When a major player in the world of political messaging gets involved in the gun debate, we should all read what he has to say. That’s because Danny Franklin from the Benenson Group isn’t about to waste precious space in The Washington Post talking about something that isn’t near or in the middle of the public opinion radar scope. And Franklin knows a little about public opinion, having conducted political polls for guys named Barack Obama and Cory Booker, to name a few. His op-ed piece in The Post appears to have been occasioned by a poll he conducted which showed that a majority of respondents believe that a house with a gun is safer than an unarmed home; in fact similar results have cropped up here and there in recent years.
What I like about Franklin’s piece is the linkage between reducing gun violence and public health which, if nothing else, confirms again what we all know; namely that gun violence has an epidemiology that has to be studied and treated on its own terms. We can talk all we want about strengthening or passing laws to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands,’ but when all is said and done, getting shot usually means a major commitment of medical resources, extended psychological trauma for the victim, family and friends, and costs in the millions for apprehending, convicting and punishing the dope who pulled the trigger of the gun.
These costs – financial, psychological, cultural – might be somewhat more acceptable if it were the case that guns in private hands serve any positive civil function at all. In fact, if you are a gun hobbyist who collects guns or uses them for hunting or sport, guns do serve an enjoyable end in and of themselves. But the nonsense peddled by the NRA and pro-gun politicians about how armed citizens protect us from crime in not only nonsense, but dangerous nonsense at that. The odds that the average middle-class person will be the victim of a violent crime are about the same as the odds of that person getting run over by a rhinoceros; on the other hand, a gun in the home of that same person possibly considering suicide poses a real threat.
The data which demonstrates the indisputable risk of gun ownership comes from research produced by scholars in the field of public health. And Franklin is on solid ground when he uses this data to advance the argument for viewing gun violence in public health terms. Where I want to raise a comment, however, is when he evaluates public health strategies that will reduce gun violence because I think he identifies an interesting issue whose importance for the safe-gun movement has been ignored or not fully understood.
Franklin notes that public health measures were sometimes successful not just because of changes in the law but because of a growing public awareness which developed a momentum of its own. By the time the Federal Government put health warnings on cigarette packs, for example, the number of adult smokers had already dropped from one out of three to one out of four. And Franklin claims that the drop in gun crimes over the last twenty years might provide a similar degree of public awareness and momentum in the gun debate as well.
Every year when the FBI publishes its crime data the gun lobby seizes on the continued decline in violent crime as ‘proof’ that an armed citizenry is keeping us safe. The truth is there’s absolutely no evidence showing any linkage between gun ownership and rates of violent crime. I think the gun-safe movement should jump on these numbers to help promote their point of view, namely, that Americans clearly understand the risks posed by guns and should welcome everyone’s help to reduce gun violence even more. Why should the pro-gun community own the argument about guns and crime? If we are all concerned about gun violence, then we all should take credit when the numbers go down.