Rena Grasso: A ‘Liberal’ Gun Owner’s Search for a Cure
Thursday, March 07, 2013
Moreover, Americans are divided on what to do, except to strengthen NICS, with which 90% of Americans including 72% of NRA members, agree. These numbers will probably pressure Congress to improve the NCIS, despite NRA opposition.
Also despite there being little evidence of its effectiveness! True, Obama reported the NCIS denied 1,800 persons guns last year. Meaning? “Ah, 1,800 potential gun abusers stopped.” However, one can’t prove even one of those was prevented from perpetrating violence. Moreover, research -not reported- reveals that 96% of those 1,800 were subsequently cleared for purchase. The first problem is methodological: one can’t determine the cause for what hasn’t happened; secondly, this example illustrates the misleading data that frequently emanates in the mass media.
My intent is not to bash Obama, but rather to highlight a problem to finding effective solutions to gun violence. Our gift of reason needs sound information and data to chew and digest. Instead, the media issues fragmented, misleading info, often tainted by bias, both liberal and right wing. Finally, the subject of this article, solid information and definitive evidence is non-existent, as I’ve discovered.
Because this is a charged subject, I plead I am on this journey of inquiry with an open mind. True, I voted for Democrats. But I own a handgun for self-protection. Alienating everyone, I’m hoping for a fair reading and welcome questions.
Some data we can reasonably trust:
Of those 32,163 fatalities, two-thirds or 20,000+ are suicides; 11,000 are homicides; and 900 accidents or mishaps. We know approximately 300,000 guns are privately owned. Adding population differences, per 100,000 persons (US, 3.6); ( France, 3); (Germany, 1.1); ( Italy, 1.3); ( Australia, 1.06); ( United Kingdom, .25), the chart dramatizes the US numbers. Clearly the US dominates in rate as well as numbers of gun violence and the high rate of private gun possession suggests the conclusion of the recent Harvard University interpretation: “More guns = more gun violence.” Thus: restrict guns = eliminate gun violence.
The simplicity is seductive yet problematic because the Harvard equation fails the test of science. It doesn’t fit Switzerland with the 3rd highest gun ownership and one of the lowest rates of gun violence, giving some creditability to the NRA’s mantra “it’s not guns but people.”
Conversely, Japan does support the equation. It recognizes no right to guns: gun ownership is strictly limited. Gun deaths are barely measurable; in 2008, 11 gun homicides in a population of 128 million.
Contrasting Switzerland and Japan illustrates the limitation in the seemingly strong causal relationship. But pro-control advocates further point to Australia‘s before/after experience. My research doesn’t support that claim: In 1996, after a decade of mass shootings that took 112 victims, the country was traumatized by a rampage in Port Arthur that claimed 32 lives. In just 12 days, Australia issued tough gun laws. Handguns are now strictly regulated, semi-automatics banned, and long waiting periods control the few permits allowed. Government buy-backs supplemented the regulations. Results? Since enactment, zero deaths from mass shootings.
But how about gun violence excluding mass murder? One study reported a “positive effect of decreasing firearm deaths overall…that in the five years prior to the controls (1991-1995), there were 2,781 fatalities. In the five years following (1997-2001) there were 1,781, representing a 35% decrease in suicides…and deaths by firearms and robberies at gunpoint have plummeted.”
Superficial reading stops at the 35% and ‘decrease’, ‘positive’, ‘plummeting’, but a little arithmetic significantly qualifies our interpretation. A 35% decrease in suicide is nearly the total before/after, and that gun homicides have “plummeted” therefore lacks any empirical substantiation.
Indeed, five years after the gun ban, the Australian Bureau of Criminology reported no correlation between gun control and the use of firearms in violent crime. Similarly, our own Brookings Institution, in a 2003 study, found homicides “continued a modest decline” since 1997 and concluded that the impact of Australia’s National Firearms Agreement was “relatively small.”
Also in 2003, The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that "there is insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws or combination of laws reviewed on violent outcomes." The New England Journal of Medicine went further, arguing that fewer restrictions on handguns will result in increasing numbers of injuries and deaths.
Decreasing violence in both Australia and the US over the past twenty years also qualifies the impact of its control policy. The Australian Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reports between 1995 and 2007, Australia saw a 31.9 % decrease, and America, without a gun ban, decreased 31.7%.
A spokesman for the US pro-control Brady Group, however, claimed otherwise, stating that while violence had decreased in the US, gun violence had not. To support this counterclaim, the group’s website lists 12,179 (33 daily) murdered in 2010. However that number (12,179) was taken from CDC’s 2008 database. That same database in 2010 records 11,078 (30 daily) homicides by gun. The CDC data also shows that gun homicides have declined each year from 2007, from 12,791 (2006), even as the population has grown. In fact, the homicide rate in 2010 (3.6 per 100,000), contrary to the Brady group’s assertions, is the lowest since 1981.
Other agencies record even smaller numbers. The FBI’s 2011 Uniform Crime Report reports 8,583 firearm homicides (24 daily) in 2010. And Catherine Barber at the Harvard School of Public Health tells us that the CDC’s data (above) may well be compromised. One, it includes “injuries inflicted by another person with intent to injure or kill,” that is, the numbers include injuries not necessarily deaths. Second, they are supposed to include accidents in the data they give the CDC. Finally, the CDC includes “justifiable homicides” even though by definition these are not murders.
The upshot, according to Barber, is that the CDC data, more reliable than the FBI’s, nonetheless, overstates the US murder statistics by several hundred. Hence, the real number is somewhere between 24-30 per day and definitely not the 33 claimed by the Brady group.
My intent is not to discredit the Brady group; gun advocates hold similarly unsubstantiated positions, propped up by soft “evidence.” DC, they claim, suffers the highest gun violence rate in the US despite its strict gun control, conveniently overlooking Hawaii’s strict regulations and its low gun violence rate.
The National Research Council of the National Academies summarizes the critical takeaway:
“Because of the limitations of existing data and methods, (we cannot) credibly demonstrate a causal relationship between the ownership of firearms and the causes and prevention of criminal violence or suicide.”
First, the issues are complex; research is challenging. Secondly, the drought of solid evidence we suffer is political. In 1996, NRA influenced Congress to choke off funding for gun-related research. In 2003, NRA influenced prohibiting the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms from tracking information on gun sellers whose guns are seized in crimes, and preventing doctors from gathering data on the patients’ gun ownership.
The upshot? As regards handguns, used in the vast majority of gun fatalities, we have little ammunition to defend strict gun control (which could be the real solution!), and none to expect that a beefed up NCIS (most likely to result from this crisis) will save a single innocent soul. Thus, of Obama’s 23 proposals to make us safer from gun violence, and the least discussed, his directive that the CDC re-initiate research into gun violence may in the long run be the most significant, provided it’s accompanied with funding adequate to the complexity of the subject.
Rena Grasso, is an independent, freelance writer from Worcester, MA.
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