Guns: More or Less, a Polarized Issue
President Obama has announced new executive orders to increase gun control in the wake of mass shooting tragedies across America. This is an incredibly challenging and contentious issue because we are unable to agree on the nature of the problem, never mind the solution. One side says the answer is more guns, while the other says the answer is less guns. It is hard for an issue to get more polarized or intractable than that.
Many of us have a bad habit of getting our news and information from sources in the same corner of the tribalized American political landscape in which we reside. New facts and reporting only confirm our predisposed notions of reality, credit and blame. Real factual context of an issue is often unknown or willfully ignored. Without a common understanding of the basic facts of a problem and shared goals in solving it, it is impossible to make progress. So let’s start by getting some facts on the table.
It is most often reported that guns kill roughly 33,000 Americans each year, but there’s more to the story. Underneath that topline statistic are different causes of death by firearm and trends pertinent to the gun debate. More than 60% of all gun deaths are suicide. A third of all firearm killings in 2013 were homicide, 11,208 deaths. Gun homicides have actually declined sharply over the past two decades, cut roughly in half around the 1990s. However, the decrease in gun murders over the past decade has closely coincided with an increasing rate of gun suicides.
A more complete understanding of gun death statistics partially reframes but does not necessarily diminish the problem at hand. Over half of all suicides are committed with a gun, and suicide is the second most common cause of death for Americans age 15 to 34. Studies indicate two reasons that guns are particularly dangerous as a suicide method: they are more lethal and more convenient than alternative methods. And while the revelation that only a third of all firearm deaths are homicide may defy common assumptions, we can all agree that more than 10,000 people being murdered by guns each year is still too many.
With a better understanding of the situation we face and a shared goal to reduce loss of life, all sides can turn toward potential solutions and consider each one alongside odds of efficacy, inherent trade-offs and the Constitution.
Our right to bear arms is a constitutional tenet of the American character and history, individual liberty, independence and self-protection. There are also other truths that are self-evident. With the highest rate of gun ownership among developed countries (89 guns per 100 people, double that of second place Switzerland), the United States has by far the highest rate of gun murders (four times second place Switzerland). It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that more guns results in more gun deaths. Indeed, since the turn of the millennium, gun violence has killed more Americans than AIDS, illegal drug overdoses, wars and terrorism combined, roughly the same number as die in car crashes. While our character and Constitution, not to mention practical reality, make the idea of a gun-free America a fantasy, we can all agree that deaths from firearms should be reduced. And perhaps we can find mutually agreeable means of mitigating risks as we have regarding deaths on the roadways.
There are several proposals on the table worthy of sober consideration. These include more comprehensive background checks, both deeper and wider. Background checks could be deepened by including mental health records given that nearly two-thirds of gun deaths are by suicide and mental health problems are a major risk factor for suicide. Mental illness has also contributed to many of the mass shootings that have rocked the soul of America in recent years. Federal law prohibits anyone found to be a danger to self or others from buying a gun; however, studies show that many of these state records have not been reported to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Background checks are only as good as the data being checked to screen gun buyers.
Background checks could also widen to close the loopholes around gun show and online sales. By definition, loopholes are exceptions, perhaps flaws, in policies that seek to keep guns out of the wrong hands. As long as there are major loopholes in this effort, the entire purpose is fatally compromised. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 89% of Americans favored requiring the checks at gun shows and online.
It’s true that most criminals, by their nature behaving illegally, do not seek legal means of acquiring their weapons and therefore would not likely be deterred by stricter background checks. Estimates put the incidence of legally purchased guns being used to murder at under 10%. However, some of the wrong hands, particularly as it relates to suicide and mental illness, would be prevented from obtaining the means to kill by better background checks.
Another proposal, more popular with pro-gun advocates, flips the most obvious prescription on its head. This argument holds that the best way to stop bad guys with guns is to put more guns in the hands of the good guys. There is a certain practical logic to this view as many of us would have liked for a victim of the assaults in an Aurora theater or at the Christmas party in San Bernardino to stand up and eliminate the threats. However, this must be weighed against the inherent danger of additional guns on the streets.
The American public is closely divided on gun control with 51% opposing and 48% favoring stricter laws in a December CNN poll. I was encouraged to see the president discuss this emotional and contentious issue with people who disagree with him at a recent town hall meeting convened by CNN. Unfortunately, the polarizing and powerful National Rifle Association refused CNN’s invite to engage in the conversation, preferring to dig in, remain in their corner and preach to the choir instead. Perhaps one day both sides will take a step of good faith and goodwill in pursuit of our common goals.
When it comes to gun control and 2nd Amendment rights, along with all issues that threaten to polarize and cripple necessary discourse, let’s start by getting the facts straight, then identify shared goals and consider potential solutions together, respecting and balancing competing values. And at every step along the way, let’s listen first.
Pearce Godwin, Founder & President of Listen First Project