Guns and public health

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.

guns

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.

Ingraham concludes

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

 

Florida’s strange gun laws

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case and have concluded that one reason for the verdict is Florida law.  I’ve read the jury instructions and while they were confusing, they had to follow the law which led to acquittal.

The best piece I’ve read on Florida gun laws is an OpEd by Farah Stockman in the Boston Globe.  Stockman writes about Florida gun laws generally and cites 4 currently incarcerated people as examples:  Marissa Alexander, Ronald Thompson, Orville Lee Wollard and Erik Weyant.    All but Alexander are white men, all including Alexander fired a gun to frighten and not to kill.  All are currently serving 20 year minimum sentences.

IF IT BOGGLES your mind that George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old with a gun, could be acquitted after pursuing — and killing — an unarmed 17-year-old, here’s another brain teaser: How could Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, receive a 20-year prison sentence for firing a bullet into a wall near her abusive ex-husband, even though no one was harmed?

It’s true. Florida is one of the worst places to fire a gun into the air, even as it appears to be one of the best places to actually shoot at a person.

Marissa Alexander of Florida received a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband.

Marissa Alexander of Florida received a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband.

She goes on to explain.

Alexander, whose ex-husband admitted that she was afraid of his abuse, is not the only one in prison for shooting at nothing.

Ronald Thompson, 62, a disabled veteran, fired two shots into the ground to protect an elderly woman from her violent 17-year-old grandson. State Attorney Angela Corey — the same prosecutor in the Zimmerman case — charged him with four counts of aggravated assault. Thompson was sentenced to 20 years in prison,  a punishment that the judge in the case called a “crime in itself.”  (He is currently awaiting a new trial.)

Orville Lee Wollard, a former auxiliary police force member, shot a bullet into the wall to scare away his daughter’s abusive boyfriend. Prosecutors offered him probation. But he wanted to be exonerated at trial. Now he’s serving 20 years.

Erik Weyant, 22, fired shots in the air to disperse a group of drunk men who accosted him in a parking lot outside a bar and blocked his car. No one was hurt. But he’s in for 20 years.

In many cases, the fact that they chose to fire a warning shot, instead of aiming to kill, was used as evidence against them at trial, said Greg Newburn of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. If you were truly in fear of your life, the logic goes, you would aim at the chest, not the wall.

Florida lawmakers, in their infinite wisdom, began to notice that a lot of people were getting severely punished simply for defending themselves. But instead of repealing the Draconian measure, they passed another one: the “stand your ground” law.

Somehow, both of the laws are not working.  George Zimmerman who killed Trayvon Martin is free, the four named above are in prison.

…And had Alexander shot and killed her abusive ex-husband, would she have had a better chance of getting immunity with a “stand your ground” defense?

“I think so,” said her attorney Michael Dowd.

So in the sick logic of Florida’s gun laws, the message is clear: If you are going to shoot, shoot to kill. You stand a better chance of walking free.

What is happening in Florida is just another reason we need to take a careful look at all of our gun laws.  Florida’s gun laws have little to do with race and as pressure mounts to help Alexander, let us not forget everyone else.

Photograph:  Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union

Impeaching President Obama?!

Every time I think that the Republican party has reached the apex of craziness something else happens.  Have the Republican’s who have called for President Obama’s impeachment over his 23 Executive Orders to promote gun safety and curb gun violence actually read them?  I know anyone who wants to impeach him will not read this blog, but here is the complete list as posted on the Wonkblog:

The White House also announced 23 executive orders on guns and gun violence that Obama would sign immediately:

1. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.

2. Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.

3. Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.

4. Direct the Attorney General to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.

5. Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.

6. Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.

7. Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.

8. Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission).

9. Issue a Presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.

10. Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement.

11. Nominate an ATF director.

12. Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.

13. Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.

14. Issue a Presidential Memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.

15. Direct the Attorney General to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies.

16. Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.

17. Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.

18. Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.

19. Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.

20. Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.

21. Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges.

22. Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations.

23. Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.

I think the NRA wanted more cops at schools.  That is #18.  A cop at a school is a resource officer who is especially trained to be around kids and knows what to do in a school setting.  See also #19.  They also wanted more emphasis on mental health issues.  Look at #17, #20, #21, and #22.

Here are the pictures of those who, as of today, are supporting impeachment I guess because they got some of what they wanted.   Remember impeachment begins in the House.  These were posted by Think Progress.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX)

Rep. Trey Radel (R-FL)

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX)

Former Attorney General Edwin Meese (R)

And I’m sure there will be more to add.  Like Senator Rand Paul.

Like I said, it just gets crazier.

Cartoonists comment on guns, Newtown, and politics.

Sometime a picture or drawing is worth more than all the words one can write.  Here are a few selections from my favorite cartoonists.

From Matt Bors : Armed Society, Polite Society

Nick Anderson on one response to Newtown.

Nick Anderson's Editorial Cartoons 12/18

And Pat Oliphant on what we should do with assault weapons.

Finally, Tony Auth on the NRA’s problem.

ta121217.gif

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Crazy state gun laws

Dylan Matthews posted this today on Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog.  He lists the 6 craziest.  I will talk about the craziest of the craziest, but the entire list is worth reading.

Concealed carry at 16 — with no permit: Most states that allow people to carry a concealed weapon on their person require gun owners to obtain a permit before doing so. But four states — Alaska, Arizona, Wyoming and Vermont — allow concealed carry without any permit. That means, the Brady Campaign’s Brian Malte tells me, that Jared Loughner was in full compliance with Arizona law up until the moment he used his concealed weapons to kill six people and severely injure Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Vermont, however, stands out from the pack because it allows people as young as 16 to conceal carry without parental permission, as well as buy handguns. So a Vermont teenager aged 16 can’t legally go to an R-rated movie alone or join the military, but he can buy a handgun and carry it in his jeans and be completely within the limits of the law.

I have family who have lived in Vermont for years.  My husband lived there for a while.  Who knew?

Property rights end where gun rights begin: According to the Law Centerto Prevent Gun Violence, 17 states, including Oklahomaand Florida, bar employers from preventing their employees from bringing
guns to work and keeping them locked in their vehicles, even if those vehiclesare on the property of the employer. Indiana and North Dakota allowemployees to sue their employers for damages if asked about gun possession. TheNorth Dakota statue specifically bars employers from asking if employees’
vehicles parked on company property have weapons in them. Georgia bars employersfrom making employment conditional on not bringing guns to work.

So when you have to discipline an employee they can go out to their car at lunch or break and come back and shoot you.  This is very rational – not!

Open carry without a permit: Most legal disputes around carrying gunsin public involved concealed carry. But open carry, which is arguably morethreatening to surrounding community members, is largely unregulated.
Thirty-five states allow open carry of handguns without a permit, while only three (plus the District of
Columbia) ban it outright. Forty-seven states plus the District allow open carryof long guns (that is, rifles or shotguns) in public, while only three ban it.

I guess it is better to know the guy next to you at the local bar is carrying so you can avoid arguments about the Red Sox and Yankees.

Members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League gather in July 2010 to celebrate
a new law permitting open carry of guns in bars. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington
Post)

Guns at schools: In 2010, Kansas passed a law allowing the concealed carry of guns in K-12 schools, in violation of the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which criminalizing the carrying of firearms in specified school zones. That act was ruled unconstitutional in U.S. v. Lopez as exceeding the federal government’s powers under the Commerce Clause, and a revised statute was passed that limits the ban to guns “involved in interstate commerce,” so it is possible that the Kansas statute does not run afoul of federal law in all cases.

This past week, Michigan followed suit, with state legislators passing a law allowing concealed carry in schools, bars, daycare centers and churches. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has not signed the bill into law, and its ultimate passage is now in doubt due to the Newtown incident.

We all know that if the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School had had a gun, she could have shot Adam Lanza.  Of course, no one has talked about where a teacher would keep the weapon so that the kids wouldn’t get access because they are curious.  We all know that kids are curious.

In addition to these gems, there are many states with Stand Your Ground laws and we know from the incidents in Florida how well that works out for the shooters.

If we can just figure out a way to get states to repeal some of these, I think we would be safer than we are today.

Brady Campaign

Brady Campaign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)