As one who does not own a firearm (nor intend to in the near future), gun control laws are something I rarely concern myself with. Yet, ever since the horrific Connecticut massacre, guns have been a hot topic (though I'm not naive enough to think it has rekindled the debate on gun control...it never died). Heated emotionalism takes place on both sides of the debate; a debate that remains largely unsettled in academia. In 2004, for example, "the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 253 journal articles, 99 books and 43 government publications evaluating 80 gun-control measures." Legal scholar Robert Levy explains, "[NAS r]esearchers could not identify a single regulation that reduced violent crime, suicide or accidents. A year earlier, the Center for Disease Control reported on ammunition bans, restrictions on acquisition, waiting periods, registration, licensing, child access prevention and zero tolerance laws. CDC's conclusion: There was no conclusive evidence that the laws reduced gun violence." But as the CDC study noted, "insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness should not be interpreted as evidence of ineffectiveness" (emphasis mine). Is it possible that there may be more to gun violence than simply gun ownership or gun bans? In a recent WSJ op-ed, David Kopel of Denver University draws attention to the amount of media exposure mass killers receive and the potential for the "copycat effect." He especially notes the need to institutionalize the violently mentally ill and the decline in mental-health treatment over the years. He also demonstrates the ignorance that is often prevalent in gun control debates by pointing out that the AR-15 used by the Newtown killer and available to civilians is--despite media claims--not an assault rifle or machine gun (which have been severely restricted since the National Firearm Act of 1934): "What some people call "assault weapons" function like every other normal firearm—they fire only one bullet each time the trigger is pressed. Unlike fully automatics (machine guns), they do not fire continuously as long as the trigger is held. They are "semi-automatic" because they eject the empty shell case and load the next round into the firing chamber...[This includes] the best-selling rifle today, the AR-15, the model used in the Newtown shooting. Some of these guns look like machine guns, but they do not function like machine guns." Finally, quick-fix policies like "pretend gun-free zones" do little in promoting a competent, safe environment. As Kopel puts it, "Real gun-free zones are a wonderful idea, but they are only real if they are created by metal detectors backed up by armed guards. Pretend gun-free zones, where law-abiding adults (who pass a fingerprint-based background check and a safety training class) are still disarmed, are magnets for evildoers who know they will be able to murder at will with little threat of being fired upon."
Tragedies like Newtown can make it seem as if mass shootings are happening more and more. However, the evidence shows that mass shootings are in fact not on the rise. Criminologist James Alan Fox notes that the "the immediacy and pervasiveness of media coverage...creates the impression" that mass shootings are becoming more frequent. His own research has found no real increase in mass shootings since 1980. The U.S. is a rather violent country, but its violence has been in decline the past few decades (along with gun ownership, I might add) and is approaching historic lows. Harvard's Steven Pinker has written at book-length arguing for the historical decline of violence worldwide. Despite some recent claims, public support for gun control is not particularly high, with only modest change in the public's view on gun control following shootings (sometimes none at all). Perhaps surprisingly, gun sales tend to go up after mass shootings, likely due to fear for one's safety or of potential oncoming restrictions. "Today, the number of concealed-carry permits is the highest it’s ever been, at 8 million, and the homicide rate is the lowest it’s been in four decades—less than half what it was 20 years ago," writes Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. He further explains, "There is no proof to support the idea that concealed-carry permit holders create more violence in society than would otherwise occur; they may, in fact, reduce it. According to Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America, permit holders in the U.S. commit crimes at a rate lower than that of the general population."
What about countries like Japan, which has had a rather successful prohibition of guns? Culture especially plays a major role in this situation, with America being "a gun culture since the beginning" according to Kopel. "We have gun rights enshrined in our Constitution. There are now as many guns as people in the United States...Whereas the Japanese, based on experience, trust their own government to protect them from criminals at all times, Americans, also based on their own experience, do not. Self-reliance is a core virtue in America. The Newtown murders were perpetrated in one of the strictest gun control states in America, which has banned so-called “assault weapons” since 1993 and has imposed strict handgun licensing for decades before that." A "near-complete gun prohibition...is a proven success in Japan and a guaranteed failure in the United States." How does the culture (one whose traditions view suicide as noble) that allows for this type of prohibition affect other aspects of life? "The Japanese suicide rate is double that in the U.S. When you combine homicide and suicide rates, Japanese are more likely to meet a premature violent death than are Americans. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Japanese readily acceded to an aggressive and genocidal military dictatorship, partly because the government held a monopoly of force." Gun control is certainly not unknown to America's founding. "The Founding Fathers instituted gun laws so intrusive that, were they running for office today, the NRA would not endorse them," says UCLA's Adam Winkler. "While they did not care to completely disarm the citizenry, the founding generation denied gun ownership to many people: not only slaves and free blacks, but law-abiding white men who refused to swear loyalty to the Revolution." In fact, a 1792 law (not the last "individual mandate" to be passed by the Founders) required "every eligible man to purchase a military-style gun and ammunition for his service in the citizen militia. Such men had to report for frequent musters—where their guns would be inspected and, yes, registered on public rolls." Many gun control laws were originated in order to oppress African-Americans, from the post-Civil War South to the Civil Rights movement. It might be worth noting that Martin Luther King, Jr. applied for a permit after the bombing of his house (he was denied and instead had armed supporters guard his home).
Much of the gun violence has other roots, including the abysmal war on drugs. Given its failure as well the failure of early 20th-century Prohibition, I highly doubt a ban on guns will fare any better. However, as my friend Chris Smith recently penned on Facebook,
Addressing gun violence through gun control is like treating bronchitis with throat lozenges. There are deeper sicknesses in our society, of which gun violence is merely a symptom: endemic poverty, a plague of mental illness, a glorification of violence, a collapse of community, a lack of civic responsibility.
The problem is rooted not so much in the availability of guns as it is in the way we view guns and, even more fundamentally, the way we view each other. The Second Amendment connected gun ownership with service in a well-regulated militia. Guns were supposed to be a tool for public service, a part of one's sense of civic responsibility. Instead, they've become a toy to be used for sport or a means of protection against neighbors we've never bothered to get to know and aren't sure we can trust not to kill us.
To really address the problem of gun violence, we're going to need to change the culture of gun ownership, address mental illness before it leads to violence, and restore Americans' sense of community and duty. Some of this can be done by government...But government can really only point us in the right direction and turn us loose. The real work of restoring America's communities has to be done by regular folks.
We have to recognize that "purely instrumental arguments lack the power to persuade because they ignore what really motivates individuals to favor or oppose gun control--namely, their cultural worldviews...For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers." While there are certainly gun nuts who seem to embrace a love of death (according to at least one journalist), most are normal, responsible citizens (many of which are my family, friends, and co-workers). Seeking to understand gun culture (as well as the opposition to it) will aid in the restoration of community that Chris rightfully longs for.
1. The following is merely a sample of the contradicting research regarding gun control and crime: John R. Lott, Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); John R. Lott, Jr., "The Facts About Assault Weapons and Crime," The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 17, 2013 - update); Richard Florida, "The Geography of Gun Deaths," The Atlantic (Jan. 13, 2011); Ian Ayres, John J. Donohue III, "More Guns, Less Crime Fails Again: The Latest Evidence from 1977-2006," Econ Journal Watch 6:2 (May 2009); Don B. Kates, Gary Mauser, "Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?: A Review of International and Some Domestic Evidence," Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy 30:2 (Spring 2007); Ian Ayres, John J. Donohue III, "Shooting Down the "More Guns, Less Crime" Hypothesis," Stanford Law Review 55:4 (2003); Carlisle E. Moody, John R. Lott, Jr., Thomas B. Marvell, Paul R. Zimmerman, "Trust But Verify: Lessons for Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy," College of William & Mary Working Paper (2012); Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009), Ch. 5-6; Gary A. Mauser, "The Failed Experiment: Gun Control and Public Safety in Canada, Australia, England and Wales," Public Policy Sources 71 (Fraser Institute, Nov. 2003); Harvard Injury Control Research Center on Homicide. Update: Draft of the new CDC report, which had some interesting finds given it was prompted by the current White House administration. See also Abhay Aneja, John J. Donohue III, Alexandria Zhang, "The Impact of Right to Carry Laws and the NRC Report: The Latest Lessons for the Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy," Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 461 (Sept. 2014); John R. Lott, Jr., "What a Balancing Test Will Show For Right-to-Carry Laws," Maryland Law Review 71:4 (2012); Carlisle E. Moody, Thomas B. Marvell, Paul R. Zimmerman, Fasil Alemante, "The Impact of Right-to-Carry Laws on Crime: An Exercise in Replication," Review of Economics & Finance 4 (Feb. 2014); Mark Gius, "An Examination of the Effects of Concealed Weapons Laws and Assault Weapons Bans on State-Level Murder Rates," Applied Economics Letters 21:4 (2014); Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy With Evidence and Analysis, ed. Daniel W. Webster, Jon S. Vernick (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013).
2. Notice Kopel's use of the word "evildoer." Despite discussions regarding Lanza's mental health, I'm unaware of anything solid that confirms neurological or psychological abnormalities (I do not consider social awkwardness substantial). His behavior showed planning and control and was obviously not out of touch with reality. Some have seen the media response as the "medicalisation of deviant behavior." His mother was a single mom and a doomsday prepper: two facts that could have a major impact on Lanza. Sociologist Randall Collins provides some useful information on mass rampage killers.
3. See also Grant Duwe, "A Circle of Distortion: The Social Construction of Mass Murder in the United States," Western Criminology Review 6:1 (2005); Gary Kleck, "Mass Shootings in Schools: The Worst Possible Case for Gun Control," American Behavioral Scientist 52:10 (June 2009); Nick Gillespie, "4 Awful Reactions to Sandy Hook School Shooting - And Thoughts on a Better Response," Reason.com (Dec. 15, 2012).
4. See also Derek Thompson, "Do Americans Want More or Less Gun Control? Both, Actually," The Atlantic (Dec. 14, 2012).
5. On gun owners and self-defense, see Gary Kleck, Marc Gertz, "Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun," Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 86:1 (1995); Clayton E. Cramer, David Burnett, "Tough Targets: When Criminals Face Armed Resistance From Citizens," Cato Institute White Paper (February 2, 2012). The Cato Institute also has a useful map that tracks various incidents of armed self-defense. Even though The Atlantic's James Fallows pitted the recent school knife attack in China to Newtown's shooting in order to paint a "no comparison" scenario, it may be worth looking at the multiple Chinese school attacks over the years (weapons included a knife, ax, box cutter, and cleaver) when reviewing the merits of armed self-defense. Update: A new, informative, but one-sided Salon article attacks the "Hitler gun control lie" that is often used in gun control debates. For the other side, see Stephen P. Halbrook, "Nazism, the Second Amendment, and the NRA: A Reply to Professor Harcourt," Texas Review of Law and Politics 113 (2006); David B. Kopel, "Armed Resistance to the Holocaust," Journal on Firearms and Public Policy 19 (2007). The 2008 film Defiance was about the Bielski partisans and their resistance.
6. See also David B. Kopel, "How the British Gun Control Program Precipitated the American Revolution," Charleston Law Review 6:2 (2012); Kopel, "The Religious Roots of the American Revolution and the Right to Keep and Bear Arms," Journal on Firearms and Public Policy 17 (2005).
7. See Jeffrey A. Miron, "Violence, Guns, and Drugs: A Cross-Country Analysis," Journal of Law and Economics 44:2 (Oct. 2001); Miron, "Violence and the U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol," American Law and Economics Review 1:1 (1999); Gary S. Becker, Kevin M. Murphy, "Have We Lost the War on Drugs?" The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 4, 2013).
8. I cannot help, but laugh at the irony of Hollywood gun control advocates who seem to miss the "glorification of violence" part. Update: Research shows that exposure to violent content in the media can increase hostile behavior, though one study argues that violent films attract would-be aggressors and thus keep them away from alcohol-fueled, violence-spurring atmospheres. Yet, if groups like the NRA want to blame the media (which, according to the University of Michigan, they have a case) perhaps they shouldn't glorify it either.
9. Donald Braman, Dan M. Kahan, "Overcoming the Fear of Guns, the Fear of Gun Control, and the Fear of Cultural Politics: Constructing a Better Gun Debate," Emory Law Journal 55:4 (2006): 570.
10. For example, see the thoughtful blog posts of neuroscientist Sam Harris and BYU biology professor Steven Peck.