In the preceding article, we discussed different kinds of gun violence, organized by cause. Most gun violence is suicide; only a very few mass shootings ever occur in classrooms. Ideally, none would; ideally, people also wouldn’t ever want to kill themselves, guns notwithstanding.
We don’t live in an ideal world.
That’s no reason not to strive for one.
Therefore, acting on the premise that data-driven solutions are necessary to effectively address complex societal problems, let us discuss what we really want to change, and then consider how best to do it.
The Different Problems
In order to solve a problem, we must first determine what the problem is. Gun violence, categorized by cause, is related to: Suicide, Drugs/Gangs, Other Crimes, Domestic Violence, Accident, and Spree or Serial Shooter. (Law enforcement shootings can similarly be divided, and so they’re not treated as a separate category here.) While it is possible for multiple categories to overlap — a drug dealer might well be suicidal, though not for long — we shall treat each separately, acknowledging root causes as a factor.
It’s also true that some approaches may have an impact in more than one area. “Red Flag” laws are presumably effective in suicide prevention as well as domestic violence, and they could also prevent spree killers, but they’re unlikely to do much against the drug trade. Gun safes and pistol locks can help reduce accidents; they’re also effective anti-theft deterrents, which makes those particular weapons unavailable for the next crime. Conversely, waiting periods may be useless against would-be mass shooters, but they do present a valuable delay for would-be suicides, and they may even be counterproductive for preventing domestic violence. No less an organization than the Rand Corporation has been reviewing studies on these proposed policies for years, and we’ll rely on their results.
Let’s break it down.
Background Checks and Waiting Periods
Waiting periods have been demonstrated as effective against suicide, if not other shooting deaths, and they cause little harm. Background checks could be mandated on any weapon with a high-capacity magazine, whether handgun or sporting rifle, and have been shown to have an impact on violent crime overall. So why don’t we have them?
Thing is, we did. Only six states have mandatory background checks on every gun purchase, which take at least three days. However, the federal government instituted one on handguns; the Brady Bill went into effect in 1993 and passed Constitutional tests, but it expired in 2014. It would be a fairly simple matter to extend the handgun waiting period to include any high-capacity weapon if Brady could be reinstituted, but there’s a legitimate obstacle to delaying every gun purchase: Self-defense sometimes can’t wait. The way around this is also fairly straightforward: Include a self-defense exception to the background check law, and require a law enforcement endorsement for that exception. (Any officer signing off would be expected to run a simple check.)
Another obstacle is private sales. The government has the authority to regulate businesses and corporations, but personal property is tougher. Dealers are required to contact the FBI’s NICS office to have them run background checks, but private individuals aren’t allowed to for privacy reasons. What’s more, all of the simple solutions we’ve come up with so far have failed; they’re either an unreasonable obstacle to ownership or a privacy violation. That means we need to create a complex solution, one that’s streamlined but reveals a minimum of information to the would-be seller. We also need to remove any potential obstacles, such as charging a fee; any reason to evade the law will make it less successful. Besides, spending a few dollars should not dissuade us; we already spend orders of magnitude more trying to prevent crimes, and this at least would be somewhat effective.
However, it must be acknowledged that over half of spree shooters and rampage killers have weapons that were purchased legally from licensed dealers long before the event in question, and many of these passed background checks. Several even aced their military or law enforcement psych exams.
“Red Flag” Laws
After Parkland, Florida adopted a “Red Flag” law that, thus far, has been used to remove firearms from the hands of several thousand people. It has passed legal challenges, and since it’s used only to create a court hearing, it meets the “Due Process” test. There is as yet little data from which to study the effectiveness of the law, but it does appear to be a reasonable next step.
The danger should be apparent to anyone familiar with the name Duncan Lemp, or his girlfriend Kasey, who was shot in bed the day before Breonna Taylor. If someone calls in a complaint and the law is too stringent, both innocent people and responding police officers will get unnecessarily killed. With a poorly crafted law, this sort of scenario might even become common, which would end up doing more damage than having no law at all. The solution to this appears straightforward: Craft the law extremely well.
Herein lies the difficulty: Since those politicians presently enamored of gun control laws tend to be profoundly ignorant about guns, it’s profouondly unlikely that they will draft good laws. However, Red Flag laws are extremely popular, and some action along these lines is inevitable. Thus, it would well behoove Republican politicians to embrace them; presumably, they would have access to the finest minds in the discipline to help them draft the best legislation, preventing the ineluctable abrogation of fundamental human rights and liberties that would otherwise be the certain result of incompetent authorship.
Gun Safes and Theft Protection
Studies are uniformly in agreement that gun safes and trigger locks prevent accidents, especially among children. They’ve also been shown to decrease suicides and to reduce the number of violent crimes committed with stolen guns — which, incidentally, is the single largest supply of guns to criminals. Without significantly broadening the “well regulated militia” clause in the Second Amendment, however, it’s impracticable to mandate them under current Federal law.
However, simply encouraging their use has been shown to be highly successful. Funds for education and advertising on this issue are well-spent; further incentive-driven mechanisms are well worth considering.
The following measures have either been found conclusively to not work, or have otherwise been determined to be impracticable. As such, anyone working in good faith toward practicable solutions should avoid them.
School Resource Officers
To prevent school shootings, just put a policeman in every school. Common sense, right? Except it doesn’t work.
There exists a massive body of data on School Resource Officers, the which position has existed since the 1950s. The only things they can be demonstrated to impact is an increase in gun homicides and student arrests for minor infractions. The one thing they reliably don’t do is prevent school shootings.
Stand Your Ground Laws
While there is reason to believe there’s some validity to the “good guy with a gun” as crime prevention, Stand Your Ground laws have been shown to not work. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, this broadens the definition of when a civilian is permitted to defend themselves in places outside the home rather than the standard expectation that they instead try to retreat.
Multiple studies have shown that all these laws do is increase the number of firearm homicides.
It’s arguable that this is, in point of fact, the actual intent of the Stand Your Ground concept: If the would-be mugger or assailant gets shot, that’s a sign the law is working as intended. Against this exists significant evidence demonstrating that these laws do not function as a crime deterrent from a statistical standpoint. Again, while they may not work en masse, it’s certain that they do deter in individual cases: Dead people don’t commit crimes.
Since the logical extension of this concept would be the creation of roving euthanasia squads to reduce street crime, we can safely discard this line of reasoning.
Ban Assault Rifles
This is the approach championed by none other than President Biden, and so in fairness it must be addressed. It is difficult to envision a more compelling vindication of the premise that data-driven solutions are superior to simple common sense.
Contrary to public perception, military-style rifles are only used in 12% of mass shootings, as mentioned earlier in this series. They are a startlingly inappropriate weapon for the purpose outside a bell tower; handguns have been shown to be far more effective. Moreover, they are easily concealed; of the would-be spree shootings prevented by bystanders, the majority involved rifles and were stopped by citizens armed with handguns.
Studies of the effectiveness of the 1994 assault weapons ban have been inconclusive at best, and tend to indicate that the only major change was a forced retooling by gun manufacturers, who scrambled to remove such features as bayonet lugs from new rifles. One of the major difficulties lay in defining the term “assault rifle”, as explained in our preceding article; this created a set of statutes broader in loopholes than enforcement. There is no reason to believe that future iterations of this law would differ from the early version.
Further, enforcement would be beyond problematic. As Senator Dick Durbin (the second-ranking Democrat) observed, “The AR-15 that was used by this individual in Uvalde, there are now 20 million of those owned by Americans across the nation, just to put it in perspective… So we have got to be realistic about what we can achieve.”
A note on the AR-15: When this weapon was first adapted by the military in the Vietnam War, one of the many complaints from the field was that the .223 round has little to no stopping power, and instead tended to pass completely through the enemy, doing little damage on its way and failing to incapacitate. The lower power and slower firing rate of civilian models change this only slightly. Since the evident alternative to a high-capacity rifle is a high-capacity handgun, it seems apparent that any effective ban applied only to rifles would actually increase death rates.
Overturn the 2nd Amendment / Ban All Guns
“The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States…”
Constitution, Article V
Without entering into a philosophical discussion with respect to the validity of the general position, or the potential effectiveness of removing weapons from the hands of the law-abiding, it is sufficient to indicate the practical barrier to ratification which renders such widespread ban proposals absurd. If simple legislation faces such massive political opposition that is problematic to push it through Congress, how much more so would a constitutional amendment?
Since this is so absurdly impracticable, it is to be presumed that any calls for total bans are hyperbole, designed more for pugnacious argument, political oratory, and fundraising than any practical purpose.
In addition to the preceding, there is a further argument to consider.
Gun-Based Solutions Are Not Enough
Gun laws may decrease gun suicides by 5% or more, but no one is arguing that guns are the primary driver of suicide. It makes no sense to consider gun laws as the primary approach to reducing suicide deaths. The same can be said of domestic violence, drug crime, and most other violent crimes.
The single largest factor in common with all of these is financial. In order to reduce deaths in all of these categories, the only reasonable approaches would be to first reduce poverty. Humane revisions of our bankruptcy laws would be a start; reducing the costs of higher education, reforming the for-profit medical and medical insurance industries, and working to increase and improve employment would be obvious next steps. In tandem with these we might even consider a form of Universal Basic Income.
Another factor to consider is the present War On Drugs, which has been found to be a driver of crime rather than its intended purpose of reducing it. The War On Drugs is over; we lost. It is well past time that we search for other approaches to our nation’s infatuation with poisoning itself.
This brings us inevitably to a final point:
We Don’t Really Care About Gun Violence
You don’t want to hear this, but it’s true. We’re not here to tell you only those truths you like.
What we as a nation tend to care about is whatever the news chooses to show us as the most recent disaster on any given day. Sometimes this is an evil man shooting up a classroom of innocent children. More often, it’s not.
In 1940, a high school principal in California, under the influence of prescription drugs, shot and killed five of his colleagues. Since then, there have been hundreds of school shootings in this country, mostly attempted suicides; the average death rate is well below one per event. If our goal were to reduce school shootings overall, we should concentrate on suicide prevention. Evidently, it’s not.
If, however, we wish to focus on mass classroom killings of elementary and high school students, there have been few enough that we can list them — and many of even these were low-casualty enough, you’ve probably never heard of them.
- Stockton, 1989
- Jonesboro, 1998
- Columbine, 1999
- Red Lake, 2005
- Nickel Mines, 2006
- Newtown, 2012
- Marysville, 2014
- Parkland, 2018
- Santa Fe, 2018
- Oxford Township, 2021
- Uvalde, 2022
The image we have in our mind is of suicidal pseudo-commando former students returning to the place they were bullied to kill themselves and others, and we see it as happening every day. In reality it doesn’t, but the images and stories are impossible to forget. It’s too common for comfort, as well it should be — the entire concept is horrific, beyond the ability of many people to fully process.
But the total number of deaths in these instances, horrible though they are, is dwarfed by the number of child suicides alone. If what we cared about was reducing gun deaths, we wouldn’t be focusing on schools or guns either one. What we really care about is reducing horrific headlines about the slaughter of innocents. As long as we aren’t confronted with the unpleasant facts on a daily basis, the American people as a whole don’t care.
And let’s face it: Nothing we’ve proposed here will eliminate these awful events.
Having said that: background checks and the associated waiting periods would probably help, especially since about half of spree killers have a suicidal ideation; Red Flag laws and increasing the number and use of gun safes could also have some small impact. A projected (if optimistic) reduction of as much as 25% certainly justifies the effort. But what about the remaining 75%?
Again, it only makes sense to consider alternatives to gun control. A campaign against school bullying would be only the first step; any impartial examination of our schools would reveal systemic problems beyond easy comprehension, and the main obstacle to addressing the majority of these is funding.
Unfortunately, our politicians are less concerned with solving problems than they are with re-election. So, for the 160-odd days between now and the midterm elections, expect to hear a lot of speeches about banning assault weapons (whatever those are), hardening schools, and so on. But if you’re looking for effective solutions supported by reason and science, you’re going to be severely disappointed.