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Reducing gun violence in the U.S.

Video from the NRA press conference last Friday.

Last week, the NRA finally responded to the Newtown shootings, and unsurprisingly they blamed everything in the world but guns for the tragedy:

In a defiant, sometimes even petulant tone, NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre blamed gun-free school zones, America’s “refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill,” a “declining willingness to prosecute dangerous criminals, “the mass media,” “slasher films,” music videos, and “violent video games” for gun violence. There were even a couple of bizarre references to how “another hurricane” could lead to “a national nightmare of violence and victimization.”

Meanwhile, the two solutions LaPierre offers to prevent another tragedy are (1) creating a national database of people with mental illness and (2) placing an armed police officer in each of America’s 140,000 schools. In other words, the NRA’s solution to gun violence is… more people with guns.

The NRA’s suggestions would do little to prevent rampage shootings, and almost nothing to address the “normal” gun violence that claims the lives of eight children every day. Here’s why.  

Why a mental illness database alone won’t stop mass shootings

Obviously, we don’t want people suffering from certain mental illnesses to possess firearms, but as Dr. Richard Friedman explains in a fantastic article for the New York Times, limiting our focus to mental illness is misguided.

He points out that only about 4% of violence in the U.S. can be attributed to people with mental illness, only certain psychiatric disorders are linked to an increased risk of violence, and drug and alcohol abuse is a far better predictor of violence. While people with mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have twice the likelihood of committing violent acts, drug and alcohol abusers with no mental disorder are nearly seven times as likely.

Also, even psychiatric professionals have trouble  predicting who will become violent:

Jeffrey Swanson, a professor of psychiatry at Duke University and a leading expert in the epidemiology of violence, said in an e-mail, “Can we reliably predict violence?  ‘No’ is the short answer. Psychiatrists, using clinical judgment, are not much better than chance at predicting which individual patients will do something violent and which will not.”

It would be even harder to predict a mass shooting, Dr. Swanson said, “You can profile the perpetrators after the fact and you’ll get a description of troubled young men, which also matches the description of thousands of other troubled young men who would never do something like this.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should not try to prevent the violently mentally ill from acquiring guns. But as Dr. Friedman writes:

All the focus on the small number of people with mental illness who are violent serves to make us feel safer by displacing and limiting the threat of violence to a small, well-defined group. But the sad and frightening truth is that the vast majority of homicides are carried out by outwardly normal people in the grip of all too ordinary human aggression to whom we provide nearly unfettered access to deadly force.

Why armed guards in schools is a bad idea

In his call for placing an armed guard in every school in America, LaPierre argues that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun.”

David Osher, director of the human and social development program at the American Institutes for Research, who advised the Cleveland district on safety, disagrees:

“In theory what the N.R.A. is saying is we want to put someone in so that if somebody breaks in, we’ll shoot him down and everything will be fine and the only person that will be shot is the person breaking in,” he said. “In reality, the problem is you might shoot someone who isn’t in fact breaking in or you might shoot somebody else — a student or a visitor or a teacher or other adult who is doing something else that is inappropriate that is perceived by that person as being threatening.”

As the Times points out, even trained New York City police officers shot and injured nine bystanders in August in their pursuit of a gunman outside the Empire State Building.

Meanwhile, the schools that were the site of the most notorious school shootings in recent years did have armed guards. LaPierre ignores the fact that Columbine High School had an armed police officer and Virginia Tech had an armed police force that included a SWAT team– the shooter managed to kill 32 people before these officers got to him.

The Washington Post has more info on why armed guards in schools is not a great idea here.

Beyond mass shootings

In the press conference, the NRA completely ignored the appallingly high levels of gun violence we see on a”normal” day in this country. Pediatrician and public health professor Aaron Carroll writes:

One of the things I do as a pediatrician is “anticipatory guidance.” We ask questions about issues that have not yet occurred but might occur in the future. A lot of anticipatory guidance focuses on injury prevention. We might ask about bike helmets, or swimming, or fire alarms in the house. I even ask about guns in the home.

I don’t ask this question because I’m eager to lecture patients or parents on the morality of owning guns, or the rights of individuals under the Second Amendment. I’m asking because I’m trying to prevent injury or death. The No. 3 killer of children age 10-14 is suicide; the fourth is homicide. The No. 2 killer of children age 15-19 is homicide; No. 3 is suicide.

I have been trained to ask parents if they have a gun in the home. If they do, I ask how it’s stored. I strongly recommend that they keep it unloaded, locked up, and that they store the bullets separately. I do this because guns are part of almost 85% of homicides and more than 45% of suicides in kids 5 to 19 years old. This doesn’t even account for injuries not resulting in death.

Yet recent laws backed by the NRA have attempted to stop pediatricians from doing even this.

More guns means more homicide

Here’s the research. (For a much longer discussion, check out FactCheck.org.

By the way, since 1997, researchers have fought an uphill battle to get funding for studies looking at whether easy access to firearms mitigates or amplifies gun violence. Thank the NRA for that too:

In 1996, pro-gun members of Congress mounted an all-out effort to eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although they failed to defund the center, the House of Representatives removed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget—precisely the amount the agency had spent on firearm injury research the previous year. Funding was restored in joint conference committee, but the money was earmarked for traumatic brain injury. The effect was sharply reduced support for firearm injury research.

To ensure that the CDC and its grantees got the message, the following language was added to the final appropriation: “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.”

Precisely what was or was not permitted under the clause was unclear. But no federal employee was willing to risk his or her career or the agency’s funding to find out.

Oh, and the NRA is still lobbying to prevent basic research on firearms and safety– even in the Affordable Care Act:

The “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights” section (page 19 in this PDF) says the health law’s wellness programs can’t require participants to give information about guns in the house. It also keeps the Department of Health and Human Services from collecting data on gun use and stops insurance companies from denying coverage or raising premiums on members because of gun use.

More effective ways to reduce gun violence

The good news is that if we’re serious about preventing gun deaths there are plenty of things we could do:

  • Reinstate an assault weapons ban, and include military-style assault weapons, like the one used in the Newtown shootings;
  • Ban high capacity magazines;
  • Close the gun-show loophole, which exempts buyers who purchase firearms from unlicensed sellers, often at gun shows, from going through a background check;
  • Increase waiting periods; and
  • Increase public health funding to programs like CureViolence, that have had success reducing gun violence.

Not only are these proposals supported by the majority of the American public, but many American gun owners support them as well. Hopefully the NRA is listening.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • John Nagle December 30, 2012, 12:33 pm

    Very informative, especially the NRA evisceration of purely research efforts to establish facts and statistics and the NRA inspired ban on insurance companies using gun ownership information to set rates. I am not surprised by this information, but even though I have had a long standing desire to ban handguns, I had not known this in detail. Thanks for assembling the information.

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