Another State Wants At-Risk Gun Owners To Protect Themselves From Their Guns.

Last week I wrote about a bill in the Oregon legislature that would allow family members to petition a court for removal of guns in cases where a gun owner was an immediate risk to himself or someone else.  The bill, known as a measure to be used only in instances of ‘extreme risk,’ would require the gun owner to surrender his firearms for up to one year, but the gun owner could also appear in court and present evidence that his access to guns no longer represented a risk to himself or anyone else.

gun-suicide             The Oregon initiative follows the adoption of a similar law in California, which allows family members to ask for a restraining order on access to guns. But this week the virus seems to be spreading to the other coast, because a similar measure has just been introduced in the Massachusetts House, and it appears to have enough sponsors to be taken seriously when and if the Massachusetts legislature stops arguing over the annual budget.

I learned about the Massachusetts law because of an email I received from my friends at the NRA, which linked to a statement about the law by the NRA-ILA.  According to America’s oldest civil rights organization, the Massachusetts law, if enacted, would “result in the immediate suspension and surrender of any license to carry firearms and firearms identification card which the respondent may hold.  The respondent would also be required to surrender all firearms and ammunition.” The NRA then goes on to repeat the usual canard about how such an order would be issued based on ‘little, if any real evidence,’ but that’s simply not true.

But the best part of the NRA’s attempt to explain Constitutional law to its membership is the sentence which reads: “Constitutional rights are generally restricted only upon conviction of a felony.”  Did the legal geniuses at Fairfax ever hear of something called ‘prior restraint?’ The rights enumerated in the Constitution are all subject to ‘reasonable’ restrictions imposed by governmental authority, as long as those restrictions meet basic tests regarding the intent and result of what government intends to do. Such restrictions are even explicitly stated in the landmark Heller decision, which states that “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited, and “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill.”

Which is exactly what these ‘extreme risk’ laws are designed to do, namely, keep guns out of the hands of individuals who have shown a disregard for the traditional rules of behavior under which we all live. Sorry, but telling someone that you are depressed to the point of wanting to commit suicide isn’t just an idle threat. Ditto stalking or threatening someone who told you to leave them alone. The Constitution doesn’t enshrine such behavior and such behavior becomes a much greater threat when it might involve a gun.

But remember who we are dealing with here, namely, an organization which increasingly promotes the idea that there should be no restrictions of any kind on the ownership or use of guns. Believe it or not, I would have no problem with the NRA or any other pro-gun advocacy group if they would just drop the nonsense about how guns aren’t really dangerous because we can use them to protect us from crime.  If the NRA would admit the truth, namely, that guns are extremely lethal and that access to a gun increases risk, I would fold up this website immediately, stick my guns, my wife and my cats in the Subaru and take off to a trailer park in the Florida Keys.

The fact that something is dangerous doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be owned. I know a guy who keeps rattlesnakes but treats them with extreme caution and care.  Are we asking too much of my gun-owning friends to behave the same way with their guns?

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How Do You Convince People That Guns Are A Risk? Maybe By Not Talking About Guns.

conference program pic           In the face of more than 100,000 serious injuries and deaths every year, it’s pretty difficult to accept the idea that gun violence isn’t a public health issue, yet promoters and defenders of gun ownership continue to insist otherwise.  And while it would be easy to assume that such warped thinking is the product of infantile and/or uninformed minds, medical and public health communities have been spectacularly unsuccessful trying to convince Americans that guns constitute a risk to health.  In fact, both Gallup and Pew polls indicate that a majority think that guns protect us from crime, even while the same majority also support expanded background checks.

In light of the divergence between public health research findings on the one hand, and public opinion in the other, I am beginning to think that perhaps the problem lies not in the power and messaging of Gun Nation, but reflects the possibility that perhaps public health research should stop focusing so much energy on the public aspects of gun violence and spend more time thinking about the health aspects of the problem, in particular, the issue of why people own and use guns.

Because there would be no gun violence if a certain number of people each year didn’t misbehave with their guns.  And the issue of behavior is never far removed from the manner in which the medical profession deals with disease. The mortality numbers for serious illnesses would be much different if we changed behaviors like smoking, excess eating and drinking which cause heart disease and cancer which leads to medical distress.

The medical response to behavior which leads to gun morbidity, however, seems to largely put the cart before the horse. Doctors are being advised to counsel patients on safe gun storage, as if gun violence will be ‘cured’ by locking the guns up or locking them away.  I’m not against safe storage, but less than 4% of gun injuries occur because a child grabbed an unlocked, loaded gun.  The overwhelming amount of gun violence, for which the medical costs alone are estimated to be at least $50 billion each year, takes place because someone made the conscious decision to use their gun to injure either themselves or someone else.  And that decision is rarely going to bear on whether the gun is locked away.

Last year a public health research team conducted a survey of 4,000 adults of whom one-third reported owning guns.  Half of the gun-owning group also reported that they engaged in social activities involving guns with either family members or friends. Which meant that for these folks the ownership of guns goes far beyond believing that guns make them safe.

To people for whom gun ownership is how they create their social milieu, guns represent honesty, patriotism, family and other cultural artifacts which form a basis for self-expression and communication between family members and friends. So when such folks perceive a threat to their ownership of guns, this perception quickly becomes a threat to their self-identity as well.  Which means that trying to prove that guns are a risk will only push such individuals to harden their resistance against losing their guns.

“If individuals adopt one position or another because of what guns mean instead of what guns do, then empirical data are unlikely to have much effect on the gun debate.”  To me, this statement by Don Braman and Dan Kahan neatly sums up much of what has characterized the gun debate over the last several decades.

Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not opposed to empirical research. But it’s one thing to argue the case for gun risk by citing data which shows that gun injuries increase in homes where there are more guns; it’s another thing to convince individual gun owners that such a finding might apply to any of them. Want to counsel a patient about whether his guns represent medical risk?  You’ll have to figure out how to do it using language which isn’t perceived as a threat.