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01/07/2016

Base Gun Policy on Science, Not Rhetoric

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

This year, my university required all instructors to talk about “live shooter” plans in our classes. Although this institution does not permit guns anywhere on campus, we are supposed to be prepared because we live in a world where mass shootings occur in schools and where in more places people carry firearms.

This week, President Obama took executive action to address this public health epidemic. During the press conference, the President announced guidance for federal agencies that fell into three categories: asking Congress for more funds, expanding who is covered under the background check requirements, and greater enforcement of existing laws.

Right before his speech, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) offered a more stringent definition of a firearms dealer, thus requiring more sellers to conduct background checks on buyers. This is an attempt to close the so-called “gun show” loop where guns have been bought and sold without requiring background checks. Less defined were President Obama’s other commitments: increased prosecution for violating gun laws, asking Congress for more funding for new ATF agents, asking Congress for $500 million to improve mental health care, and requested federal agencies to research gun safety technology.

According to the CDC in 2013 (the most recent year for which statistics have been made available), there were 33,636 deaths from firearms (33.8% homicides, 63.8% suicides, 1.5% accidents, and 0.9% undetermined reason) and 33,360 injuries from them. Consider the lengths that agencies and hospitals went to in regards to Ebola (not to mention the $5 billion Congress allocated for study and preparation) in the last two years where there were only 10 patients and 2 deaths in the U.S.. Another comparison, there were 33,804 deaths from motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. in 2013. The Washington Post quotes a U.S. federal study that there are now an equal number of deaths in the U.S. from motor vehicle accidents as from firearms (although homicide rates have dropped, suicide rates have increased). In 21 states, guns cause more deaths than motor vehicles.

ATF reports that in 2013, 10,884,792 firearms were manufactured in the U.S. In 2014, 6,172 background checks were conducted and as of the beginning of 2015, nearly 4.2 million guns were registered in the US. The Congressional Research Service estimates 310 million firearms owned by civilians in the U.S., that’s nearly 1 for every citizen. (This latter number is an estimate because it’s illegal to conduct research on guns.) No country on earth has more guns than the U.S.

We have about 113 guns per 100 residents whereas Canada has only 30.8 guns per 100 people, and only 131 firearm-related homicides in 2013. With only 27% of the number of guns as the US, they have only 1.1% of the number of murders. This may only be correlative data but it is telling. Another correlation to contemplate: States with the most restrictive gun laws have the fewest gun deaths. When states loosen gun restrictions, death rise (MO). And when they tighten restrictions, deaths drop (CT)

Motor vehicle accidents have dropped over the decades because of new safety technologies such as seatbelts, air bags, lane-change warning systems, even impact avoidance systems. Back-up cameras are even required on new cars to prevent accidentally running over a person while backing up. Gun safety has not changed during the same period of time. Some guns do have “safeties” locks and triggers, frearms owners can lock their guns in special safes and may store their guns separately from their bullets. But this technology has not changed much in the last decades. There are new technologies such as biometric locks (meaning that only the person to whom the gun is registered can fire the weapon), childproof gun locks, and external locks that can only be opened with a registered fingerprint. New Jersey already requires firearms to incorporate such technology. But in most states and on the federal level, none of these protections are required.

The response to the President’s words has been swift and polarized. Gun control advocates support the President and his efforts. Republicans, who currently hold majorities in both houses of Congress, are unlikely to provide the additional money and may pass laws to undermine these efforts. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate, said “Obama Wants Your Guns.” The National Rifle Association and Republic National Committee have condemned the actions saying they are a violation of the Second Amendment and overreaches the President’s Constitutional authority.

If the belief is that “Obama [is] Coming After Your Guns,” then perhaps that’s exactly what should happen. My concern with the President’s proposals is that they do not do much and would not have prevented many of the people in last year’s 330 mass shootings from acquiring guns. It’s time to stop letting gun manufacturers, dealers, and the National Rifle Association from deciding public policy. Public health issues should be decided by public health professionals. First, the federal ban on gun violence research (funding) must be lifted. For example, Pubmed has only 1,466 listings for “gun violence” and 6,048 for “gun” as compared to 30,995 listings for “motor vehicle.” Policy and public health decisions need to be based on sound science not on soundbites.

Second, within a year, all guns should be required to have biometric safety equipment. I am not suggesting this for just new sales, I’m saying that currently owned guns should be retrofitted. If a car is found to be unsafe and the manufacturer does not issue a recall to fix it, the government does. Why should guns be treated any differently? In addition, this move would counter the fact that gun sales rise when more restrictive rules are proposed in order to beat any possible deadlines. Third, there should be limits on the number and types of weapons that civilians can purchase: semi-automatic weapons, high-capacity magazines, as well as limits on the number of gun bullets that one purchase per year. The government limits my ability to buy sinus medication, so such steps are certainly within our tradition. Fourth, all guns should be registered in a database to help solve gun crimes. This should be checked whenever a gun changes hands. Fifth, add more people to the no-buy list including anyone on the no-fly list. Sixth, overturn laws in states that forbid doctors from asking about guns in the home and how they are stored.

Seventh, a case needs to be brought to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge Washington DC v. Heller (whichi established that the Second Amendment applies to individuals rather than the traditional interpretation that the language referred to collective gun ownership) and permit local jurisdictions to restrict gun sales, ownership, and use as much as they want. Eighth, Congress needs to consider a Constitutional Amendment overturning the Second—it likely would not pass but that is not a reason to avoid trying.

The excuse that such restrictions would leave a defenseless population while criminals managed to buy guns illegally has no proof, just speculation. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows that people with a gun in the home are more likely to die by homicide at home, to die from a firearm, to die from suicide, and to die from suicide via a firearm. Another interesting correlation, a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research published in 2003 found that people with guns in the home are more likely to be burglarized than those without a firearm. The authors conclude that guns are valuable assets for a burglar—they can be easily hidden and can be sold.

Other nations with restricted ownership and gun sales do not live in a post-apocalyptic nightmare of criminals keeping people at bay. In fact, their rates of gun deaths and gun violence are far lower. The evidence shows that more guns do not make us safer.

If some of these ideas sound familiar, it’s because I was writing about them only 4 months ago. It is time for rational gun policy based on science. President Obama does not go nearly far enough.

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