Will Keeping Guns Out Of The ‘Wrong Hands’ Reduce Gun Violence?

In his complex but ultimately simple book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel-laureate economist, Daniel Kahneman, tries to explain the decision-making process we use to make decisions, distinguishing between instinctive reasoning based on experiences and emotions, versus reasoning based on thoughtful analysis of what we hope will be valid information, with the former often influencing the way we deal with the latter.

gun-violence             Behind both these mental processes, according to Kahneman, is the idea that as human beings, we are always trying to figure out causality; why do things happen, not just what happened. Unfortunately, what for me was the most important and formative idea in the book is buried in a 400-page text by the author’s seemingly obsessive concern to relate a personal anecdote about every one of his students, academic colleagues and dear friends. Nevertheless, I found myself thinking about the notion that we always need to understand causality, and nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than when it comes to the issue of guns.

Actually, the search for the cause(s) of gun violence only exists within the community that would like to see gun violence come to an end. Because if you’re a member of the pro-gun camp, you’ve already decided that the fact that we suffer in excess of 120,000 gun deaths and injuries each year is a small price to pay for the ‘freedom’ to own a gun, and let’s not forget that you can and should use a gun to protect yourself and others from crime.

On the other hand, if you don’t start from the position that, like it or not, we can and should own guns, then the issue of causality looms large, if only because we assume that figuring out the cause(s) of gun violence will help us define some useful strategies for changing or preventing the behavior which leads to violence caused by guns. And what most of the research leads us to believe, from the perspective of causality, is the necessity to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  And how do we identify the wrong hands? We try to figure out what makes some individuals use guns to inflict injuries against themselves or against someone else.

This approach stands behind the ‘prohibited person’ categories which have been the foundation of gun regulation since 1968; i.e., if someone is a felon, or a fugitive, or a domestic abuser, or a mental defective, or a few other things, they should not be allowed to own a gun. And these definitions of prohibited behavior for gun ownership are based on substantial research which shows that individuals who fall into any of those prohibited categories have an above-average propensity to use a gun in an unlawful or inappropriate way.

Notwithstanding the fact that much of the activity by gun violence prevention (GVP) advocates is based on finding ways to either expand the ‘prohibited person’ categories, or make the reportage of prohibited individuals more accurate and comprehensive, or a combination of both, I’m not sure that the approach of pro-gun advocates is necessarily wrong. And furthermore, I’m not sure the GVP community couldn’t align itself with the gun-nut approach while maintaining and even strengthening their commitment to find more effective strategies to reduce violence caused by guns.

The problem with trying to figure out a rational or causal explanation for gun violence is that, despite the shocking numbers, most people who want to injure themselves or others don’t use guns.  In fact, of the 2,227,998 intentional injuries reported to the CDC in 2015, slightly more than 103,000, or 5%, were committed with guns.  And don’t tell me that the other 95% who committed a homicide, suicide or aggravated assault couldn’t get their hands on a gun.

Anyone can get their hands on a gun. And as far as I’m concerned, if GVP wants to end gun violence, they should take Gun-nut Nation at its word that ‘sh*t happens’ and just get rid of the guns.

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