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20 June, 2024
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Op-ed: America has more guns than any other country

After yet another deadly school shooting in Texas yesterday, Nicholas Kristof talks writes about how America can reduce shootings

Source: The New York Times

by Nicholas Kristof

America has been shaken — once again — by mass shootings. On May 14, a gunman killed 10 people in a supermarket in Buffalo. On Tuesday, at least 19 children and two adults were killed in Uvalde, Texas. It was the deadliest shooting at an elementary school since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary.

We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them — and limit access to them — so as to reduce the death toll they cause.

This essay originally ran in 2017, after a shooter killed 26 people in a Texas church. But the issue is still tragically relevant and will remain so until America tightens its gun safety policies.

America has more guns than any other country

The first step is to understand the scale of the challenge America faces: The U.S. has more than 300 million guns — roughly one for every citizen — and stands out as well for its gun death rates. At the other extreme, Japan has less than one gun per 100 people, and typically fewer than 10 gun deaths a year in the entire country.

We have a model for regulating guns: automobiles

Gun enthusiasts often protest: Cars kill about as many people as guns, and we don’t ban them! No, but automobiles are actually a model for the public health approach I’m suggesting.

We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them — and limit access to them — so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven to less than one-seventh of what it was in 1946.

The liberal approach is ineffective.  Use a public health approach instead.

Frankly, liberal opposition to guns has often been ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive. The 10-year ban on assault weapons accomplished little, partly because definitions were about cosmetic features like bayonet mounts (and partly because even before the ban, such guns were used in only 2 percent of crimes).

The left sometimes focuses on “gun control,” which scares off gun owners and leads to more gun sales. A better framing is “gun safety” or “reducing gun violence,” and using auto safety as a model—constant efforts to make the products safer and to limit access by people who are most likely to misuse them.

If someone steals my iPhone, it’s useless, and the same should be true of guns. Gun manufacturers made child-proof guns back in the 19th century (before dropping them), and it’s time to advance that technology today. Some combination of smart guns and safe storage would also reduce the number of firearms stolen in the U.S. each year, now about 200,000, and available to criminals.

We also need to figure out whether gun buybacks, often conducted by police departments, are cost-effective and help reduce violence. And we can experiment more with anti-gang initiatives, such as Cure Violence, which have a good record in reducing shootings.

Fewer guns = fewer deaths

It is true that guns are occasionally used to stop violence. But contrary to what the National Rifle Association suggests, this is rare. One study by the Violence Policy Center found that in 2012 there were 259 justifiable homicides by a private citizen using a firearm.

Lax laws too often make it easy not only for good guys to get guns but also for bad guys to get guns. The evidence is overwhelming that overall more guns and more relaxed gun laws lead to more violent deaths and injuries. One study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that a gun in the house was associated with an increased risk of a gun death, particularly by suicide but also apparently by homicide.

In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas tweeted that he was “embarrassed” that his state was ranked second (behind California) in requests to buy new guns, albeit still with one million requests. “Let’s pick up the pace Texans,” he wrote.

Abbott apparently believes, along with the N.R.A., that more guns make a society safer, but statistics dispute that.

Mass shootings are not the main cause of loss of life

Critics will say that the kind of measures I cite wouldn’t prevent many shootings. The 2017 shooting in Las Vegas, for example, might not have been prevented by any of the suggestions I make.

That’s true, and there’s no magic wand available. Yet remember that although it is mass shootings that get our attention, they are not the main cause of loss of life. Much more typical is a friend who shoots another, a husband who kills his wife — or, most common of all, a man who kills himself. Skeptics will say that if people want to kill themselves, there’s nothing we can do. In fact, it turns out that if you make suicide a bit more difficult, suicide rates drop.

Tightening gun laws lowered firearm homicide rates

For skeptics who think that gun laws don’t make a difference, consider what happened in two states, Missouri and Connecticut. In 1995, Connecticut tightened licensing laws, while in 2007 Missouri eased gun laws.

The upshot? After tightening gun laws, firearm homicide rates dropped 40 percent in Connecticut. And after Missouri eased gun laws, gun homicide rates rose 25 percent.

One of the lessons of gun research is that we often focus just on firearms themselves, when it may be more productive to focus on who gets access to them. A car or gun is usually safe in the hands of a 45-year-old woman with no criminal record, but may be dangerous when used by a 19-year-old felon with a history of alcohol offenses or domestic violence protection orders.

Yet our laws have often focused more on weapons themselves (such as the assault weapons ban) rather than on access. In many places, there is more rigorous screening of people who want to adopt dogs than of people who want to purchase firearms.

In these two states, the laws affected access, and although there’s some indication that other factors were also involved in Connecticut (and correlations don’t prove causation), the outcomes are worth pondering.

There is a shocking lack of research on guns

There’s simply a scandalous lack of research on gun violence, largely because the N.R.A. is extremely hostile to such research and Congress rolls over. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did try to research gun violence, Congress responded by cutting its funding.

The right type of training could go a long way

One approach that could reduce the abuse of guns is better training. As a 13-year-old farm boy in Oregon, I attended a N.R.A. gun safety class (which came with a one-year membership to the N.R.A., making me an N.R.A. alum who despises what that organization has become). These classes can be very useful and audits found that more than 80 percent cover such matters as checking the gun to see if it’s loaded, keeping one’s finger off the trigger until ready to fire and being certain of the target.

Yet the audits also suggest that trainers are more likely to advocate for the N.R.A. or for carrying guns than for, say, safe storage. This is a missed opportunity, for all classes should cover the risks of guns and alcohol, the risks of abuse with suicide and domestic violence, the need for safe storage, and so on. 

A way forward: On some issues, majorities agree

It may sometimes seem hopeless to make progress on gun violence, especially with the N.R.A. seemingly holding Congress hostage. But I’m more optimistic.

Look, we all agree on some kinds of curbs on guns. Nobody believes that people should be able to drive a tank down Main Street, or have an anti-aircraft gun in the backyard. I’ve been to parts of northern Yemen where one could actually buy a tank or an anti-aircraft gun, as well as fully automatic weapons — and that area’s now embroiled in a civil war — but fortunately, in America, we have agreed to ban those kinds of weaponry.

So the question isn’t whether we will restrict firearms, but where to draw the line and precisely which ones to restrict.

Looking ahead, I’m optimistic that there can be progress at the state level, and some of the necessary research funding will come from private foundations. Maybe some police departments will put in orders for smart guns to help create a market.

But the real impetus for change will come because the public favors it. In particular, note that 93 percent of people even in gun households favor universal background checks for gun purchases.

This is the blunt, damning truth: The latest shooting was 100 percent predictable.

After each such incident, we mourn the deaths and sympathize with the victims, but we do nothing fundamental to reduce our vulnerability.

Some of you will protest that the immediate aftermath of a shooting is too soon to talk about guns, or that it is disrespectful to the dead to use such a tragedy to score political points. Yet more Americans have died from gun violence, including suicides, since 1970 (about 1.4 million) than in all the wars in American history going back to the Revolutionary War (about 1.3 million). And it’s not just gang members: In a typical year, more pre-schoolers are shot dead in America (about 75) than police officers are.

Yes, making America safer will be hard: There are no perfect solutions. The Second Amendment is one constraint, and so is our polarized political system and the power of the gun lobby. It’s unclear how effective some of my suggestions will be, and in any case, this will be a long, uncertain, uphill process.

But automobiles are a reminder that we can chip away at a large problem through a public health approach: Just as auto safety improvements have left us far better off, it seems plausible to some gun policy experts that a sensible, politically feasible set of public health steps could over time reduce firearm deaths in America by one-third — or more than 10,000 lives saved each year.

So let’s not just shed tears for the dead, give somber speeches and lower flags. Let’s get started and save lives.

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