This is the final instalment in this five-part series. This time, we offer some conclusions and our recommendations. But first, we need a recap and some facts.
So how can we wrap this all up? Let’s do a brief recap:
- The USA leads the world in gun ownership and deaths by guns (other than a very few outliers with ongoing conflicts and/or other severe problems)
- The substantial majority (over 60% of gun deaths) are suicides
- Police kill more people than police are killed by others –at least by 20 to 1 and probably more
- Of those killed by police, 25% are mentally ill or are disproportionately non-white (most often black, who are 7 times more likely than whites to be killed while unarmed)
- Police are seldom charged in shootings and far less often actually convicted of a criminal offense for shooting even an unarmed person
- Mass shooting (theaters, malls, schools) and “active shooter” (disgruntled employees, etc.) incidents are becoming more common but are still a tiny percentage of all gun deaths
- Mentally disturbed individuals are NOT responsible for most gun deaths, including mass shootings or active shooter incidents
- Domestic violence accounts for a significant, but not a substantial percentage of deaths. People living in homes with guns were three times more likely than those in homes without to lose lives by guns
- Gang-related violence amounts to as much as 11-12% of gun deaths but it those deaths are overwhelmingly gang members killing members of other gangs and seldom related to drugs
- States with more guns had more gun deaths. States with stronger gun controls had less deaths
- Terrorism isn’t a big part of the issue, newsworthy as it may be [since this wasn’t covered in earlier posts, we will do a brief explanation near the end of this final instalment].
So, does America need more gun control or more guns? More or better mental health treatment? More efforts to reduce gang-violence? Fewer guns in homes or more guns in homes? More private guns in malls, restaurants, theaters or even bars for self-defense? Better police training and more community policing? We will discuss below what we think should be done and also what we think could be done given the political and fiscal realities of America today. First let’s look at the facts, to consider whether they might inform the debate over what to do.
- Suicide is far and away the biggest cause of gun deaths. A gun is much quicker and more effective than other means to end one’s life. An episode of depression that causes someone to take pills can be remedied up to a few hours later; a gunshot cannot.
- Semiautomatic weapons can easily be converted to automatic by owner/users. Mass shooters often use semiautomatic weapons and easily obtainable high-capacity magazines that allow them to kill more people more quickly.
- Gang-members are probably not buying guns from legal dealers or any source for which background checks are required; more likely they are black market weapons.
- Predictability of violent behavior among mentally disturbed individuals is difficult at best. Legal constraints on involuntary diagnosis or disclosure of illness is stringent (meaning prohibiting them from legally acquiring guns is unlikely).
- The gun show loophole for background checks and for private sales means many weapon purchases are not covered by any legal checks on purchasers.
- What is shown on news media (mass shootings, shootings by or of police, active shooting incidents and the like) are NOT the major source of shooting deaths; determining gun control efforts or other actions to deal with them is NOT, therefore, where the most time, energy and money should be spent.
Here’s what we think should be done politically/legally with qualifiers on whether it could be done:
- Reinstate the automatic weapons ban—i.e. the sale, trade or possession of such weapons with substantial added penalties for use in a crime. Rationale: Hunters don’t need them. Militia (or extremist) groups want them but shouldn’t have them. Recreational shooters could rent and shoot them at licensed gun ranges if they simply must fire them for fun. Politically, this will be difficult at best in the current pro-gun Congress with its fear of and financial support from the NRA and their friends.
- Prohibit sale to the public of high–capacity magazines—if you have to reload, you can’t kill as many people. Again, difficult in the current political climate
- Prohibit sale to the public of armor–piercing rounds—they have been banned for handguns since 1986 but the bullets that are used in AR-15s can be used in handguns. The Obama administration caved to NRA and gun organizations to pull an ATF proposal to do this this year. So that tells you the political reality. Armor-piercing rounds can penetrate police body armor. Since deer and other game don’t wear body armor, it’s difficult to see how such bullets are needed for sportsmen.
- Destroy every weapon seized in a crime once forensics and trials are completed—evidence rooms are supposed to be secure, but they aren’t always. Some percentage of the guns on the street come from ones stolen from police or sold by corrupt officers. This should be doable. Goes along with turn-in programs periodically run in some jurisdictions. Otherwise, the same guns are used in crime after crime.
- Better secure federal, state and local armories—some percentage of the guns on the street come from theft or corrupt sales from military bases, national guard armories, police departments, etc. Could cost a little money on the security side, but since some of the weapons are used against law enforcement, at least they should support it. Prosecute more harshly those employed there who sell such weapons from inventory.
- Reduce militarization of state and local law enforcement—current law allows the federal government (especially the military) to offer surplus equipment at little or no cost to locals in ostensible support of anti-terrorism, drug-enforcement and other programs. Since there really are few genuine terrorist incidents, the main use of armored vehicles, military grade weapons and the like is in urban protest situations (see Ferguson, Missouri for example). This exacerbates problems between law enforcement and the local populace. Urban and suburban enclaves in America are NOT similar to war zones around the world; military weapons are NOT appropriate here.
- Provide more and better mental health services—including PTSD treatment for veterans, in conjunction with better shelters. Although mentally disturbed people are not responsible for most shootings, they are responsible for some and they need the help. Following the deinstitutionalization movement of the 70s and 80s, the community mental health services that were supposed to be available have become less so after budget cuts. A majority of homeless people suffer from mental illness; likewise incarcerated people.
The Second Amendment and gun-ownership proponents appear to have the upper hand when it comes to preventing political efforts to reduce the number of guns or their use in America, even those guns for which there is no demonstrable or sensible need in hunting, recreation or self-defense. So what remains is culture change. Think of this as an adjunct, if not instead of, continuing the battle between gun control proponents and opponents. What do we mean by culture change?
Culture change means shifting away from polarizing political debate on gun control toward valuing human lives. Culture change means shifting away from telling others what they can’t do with guns to what they can do—hunt, target or recreational shooting and protecting themselves sensibly. Culture change means shifting away from personal preference for being able to do whatever one wants, wherever and whenever one wants, with deadly weapons of all sorts under the guise of 2nd Amendment rights. Such changes can only happen with a de-escalation of rhetoric and an uncommon rise in common sense.
Addendum—Terrorism is scary but isn’t really worth the money, worry and time we spend on it
“Nine facts about terrorism in the United States since 9/11,” from the Washington Post, September 11, 2013—offers a comprehensive analysis of terrorism in America before and after 9/11/2001. Most notably, the odds of an American dying from a terrorist attack during the last five years (2008-2013) is 1 in 20 million (including in the U.S. or while overseas). That’s considerably smaller than dying from a lightning strike or many other more extreme but uncommon causes of death.
From the New York Times, June 24, 2015—Homegrown Extremists Tied to Deadlier Toll Than Jihadists in U.S. Since 9/11 “In the 14 years since Al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have regularly executed smaller lethal assaults in the United States, explaining their motives in online manifestoes or social media rants.
But the breakdown of extremist ideologies behind those attacks may come as a surprise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, including the recent mass killing in Charleston, S.C., compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.”