Like most people I know, I’ve been angry about guns in America for a while. I’ve long wanted to distill my thinking and summarize several years of what I’ve read about this issue. The latest mass murder in Parkland, Florida finally compelled me to action.
And the reason I’ve wanted to write about guns in America — despite the many professional commentaries and Facebook posts available — is that I think most liberals are thinking incorrectly about this issue. Republican politicians are not inclined to use preemptive government action to prevent gun deaths, and they internally justify that opposition by pointing out just how ignorant most liberals are about guns. (See 1:50 of this clip of last week’s CNN town hall on guns, for just one example.) If liberals were to better educate ourselves, we could take action that would actually save lives and undermine Republicans’ natural reluctance to pass gun safety legislation.
To that end, here are things I believe to be empirically true about guns and gun deaths:
An assault weapons ban is a relatively useless law, and every time it is brought up — as among the first policies typically proposed by liberals — we reveal our own ignorance.
The reason an assault weapons ban is useless is pretty simple. Automatic weapons, where you can pull the trigger and continually fire bullets, are essentially banned in America. It’s possible to acquire them under some extremely tight restrictions, but outside of that, the only guns one can reasonably acquire in this country are semi-automatic, meaning that you have to pull the trigger for each bullet you fire.
Because you have to pull the trigger each time you fire, there is no real difference between the lethality of a handgun containing a 10-bullet magazine and a fancy Call of Duty-looking “assault rifle” containing a 10-bullet magazine. The latter may look cooler and better satisfy certain psychological desires, but it doesn’t make you more deadly in any meaningful way. For instance, the June 2015 Charleston church shooter killed nine people with a pistol that could hold 13 rounds, while the June 2013 Santa Monica shooter killed just five people with a .223 semi-automatic rifle, similar to the famous AR-15. [Ed. Note: I’ve revised my thinking slightly on this paragraph and published a more thorough discussion of rifles vs. handguns here.]
A visible exception to this is the October 2017 Las Vegas shooter, whose use of a “bump stock” effectively turned a semi-automatic gun into an automatic. A bump stock essentially uses the recoil of the gun to trigger the firing of another round, so a shooter can hold the trigger down and fire continuously. Bump stocks should be illegal, and this is so obvious that even someone as intellectually dishonest as Rep. Trey “Benghazi” Gowdy admits as much. The Trump administration has already taken steps towards banning bump stocks through regulation.
On top of the relative uselessness of banning assault weapons when other semi-automatic guns are still legal, it’s also incredibly difficult to define what exactly constitutes an assault weapon. Does it become most assault-y when you add another handle to it? What about when you paint it a bitchin’ camo color?
Liberals should stop proposing and supporting assault weapons bans. They are a waste of time and energy and would do very little if passed.
As I understand it, the most robust finding in gun research is that the more guns a particular geography contains, the more likely people are to die violently in that geography. This is true at both the national and state levels.
Here’s a chart of gun deaths per 100,000 people plotted against guns owned per 100 people:
And here’s a similar chart but at the state level:
You don’t have to have a graduate degree in statistics to see that these correlations are pretty fucking strong. I’m far less likely to die from a gun living in California than I would be in North Carolina or Louisiana, even though there are presumably way more “good guys with guns” in the latter states.
Many gun laws in the U.S. are legitimately under- or un-enforced.
Here are some current federal laws:
- It’s illegal to possess a firearm after being convicted of domestic violence, including misdemeanors
- If you sell guns repeatedly for profit, even not as a formal business, you need a license
- Buying a gun from a licensed gun dealer requires a background check
- Anyone who buys two or more handguns in a week is automatically flagged and reported to the federal government and local law enforcement
- Felons are prohibited from owning guns
- Anyone who has been committed to a mental institution is prohibited from owning guns
- You must be at least 21 to purchase a handgun at a gun store; you must be 18 to purchase a rifle or a shotgun
- If you try to buy a gun as a felon or fugitive, you’ve committed a federal crime, which is identified when you are rejected by the background check
- Purchasing a gun for someone who is otherwise prohibited from buying one (aka “straw purchasing”) is illegal
However, a lot of these existing laws are poorly enforced. Tens of thousands of felons or fugitives attempt to buy guns each year and are not prosecuted. Straw purchasers are under-prosecuted. Federal background check databases are incomplete, and federal agencies routinely fuck up and allow people to buy guns who shouldn’t.
That said, there are still loopholes one could drive a truck through.
If you buy a gun from a “private seller” — intended to be a friend or family member but often an unlicensed dealer — you don’t need a background check (link, link, link). If your background check is flagged for further review, the FBI only has three days to manually review your case, and if they don’t get to it or can’t acquire the proper documentation in time, then it’s up to the gun dealer to decide whether to sell to you (guess what they tend to do). The bump stocks described above effectively allow you to build an automatic rifle and are currently legal.
But in fairness to gun rights advocates, many of the most famous mass shootings of the last few years wouldn’t have been prevented by additional gun laws. Marco Rubio made such a claim in 2015, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column deemed it to be true.
So what do with all of this information? Everything for me comes back to those graphs on gun ownership vs. gun deaths. In places with readily accessible guns, suicidal people are more likely to successfully kill themselves; deranged individuals have more opportunities to steal firearms from friends or family in order to commit crimes; illegal gun trafficking is harder to discover; and people are more likely to resort to lethal force in the heat of the moment. If we can lower the numbers of guns floating around society, we can proportionally lower the number of people who lose their lives to gun violence. The idea that good guys with guns will prevent enough crimes to outweigh all of the above is plainly contradicted by the correlational evidence.
(Side note: If you’re apt to shout “correlation does not equal causation” here, I would counter that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The evidence we can see would be consistent with a causal relationship between gun ownership and gun deaths, and other explanations are not very convincing. Unfortunately, gun deaths are not something that lend themselves to randomized control trials very easily.)
To get more specific, here are the big themes I see in any new policies:
- Enforce the fuck out of existing laws and increase funding for enforcement. The federal background check system is widely seen to be under-resourced, so allocate more money to it. Lots of state and federal agencies routinely screw up their reporting to the national database that has background checks run against it; fix that shit. The ATF turns a blind eye to a lot of “private sellers” who are really just unlicensed gun dealers; better fund the ATF so they crack down. I’m sure there are all sorts of technical and operational details to sort out here, but it’s worth the effort to do so.
- Close the least contentious of these loopholes at the national level and the more contentious ones at the state level. There’s a consensus about bump stocks. That’s an easy one to close. But we should also give the FBI more time to deal with flagged cases — no one’s 2nd Amendment rights are truly at risk if they have to wait a week or two in occasional cases like this — instead of giving up after three days. The “private seller” loophole is something I’m sure Republicans will fight tooth and nail on, so make this a priority at the state level rather than the federal level.
- Make gun ownership at least as rigorous as car ownership. I don’t know all the right policies, but licensing, tracking, required insurance, etc. seem pretty reasonable. Guns accidentally injure or kill more than 7,000 children each year, and suicides and homicides kill more 15–24 year-olds than car accidents. It’s pretty damn reasonable to say gun owners should be required to carry insurance to compensate the victims of accidents. Again, Republicans will kick and scream that this is an overreaction, so handle this shit in blue states where they won’t have power.
- Pass laws allowing “gun violence restraining orders.” These would allow people to report individuals who have access to guns and show signs of intending to commit violence. Various mechanisms allow for due process of the gun owner, and the restraining orders can be extended as needed. Such orders could’ve allowed concerned individuals to act upon signs shown by the Parkland killer, and some conservatives are open to the idea.
- Experiment with gun buyback programs. In the late 1990s, after a massacre that killed 35 people, Australia conducted a buyback of about 650,000 guns, and murder and suicide rates plunged in the following years. My gut is that these really do make a difference when they achieve enough scale, and we should study this in more depth to be sure. Reducing the number of guns floating around society will make all of us safer.
- Study gun violence as a public health problem, much like car accidents. Currently, the Center for Disease Control is effectively prohibited from studying gun violence, even though it’s a major cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. Nicholas Kristof writes convincingly on this. And this intriguing Politico piece suggests copying the anti-tobacco “Truth” campaign which dramatically reduced teenage smoking rates. What if people actually realized that the presence of a gun in their home makes a member of their family more likely to die, not less?
I know that in the short-to-medium term, the Republican Party will fight most of the above tooth and nail. So be it. Pass the very basic things at the federal level — bump stock bans, better enforcement, etc. — and use deep blue states as models for how to solve this problem. We have an entire generation of teenagers and millennials who have grown up doing active shooter drills in schools, and something tells me they will care less about unlimited 2nd Amendment rights than their parents. Once these new generations are in power, we may see progress nationwide — sadly, no doubt at the cost of thousands of American children’s lives in the meantime.