Gun Violence/Gun Safety

          The term “gun violence” misleads. There is not a single violence problem; there are several. Gun violence includes mass shootings, but the term should also refer to suicide by firearms, which takes more lives than homicides in this country. Urban shootings are also part of the violence as are family killings. It is important to recognize the different problems because the motivations for them vary. Important, too, to understand that different firearms are involved in the different settings. Because there are different problems, there can be no one solution or even one palliative for “gun violence.” We can, however, hope to have reforms that serve to decrease violence in a particular area. With enough incremental reforms a significant dent can be made in our national shame.

          A discussion of gun violence should recognize that there is a constitutional right “to keep and bear arms.”  The goal for those wishing to decrease gun violence should be to make it more likely guns are used safely rather than to take guns away from responsible people. A recent column by Nicholas Kristoff offers many sensible proposals. Opinion | These Gun Reforms Could Save 15,000 Lives. We Can Achieve Them. – The New York Times ( None of these possibilities is “the solution” to gun violence—there is no such thing. However, incremental improvements in gun safety can add up to a real difference. Increasing the age to buy assault rifles will not by itself make a huge difference in gun violence, but it may lessen gun deaths and injuries a little. Requiring all who buy guns to have background checks will not make a huge difference, but perhaps things will improve somewhat. Better  reporting of felony and domestic violence convictions will not make a huge difference, but it might help some. Limiting the size of magazines will not make a large difference, but perhaps some lives will be saved. If we make enough little changes, we might end up strides ahead of where we are now.

          Here’s my suggestion for an incremental improvement: Make it a crime to carry a gun while intoxicated. Of course, carrying a gun is not the same as using it, but even carrying one while drunk should be prohibited because the decision whether to use a carried firearm should not be made when a person is intoxicated. The consequences should be similar to drunken driving. Perhaps a first conviction would be a misdemeanor, but just as driving licenses are suspended for a period for a DUI, the right to possess guns would be suspended for a period, and all guns owned by the offender placed in police custody during that time. A second conviction would be a felony, and the person could no longer possess guns. . . and might even go to jail.

          Frequently after a car mishap, the driver gets tested for intoxication. The same should happen after gun accidents. Each year at least a few people are hurt or killed in hunting accidents when there has been too much drinking, and perhaps that problem can be lessened.

          Those who favor the status quo on gun violence often proclaim that new gun safety measures will not accomplish anything. Sometimes this is an act of misdirection. They might say, for example, that age restrictions on the purchase of an AR-15 will do little about urban gun violence because assault weapons are hardly ever the firearms used on city streets. The response should be–once again–that there is no single solution to gun violence, but that the different components of gun violence must be addressed in different ways to make incremental increases in safety in all the areas.

          Gun safety advocates need to shape the debate on the effectiveness of reform. Part of it might be mockery. Those of us who regularly read The Onion are familiar with its headline: “‘No Way to Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where It Regularly Happens.” But more data-driven responses should also be regularly presented, such as was done in the New York Times recently. The study indicated that up to a third of mass shootings might not have happened or could have been less deadly if simple reforms had been in place—such as universal background checks, no extended magazines, and no sale of guns, or at least assault weapons, to those under twenty-one. None of these would have removed guns from responsible people.

          A few days after a mass shooting, a story often appears telling us about the “warning signs” exhibited by the shooter missed by the “authorities” implying that the shooting could have, or perhaps should have, been prevented. In considering the “warning signs,” however, there is a hindsight bias. We know that the shooter has slaughtered many people, and that makes the missed warning signs seem especially egregious. But we need to evaluate “warning signs” before the violence, not after. Many people engage in the behavior that are called warning signs after a mass shooting and almost none of them become murderers. . We need to find the predicters of future gun violence. How often are the signs accurate? How often do they produce false positives? What are the responses that lessen the possibility of future violence? How often are such warning signs reported to law enforcement or other agencies? What resources does it take to respond? Where do the resources come from? What responses will politicians legally authorize? We need to know more.

(concluded June 10)