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.
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.