Better Gun Regulation, Fewer Gun Deaths, and Maybe More Freedom

*This appeared in response to coverage of an NRA campus visit by the UW student newspaper The Daily, see here for link.

Recently, the UW campus group, “The Young Americans for Freedom,” invited a representative of the NRA’s lobbying firm to campus to give a talk opposing gun control, which was documented in the Daily. I write as a criminologist, who supports gun reform, and wants to add nuance (and correct) some misleading claims presented by the NRA and noted in the Daily as well as a general observation.

First, let’s just be really clear: NO ONE wants to take away “your guns,” unless your past behavior (criminal record; domestic violence; severe mental illness diagnosis) suggests that it is in the best interests of society (societal safety—including our freedom to not be shot or threatened by dangerous persons with guns), or “your guns” include those that have no reasonable purpose in sport, hunting, or self-defense. The notorious AR-15 is a case in point; this gun has no reasonable use in society.

Currently, the NRA is galvanizing its base with claims that the government wants to take away your guns. With the above exceptions, this is not accurate. And, this overstated claim has the effect of impairing reasonable discussions about gun reforms planting the seed in people’s heads that any efforts to reform the system of gun ownership in the US will produce an outright ban on guns. It won’t, ever. If someone says that, you can be sure they are out of touch with the reality of gun reform issues.

Second, the “facts” presented by the NRA in their seminar (as documented in the Daily) are both misguided and misleading. First, the widely repeated “fact” from Gary Kleck’s small surveys that gun use in self-protection (defensive gun use) dwarfs gun crimes does not hold up to scrutiny. Conservative estimates suggest that gun crimes outnumber defensive gun use by at least 3 to 1. Second, the “more guns, less crime” findings by John Lott were subject to further examination by a scientific committee who could find no “credible evidence” of a link between more guns and less crime using these data. No surprise that the NRA didn’t share that information. However, we can look at other countries where guns are regulated much more stringently and see quite clear evidence that fewer guns and more stringent regulation equals less gun violence. Following the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, when their conservative government reacted quickly and instituted significant gun reforms (including the banning of all semi- and automatic weapons), they have had zero mass shootings and a decline in gun homicides. And, in a thought experiment, without access to guns, how successful would the Parkland, Fla murderer have been with knives, a crossbow, or even a slingshot?

One area where the evidence is clear is that in US states where guns are more tightly regulated, women are significantly less likely to be killed (in general and by a firearm). Moreover, the best evidence suggests that suicides would decline significantly were we to institute gun reforms (and more deaths are due to gun suicides than gun homicides). The irony in all of this is that given that people who reside in a home with guns are 3-4 times more likely to be a victim of gun violence, gun reforms may actually disproportionately benefit some of the people who resist the reforms the most.

I’d like to end with a brief note about freedom given the focus of the UW club. Some people want the freedom to buy and own guns without restriction and feel the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to do so. Others disagree, pointing to the ‘militia’ aspect of the 2nd Amendment, as well as the fact in this country no right is all-encompassing. The state can take away the right to life, with the death penalty; the right to vote is taken away from people who commit certain crimes (a topic for another day); and so on. Coming together to form a society means we give up a portion of our liberty to do whatever we want when we want it, for the greater good. At present, many of us are trying to push forward reasonable gun reforms that give people freedom to not fear that they will be shot in school; freedom from being threatened by a supposedly ‘good guy with a gun’ at a bar; freedom to eat, work, and play in areas without guns, because guns are killing machines, that have some uses, but not in schools, most workplaces, or restaurants. Given the horrendous deaths that occur sporadically by mass shooters and more predictably among impoverished inner-city areas, can we not at least treat guns with the same respect as we treat cars? If training, licensing, education, and insurance are deemed necessary for cars—driving machines—surely we can ask the same of our killing machines. The best evidence suggests that we would all be safer from gun violence and feel safer, and given that a majority of Americans support reforms, it seems long past time to make us safer from guns through reforms.

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