Gun Violence: The Enduring Debate

              Back in the 1930’s, a Belgian medievalist and archivist, Henri Pirenne, began publishing a series of articles which tried to provide an answer to the basic issue of Western history: Why did Western Civilization, which had emerged and been rooted in the Mediterranean (Greece, Rome) suddenly turn its back on ‘mare nostrum,’ moved inland and to the North? When the Pope travelled to Paris in 800 A.D. to crown Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, a new chapter in the entire history of Western Civilization opened up.

              These articles, which came to be known as the ‘Pirenne thesis’ provoked a thirty-year debate among historians which probably accounted for more doctoral dissertations, publishing credits and tenure appointments than any other subject in the entire universe of historical research.  The debate ended not because anyone came up with a definitive explanation of why this transition occurred, but because with the emergence of more sensitivity to the growth and importance of national states in China, Latin America and Africa, the whole notion of ‘civilization’ fell into disuse.

              I have been following the gun debate for more than twenty years, and it is reminding of the debate about the ‘Pirenne thesis’ more and more. On the one side we have public health research, beginning with formative articles by Kellerman, Rivara, et. al., which ‘prove’ that access to guns increases injury (suicide, homicide) risk. On the other hand, we have criminologists like Kleck and Lott, claiming that guns represent a benefit (protection from crime) that far outweighs any risk.

              There are all kinds of ways in which these two, basic arguments have spawned various subsidiary discussions and debates.  On the one hand we have endless attempts to figure out whether some gun regulations are more effective than others in reducing gun violence. On the other hand, we have the continued academic drumbeat about how guns not only provide an extra margin of safety, but also fulfill the basic Constitutional guarantee known as 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’

              Meanwhile, the debate drags on seemingly independent of the fact that gun injuries are not only endemic to American society, but as of late appear to be going up. For twenty years or so, the pro-gun gang could claim that while more guns were being sold every year, shootings were going down. Unfortunately, since 2014, the annual rate of intentional gun injury has increased by nearly 15 percent. Oh well, another good argument bites the dust.

              For that matter, it’s not as if my friends in Gun-control Nation have fared all that much better with their attempts to explain the value of what they want to do.  What’s the Number One item on the gun-control agenda?  Universal background checks. These checks happen to be effective in eleven states. Which of these eleven states have experienced an increase in gun violence since 2014?  Every, single one.

              What I am beginning to wonder is whether we need to step back from this debate and refer again to what finally brought the argument about the ‘Pirenne thesis’ to an end; namely, looking at the way in which we define gun violence pari passu, which is a fancy way of saying, in and of itself. Because it seems to me that behind the argumnts on both sides is a basic assumption about the use of violence; i.e., that it can be a good or bad thing.

              When Gun-nut Nation promotes gun ownership for protection against crime, they are basically saying that if someone attacks someone else, the deservey to get shot – the shooter is doing a good thing for himself, for his family, for society, blah, blah, blah and blah. Conversely, when gun-control advocates decry the 125,000 injuries we suffer from guns every year, aren’t they basically saying that any kind of violence caused by a gun is bad?

              At some point either we agree whether violence is a good thing or not. Until we figure that one out, the argument about guns is just a more contemporary version of the argument initially provoked by Henri Pirenne.

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A New Plan For Ending Gun Violence.

              Some of our friends in the surgery and public health departments of the University of Massachusetts Medical School have just published an important editorial about gun violence asking whether we can do for gun violence what has recently been done for vaping and e-cigarettes. What they basically argue is that the 4-month ban on these products enacted in Massachusetts, a move that is apparently spreading to other states, creates a template for how we should be dealing with another threat to public health, namely, the threat posed by gun violence.

              The authors of this well-reasoned piece point out that as of October 8, 2019 vaping products were responsible for the deaths of at least 26 young persons, with more than 1,200 hospitalizations as well.  On the other hand, what thy refer to as the ‘epidemic’ of gun violence claimed nearly 40,000 lives in 2017, even though we have identified the agent which causes the problem (the gun) and we have developed “proven means” to reduce this particular health threat.

              The editorial calls for a “temporary ban on the future sale of guns and assault rifles in the United States while we more systematically study gun safety,”  a rather novel idea for dealing with gun violence which copies the temporary ban on vaping products going into effect in Massachusetts and possibly other states.

              With all due respect to the co-authors of this editorial (in the interests of full disclosure, as they say, I should state that one of the authors, Dr. Michael Hirsh, co-directs with me the Wood Foundation which sponsors multi-city gun buybacks every year) I would like very much to know exactly what means have been proven to reduce gun violence, because such means certainly haven’t been put into effect.  In 1999, the national gun-violence rate was 9.89. It bounced around until 2011 and has been steadily climbing ever since. It was at 11.69 in 2017, and if the open-source reports used by the Gun Violence Archive are at all reliable, the last several years have certainly not seen any decline in gun violence rates at all.

              But the purpose of this column is not to nit-pick this word or that word with the authors of what is really a strong and commendable editorial on moving forward with some kind of serious gun-violence reduction plan. Rather, I want to address a much more fundamental issue which arises from the idea that we find ourselves in the midst of an epidemic of gun violence, a perspective which is shared by virtually all the researchers and advocacy groups dealing with this problem today.

              When we use the word ‘epidemic,’ we usually refer to a medical problem which arises without warning, often for reasons that initially we do not understand, and requires a comprehensive effort to both cure the victims of the disease as well as to protect populations which have  not yet been infected by the threat. This was exactly how the public health community responded in 2014-2016 to Ebola, which ended up infecting 28,000 and killing roughly 11,000 people in West Africa but was contained almost wholly within that  geographic zone.

              The United States isn’t suffering from an epidemic of gun violence. We are suffering from a threat to health which is endemic to certain locations and certain populations within the United States. Not only does gun violence occur virtually every day in certain, clearly-identified locales involving clearly-identified populations, but this medical threat has been going on in these same locations for what is now a century or more.  All fine and well that public health has discovered the existence of this problem since Columbine and Sandy Hook. It’s hardly new news to residents of cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis and Detroit.

              Sorry Thomas Abt, you don’t end gun violence by going into the ghetto, planting trees and cutting the grass. You get rid of gun violence by getting rid of the guns that are used to commit gun violence.

              This still needs to be said?

Run Mike, Run.

So this morning I started off 2020 by taking a look at Mike’s website and volunteering to help his campaign. I’ll get into the reasons why I am supporting him below (actually it’s one reason) but before that, I took a look at what he has to say about guns. After all, if Trump’s the first President to fashion an entire political image around his so-called support of 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ so Mike’s the first Presidential candidate who has made a national name for himself by trying to do something about the violence caused by guns.

And in case you slept through the 2018 Congressional campaign, there may be a whole bunch of first-time members of Congress who owe their seats to the money they received from Mike, along with millions of dollars he put up to support gun-control initiatives in various states. And let’s not forget that he also has been instrumental in helping our friend Shannon build the first, truly grass-roots organization which fights the good fight against guns. But back to his 2020 campaign.

Mike has a whole section on the website devoted to his plan for controlling guns. To his credit, there isn’t a single word on his website about supporting the 2nd Amendment. He isn’t pandering to Gun-nut Nation by talking about ‘sensible’ gun laws, a la Liz Warren, or ‘respecting’ the 2nd Amendment, which is what Joe says on his site. I really wish the Democrats would stop pretending that anyone believes them when they say how much the 2nd Amendment can somehow co-exist alongside ‘reasonable’ gun laws. Give me a friggin’ break, okay?

Mike’s plan to deal with gun violence is basically to apply the same gun laws throughout the United States that have existed in New York City since 1912; i.e., the strict licensing of all guns which requires a permit prior to every purchase along with registration of all guns.

There’s only one little problem with this approach, however. And the problem happens to be the fact that while New York City now has a remarkably low level of gun violence, a trend that started under Rudy’s administration, accelerated under Mike but now have jumped up again under Bill, the city’s gun laws haven’t changed one bit no matter who is in charge, except that Mike did increase the licensing fees.

Why did gun violence decline so much in New York after it rose to epidemic proportions in 1993? Nobody really knows, except that the downward trend in the Big Apple occurred in virtually every large city throughout the United States. And endless books, articles and hot-air to the contrary, we don’t really know why that happened either, for that matter. All we know is that it did.

So I’m not going to bat for Mike because of his stance on guns. I’m going to support him because I believe, with all due respect to my friend Joe, that Mike has the best chance to beat Trump. And I further believe that in order to beat sh*t-head Trump or sleazy Don or whatever you want to call him, Mike just has to do one thing:

When the time is right Mike, just release your tax returns and that will be the end of that.

Have a great 2020 everyone!

Reduce Gun Violence By Regulating Gun Dealers. What Else Is New?

              Last week a lawsuit that was filed in Chicago in 2018 was given the green light to proceed in the Federal courts which could possibly provide a new and different approach to reducing gun violence beyond what has now become a rather hackneyed and useless argument about how gun violence is a ‘public health threat.’

              The suit names the Governor of Illinois and the Illinois State Police as defendants. It claims they are violating the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) because gun violence in Chicago creates emotional trauma that is responsible for ‘trauma-related disabilities’ in children, chief among them being cognitive and emotional functions which control learning and the ability to communicate properly with other kids. It’s a class-action suit brought by the mother of a 9-year old boy who saw his father gunned down in the street, and includes many other children living in what can only be described as Chicago’s war zone; i.e., the neighborhoods that have seen over 500 murders this year alone.

              The suit names the Governor and the State Police as defendants because it argues that the gun violence which violates the ADA is the result of lax enforcement of the laws that cover the behavior of gun retailers around Chicago, thus resulting in guns that are first sold legally but then trafficked illegally into the neighborhoods where so many shootings take place. The suit lists 11 remedies that should be instituted in licensed gun shops, including the installation of video systems, inventory audits and more training of store personnel.

              This lawsuit builds on a state law, ‘Combating Illegal Gun Trafficking Act,’ which took effect at the beginning of this year and requires all gun dealers in Illinois to install security systems, keep more comprehensive records of sales and submit to annual inventory audits, as well as only hiring staff who are licensed to own guns. The lawsuit basically claims that the state government and the state police have been lax in enforcing this new law, the proof cited is the extraordinary level of gun violence on the Windy City’s streets.

              The problem with this lawsuit is that it assumes a causal connection between how well the government fulfills its regulatory responsibilities as listed in the law which took effect at the beginning of this year and the level of gun violence which occurs on the West Side and South Side of Chicago every day. In other words, if gun violence continues at its current horrific pace, this must be somehow tied to lax enforcement of the new law. The lawsuit cites data which shows that 40% of the ‘crime guns’ picked up by the Chicago P.D. were first purchased in gun shops located in suburbs around the city; hence, with stronger enforcement this flow of guns into high-crime neighborhoods would go down.

              Maybe it would and maybe it wouldn’t. Like so many other laws which seek to prevent a specific commodity from reaching a specific market, the Illinois gun dealer law doesn’t take into account the issue of demand. And as governments have discovered since the sixteenth century when the Valois Monarchy tried to regulate the commerce of salt, if people want something badly enough, they’ll find a way to get around any law which tries to control supply.

              This is the reason that I refer above to the ‘hackneyed’ arguments about gun violence being bandied about by my friends in public health. Because again and again I hear the gun-control community demanding that we enact stronger laws to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ But what if the size of the wrong-handed population keeps going up?

              As long as songs like ‘Bullets Ain’t Got No Name’ are best-sellers on the hip-hop charts, the idea that guns will somehow disappear from high-violence neighborhoods because we pass another regulation is not only a joke, but demonstrates just how far away from reality the discussion about gun violence has moved.

              Want to get rid of gun violence? Get rid of the you-know-whats, okay?

What Should Doctors Say To Patients About Guns?

Today a group of well-meaning and thoroughly ignorant physicians are getting together in New York City to discuss for the umpteenth time the appropriate medical response to what is called a ‘national public health crisis;’ i.e., injuries caused by guns. They will no doubt draft yet another set of proposals to deal with the problem which will include all the usual things – more research funding, comprehensive background checks, ‘red flag’ laws, assault rifle ban, maybe even a mandatory delay in gun transfers or mandatory training before someone can walk around with a gun.

The reason I say these medical professionals are ‘thoroughly ignorant’ is because none of them know anything about guns. If they did know something about guns, they would understand that you can’t make something ‘safe’ which is designed not to be safe. How do we define the word ‘safe?’ It means that when we use something the way it’s supposed to be used that no injury occurs.

That being said, let me break the news gently to all those folks shooting their mouths off at today’s meeting in New York: The guns which are used to commit virtually every act of gun violence happen to be designed for one purpose and one purpose only – to kill or injure either the user of the gun or someone else. To use such guns in a ‘safe’ way is to invent a narrative that could only be taken seriously by people who know absolutely nothing about guns.

Want to ban assault rifles? Fine. Such a ban might result in reducing the number of people killed or injured with guns by, at best, 2 percent. What about the other 98 percent? Oh no, we can’t ban Glocks, we can’t ban tactical shotguns, the Constitution says Americans can own  those guns. And the last thing that medical professionals would ever want to be accused of doing is coming up with a response to a public health problem that didn’t align with 2nd-Amendment rights.

I have never understood how or why physicians need to be concerned about what the Constitution says or doesn’t say about guns when the evidence-based research that physicians are supposed to use to define all medical practice clearly proves that access to a gun is a significant health risk. Is the risk somehow lessened by locking the guns up or locking them away?  Sorry, but I have to gently break something else to my medical friends: There is not one, single study which has ever shown any connection whatsoever between ‘safe storage’ and the injuries caused by guns.

There are studies all over the place which find that when patients are counseled on safe behavior with guns, many of them later report that they have taken the doctor’s advice and are behaving with their guns in a safer way. But none of these studies are based on a before-and-after analysis of gun violence rates; it is simply assumed, with no evidence whatsoever, that behaving in a safe way with guns results in gun-violence rates going down.

When anyone puts their hand on a live gun (that’s a gun with ammunition ready to go) they have moved into a high-risk zone. And the only way to mitigate that risk is to make it impossible for anyone to put their hands on that gun. Now there happen to be many people (one of them me) who have decided for all sorts of reasons that they have no problem accepting that risk. There are also a lot of people who still like to ‘light up a Lucky’ or walk around with 40 extra pounds on their frame. And by the way, the Constitution gives every American the ‘right’ to do both.

Would any physician ever claim, in the interests of  ‘non-partisanship,’ that these patients should be advised to find a safer way to eat or smoke? Of course not. And that being the case, the physicians who think they can find some kind of neutral pathway to reducing gun violence are simply showing their ignorance about guns.

Want to get rid of gun violence? Get rid of the guns designed to cause gun violence. An approach which, by the way, doesn’t run counter to the 2nd Amendment at all.

Tom Gabor: Unrelenting Gun Violence and Lax Gun Laws Erode Our Freedoms

The gun lobby and gun rights advocates often claim that increasing gun rights makes Americans more free.  Nothing can be further from the truth.  Yes, permissive gun laws increase the freedom of the minority (30%) of adults who are gun owners to purchase virtually any weapon they choose.  However, increasing the availability of firearms erodes our freedoms–including those of gun owners and their families–in a number of ways. 

There is significant evidence showing that higher gun ownership levels, more gun carrying, and increasing the presence of guns in homes tend to make people less safe.  While guns are sometimes used for self-protection, they are used far more often in crime, against domestic partners, in suicides, and in unintentional injuries and fatalities.  It follows that lowering gun ownership and gun carrying will save lives and prevent injuries, thereby sparing many Americans from the loss of life and the unimaginable injuries and horrors associated with losing or caring for a loved one who has been shot. 

More Americans are reporting being mindful of the dangers of being shot when entering shopping malls, houses of worship, theaters and entertainment districts, night clubs and other crowded places.  Such fear is certainly not freedom.  Nor is the fear of students who are often terrified to go to school.  An American Psychological Association survey has found that the fear of being caught in a school shooting is at the top of the list of stressors for students between the ages of 15 and 21.  Freedom is not the term that comes to mind when we think of K-12 students participating in active shooter drills and cowering in classroom corners and under desks.

In response to school shootings, states like Florida with especially influential gun lobbies prefer to do anything but address the widespread availability of guns and assault-style weapons.  They want to focus on arming teachers and school staff, turning school properties into high security prison-like settings, conducting drills, and focusing on mental health despite the fact that most school shooters do not have a serious mental illness.  The militarization of schools represents the antithesis of freedom for students and school staff.

Requiring or incentivizing teachers and school staff to carry guns is dangerous and will cost lives rather than free people from gun violence.   Active shooters are almost never taken down by armed civilians but putting arms in the hands of improperly trained individuals will lead to fatal shootings within the school, thefts of guns, accidental shootings, and other misuses.  It forces talented teachers out of education and interferes with the right of students to have the best education possible.  Teachers, students, and administrators alike oppose the practice and, yet, the gun lobby is pressing to arm teachers since Wayne LaPierre of the NRA famously stated: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 

The militarization of schools through arming teachers and active shooter drills provide constant reminders to students of the dangers of an active shooter.  Rather than freedom, this is a constant distraction from their studies.  At the college level, allowing guns on campus seems counterproductive as universities have consistently been shown to be safer than the surrounding community.  Why import the community’s problems onto campuses? 

Two years ago, three University of Texas at Austin professors filed a lawsuit against the stateAttorney General and several officials at the university over a 2015 law allowing concealed handguns on college campuses. The professors argued the law infringed their First Amendment right to academic freedom, saying the carrying of guns into classrooms created a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression.  As a former criminology professor, I would imagine that the free-wheeling discussions we had on such controversial topics as abortion, sexual assault, and race and justice, would have been far more subdued or would not have been broached at all had students been “packing.” 

The most extreme manifestation of how individuals wielding guns can deprive others of their First Amendment rights are displays of menacing behavior by gun rights activists aimed at groups who are engaging in activism to bring about gun law reform.  Armed groups such as Open Carry Texas and the Utah Gun Exchange have bullied and threatened individuals organizing voluntary gun buybacks and have stalked activist students seeking changes in gun laws as they made their way around the country.

Finally, a shocking example of how the gun violence epidemic can lead to an erosion of our freedoms is shown by a Senate Republican bill that would tackle mass and school shootings through the enhanced  monitoring of students’ communications.  Rather than addressing the roots of the despair that lead young people to commit school shootings and their easy access to weapons capable of mass slaughter, the GOP, a party historically concerned about invasions of privacy, recently filed a bill that would dig deeply into the online activities of students. 

The legislation would require federally funded schools to install software to surveil students’ online activities, potentially including their emails and searches, in order to identify “violent” or alarming content.  Education groups say that such intensification of social media and network surveillance can discourage children from expressing themselves online.  Social media monitoring has already increased dramatically in response to gun violence.  The Brennan Center for Justice notes that, from 2013 to 2018, the number of school districts across the country that purchased social media monitoring software increased from six to 63.

Schools are being inundated with alerts, with some receiving over a hundred a day.  The technology does not merely monitor student activity during the school day but operates 24/7, monitoring school email accounts, web searches, and, in some cases, students’ public social media accounts as well.

The jury is still out in terms of the impact of this dramatic escalation in student monitoring.  There is a significant concern that student communications may be misinterpreted due to student cultural differences and casual conversations that may be mistakenly viewed as threats by the software employed, potentially exposing a much wider pool of students to the attention of law enforcement.

While some monitoring of student activities may be desirable, there is a difference between encouraging young people to come forward if they witness threatening behaviors or statements and the routine, around-the-clock electronic surveillance of young people that will often misinterpret loose talk of kids as a threat and bring some form of heavy-handed response.  Ultimately, the latter will lead kids to be more secretive and find ways to communicate with their peers that will circumvent the monitoring.  Surveillance may be politically more palatable than dealing with the alienation and trauma experienced by young people, as well as the enactment of effective gun laws.  However, such monitoring does nothing to address the social, psychological, and familial factors that lead young people to commit horrific acts.  To the extent that we persist in ignoring the reasons for the carnage we are seeing, we will continue to fail to free our kids and society from the ever-present threat of gun violence.

Thomas Gabor, Ph.D. is a criminologist and author of ENOUGH! Solving America’s Gun Violence Crisis (thomasgaborbooks.com)

Does Public Health Research Really Explain Gun Violence?

 Before I get into the body of this column, let me make one thing very, very clear. Mike the Gun Guy™ has not decided to switch sides and begin promoting the false narratives about gun violence used by my friends in the NRA. I do not believe that having a gun around is more of a benefit than a risk; I do not believe that civilians, trained or not, should be walking around with guns; I do not believe that when Mike Bloomberg, et. al., takes away all the guns, that only the ‘bad guys’ will have guns. 

On the other hand, the fact that I do not subscribe to the most hallowed beliefs of Gun-nut Nation doesn’t mean I am willing to accept the basic assumptions or arguments about gun violence promoted by the gun-control side. And the reason I cannot accept the current gun-control narrative is that it is based on public health research by scholars at first-rate institutions like Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and I find most of this research to be fundamentally flawed.

Public health gun research does not lead to substantive advances in firearm regulation for three reasons: (1). The researchers know absolutely nothing about the industry which they believe needs more effective regulation; (2). the research never focuses on the behavior of individuals who commit 85% of all intentional gun violence by picking up a gun and shooting someone else; (3). the research uses data which is chosen to promote an answer to the problem of gun violence rather than to figure out how to understand the problem itself.

Along with raising these concerns about the value and validity of public health gun research, I want to raise one more issue which is the most troublesome of all. To put it bluntly: I have never (read never) encountered a field of academic research in which the researchers are as unwilling and/or unable to engage in critical, public discussions about their own work. If these scholars consider that the absence of such a critical dialog helps them better understand both the possibilities and the limits of their research, then all I can say is that this field of academic research fundamentally differs from every other academic field, including other research done by public health.

Yesterday I attended a presentation about a new strategy for diagnosing autism that is being tested at the Harvard School of Public Health. The lecture was presented before a room of clinicians and medical students who were encouraged to ask serious questions about the methods and findings of the strategy itself. Do any of the scholars who conduct gun violence research ever appear before audiences other than various gun-control groups who already agree with what they are going to say? They don’t.

Here’s an example of how seriously flawed gun research can be and how such flaws take us further, rather than closer to solving the public health crisis caused by guns. David Hemenway has made an international reputation for himself by arguing that the United States suffers an inordinately high level of fatal violence because we have so many guns. He has made this argument in numerous articles as well as in his formative book. 

In the book (2nd edn., page 2) he compares gun homicides in the U.S. with homicide rates in other ‘frontier’ countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and finds that the overall U.S. rate is  6.1 (for 1999 – 2000) while in the other countries it is 1.7 or 1.8. That difference is because we have twice as many households with guns, even though rates of non-fatal violent crimes in those other countries (burglary, robbery, rape) are either higher or the same.

I don’t recall the last time I listened to a public discussion about gun violence or looked at a gun-control website that I didn’t see reference to this argument again, again and again. But what I find most interesting about Hemenway’s approach is not what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Because the fact is that the non-gun homicide rate in the U.S. is more than twice as great as the non-gun homicide rate anywhere else. And while Hemenway gives us those comparative numbers, he ignores what they really mean.

Because if you think the imbalance in violence between the United States and other advanced countries started when the NRA or John Lott began promoting a gun culture, think again. In fact, we were killing people at a much faster rate than other advanced countries all the way back to the decades prior to World War I.

It’s one thing to argue that we are a violent society because we own so many guns. But are there other, equally compelling explanations that might inform us as to why the United States may be a more violent society pari passu? I’m not saying that Hemenway’s argument is totally wrong; I am saying that it is, at best, incomplete. And I am still waiting for anyone in the public health research community to consider that using incomplete arguments as a guide to public policy just doesn’t work.

If any of my public health research friends want to submit a response, I’ll be happy to post it here.

The Sandy Hook Case Moves Forward.

              On December 14, 2012 a 20-year old first murdered his mother, then shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, quickly killing 20 young kids and 6 adults before taking his own life.  He left behind a community so devastated that the school building had to be torn down.

              Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court, that’s the court with all those pro-gun judges, declined to hear an appeal of a decision by the Connecticut Supreme Court to allow a lawsuit against the gun maker to go forward. After seven years, it appears that the parents of some of those victims will finally get their day in court.

              The gun industry will also get its day in court. And when this day dawns, the gun industry will, for the very first time, have to prove that at least one of its products isn’t too dangerous to be manufactured and sold.

              Way back in the good old days, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the gun industry made most of its products for hunting and sport. Companies like Winchester, Ithaca, Remington and Harrington & Richardson made millions of rifles and shotguns that could be found in just about every rural home. When those homes all disappeared, ditto the guns.

The gun industry, not wanting to go the way of the companies that made mixmasters or typewriters, moved quickly into new product lines based on the idea that guns make us safe and secure. The studies which claimed that guns protected their owners from crime had more holes than a slice of Dorman’s swiss cheese, but since when do we decide what to buy based on facts?

The bottom line is that the guns which started to sell more frequently beginning in the 1990’s weren’t designed for hunting or sport. They were designed to do one thing and one thing only – to kill or injure men, women and children, regardless of how or why those killings and injuries occurred.

The gun industry knew full well that pretending that a military rifle like an AR-15 was just another ‘sporting gun’ had no basis in truth. But so what? Nobody was going to sue gun manufacturers just because they came up with a clever slogan as a way to sell more guns.

At the same time the gun industry was avoiding the issue of product lethality, our friends in Gun-control Nation were doing exactly the same thing. Instead of holding gun makers accountable for the dangerousness of their products, they began promoting the idea that we can reduce gun violence by keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’ But what happens when it turns out that most of the mass shooters commit their rampages with an perfectly legal guns?

The two sides in the gun debate avoid the issue of lethality because each side feels it incumbent upon themselves to pretend reverence for the cherished 2nd Amendment.  The pro-gun side never misses an opportunity to ballyhoo (and usually mis-state) the Heller decision, even though prior to 2008 Americans were armed to the teeth without the benefit of any Constitutional protection at all. The anti-gun gang has no choice but to pretend an equally-strong belief in the 2nd-Amendment. After all, who among us would ever dare question the validity of Constitutional ‘rights,’ even if one of those ‘rights’ allows me to yank out my Glock and pop a cap on your head?

The Sandy Hook case cuts through all that nonsense and puts the issue of lethality right where it belongs; namely, whether the manufacturers of this particular commodity can pretend that this item is no more dangerous than any other product bought at the corner store.

The courts have long held that government has a ‘compelling interest’ to protect the community from harm. If someone knows anything more harmful than some jacked-up kid wandering around with an assault rifle and a bunch of 30-shot mags, I’d like to know what it is.  

Do More Guns Really Mean More Gun Violence?

Over the least quarter-century, the debate about guns and gun violence has coalesced into two camps. One camp, let’s call it the ‘guns are good’ (GAG) camp, says that guns protect us from violence and crime. The other camp, let’s call it the ‘guns are bad’ (GAB) camp, says that guns cause more violence and crime. The GAG has been led by our friend John Lott.  The GAB has been led by our friend David Hemenway. Today’s column will examine the argument made by the GAB.

In multiple articles plus a well-known and oft-cited book, Hemenway claims that the rate of violent crime is no different between the U.S. and other ‘advanced’ nation-states. On the other hand, the U.S. has a much higher rate of fatal, violent crime, a difference caused by the private ownership of some 300 million guns.

Hemenway and other public-health researchers refer to their approach as creating an ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence; i.e., figuring out where (geographically)  and when (numerically) this particular form of injury occurs. Unfortunately, the comparison he makes between the U.S. and other ‘advanced’ countries is wrong on both counts.

If Hemenway and his public health cohorts actually believe that comparing any health event in a country of 320 million people with another country that holds one-tenth that population or less gives us any insights into how to deal with that particular health problem, then all I can say is that you can use numbers to prove anything you want.  Of the 34 countries currently in the OECD, ten have a total population of less than 30 million. Does anyone really believe that we can come up with a valid explanation about anything if we compare what happens in the U.S. to what goes on, for example, in Luxembourg, whose total population is .001 percent of ours?

Luxembourg covers an area of 998 square miles, which happens to be one-fifth the size of Connecticut. If you stuck Luxembourg into Montana, it would be a tiny speck. And yet Hemenway and other GAB researchers want us to believe that a cross-national comparison between the United States and a country like Luxembourg should be the basis on which we develop ‘reasonable’ national gun laws, right?

The GAB argument breaks down even further when we forget cross-national comparisons and just look at the rate of violent crime within the United States. According to the FBI-UCR, the U.S. violent crime rate in 2017 was 394 per 100K. But this number, particularly the more than 17,000 homicides which contribute 1.3% of the crimes to the overall number of violent crimes, is also rather meaningless when discussed in global terms.

In fact, on a regional basis, the homicide rate of 5.3 breaks down like this: Northeast – 3.5; Midwest – 5.7; South – 6.4; West – 4.5.  Taken together, the 15 Southern states represent almost half the total homicides of the country as a whole.  The Northeast, on the other hand, represents just 11% of all homicides, although the total regional population is just about half the number of people living in the South.

To compare the overall rate of gun violence in the U.S. to other countries is basically a false comparison precisely because the murder rates in different parts of our country vary to such an extreme degree. If Hemenway and his public health research colleagues want to pretend they are creating an ‘epidemiology’ of gun violence, they should stop talking about a ‘national crisis’ and start looking at what the numbers really say. What the numbers really say is that we have a severe public health problem called ‘gun violence’ which shows up most frequently in the Southern states.

My mail-list includes all the public health researchers who support the GAB idea. If any of them want to reply to this column, I’ll gladly post their words right here. But if there’s one thing which seems to unite virtually the entire community of gun-violence public health researchers, it’s their obsessive desire to avoid any public debate about their own work. So we’ll see what we see.

Tom Gabor: Gun Violence Is A Violation Of Human Rights

With mass shootings this summer at a Walmart in El Paso, a California garlic festival, and in Dayton’s entertainment district, Americans can justifiably ask whether they are safe in any setting.  A related question is whether people have the right to be safe in their communities.  Do children have the right to attend school without fearing a mass shooting? 

            Debates over gun policy take place on two major fronts.  First, there are the scientific arguments as to whether gun ownership levels in an area, gun carrying, or the presence of guns in the home enhance or detract from public or personal safety.  Most of the science in this area indicates that raising levels of gun ownership is detrimental to public safety overall.[i]  Certainly, there are instances in which guns are used successfully in self-defense but these cases are outnumbered many times over by those in which guns are used to commit crime, to threaten or intimidate others (including domestic partners), or to commit suicide.  Consider an FBI investigation of active shooter incidents.  Despite the fact that there are 120 guns for every 100 Americans, just one of 160 of these incidents studied by the Bureau was stopped by an armed civilian.[ii]

            The second front on which the gun debate is waged relates to civil rights.  This debate has largely been one-sided with gun rights advocates and the gun lobby frequently thwarting the passage of gun laws on the basis that the laws in question violate their Second Amendment rights. 

            The Second Amendment was interpreted historically by the courts as the right to bear arms within the context of militia service.  For example, in United States v. Miller (1939), two defendants who had been prosecuted for failing to register and pay a tax for possessing and carrying a sawed-off shotgun across state lines argued that such requirements under the National Firearms Act violated their Second Amendment rights.  The US Supreme Court ultimately ruled that such a weapon had no role in an organized militia and was therefore not protected by the Second Amendment. 

            Following a decades-long campaign by the National Rifle Association to promote the view that the Second Amendment guaranteed a right to bear arms to individuals outside of militia service—a view characterized by former Chief Justice Warren Burger as the greatest fraud on the American public—the US Supreme Court did rule in the 2008 Heller decision that individuals had the right to own an operable gun in the home for protection.  However, writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia—a hunter and a conservative—made it clear that this right was not unlimited and that laws regulating the carrying of firearms, denying gun ownership to felons and the mentally ill, and prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons did not violate the Second Amendment. 

            The militia view of the Amendment does not recognize the “right to keep and bear arms” as an individual right at all and, hence, is not an impediment to laws that would restrict gun ownership outside of militia service.  The Heller decision, too, leaves a great deal of room to regulate guns. In fact, since Heller, an overwhelming majority of Second Amendment challenges to federal, state, and local gun laws have been rejected by the courts.[iii]   Still, the NRA’s campaign to sell the narrative that individuals have an absolute right to possess virtually any firearm has altered public opinion and has led to endless debates about how limited or expansive is the right to bear arms. 

            What gets lost in these debates about gun rights is the vast majority of Americans who are not gun owners or who are otherwise concerned about public safety.  What about their rights to feel safe?  What about the rights of children who are terrified to go to school?  What about the right to speak one’s mind or to enjoy a night out without intimidation by people carrying guns?  These are not academic questions as the US has the most armed population in the world.  The US is also an outlier, relative to other high-income countries, with regard to the permissiveness of its laws in relation to gun carrying and the ownership of military-style weapons.  In addition, with one hundred Americans dying from gunfire and one mass shooting each day, the US is exceptional with regard to its high level of gun mortality.   Communities of all sizes are affected and marginalized communities suffer disproportionately.

            While the rights-based debate rages on about the meaning and scope of the Second Amendment, the right of the public as a whole to be safe from gun violence has been ignored.  The absence of attention to the public’s right to safety is surprising given that the US has signed or ratified a number of human rights conventions that can be applied to gun violence.  Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”[iv]  The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that no person “shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life (Article 6).[v]  

            The US has also signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; however, African Americans have exceptionally high levels of gun mortality relative to the rest of the population, are disproportionately the victims of police-involved shootings and of vigilante-type shootings enabled by the Stand Your Ground laws passed by half the states.  While the US has signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the country has also been slow to protect women in the US as they are far more likely to be murdered by gunfire than in other advanced countries.  An abuser’s access to guns increases the risk of death to women by five-fold, yet laws generally allow men with a history of violence to get around background checks by purchasing guns on the private market, permit abusive boyfriends to own guns, and fail to require the surrender of guns by those who threaten women.  The US has signed but not ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child.  Still, US children and teens are 32 times more likely to die of a gun homicide and 10 times more likely to die of a gun suicide or accident than their peers in the other high-income countries combined.[vi] 

            The human rights group Amnesty International argues in a 2018 report,  In the Line of Fire, that the US has breached its commitments under international human rights law.  AI writes:  “The USA has failed to implement a comprehensive, uniform and coordinated system of gun safety laws and regulations particularly in light of the large number of firearms in circulation, which perpetuates unrelenting and potentially avoidable violence, leaving individuals susceptible to injury and death from firearms.”[vii]  

            AI further notes that, as part of the right to life and other human rights, the responsibilities of nations to prevent gun violence requires: 1) restricting access to firearms, especially on the part of those at an elevated risk of misusing them; and 2) implementing violence reduction measures where firearm misuse persists.  The human rights group asserts that nations should establish robust regulatory systems, including licensing, registration, restriction of certain weapon types, safe storage, research, and policy development.  Nationally, the US has done little or nothing in relation to any of these policies and has seen Congress, at the behest of the NRA, suppress funding for research dating back to 1996.  Amnesty notes that countries not only have obligations to protect the life of individuals from state agents but from actual or foreseeable threats at the hands of private actors as well.  Violence is especially foreseeable in low income neighborhoods with persistently high levels of violence, poor public services, and policing that may not comply with international standards.    

            It is time to recognize public safety as a human right and for the US to adopt national policies, such as the licensing of gun owners, restrictions on gun carrying, and a ban on weapons of war.  Consistent with the notion that public safety is a human right, I have drafted A Declaration of the Right of Americans to Live Free from Gun Violence—please visit: http://thomasgaborbooks.com/a-declaration-of-rights/.  I’m hoping that different levels of government and groups concerned about gun policy will endorse the Declaration and issue proclamations asserting that safety from gun violence is a human right.       


[i] For a review of the vast body of research on these matters, see T. Gabor’s Confronting Gun Violence in America (2019) or David Hemenway’s Private Guns, Public Health (2006).

[ii] FBI, A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013.

[iii] Giffords Law Center, Second Amendment Basics; https://lawcenter.giffords.org/gun-laws/the-second-amendment/second-amendment-basics/

[iv] Universal Declaration of Human Rights; https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[v] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/ProfessionalInterest/ccpr.pdf

[vi] Children’s Defense Fund.  Protect Children not Guns.

[vii] Amnesty International, In the Line of Fire:  Human Rights and the US Gun Violence Crisis, p.5; https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/egv_exec_sum.pdf