There are too many guns in the United States.
Last October Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog
It’s tough to know exactly how many guns we have in the United States. Most estimates of the number of guns in the U.S. use federal tallies of the firearms manufactured, imported and exported by U.S. gunmakers. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report published exactly one month before the Sandy Hook school shooting put the number of civilian firearms at 242 million in 1996, 259 million in 2000, and 310 million as of 2009.
If that 310 million number is correct, it means that the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency was an inflection point: It marked the first time that the number of firearms in circulation surpassed the total U.S. population.
It is clear that the Obama years have been a boon to gun manufacturers regardless of whether the number of guns is 245 million, 270 million, or 300 million.
Do they keep us safe? Some gun owners point to falling homicide rates, but there are studies showing that places with few guns have lower rates. Ingraham writes
It’s important to note that even as the number of guns has increased since the early-to-mid-90s, the per-capita gun homicide rate has fallen by nearly half over the same time period. On the other hand, it’s also true that when you make comparisons between states and countries, you see that places with more guns have more gun homicides, as research from the Harvard School of Public Health shows.
These two seemingly unreconcilable facts form the factual basis for much of the contemporary gun policy debate. Defenders of gun rights can point to falling homicide rates and rising gun numbers and argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns. Gun control advocates, meanwhile, can point out the correlations between gun ownership and gun crime and push for tighter restrictions on gun ownership.
Is there a way to reconcile these divisions? It’s hard to tell. I keep coming back to this quote, from the Economist earlier this year in response to the Charleston massacre.
Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.
Which brings me to Margaret Talbot’s comment in the January 18 issues of The New Yorker. Talbot writes about President Obama’s Executive Order on background checks.
Last week at the White House, as President Obama announced a set of executive actions aimed at blunting gun violence, he seemed anything but numb. He wept as he invoked the first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut—a response for which some gun advocates mocked him. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s words about the “fierce urgency of now.” But he also acknowledged the numbness that can overcome people in the face of one mass shooting after another. That numbness puts proponents of unfettered gun rights at an advantage. People can easily start thinking of gun violence as something native to America’s angry, intractable soul—the armed, anti-federalist takeover of wildlife-refuge buildings in Oregon this month seemed like proof. And when, time and again, Congress thwarts gun reforms that are supported by majorities of Americans it can be hard to imagine that the status quo will ever change.
If numbness benefits gun-rights absolutists, uninformed numbness might serve them even better. In 1993, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide” in that home. The researchers had been funded by the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention, and the N.R.A. responded by trying to get the prevention center defunded. It didn’t succeed, but, in 1996, Congress amended an appropriations bill to the effect that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” It was a little like saying that no research on the health effects of smoking should be interpretable as anti-smoking. Congress also removed $2.6 million from the C.D.C.’s budget—the precise amount that had gone to the prevention center’s research—and then restored it, earmarked for an entirely different purpose. As a result, one of the study’s authors said in a public-radio interview last spring, “many, many people stopped doing gun research.”
With gun research, maybe we could have safer weapons as we have safer cars. Maybe we would better understand the dangers of gun ownership. Maybe we wouldn’t have to read about the six year old who finds Daddy’s gun and kills his two year old sister.
Jay Dickey, the Republican representative and N.R.A. member from Arkansas who sponsored the amendment, came to regret it. Dismayed by the continuing toll of gun violence, he was eventually persuaded that firearm deaths could be reduced without violating the Second Amendment. He now believes that research on gun violence can help prevent it, much as similar work on highway safety resulted in innovations like seat belts, air bags, highway dividers, and minimum drinking ages, and prevented hundreds of thousands of traffic deaths. In December, in a letter to Mike Thompson, the chairman of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Dickey wrote, “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile.” He added, “We should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”
Talbot cites a recent study (not government funded) comparing the repeal of a permit and background check law in Missouri and the initiation of more stringent laws in Connecticut: Gun homicides dropped around 40% in Connecticut and rose by a similar percentage in Missouri.
Those opposed to background checks, bans on weapons with large capacity magazine, or even trigger locks often say that the issue is one of mental health not guns. I think our national obsession with guns IS the mental health issue. They are a public health issue. Talbot concludes
In part, Obama is trying to reframe the gun discussion not as a Second Amendment issue but as one of public health. This approach acknowledges that, while we can’t eliminate gun crime, we can reduce it, and that doing something is better than fatalistically doing nothing.
Photograph: M&R Glasgow/Flickr