Thinking through gun control

Mostly, I’ve just been trying to think through a few gun control-related things. I see opinions all over. Memes. Tweets. Enraged Facebook statuses. This may be part and parcel to that storm, but I wanted to take the whole thing slowly.

I really have nothing major to gain or lose in this debate personally. While I live in a violent city (Syracuse), I’m rarely in harms way directly. Perhaps now and then, but gun violence is not a daily reality in my physical proximity. I don’t own guns, but I also don’t have anything against gun ownership. I’m friends with hunters and gun enthusiasts, and consider them fine people. I also recognize that gun ownership is a constitutional right. More than that, it is part of the Bill of Rights, alongside things like freedom of speech and no double jeopardy.

But as Colbert said, when things like mass shootings keep happening, we should look at changing. I suppose the alternative would be to not change and take things how they are, which is an option. Moreover, I don’t think the idea of “change” needs to be threatening or draconian. Middle ground exists. Places for dialogue. Places for compromise. So mostly I want to point to conversations that I don’t see much in the mainstream media or on social media, including the stakes and confines of the debate itself.

First,  something not often mentioned in the debate is the role of suicides in gun deaths. Indeed, according to a Pew poll, 60% of gun deaths in 2010 were suicide: 19,392. And according to a UC Davis study, as homicides drop by gun, suicides have been increasing. OK. So would fewer guns help that? It might. In Israel for example, preventing troops from having access to weapon while on leave dropped suicides by 40% according to a study. And the correlation seems pretty solid. However, in Australia, after the gun ban, while gun suicides decreased, other methods increased. In this study, for example, hangings increased.

So I’m not sure whether gun control will hinder suicides, but I think it is something we should take in line with our discussion mass shootings, particularly with one argument addressing  mental health. It is an issue. A major issue.

Something I also don’t see much: how this debate connects to federalism. In other words, is gun control a states’ issue or a federal issue. It is both. In 1968, Johnson signed the Gun Control Act, prompted after the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, which banned mail order gun purchases (an aspect supported by the NRA’s Franklin Orth) as well as banning gun sales from felons and those suspected of severe mental illness. Still, this Bill passed with difficulty.

This was extended in 1993 with the Brady Act, inspired by the attempted Reagan assassination, which among other provisions instituted a background check from any federally licensed source (not private sellers) and a series of restrictions for gun buyers, with checks eventually done by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). But in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the bill’s imposed checks violated federalism, making it optional for states. Still, most states followed the checks still. And in terms of effectiveness, it depends on who you ask, but most a modest success seems reasonable.

So while individual states still have varying levels of gun control, Federal involvement is not unusual. In fact, in terms of scale, it is normal. But the court’s 1997 ruling does poke some doubt at a national set of restrictions.

Our current gun control still raises the question, however, about why so much violence happens when felons and other criminals are not allowed to buy guns. In other words, we have controls in place, but why did so many people die in Chicago recently from gun death? Indeed, cities with strong gun control still have many gun deaths. Moreover, mass shooting deaths are much lower compared to other gun violence.

Here, I think we need to step back again. First of all, Americans have a lot of guns. Some estimates put it at around 1 for every American, while they seem concentrated in the hands a minority of the population, according to this Pew poll. As Pew rightly points out, gathering this data is tough. Still, it makes us wonder what a “more guns” solution would look like.

Also, a few studies, like one from Boston’s Children Hospital or from the liberal Center for American Progress, seem to point at timidly that states with stronger laws have fewer deaths. But these are liberal sources and even taken in sum and with other similar studies, it is not a revolutionary change.

When it comes to the international scene, as this Harvard meta-study bluntly puts it: “Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide.” So here, things are clearer.

As one final point, we often hear liberals citing that the majority of Americans support tougher gun laws, like stricter background checks–often 88% is cited. This is true across multiple polls, but as Mother Jones points out–and many liberals bemoan–most people don’t care much about passing this legislation.

So that leaves us with a few things. I think here is where my opinion may slip in. First of all, we need to recognize that this is not an all-or-nothing debate. It is not about taking away all guns. It is about finding ways to curb gun violence while recognizing a Constitutional right to bear arms.

Second, we must get specific about that violence. Do we want to try to curb all violence, mass shootings, or suicides? These are different goals and likely require different paths forward. Or at least different conversations.

Third, we must honestly ask ourselves in a country with so many guns already and so many people who either don’t want guns or don’t know how to use guns whether increasing guns is even reasonable. It may be. But it’s a worthwhile question.

Fourth, we must interrogate how we are looking at this debate. This is a long post. I reckon few people are reading it all–if at all. But it is long because the debate is complicated. It can’t be glossed over like a Tweet or a Facebook status or a political soundbite. These have a purpose, but I want to argue that we must also make informed, critical decisions and not act on impulse. This requires a certain genre and mode of discussion.

Fifth, we must also recognize that we are in this together. I have my own biases. I know you do too. But we can’t look at what “I” want; we must look at what is best for the country and be able to justify that call to ourselves and those around us. This is essential. Show me data. Give me arguments with sound examples. Look at multiple perspectives.

Sixth, we must take my initial dichotomy seriously: mass shootings and gun deaths are now the norm. To not change is to perpetuate the norm. To me, this places a hefty burden on those who want to stick to the status quo. Such a stance may be reasonable, but it must recognize its own position, just as a person who wants to change must recognize the need for clear direction and justification. We are ethically bound to this choice no matter what.

Finally, as this recent article in Scientific America points out, fighting the causes of violence reduces violence. So we must recognize that having new laws with existing causes of violence–drugs and drinking, economic inequality, mental health, etc.–is not going to fix things overnight. For example, my mom (Army trained) often makes trips up to clinical sites in poorer sections of New York State. Such isolated areas don’t have access to mental health facilities. They are understaffed and isolated. Simply passing legislation to do more mental health counseling, etc., will not work unless there is both the workforce and culture to allow it. I think the same pattern connects with multiple points: we need the people and the culture to make any change work.

I haven’t posted much, if anything, on gun control or gun violence. Ever. I currently have a stomach bug and papers to grade. But I needed to say something. I still haven’t reached a conclusion about gun control, but I have reached a conclusion about the debate: we can’t fall back on assumptions, generalizations, personal preferences, up votes, confirmation bias, unquestioned fears, and straw-stuffed misrepresentations. We are the electorate. We construct our society and we have a responsibility to that society. How we debate, discuss, think, and act makes up the whole. We have to take that seriously, and to me, that means looking at data alongside stories and asking myself: what is best for the country regardless of what I want.


2 thoughts on “Thinking through gun control

  1. The biggest problem is that we simply do not have adequate data, and such data as we have is contaminated by the fact that different entities gathering it (states, police unions, FBI) have differing criteria for inclusion. As a result, the existing stats are contradictory. The NRA is strongly against gathering the data in a meaningful way, that is, scientifically, and nationally. As things stand, anyone can find a convenient stat or two to bolster their opinion, whichever side that happens to fall on. As for the 10th amendment, the latest New Yorker has an interesting article about that, well worth reading.

    1. I agree 100%. I think we do need more data and the fact that the NRA is so critical of data gathering is deeply problematic. And I’ll be sure to check that out. I used to want to be a constitutional lawyer, so those discussions always interest me.

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