Commentary: Two books suggest modest ideas for improved regulation of firearms
By Christopher R. Tyndall
Mass shootings, like the Nov. 5 church shooting in Texas or the concert shooting in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, seem to occur with an almost absurd level of regularity. Prior to these events, in February 2017, members of the Minnesota House of Representatives proposed legislation—HF 1669—that would require criminal background checks for all firearm transfers. Although background checks are required for any firearms purchase from a licensed dealer, a great many transactions occur outside of the scope of the law.
Could such legislation, which is intended to fill this gap, help prevent tragedies like those mentioned above? Or does it represent another misguided effort at inhibiting the rights of gun owners? For anyone frustrated and troubled by gun violence, confused by the nature of the gun-control debate and ultimately powerless to do anything to improve the situation, I recommend consulting two valuable books.
The first is public health researcher David Hemenway’s 2004 book, “Private Guns, Public Health” (University of Michigan Press). Hemenway attempts to take the debate surrounding guns and gun violence out of the emotional and sensationalistic realm of partisan politics and move it into the relatively calmer and more objective realm of public-health research. He shows us that guns represent a public-health challenge not unlike that of automobiles when they were taking root as the principal form of mass transportation in this country. Automobile manufacturers, public officials and even the general public operated under the belief that automobile deaths and injuries were caused exclusively by driver error. In other words, “automobiles don’t kill people; people kill people.”
The medical and public-health community began to see the limits of this thinking. Human error could never be entirely eliminated, but designs could be improved so that occasional error was not always fatal. Seatbelts and other safety features eventually became the norm, and traffic deaths and injuries greatly declined. Hemenway expresses confidence in his book that this same public-health approach can also help reduce gun deaths and injuries.
“Private Guns, Public Health” examines a variety of topics related to firearms as a consumer product: death and injury from guns, gun use for self-defense and to deter crime, gun manufacturing and sales practices. But the varieties of statistical data examined usually lead back to the same inevitable conclusion: The presence of guns is strongly associated with an increased risk of injury or death.
Some of the most startling statistics that Hemenway examines relate to injury and death due to gun accidents and suicide attempts with a gun. Hemenway reports the staggering figure that from 1965 to 2000, more than 60,000 Americans died in gun accidents. This is more than all of the Americans killed in all of our wars from the same period. And during this same period, more than 550,000 Americans committed suicide using firearms. These numbers suggest a monumental problem, and yet the polarizing nature of the gun debate makes us reluctant to take action to improve the situation.
Consider this: In the early 1990s there were about six fatalities per year in the U.S. to children due to the faulty design of bunk beds. The Consumer Product Protection Commission recalled 630,000 beds and created new guidelines for a safer design, which manufacturers willingly embraced. In contrast, during the same period, there was an average of about 700 children per year between the ages of 0 and 14 killed by guns, yet this caused no public outcry whatsoever, and no laws concerning guns or gun safety changed.
But don’t guns also have benefits? Haven’t some gun advocates shown that an increased number of guns in society actually leads to reductions in crime? Hemenway examines the methodologies behind such claims, and more often than not, discovers flaws that greatly distort the results. For example, he discovers sample sizes that are too small for drawing statistically significant general conclusions, or he discovers specious interpretations of general data. Rural areas do indeed have higher rates of gun ownership and lower rates of crime than urban areas. But the difference in crime rates has far more to do with varying levels of opportunity for crime than it does with gun ownership.
At the end of his book, Hemenway suggests some regulatory measures that could be implemented. None is particularly radical. Guns should have tamper-proof serial numbers. They should have safety locks so they can’t be fired by children or other unauthorized users. All gun dealers should be licensed, and all gun sales should be made by licensed dealers. There is no proof that the above measures will solve the problem of accidental gun deaths and injuries, Hemenway admits. But neither does anyone have proof that they won’t work. And that is why Hemenway believes that what we need most of all is more research. The fact of the matter is we don’t have enough information to make definitive claims on either side about the possible effects of new gun legislation. The evidence we do have, though, is fairly straightforward and consistent: More guns means higher levels of death and injury.
The second book that I would refer readers to addresses more specifically the potential effect and value of legislation like HF 1669. “Reducing Gun Violence in America” (Johns Hopkins University Press) is a collection of essays by multiple authors resulting from a conference that was put together at Johns Hopkins University in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012. The conference itself was put together quickly, but the essays included are the result of years of research.
While Hemenway’s book maps out the nature of the problem, this book attempts to evaluate possible legislative solutions. The imperfections of these solutions are freely acknowledged: Included in the volume is an essay that critically examines the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act (with its background checks and required waiting period for certain gun purchases) and shows that while it has blocked gun sales in certain instances, it hasn’t reduced gun violence. The authors speculate that its effectiveness is undermined by the fact that it only affects gun purchases made through a licensed dealer. Unfortunately, those gun purchases only account for a limited percentage of overall sales. The disturbing reality, as the authors tell us, is that “most crime guns are obtained from people who are not licensed … through transactions that are unregulated under existing federal law.”
This is what Minnesota legislators were attempting to address with their proposed legislation. The book shares specific ideas and proposals that go beyond the generic desire for “gun control.” Most of the measures are not radical, and no solution comes close to proposing a full-scale ban on firearms. The writers and researchers acknowledge that most licensed gun dealers and most gun owners behave responsibly within the limits of the law. The proposals—like reinstating the ban on “assault weapons” or expanding the categories of high-risk individuals who would be denied the right to own a gun—all attempt to limit the risks presented by guns without putting unfair burdens on responsible gun owners.
And in regard to these burdens, it is well-known that in recent years, gun advocates have effectively used the Second Amendment—despite its ambiguous wording—as a protection against any legislative efforts at firearm regulation. That issue is taken up in this book. In an essay on the potential constitutionality of any proposed gun legislation, the authors discuss the implications of the 2008 Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, which establishes a precedent for the right to have a gun in the home for “personal protection.”
Despite that decision, the authors show that in our nation, “there is a well-established historical tradition of gun regulation, which has been a prominent feature of the law since the birth of America.” Although it is largely ignored by the general public—really on both sides of the question—in discussing gun rights, the Supreme Court in the Heller decision did indeed comment on the Second Amendment’s ambiguous preamble related to a “well-regulated militia.” The court interpreted this to mean that the amendment imposes “proper discipline” on gun owners. The authors of the essay conclude that, “the Second Amendment therefore contemplates a body of citizens that is subject to whatever regulations are warranted to impose proper discipline on those qualified to keep and bear arms.” Therefore, legislation motivated by the needs of public safety that imposes some burdens, disciplines and limitations on gun ownership cannot be viewed intrinsically as unconstitutional.
None of the solutions proposed in either of these books is a panacea that will resolve the problem of gun violence instantly and universally. There will be loopholes. A few determined sociopaths will still find their way to weapons. But what if one of these proposals—like universal criminal background checks for all gun sales, something along the lines of HF 1669—was able to decrease violence by a few significant percentage points, with only a modest burden on gun owners? Wouldn’t the lives saved be worth the effort?
Christopher R. Tyndall lives in Como Park and works in health care.