Does ‘Training’ Make You Safer With A Gun?

Of late, everyone seems enamored of the idea that gun violence is a safety issue, and the way we deal with any safety issue involving mechanical devices is to teach people how to use the particular device in a safe way. This is what lies behind the strategy to reduce auto accidents by making sure that drivers aren’t drunk or drive too fast; it’s the same strategy when applied to cycles, motor-driven or not, by requiring everyone to wear a helmet so that when they fall off the bike they won’t crack their heads.

training             When it comes to a mechanical device known as a gun, however, what will make everyone safer is training in how to use a gun. But a recent study on gun training has discovered that upwards of 40% of the gun-owning population has not received any training at all. Which means that four out of ten individuals who might legally pick up a gun may not be picking it up in a safe way. But how do we know that the six out of ten who claim they have received safety training have really been trained at all? This gets to is the definition of ‘training,’ which in the gun industry is actually a word with no meaning at all.

If you take a look at the states which require some kind of gun training as Jennifer Mascia did for The Trace, you’ll discover that most states talk about something called an ‘eight-hour’ course. And where did the magic number ‘eight’ come from? How do we know that being trained for eight hours gives you the necessary competency to use a gun?

This is the time-period the NRA says their training course, something known as Basic Pistol, is supposed to last. The training manual does consist of eight different sections, each of which takes an hour, more or less, to complete. Now the fact that three of those eight sections have nothing whatsoever with how to use a gun – so what? In order to complete the class you have to learn all about various shooting programs sponsored by the NRA, how to sign up for a shooting competition and other essential safety topics like that.

The NRA claims to have certified more than 100,000 trainers (I happen to be one of those lucky folks) but not a single one of those trainers was required to perform any kind of competency qualification that professional certifications usually entail. I was certified as an instructor in networking IT both by Microsoft and Novell. In order to receive those certifications I not only had to pass a battery of difficult exams, I also had to demonstrate before a live group that I possessed the knowledge, aptitude and classroom presence to teach networking skills. Know what is required to become certified NRA gun trainer? Sit through an 8-hour class while another trainer drones on and on from the NRA manual and then take a multiple-choice quiz. Big deal.

I earn my living teaching the gun-safety course that is required in my state. I have taught the class to more than 8,000 men and women since mid-2012 and I normally enroll 100 – 125 students every month. My state, Massachusetts, does not require live fire but I make every student go through a live fire drill because after they see, hear and feel what happens when a handgun goes off, much of what I say about safety makes a lot more sense. The students shoot at a 9-inch target set at 18 feet. Roughly half the shots fired by every class hit somewhere outside the target area, but since Massachusetts doesn’t require live fire, people who literally can’t hit the broad side of a barn still pass the course.

According to public health research, journalists and GVP advocacy groups, the 8,000 people I have trained are now more prepared to own and carry a gun than residents of other states who receive no training at all. Oh please, give me a break.

Advertisements

Why Do Americans Like Guns?

When I was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C. during the 1950s, my two favorite places to visit was the NRA Museum and the FBI.  I loved looking at all the old and historic guns at NRA headquarters because I was a gun-nut by the age of five, and I loved the FBI tour because the last stop was at the shooting range where one of the agents would fire a 45-caliber tommy gun and I could take home the empty brass.

sales             The funny thing about those childhood experiences, however, was they took place at a time when Americans had much more positive views on the importance of regulating guns than we have today. Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the gun surveys conducted by Gallup, several of which started when I was a kid. For example, Gallup has been asking this question since 1959: “Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of handguns, except by the police and other authorized persons?” In 1959 this question was answered affirmatively by 60% of the respondents; the last time this question was asked, in October, 2016, affirmative responses dropped to 23 percent.

Here’s how the views on another hot-button gun issue have changed, the question being asked: “Would you vote for or against a law which would make it illegal to manufacture, sell or possess semi-automatic guns known as assault rifles?” In other words, how do Gallup respondents feel about an assault rifle ban?  In 1996, the first time this question was asked, 57% said they favored such a ban, last year the pro-ban percentage was 36 percent.

Finally, in 1993 Gallup asked respondents for the first time about whether guns made them safe: “Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a [safer place to be] or [a more dangerous place to be]?” The first time this question was asked in 1993, guns making a home safer got 42% of the responses, the last time it was asked in 2014, the ‘safe’ vote was up to 63%. Taking these three questions together, the pro-gun views on handgun ownership, assault weapons and guns for safety have all become more positive by at least half.

It would be easy to put this shift down to one of two arguments: 1) the country is becoming more conservative; 2) the NRA is doing a great PR job about guns. Unfortunately, both arguments can easily be shot through (pardon the pun) with holes. The country is becoming so much more conservative over the time-period covered by these surveys that abortion is law of the land, ditto gay marriage even in the most pro-gun states. As for the vaunted NRA noise machine, the percentage of Gallup respondents who always agree with the NRA on gun issues has stayed exactly the same from 1996 to 2012 – a whole, big 6%.

Our friend Mark Glaze was recently dragged over the coals by the NRA which discovered a survey that his ‘radical’ group, Guns Down, published after the shooting of Steve Scalise. The survey showed firm majorities for more gun control and less guns in circulation, so obviously any public opinion polling, including Gallup’ surveys, has to be treated with care. But the value of the Gallup polls is they ask the same questions year after year and no matter how you slice it or dice it, the message seems to be that Americans aren’t afraid of guns.

Most people are a lot more afraid of things they believe guns can be used to protect them against – crime, terrorism, danger in a generic sense – I don’t know anyone who can’t tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. And as long as we continue to believe that the world has become a more dangerous place, simply giving folks the results of a gun survey won’t persuade them to agree with what the survey says.

 

Do Strategies For Reducing Gun Violence Really Work?

One of the enduring myths in the gun world is the idea that injuries occur when guns are used either by people whose behavior indicates they shouldn’t have access to guns or by people who use guns in unsafe ways. And what these two myths have spawned over the last twenty years is an approach to reducing gun violence which I don’t believe really works.  These two gun violence prevention (GVP) strategies, which have been supported by the work of public health research, can be summarized as the ‘wrong hands’ strategy for intentional gun injuries and the ‘safe guns’ strategy for accidents caused by guns.

gun control             More than 100,000 fatal and non-fatal intentional injuries each year are caused, so it is said, by guns falling into the ‘wrong hands.’ This is certainly true for 20,000+ gun suicides, which in this case the wrong hands belong to people who are under mental stress. It is also claimed to be true for people who commit 11,000+ gun homicides, because their legal/personal/family histories contain red flags for violent behavior so they shouldn’t be able to get their hands on guns. And as for the guys who commit 65,000+ aggravated gun assaults each year, they are no different from the gun murderers, except they didn’t shoot straight. What’s the best way to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands?’ Make it more difficult for such folks to get access to guns through more background checks and better monitoring by mental health.

When it comes to 15,000+ fatal and non-fatal unintentional injuries, the problem here is not caused by ‘wrong hands,’ but by ‘right hands’ who don’t know how to safely use their guns. So what we need to do here is teach these right-handed people how to use guns in safe ways, remind them to always lock up their guns and maybe at some time in the distant future (don’t hold your collective breaths) we will have guns which won’t be able to be used at all until the rightful owner puts on some kind of bracelet which sends a radio signal to the gun and you can fill in the rest of this dream.

I’m going to say something which I hope won’t be taken the wrong way, because when it comes to reducing violence, the fact that a particular strategy or program hasn’t worked as well as we would like it to work doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be followed at all. I’m not here to advocate throwing out the baby with the bath water; I just think that GVP needs to be more realistic as we move ahead.

The reason the ‘wrong hands’ and ‘safe gun’ strategies haven’t yet gotten us where we want to go is because they are built on assumptions and experiences involving safety measures for other consumer products which in the case of guns simply do not ring true. Want to reduce injuries from car accidents? Design a safer car, mandate seat belts, get tough on DUI, we all know the drill. Want to prevent people from cracking their heads open when they fall off a bike? Require helmets, that’s all you need to do.

Those public health success stories are all fine and well but they shouldn’t serve as templates for reducing gun violence for the simple reason that autos and bicycles were designed for the purpose of moving us from here to there. On the other hand, guns are designed to do one thing and one thing only, and that is to cause an injury when someone points a gun at themselves or someone else and the gun goes – bam!

Until and unless we figure out how to make it more difficult for anyone to pick up something as lethal as a gun, to quote the great writer Walter Mosley, ‘walk around with a gun and it will go off, sooner or later.’ And when the gun goes off, no amount of research on the causes of gun violence will keep someone from getting hurt.

How Many Americans Play The ‘Armed Citizen’ Game? Less Than You Think.

You can tell when the NRA is cranking up the noise machine when they roll out John Lott and his Crime Prevention Research Center (which is John sitting at his kitchen table) announcing yet the latest example of what John grandiloquently refers to as his  ‘research.’ This time it’s the latest mumbo-jumbo about concealed-carry licenses and how they have been increasing by leaps and bounds as Americans finally come to their senses and realize that we should all be walking around carrying a gun. The headline from Lott is that 2016 saw the ‘largest increase ever in the number of permits,’ which the NRA is using to push the national-reciprocity concealed-carry (CCW) bill.

ccw             Now (read this paragraph carefully, please) I happen to be one of these guys who actually doesn’t believe that a national reciprocity CCW law would represent any great risk to community safety, but I also don’t believe it would make any one of us more protected if we were threatened by crime. I say this because notwithstanding the good work done by the Violence Policy Center on gun violence committed by CCW-holders, I don’t see any real connection between the 125,000 people who are killed or injured each year with guns and the fact that maybe a million or so Americans are actually walking around armed. I also haven’t heard any reports about CCW-holders going into another state which recognizes the CCW of their home state and behaving in a particularly gun-violent way.

No, my objection to CCW – locally, statewide, nationally – is based on one simple idea, namely, that you don’t give anyone the ability to walk around with a highly-lethal weapon who hasn’t demonstrated sufficient and continuous proficiency with that weapon, and the demonstration must be conducted in front of a mandated, government-appointed individual, and not just some half-baked ‘trainer’ who hangs out a digital shingle and claims to know something about guns. If the NRA would endorse mandated training, believe it or not, Mike the Gun Guy would shut up and go away. Now I know there are lots of you out there who would like me to shut up and go away anyway, so contact the NRA, tell them to stop pushing phony training programs and Mike the Gun Guy will say adios and goodbye.

Now back to my friend John Lott who claims that the latest number of Americans with CCW is 16.3 million, a 256% increase over the last ten years. The only problem with John’s number is that it’s basically created out of whole cloth, which is a polite way of saying that he’s made it up. And the reason he’s made it up is because when you take the trouble to read the fine print of his study, you discover that the numbers he uses to base his claim of an enormous upsurge in CCW don’t really say what he would like them to say.

It turns out that the 16.3 million CCW permits which Lott ‘estimates’ as being in circulation is, first of all, a number he has developed by dutifully checking the number of licenses issued each year; in fact he has absolutely no way of knowing how many CCW permits which have been issued over time have simply lapsed because the license-holder decided not to renew. Florida, for example, has issued 3,615,879 licenses since 1987, but says that 1,784,395 licenses are currently in use; John also counts nearly 2 million licenses issued by states for residents of other states, a money-making scam which inflates the actual number of CCW licenses on the books.

Lott cites the recent Pew survey which shows that roughly 10% of gun owners state they are walking around with a concealed gun. Which means that on any given day, maybe one million or so Americans are playing the ‘armed citizen’ game, a number that is far smaller than the tidal wave of gun carriers whose existence John Lott and Gun-nut Nation would like you to believe.

 

What Kind Of Training Do Gun Owners Receive? None At All.

I have decided that it’s time for Mike the Gun Guy to become a little less polite (imagine – Mike the Gun Guy ‘less’ polite) and start responding to some of the things that are said on the gun violence prevention (GVP) side which I feel hold us back, rather than help us to move ahead. This decision should not be taken in any way, shape or form as a criticism or even a concern about the importance and necessity of GVP. To the contrary, as a fundamental issue with which all Americans to be engaged, in the Age of Trump GVP tops the list.

training             Last week a group of public health gun researchers published the results of a national survey which found that 4 out of 10 Americans who are legally allowed to walk around with a gun (CCW) have not received any gun training at all. And the results of this survey are not much different from similar surveys published in 1994, except that the number of CCW-holders has probably doubled, if not tripled from that earlier date.

That a majority of people who can legally walk around with a concealed weapon have received some kind of formal gun training is now validated again by the results of this survey, and the narrative will slowly but surely circulate throughout the public domain and in and around the GVP. On the other hand, the fact that four out of ten CCW-holders have not engaged in any formal gun training demonstrates the degree to which “no national standards or requirements for firearm training in the USA exist.” And this lack of consistent standard (or any standard for that matter) regarding how to use a gun is particularly concerning given the expected push by the Republicans who might not get a new healthcare law but just might vote through a national, reciprocal CCW law that their President will surely sign.

There’s only one little problem with this survey and by pro-GVP media efforts to publicize the findings hither and yon, namely, that despite what the researchers believe they were asking respondents to tell them, what in fact they were asking respondents in this survey had nothing to do with training at all. Know where the word ’training’ comes from as it applies to guns? It’s a word first used by the NRA which was actually founded as a ‘training’ organization in 1873. Not only does the NRA continue to promote themselves as America’s premier gun-training organization, but they have launched a new training effort focusing on CCW techniques called Carry Guard, which they refer to as a “first-rate, elite program” aimed (pardon the pun) at people who lead the ‘concealed-carry lifestyle’ and want to be ready for ‘real-life situations you must be prepared to face.’

This isn’t training – it’s a sham. It’s used to entice people to purchase an insurance policy which will allegedly pay all their legal fees after they shoot someone, assuming they don’t get convicted for some kind of felony committed while they were using their gun. Along with this training program, the NRA now offers its standard training programs on video, and these programs are used by most CCW-issuing authorities in states where pre-CCW training is still required. What’s the difference between NRA video training and video games like Call of Duty that you can play on your X-Box?  There is no difference.

I’m an old-fashioned guy so words have meanings, whether we like the meanings or not. I think GVP is making a profound mistake using words whose meaning has been distorted beyond all recognition by the NRA. If GVP is going to convince people that what they say about gun violence is true and what the other side says is false, then the words we use should be our words and not words that are bandied about by the NRA in order to help sell more guns.

And what I just said about GVP applies to public health researchers as well.

An Approach To Gun Violence Which We All Need To See.

When I was 14 or 15 years old, my brother took me to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to see an exhibition of photographs by an immigrant named Arthur Felig who went by the street name of Weegee, and whose photos showed the gritty side of New York. Using one of those heavy Speed Graphic cameras with the big flash bulbs, Weegee would hang around a police precinct and when a call came in about a murder or some other criminal event, he would often get to the scene before the cops, shoot a picture and sell it to one of the city’s tabloids where it would usually appear the next day.

Weegee’s subjects were everyone and anyone, from the Park Avenue society dowager arriving for a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to homeless men and women sleeping in Central Park. But if there was one subject which showed up again and again in his work, it was pictures of shooting victims who lying there in the street, often surrounded by the cops who usually followed Weegee to the scene. Here are some of ‘New York’s Finest’ standing around a shooting victim and notice that none of the cops appears to be particularly concerned or upset.

weegee2

              I was reminded of Weegee last week when I took a look at a website, It Takes Us, which is the handiwork of a professional photographer named Joe Quint. The website is contains a collection of videos, testimonies and what Quint calls the ‘faces of gun violence,’ which are portraits of people who have either been victims or connected to victims shot by guns. If you haven’t yet seen this remarkable portfolio, put me on hold for a minute, click the link above and take a look.

Quint was reared on Long Island, went to Temple University and now lives in Brooklyn with his wife and kids. He’s had a camera in his hand since he was four years old, his work clearly demonstrating that he’s a master of his craft. He joined Everytown but then decided to construct this website because as he says, he had reached a ‘tipping point’ in which he could no longer justify his own inaction in the face of the ongoing carnage which claims more than 30,000 lives every year. Along with this venue, Quint has also contributed articles and narratives to NBC, PBS, Huffington Post among others, as well as our friends at The Trace.

The reason I made the connection between Weegee and Joe Quint is, first of all, they are both artists who use a camera rather than a paint and brush. But the ability to convey more than just some pictorial details about their subjects is what sets them apart. In this respect, if you compare the work of both men about the same subject – gun violence – what you come away with his how gun violence has changed.

When Weegee was running around Manhattan taking pics of this gun-violence and that, virtually every one of the individuals lying in their own blood had been shot because they were gangsters and mob guys for whom ending up with a bullet in the head was an occupational hazard, or better said, occupational requirement for the kind of lives these wise guys led. The shootings caught by Weegee weren’t random, they didn’t happen because there were so many guns around, and most of all, they didn’t involve kids.

quint

              Joe Quint’s gallery, on the other hand, should be understood as reflecting how gun violence has changed. Because even though every once in a great while some connected guy is found in the trunk of his car, every day more than 200 people are killed or injured because someone else points a gun at them and goes – bam! – and too many of these victims are simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If today’s gun violence was like the gun violence in Weegee’s time, we’d be way ahead.

Despite What Some People Believe, We Need More Gun Buybacks, Not Less.

Last week my eye caught an interesting gun article in The New York Times, and it’s not like I often read articles in the NYT that are interesting (or correct, for that matter.) But this was an article about two young men who put together a very successful gun buyback in Los Angeles that collected more than 770 weapons in a one-day program last May, and have taken more than 1,100 guns out of circulation since 2013.

confiscated             The two guys behind this initiative have put together an organization, Gun By Gun, which has been operating on the West Coast but with proper care and feeding could obviously become a national thing. The whole deal is funded through crowd-sourced donations which, according to the NYT article, have collected more than $100,000. But what I really found interesting about this effort was not the amount of money donated or the number of guns taken off the streets, but rather the fact that folks who give in their guns get a Target gift card as their reward.  I’ll come back to the significance of that fact in a bit.

But meanwhile I first have to spend a bit of time discussing the manner in which our dear public health friends have viewed the question of gun buybacks, because the truth is that the narrative they have developed about buybacks misses the basic point of such programs, which means that public health gun violence researchers simply get it wrong.

Over the years there have been a number of gun buyback programs whose results have been analyzed by some of our leading public health gun researchers, including Frederick Rivara and Garen Wintemute, along with a summary published by the National Academies in 2004. These articles basically say the same thing, namely, that gun buybacks are ineffective because people turn in old or broken guns whereas the guns which are used in felonies remain in the street. And of course it’s impossible to prove any direct connection between the number of guns which are turned in and whether or not this has any effect on crime, and if you can’t make some kind of connection or what public health loves to call ‘association’ between two sets of facts, then you can’t assume that anything has happened at all.

I would never challenge my friends in the public health community when it comes to understanding or using data about guns or gun violence and I would certainly never even hint at the idea that public health research on gun violence shouldn’t be continued and, if anything, increased in scope and size. But by casting the academic discussion about the value of gun buyback programs in terms of being able to measure results, and public health researchers simply can’t detach themselves from their never-ending commitment to measuring whatever they look at, the discussion about the importance and value of buybacks is pushed in the wrong direction and is simply never discussed or understood.

The real value of gun buybacks, the reason that such programs need to be expanded into every community which suffers from any degree of gun violence, is that when a buyback program occurs, it gets everyone in the community thinking about guns. And the thoughts have nothing to do with whether guns are a good thing to have around, the thoughts are about the importance and necessity of getting rid of guns.

Gun-nut Nation has done a very effective job of convincing lots of Americans that they would be safer if their home contained a gun. They have done such a good job that they are maybe less than 2 Senate votes away from a new law that would allow everyone to wander throughout the entire United States carrying a gun.

A buyback program is the most effective way of telling a community that guns won’t make them safer and that guns should be turned in. If my friends in the public health community have come up with a better messaging about gun violence, please share it with me.

 

Thank you Margaret Ayres.