Published in Greenwich Time, Jan 4, 2015
The Pew Research Center reported that for the first time in over two decades, Americans believe it is more important to protect gun rights than it is to control gun ownership, by 52 to 46 percent.[i] The report received widespread coverage because it stands in stark contrast to the crisis of gun violence that claims 30,000 lives each year. But the premise of the question is flawed, as Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research, later admitted.[ii] It presents a false choice between regulating firearms and protecting Second Amendment rights.
It’s time to stop calling the efforts of the gun violence prevention movement “gun control.” Contrary to gun rights absolutists who call us “gun grabbers,” we are for reasonable regulation of firearms that keeps guns out of the hands of dangerous people. We also believe in balancing public safety against individual rights with restrictions on highly lethal weaponry such as large capacity magazines and firearms designed for military use.
Asked in a way that appropriately frames the debate, Americans support our goals in far higher proportions than they support unfettered gun ownership. In a survey conducted for Everytown for Gun Safety, 63 percent of voters believe it is more important to make it harder for dangerous or severely mentally ill people to get guns than it is to protect the right to own guns.[iii] The leading reform to achieve this is background checks for all gun sales, supported by 92 percent of voters and 92 percent of gun-owning households.[iv]
The more disturbing statistic in the Pew survey is that 57 percent of Americans believe that guns do more to protect people from crime than put their safety at risk. Given this belief, it’s easy to see why many Americans bristle at the abstract concept of constraining gun ownership.
The fallacy is that people who believe guns make us safer are dead wrong. If it were true, the U.S., with 300 million civilian-owned firearms, would be the safest country in the world. Not by a long shot. A study published in the American Journal of Medicine found that across 27 developed countries there was no significant relationship between per capita gun ownership and crime rates.[v] What is true is that higher rates of gun ownership are associated with higher rates of gun deaths, with the U.S. at the top of the list for both.[vi]
The notion that guns make us safer is simply not true, especially when it comes to guns in the home. A study by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found “there is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.”[vii] In fact, guns in the home make them more dangerous.
Guns are much more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense—up to 22 times more likely by some estimates[viii]. The toll on children and women is particularly high. According to data from the National Violent Death Reporting System, children are more likely to be killed by guns in the home than anywhere else, with four out of five deaths under age 16 occurring in the home.[ix] In domestic abuse situations the risk of homicide for women increases by 500 percent when guns are present. Over the past 25 years more intimate partner homicides have been committed with guns than with all other weapons combined.[x]
In the face of these statistics, why do so many Americans oppose stronger gun safety laws? Two reasons: many don’t realize that gun laws work and many believe our laws are stronger than they are.
A study by the Benensen Strategy Group found half of voters favor stronger enforcement of existing gun laws over new laws.[xi] But, of the 50 percent favoring stronger enforcement, nearly half falsely believe current law requires background checks for all gun purchases and that assault weapons are illegal.
With so many gun deaths, it’s not surprising that people believe gun laws don’t work. But the problem is not too many laws that aren’t enforced, but weak laws that allow dangerous people easy access to firearms. For example, there is no federal law criminalizing gun trafficking[xii].
Evidence proves that gun laws work. States with stronger gun laws have half the rate of gun deaths than states with weaker laws.[xiii] Brady background checks, even with the private seller loophole, have blocked more than 2 million purchases by felons, domestic abusers and other dangerous people.[xiv] In states with background checks for all gun purchases 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by partners.[xv]
State-level gun laws protect more than just their own residents. When Virginia limited gun purchases to one per month, the proportion of crime guns recovered in Northeastern states originating from there dropped by half in just two years.[xvi] When Colorado closed the gun show loophole to require background checks at gun shows its rank as an exporter of crime guns dropped from 17th to 32nd. [xvii]
We need to shift the discussion from gun control vs. gun rights to how reasonable gun laws make us safer. As Supreme Court Justice Scalia wrote in the Heller decision creating an individual right of gun ownership, “like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.”
[ii] Is Protecting Gun Rights Really a Growing Priority for Americans?, Mother Jones, December 19, 2014
[viii] Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home, Kellermann, Arthur L.MD, MPH, et al., Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection, and Critical Care 45 (1998): 263-67