Guns and Violence: Believe What You Want to Believe

It’s about time that someone (namely: me) began debunking some of the myths that have been propagated by various NRA cronies who spring into action every time the gun control issue rears its ugly head.  The NRA has done a remarkable job (I’m being serious here) of pro-actively pushing its anti-gun control agenda whether the gun control crowd shows up or not.  Their strategy is very consistent: publicize research that “proves” guns protect people from crime, and make it easier for everyone to carry a concealed weapon.  An armed citizenry is a safe citizenry.  And an armed citizenry is exactly what the gun industry wants because it’s a guaranteed path to higher sales.

But in order to use “research” to bolster this campaign, the NRA also has to discredit the large body of evidence about the relationship of guns to violence that tells a very different story, namely, that guns not only don’t protect us from crime, but may actually result in less safety both for armed and unarmed citizens. This has been the consensus of public health professionals whose views were cited by the Clinton Administration to justify passage of the Brady Act which created the background check system in 1993.  Ever since then, public health professionals and researchers have been a particularly favorite target of the NRA, witness the recent attacks on Dr. Judith Palfrey and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The basic public health position on gun control was stated most comprehensively in an issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association published in 1994 (April, Vol. 271, No. 16.) This editorial, endorsed by the President of every major New York City hospital and the New York Academy of Medicine called for:  expanding background checks, limiting assault rifles, taxing ammunition, restricting multi-purchases and stricter controls over dealers.  And here’s the sentence that sums it all up: “Ideally, handguns…should be banned completely, but we recognize that this strategy is not currently politically feasible.”

The NRA crowd jumped on this statement in 1994 and have been riding it ever since.  They used it to justify the de-funding of gun research by the CDC in 1997 and they continue to raise the battle cry about ‘anti-gun’ physicians, including a recent Florida law which makes it a felony for a physician to ask a patient whether there are guns in the home.  The most blatant attempt to justify the ‘armed citizen’ approach to gun ownership is a recent article by pro-gun activist and attorney Don Kates, who stated unequivocally that the National Academy of Sciences could find no evidence in a 2004 report that gun controls of any sort reduced gun violence.

Except that’s not what the NAS report actually says.  What it says is that research had not yet found any direct links between crime rates and right-to-carry gun laws.  But the report also said that there was a link between keeping guns in the home and an increased incidence of suicide,  even though pro-gun activists like Kates continue to push the idea that physicians should be prohibited from inquiring about the ownership of guns.

The conflict between pro-gun activists and public health specialists boils down to the following: both groups are advocates with very different goals.  The pro-gun activists want Americans to own more guns; the public health specialists want less violence.  And since the data on the relationship between guns and violence is somewhat ambiguous, both sides can pull what they want from the research and come up with arguments that support their point of view.

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