic violence against women as an argument for gun control, domestic violence against children and youth remains a taboo topic.

It's also hard to imagine interest groups launching a major campaign to prevent gun suicide. Unlike youth, the primary demographic resorting to suicide with a firearm — middle-aged, white men — is a powerful constituency leaders and interests are reluctant to stigmatize as impulsive or mentally troubled and in need of intervention. While over 21,000 Americans died in gun suicides in 2013 compared to a few dozen in mass shootings, the latter remains a much more powerful rallying point..

Today’s going-nowhere shouting match over guns is a consequence of what I term “privatized social policy.” Competing political interests effectively seize “ownership” of a social issue and treat it like a commodity, repeating popularity-tested “advertising” points to raise funds and “sell” public policies like commercial products. Nevertheless, encouraging signs that gun violence is improving despite the oxygen-consuming war of ideologies are the subjects of the next blog.

* The Everytown report uses a sound method but unfortunately omits the most important comparisons, such as the contribution of guns to murder, child and youth deaths, and mass killings. To remedy this omission, the present analysis compiles gun fatalities and rates by state, death category, age, and sex for 2013 as tabulated by the Center on Disease Control To rule out the possibility that states with no background checks have higher residual violent death rates than background-check states (they do, as it turns out), this analysis (like the Everytown report) compiles non-gun violent fatalities as well. Finally, like the Everytown report, the Figure above shows the percentage of all violent deaths (gun plus non-gun) that are caused by guns. The above figure presents some key measures left out of the Everytown report.

 

Keywords: guns, Mike Males

Posted in Blog, Political Landscape

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