What Would Happen If Americans Didn’t Own Guns?

The NRA keeps saying that if HRC is elected, the first thing she will do is confiscate all the guns.  So that got me thinking.  What would happen if the guns were taken away?  Or to put it more specifically, what would happen if America implemented licensing for gun ownership similar to what exists in the rest of the OECD?  Such a system would mean the immediate disappearance of assault weapons, the gradual disappearance of small, concealable handguns and the remaining firearms (true sporting rifles and shotguns) being regulated to varying degrees. The number of guns manufactured and imported each year would drop by more than half, but the revenue loss of roughly $13 billion in a GDP of almost $18 trillion would hardly be noticed at all.

conference-program-pic            On the other hand, what would the absence of guns mean to public health and crime?  As to the former, there would probably be some drop in the 20,000 suicides that occur each year with guns, but the evidence also suggests that there would be a ‘substitution’ effect, meaning that many, if not most suicide-prone individuals would find other means for ending their lives.  As for unintentional injuries from guns, as the total number of guns in civilian hands declined, so would the number of injuries, but the medical costs of gun accidents is less than .001% of the medical costs racked up each year for treating all unintentional injuries, hardly a major component in driving costs of medical care.

As for intentional gun injuries, for the sake of argument, let’s place annual gun assaults midway between FBI and CDC, or roughly 100,000.  That’s still only 15% of all serious assaults which might not be committed if guns couldn’t be used, but I suspect that the ‘substitution’ effect here would also render the difference less, because our overall assault rate is not much different than average assault rates throughout the OECD.  As for the argument that our homicide rate would be much lower if we didn’t have easy access to guns, this is perhaps true.  But in 2014 the U.S. still racked up almost 5,000 homicides without guns, substantially higher than most of the OECD.

In all of the arguments being made about strictly regulating guns however, what seems to be missed is the effects of gun absence on gun owners themselves.  Because there are somewhere around 30 million households that contain legal guns, and of the 60 million or so legal gun owners, at least 5 million define their life-styles, the social milieu, their culture and cultural beliefs in terms of guns. So what happens to these folks and their everyday existence if they can’t have access to guns?

When I was growing up in the 1950s, I had lots of toy guns but what I really took pride in was my collection of Lionel trains.  The trains and the room-wide track display eventually disappeared, both for me and for just about everyone else who loved model trains.  By the time my children were old enough to play with model trains, they were sitting in front of a television set playing Nintendo and collecting video games.

For that matter, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I don’t recall all that many cars on I-91 going towards New Hampshire and Vermont with kayaks on top or backpacks and tents behind.  Times change, styles change, leisure activities change – the market will always find a way to satisfy our desire to accumulate objects we really want but don’t need.

Which is exactly the problem with guns.  More than 30,000 people die and another 70,000+ are injured each year because Americans have free access to something they really don’t need.  So the issue of how and why to regulate this product doesn’t come down to numbers at all.  It comes down to a moral imperative which says that we should not sanction the use of violence in the ordinary course of human affairs – neither violence towards ourselves or towards anyone else.

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Is There A Connection Between Gun Violence And Mental Illness? That’s Not The Right Question To Ask.

Over the last several months, the intersection of horrific shootings and Presidential politics has once again ignited the debate over mental illness and guns.  After Sandy Hook, the pro-gun forces took the position that mass shootings could be stopped if we ‘fixed’ the mental health system.  In the wake of Roseburg, however, even that tepid (and meaningless) strategy has been abandoned by the gun gang and their Republican allies with Shlump Trump advising us that too many mentally-ill people “slip through the cracks.”  Meanwhile, mental health professionals and researchers continue to hold to the belief that, with the exception of suicide, that there is little, if any connection between mental illness and violent behavior involving guns.

shooter               What both sides seem to be saying is there’s no real solution to the problem of gun violence from a mental health perspective, because either there are too many crazies walking around or there’s no necessary connection between being mentally ill and using a gun in a violent way .  But deciding that a certain kind of behavior does or doesn’t reflect mental illness is one thing; understanding the behavior itself is something else.

If the evidence about gun violence tells us anything, it’s that using a gun to hurt yourself or someone else is an overwhelmingly impulsive act.  It is impulsive because in perhaps 90% of all gun violence, the shooter and victim not only knew each other before the gun was pulled out, but there had been continuous and angry or abusive contact between the two parties often for a lengthy period of time.  Obviously this is the case in gun suicides, which comprises two-thirds of all gun mortality; it’s true in most gun homicides, particularly for every gun homicide that grows out of a domestic dispute.  As for gun morbidity, which is so noticeable between the ages 15 and 25, most of the young men who present themselves in ERs and clinics with gun violence injuries previously sought medical assistance for other, less lethal injuries committed by the same assailants again and again.

Gun violence is not the usual way in which disputes are settled. In situations where two people get involved in a continuous dispute, four out of five of these arguments are eventually resolved violently or not – and here’s the critical point – without anyone pulling out a gun.  As Lester Adelson says in what remains the most brilliant article ever written about gun violence: “With its peculiar lethality a gun converts a spat into a slaying and an argument into a killing.”  But for every act of gun violence there are hundreds, no doubt thousands of spats and arguments that do not end up with someone being shot with a gun. And for the 20,000 law-abiding gun owners who use a gun to end their own lives each year, there are tens of thousands of seriously-depressed men and women who obtain counseling and assistance without ever thinking of taking out a gun.

Gun violence, particularly mass shootings, tears deep wounds in our cultural and emotional frameworks and shouldn’t be the subject of nonsensical and cynical sloganeering by entertainers masquerading as Presidential candidates who spend a few months on the national media circuit shamelessly promoting their names.  By the same token, those who are genuinely trying to do something to eliminate gun violence need to understand what is really at issue when it comes to defining a response to this national shame.

The word ‘impulsive’ means that someone engages in behavior without first spending one second considering the consequences of the act.  The good news is that nearly all of us learn how to express anger, even rage, without yanking out a gun.  Pardon the pun, but we still don’t know have a good fix on the trigger mechanism that turns violent behavior into gun-violent behavior. And if you want to yank out a piece, believe me, it will be there to yank out. Believe me.

Why Do Some People Shoot Other People? We Really Don’t Know.

In the past week I found media accounts of at least five cities which held community events to talk about gun violence.  The events are usually sponsored by a coalition of community groups, religious congregations, law enforcement representatives and the requisite political leadership from City Hall.  There will be some entertainment, probably a youth choir, a passionate, tug-at-your-heartstrings appeal from the mother or sibling of someone recently gunned down, and a “let’s get rid of the guns” rant from the head of the local Everytown group.  Pardon me if I’m sounding a little cynical, but I don’t see any real connection between these admittedly honest endeavors and any change in the rates at which we keep killing or wounding ourselves or others with guns.

I know, I know, the problem isn’t guns.  The problems are joblessness, hopelessness and all the other ness’s that pervade inner-city neighborhoods where the overwhelming amount of gun violence occurs.  Want to get rid of gun violence?  Get rid of the ghetto; it’s as simple as that.  But I’m not so sure that lifting sixty million people above the poverty line is such an easy task.  After all, we started trying to eradicate poverty after Michael Harrington published The Other America in 1962 and I think the only thing we’ve accomplished in that regard is to validate the old homily about how God loves the poor because He made so many of them.

gang boys chap 1                On the other hand, let’s not forget the fact that even if 11,000 people are killed with guns each year and another 50,000 are wounded, that gun violence is still a comparatively rare event.  In 2012, according to the UCR, there were roughly 10 million serious crimes against people and property committed in the U.S., of which 1/10th of one percent were gun homicides and another 1.5% were armed assaults.  So even though the chances of being the victim of a violent crime are about one person out of every thirty, the chances of being injured or killed with a gun are a lot less.  Which means that even in “high-crime” neighborhoods, there are an awful lot of people walking around with criminal intent who don’t use a gun.

That being the case, and the numbers don’t lie, we have to assume that the guys (and it’s almost always males) who do use a gun to damage someone else have made a conscious choice.  Because it’s not as if the shooters are the only people in the ghetto without a job; it’s not as if they are the only people in the neighborhood whose income doesn’t make it above the poverty line; it’s not as if they are the only ones without two parents in the home.  If this were the case, all we would have to do to solve the gun problem would be to get our hands on the U.S. Census neighborhood report, identify the folks who fit this down-and-out profile, and follow them around until they pull out their gun.

The problem really lies in the fact that we can do all the sociological research we want, we can amass and correlate all the data, and we still come smack up against one, unassailable problem; namely, we can’t talk to the people who pulled the trigger of the gun.  The victims are ready to talk from today to next year.  They’ll talk while they’re waiting for the EMT, they’ll talk while they’re being stitched up in the emergency room, they’ll talk at a community anti-violence event.  But the shooters won’t talk because: a) half of them aren’t found, and b) when they are apprehended the penal system and their lawyers won’t or can’t let them talk at all.

We need to figure out a way to get into the heads of the people whose behavior results in gun violence.  Most people, even criminals, don’t walk around with guns and even fewer use them in violent ways.  Until we understand what separates the shooters from everyone else by asking the shooters why they separated themselves from everyone else, we’ll have to hope that those anti-gun events make our streets and homes more safe.