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Thoughts on Gun Control - New Studies on Effectiveness of Gun Control Laws

Gun ControlOver the past few years, I've written a few times on gun control, starting with the entry, Thoughts on Gun Control, and continuing on with NRA President Unwittingly Supports Gun Ban, Thoughts on Gun Control - The Hitler Argument, and Response to E-mail - Are America's Hunters the World's Largest Army?.

In that first entry, I posed three questions:

  1. Just how dangerous are guns?
  2. Do gun control laws make society safer?
  3. If gun control laws do work, is it a trade-off in personal freedom vs. safety that we're willing to make?

To the first of those questions, I found that "guns are used to commit homicides twice as often as other methods, but those homicides account for less than 1% of the deaths in the U.S. per year." To the second question, I couldn't find much data. On the third, I wasn't willing to commit without having better input on whether or not gun control laws improved safety.

Well, since that time, I've done a bit more research. One of the articles I found recently I should have known about back then, but some of the others are new. Below are links to three relevant articles describing research into guns, along with a short excerpt from each article.

But before I list those, since I know not everybody is going to read my old entries, let me state that I'm not too concerned with the Second Amendment in these discussions. For one, I disagree with the current interpretation of the amendment. I think it was intended mainly for state militias, not private gun ownership (for a good discussion of this, see the article by Garry Willis, To Keep and Bear Arms). For another, the Constitution isn't scripture, and the Founding Fathers weren't infallible (keep in mind that when the Constitution was written, women couldn't vote, and slavery was legal). If we as a society decided to, we could modify the Constitution with a new amendment. So, if there are good reasons for or against gun control, they should be judged on their own merits. Anyway, on to the articles...

BBC - Missouri gun murders 'rose after law repeal'

Reporting soon in the Journal of Urban Health, the researchers will say that the repeal resulted in an immediate spike in gun violence and murders.

The study links the abandonment of the background check to an additional 60 or so murders occurring per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012.

"Coincident exactly with the policy change, there was an immediate upward trajectory to the homicide rates in Missouri," said Prof Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

"That upward trajectory did not happen with homicides that did not involve guns; it did not occur to any neighbouring state; the national trend was doing the opposite - it was trending downward; and it was not specific to one or two localities - it was, for the most part, state-wide," he told BBC News.

Penn Medicine - Penn Study Asks, Protection or Peril? Gun Possession of Questionable Value in an Assault

In a first-of its-kind study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, guns did not protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. The study estimated that people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun.

This last article may seem a bit amusing at first, but it's one of the scenarios that I always would have thought justified carrying a gun.

Anchorage Daily News - Gun is no insurance policy in bear attack, study indicates

Longtime bear biologist Tom Smith and colleagues analyzed 269 incidents of close-quarter bear-human conflict in Alaska between 1883 and 2009 in which a firearm was involved. They found the gun made no statistical difference in the outcome of these encounters, which resulted in 151 human injuries and 172 bear fatalities.

While I don't think a handful of studies are enough to definitively state that gun control laws are effective, I think all indications are going that way. The first study above indicates that gun control laws do help to reduce murder rates, while the other two articles indicate that on average, guns aren't terribly effective for self defense. In fact, when you're the victim of an assault, you're more likely to be shot if you have a gun yourself. My suspicion is that pulling out your own gun escalates the violence. As far as the bear study, I think most people just don't have the training to effectively use guns in high stress situations (whether it's an attack by a bear or a criminal).

So, now I must return to that third question from my previous entry, are gun control laws a trade-off in personal freedom vs. safety that we're willing to make?

In that first entry, I discussed three anecdotes of people I know of personally* who have been involved in situations with gun violence - a man who successfully defended his home against a drug addict; a teenager without a gun who confronted burglars with guns, resulting in his being knocked out but not shot; and a man who got caught up in drug related violence and successfully defended himself against several attackers. It's situations like that first scenario that make it so difficult to make the extreme argument that guns should be banned. Had that man not had a gun, who knows what would have happened to him and his family. However, it appears that he was the exception and not the rule. In most cases, having a gun yourself increases your likelihood of being injured.

Of course, there is a vast gulf between the extreme positions of gun bans and the wild west. There already are a certain amount of gun control laws - you can't carry concealed weapons without a permit, certain types of weapons (like fully automatic rifles) are already prohibited. And while it's not exactly a requirement of gun ownership, most states have training requirements to get a hunting license. And those hunter safety courses, along with other regulations aimed at improving hunting safety, have worked. Go read the article from Lancaster Online, Pennsylvania hunters take aim at each other less in 2012, or the press release from the International Hunter Education Association, Hunting - "Safe and Getting Safer". To quote a portion of that second link:

Fast forward to today, some 65 years later, and you find that hunting incident rates are at their lowest in the history of documenting outdoor injuries/fatalities. In large measure, the system of hunter safety education coursework required in every state can take credit for such a significant reduction -- yet another conservation benefit provided for by hunters -- in this case, policing their own behaviors and actions afield.

So, since stricter gun control laws do seem to improve societal safety, and considering the example of mandatory training improving gun safety with hunters, I think I'm coming around to the idea of stricter gun control laws, so long as long as they don't present unreasonable obstacles for upstanding citizens to obtain guns**. At the very least, I think handguns should require a permit, and that mandatory training/safety courses should have to be completed in order to receive the permit (and presumably passing some type of testing at the end of that training), along with some type of background check. All sales of handguns would require that the seller confirmed that the buyer had a valid permit. Considering that we already require driver's licenses to operate motor vehicles, I don't think it's asking too much to require a permit to own a machine built with the primary purpose of killing other people***. It would be really nice to see mandatory recurrent training or at least renewing the permit by passing a test every so often, but I'm not sure if that would have the same cost to benefit ratio as simply implementing permits.

Now, as far as long guns - rifles and shotguns, I'm not so sure on what to do about them. They don't seem to be used anywhere near as much in violent crime. But if I had my druthers, I'd still like to see mandatory training and permits, but perhaps not as extensive as for handguns.

Anyway, in the current political climate in this country, I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell that any of this will actually happen anytime soon. If the Sandy Hook tragedy couldn't galvanize the nation into doing something about gun violence, I don't know what could. But perhaps in a few years there will be more studies to better quantify the effects of different gun control strategies, and maybe then people will begin to see things differently.****

*Know of, not know. One was the father of a friend, another was a neighbor's son, and another was a neighbor of a relative.

**I must admit, though, that situations as described in the article, Armed protesters rattle Texas moms' gun-control meeting, make me far less sympathetic to guns rights groups. When a bunch of yahoos can show up in a parking and threaten a group of moms, and the police can't do anything about it because no laws were broken, it makes you think that maybe some new laws should be put in place.

***Yes, I know. Some people take their handguns to ranges for target practice. But most people I know who do that with handguns are doing it primarily as training in case they ever have to use the guns in defense. Of course, riles and shotguns are used much more for purely recreational purposes.

****Or maybe, future studies might contradict the ones I referenced above, and find different strategies to address gun violence that don't require gun control. But I wouldn't hold my breath on that.

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