Gun Violence Summit: We’re Not More Violent, Just More Deadly

The state of the universe.
Jan. 15 2013 2:40 PM

Gun Violence Summit: What Do the Experts Say?

Despite the NRA’s best efforts, researchers have some decent data on gun deaths.

A trash bin full of handguns collected during the LAPD Gun Buyback Program.
A trash bin of handguns collected during the LAPD Gun Buyback Program in December 2012.

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images

The headquarters of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry’s trade association, is 3.2 miles, a seven-minute drive, from Sandy Hook Elementary School.

After last month’s massacre, all the pictures of NSSF executives had been taken down from the organization’s website, said Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the UC-Davis Medical Center.

“I suspect they were taken down because they were involved. This was their neighborhood elementary school. Their kids went there.” Their kids may even have been in the building during the rampage, he said. “Everyone in the industry knows the people at NSSF. Every executive in that industry was not that many degrees of separation from Sandy Hook.”

Maybe this would be a good time to ask them to help, Wintemute suggested to an auditorium full of gun violence researchers. They met this week at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at the Summit on Reducing Gun Violence in America, to discuss what we actually know and don’t know about gun violence and to propose some solutions to one of America’s greatest public health threats.

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The eponymous Bloomberg was there—Michael, the onetime-Republican mayor of New York City, a graduate of Johns Hopkins and the university’s biggest donor since, well, Johns Hopkins. So was Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland. Both men have been on the front line of the gun control debate; both men this week proposed sweeping laws that would put what they say are rational limits on gun ownership.

The setting, Baltimore, the locale for The Wire, was fitting. The emergency room around the corner specializes in gunshot wounds, and the neighborhood around the medical center may be more dangerous than Baghdad on Saturday nights.

Several people in the audience, including uniformed police and others not in uniform, were packing heat. Security was tight.

No speaker at the conference suggested confiscating guns, except guns owned by people who are ineligible to own guns by law: criminals, the insane, people involved in nasty domestic violence disputes. Even limiting ammunition didn’t get much time. Most of the discussions were about interrupting the flow of weapons to people who might use them to do evil, who was to blame for getting them the guns, and who, after all, should be allowed to own guns.

Thanks to legislation pushed in Washington and the state capitals by the National Rifle Association over the years, there aren’t very many gun violence experts. And the data scientists have gathered through the years are not a great help. Most of the results are ambiguous, and the studies are retrospective—going back after the fact to look at possible predictors of gun violence and the best ways to prevent it—which is not the preferred way to prove anything in science.

One of the reasons results are limited is the ban by the government’s two largest research institutions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, on funding research that could “advocate or promote gun control.”

Thanks to Congress, the CDC spends $100,000 on gun research out of a budget of $6 billion, Bloomberg said. The NIH spends less than $1 million out of a budget of $31 billion. It spends more researching headaches.

Nonetheless, university researchers, mostly privately funded, have gathered some data to work with.

In 1994, Congress voted to ban assault weapons and, more important, magazines that held more than 10 bullets. The idea, said Christopher Koper of George Mason University, was less to reduce the number of shootings than to reduce the number of people shot. It is the magazines that make these guns so deadly.

Neither bans worked very well because of the loopholes Congress put into the law, including grandfather clauses for magazines already ordered. The magazines continued to flow in from overseas by the millions. Additionally, those guns considered assault weapons were used in only about 2 percent of crimes, Koper said. The threat from them compared to other guns appears to be exaggerated.

There are signs in the statistics that had the law been in effect longer, it might have made a difference, but Congress let the ban expire in 2004.

Philip Cook of Duke University said the Brady Act, passed in 1994 after President Reagan was shot, probably hasn’t worked very well either. The law, which prohibits gun sales to certain people, is hamstrung by an inefficient and ineffective reporting system and an incomplete database—much of which is by design of either Congress or state Legislatures.

Agencies are not sharing information. States, in part due to privacy laws, are not reporting mental health records. There are both technical and financial problems with fully implementing current restrictions.

The mentally ill, people with criminal records, and criminals with mental problems are still buying guns, said Linda Frisman of the University of Connecticut. In most places, no one comes to take away guns from people who are prohibited from having them.

Contrary to popular opinion, gun shows sell only a small percentage of the guns that wind up used in crimes. Most guns used in crimes (80 percent) are bought on the private market, and many are sold by federally licensed dealers. Surveys of dealers have found that a disturbing number (20 percent) admit they’d sell guns to people prohibited from buying a weapon, and Congress has blocked efforts to stamp out the illegal sales.

“We have a lot of laws that protect licensed gun dealers from inspections, license revocations, prosecution, lawsuits and even general embarrassment by hiding the data connected to different gun dealers,” said Daniel Webster of Hopkins. “Some gun dealers sell far, far more guns that wind up in the hands of criminals than other licensed dealers.”

One percent of gun dealers are responsible for half the guns used in crimes, said Jon Vernick, also of Hopkins. Yet Congress has limited inspections by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to one a year, and ATF is so underfunded that many dealers won’t see an inspection in 17 years.

Maybe people who own guns should be licensed, Vernick said. Every state has a requirement that cosmetologists are licensed, he pointed out, but only 17 states require gun licenses.

“An array of complementary actions have been proposed that make it fairly difficult even for a malevolent industry—which I do not think we have; we have essentially an amoral enterprise maximizing profits and minimizing liability—to make it difficult to thrive in legal commerce,” Wintemute said. There are options.

All is not gloom, however.

America is not a particularly violent country, according to Matthew Miller of the Harvard School of Public Health. The rate of violent crimes falls right in the middle of the rates in other high-income nations. American kids are not more likely to get into fights at school, and Americans are not more likely to be mentally ill than people in comparable countries.

“What we do have is guns. Especially handguns. And we have more homicides,” Miller said. “Our firearm homicide rate is an order of magnitude higher than in these other countries. Our rates of homicides with non-gun mechanisms—knives, bats, whatever—is pretty much right where they are in other high income countries.”

And guns make all the difference, Miller said. “We’re not more violent, but when we are violent, we kill.”

Joel Shurkin is a freelance writer in Baltimore and the author of nine nooks on science and science history. He has taught journalism at Stanford, the Univeristy of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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