Increasingly I find myself uncomfortable with the prevailing orthodoxy in gun violence prevention (GVP) circles that the way to reduce gun violence is to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ As far as I’m concerned, gun violence, intentional or not, has little to do with whether the hands holding the gun are the ‘right’ hands or the ‘wrong’ hands, because this approach defines gun ownership in legal terms, and legal terms don’t speak to the reasons for most gun injuries. In fact, the whole concept of defining gun behavior based on ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ hands comes out of the debates which led to the Gun Control Act of 1968 (GCA68) which was crafted to avoid or at least lessen arguments over whether Americans could or couldn’t own guns.
Here’s the preamble to that law:
“The Congress hereby declares that the purpose of this title is to provide support to Federal, State, and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence, and it is not the purpose of this title to place any undue or unnecessary Federal restrictions or burdens on law-abiding citizens with respect to the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms appropriate to the purpose of hunting, trapshooting, target shooting, personal protection, or any other lawful activity….”
The whole point of gun regulations is to deal with crime, not with gun violence per se. This is because gun violence and crime simply aren’t the same. There are roughly 32,000 gun deaths each year, but only 11,000 or so are criminal events – homicides – the rest are suicides, accidents and police shootings, none of which represent a gun that was, legally speaking, in the ‘wrong’ hands. As for non-fatal injuries, somewhere around 60,000 are assaults, but many of those events (we don’t actually have any idea exactly how many) grow out of ongoing disputes between family members, spouses, friends; in fact, the FBI says that only 20% of all gun assaults occurred during the commission of another felony crime. And then there are somewhere around 20,000 non-fatal gun accidents which don’t result in any criminal charges at all. Add it all up, and the number of gun injuries which occur because a gun ended up in what the law says are the ‘wrong’ hands is not even half of the gun injuries suffered by Americans each year.
The NRA has a habit of saying things which are stupidly true, such as the idea that criminals don’t obey laws, so why make more laws that regulate guns? If the criteria for creating any law was that it had to be a statute that would be obeyed by criminals, then you could throw out the entire legal system altogether. We pass laws to establish behavioral norms, and if the norms are violated, the violator pays the price. We believe that intentionally shooting someone else with a gun is a bad thing to do. Does that mean that only ‘bad guys’ will commit armed violence with a gun? Of course not. Does everyone drive at the posted speed limit or stops at a red light before making a right-hand turn?
But the real problem is that if we want to stop gun violence before it occurs, we have to figure out who might be prone to commit gun violence and try to keep guns out of their hands. Tell that to the research team which studied every emergency room visit in Flint, MI of boys, 14 y/o and older, and discovered that the exact same social factors (poverty, lack of education, drug use, joblessness, etc.) which were associated with violent injuries were also associated just as frequently with patients who never sought medical help for a violent injury at all.
Keeping guns out of the wrong hands may pass the 2nd-Amendment litmus-test for all those folks who are worried about Constitutional ‘rights.’ But was anyone walking around Wal Mart with an AR slung over their shoulder when the Constitution was ratified in 1789?