By Robert B Young, MD
(published at The Gun Writer)
“People with guns kill people” is an apparently sensible heading for a report on “gun violence” by a professional organization that regards firearms as dangers for which availability and access should be restricted. Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy was presented in August by the American Psychological Association (APA) at its annual meeting. It rightly calls attention to the need to understand factors in development, community, culture and gender that are associated with more or less likelihood of people resorting to lethal violence. Yet it also veers far away from the APA’s expertise in psychology, and the focus on violence-by-gun invites broader questions about the role of gun use within violence overall. The authors and references are largely drawn from gun control proponents without regard to research that shows how more guns in the right hands can minimize violence.
It’s good to read that “exposure to violent media, in movies and television, is associated with increased aggressive behaviors, aggressive thoughts and feelings, increased physiological arousal, and decreased prosocial behaviors”. This is a topic the mainstream media religiously avoids, but that all parents know matters.
The crying need for better access to quality care for the mentally ill is rightly emphasized. This is a cornerstone of violence prevention among those at risk due to severe psychiatric illness. But the authors offer a much trickier recommendation when they call for expanding the class of persons prohibited from purchasing guns to include “domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes” as well as “individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others.” This sounds desirable, yet demands much more specificity to avoid abuse by false accusations and to distinguish truly threatening criminals from too broadly classified “violent” misdemeanants.
The question of prohibiting people who have been adjudicated as threats to themselves or others is also complicated, although in these cases there has been at least some due process. Most people who are dangerous have never been treated psychiatrically (and would avoid it), and very few of those get formally adjudicated (determined by a court) to be threats due to mental illness. The expectable outcome of treatment is resolution of symptoms and risk—but how to become un-adjudicated in order to resume full citizenship and exercise of one’s fundamental rights?
Campaigning to promote safe, appropriate storage of firearms is correctly urged but the APA also wants criminal penalties for gun owners who perpetrate “unsafe storage” of their firearms. This would open the door for more legal intrusion into family lives when continuing education within the firearms community is lowering accident rates year after year. The rules about how to use and keep firearms safely are inviolable among responsible gun owners.
Calling for more research to sort out the best answers to “gun violence”, as usual, ignores extensive criminology data that demonstrates the value of gun ownership. More research can add to our understanding if it is truly unprejudiced and apolitical. Unfortunately, much work is funded by organizations with biased agendas, and study design can be manipulated to favor certain results. In fact, there has been no lack of continuing research. There have been increasing numbers of articles addressing all aspects of firearm-related risks (and sometimes benefits) published over the past 17 years.
The APA advocates the popular nostrums of “licensing of handgun purchasers, background check requirements for all gun sales, and close oversight of retail gun sellers [to] reduce the diversion of guns to criminals”. This ignores the fact that about 80% of all gun sales in the United States already require a check of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database. The problem is that a great deal of presently required information is still not submitted to the NICS. Expanding this to private sales and transfers would create hardships for law-abiding gun owners and dealers while changing nothing about the opportunities for law-breakers to avoid these checks. Past experience has shown that gun purchase records very rarely contribute to crime-solving. No retail industry deals with oversight as burdensome as gun sales already must. And establishing universal background checks in the way that has been proposed would produce a database of all gun purchases, at risk of being misused someday by an unfriendly government for confiscations.
As gun control promoters do, the APA uses statistics that superficially tar the United States with extraordinary gun homicide rates compared to other countries. These are chosen so as to avoid conveying that the U.S. actually lies about mid-point in both gun homicides and homicides from all causes. We have much lower rates of overall violent crime compared to many countries with less accurate crime reporting and much more restrictive gun laws. This is also interesting given the U.S.’s highest by far rates of gun ownership, while overall violence and gun crimes here have decreased as gun ownership has increased.
The report documents that individual shootings are vastly more common that shootings of more than one person. Mass killings (of 4 or more victim) are extraordinarily rare compared to individually targeted shootings. It also mentions the FBI’s finding that “school shootings were statistically too rare to predict with accuracy.” These are definitive statements that such high profile, media-enthralling episodes of “gun violence” are not the most essential issues.
More relevant from a psychological perspective is the discussion of suicide. It’s true that about half of firearms deaths are suicide and that almost two thirds of suicides in the United States occur by gunshot. Some of those attempting suicide don’t think about it until just beforehand and then act impulsively, which makes guns at hand very dangerous. Yet in nearly all cases, there are warning signs. At least 90% of attempters have some untreated or inadequately treated psychiatric illness, which makes identifying them and taking action so important—and difficult.
Using a gun makes suicide attempts more lethal than most other methods, and limiting access to guns by potentially suicidal or violent people can help. Signs of risk include a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, adjudication as mentally ill, suicidal or violent behavior, certain criminally violent convictions and drug abuse. Yet knowledge of these factors will never eliminate most threats. Greater freedom to commit patients to treatment could improve safe outcomes for individuals and communities. Removing weapons from those at risk can be crucial. Making it possible for families and acquaintances to initiate firearms confiscation might save some lives, but raises potentials for abuse of the option, indefinite suspension of rights, and inadequate due process both in losing and seeking restoration of one’s property. And any of these interventions could diminish people’s willingness to seek needed psychiatric care, causing increased risks then.
The APA authors are fans of “Gun-Free Schools” and “Zero-Tolerance” institutional policies for anything suggestive of guns or shooting. Certainly, realistic institutional threat assessment is important. But don’t we all understand by now that “gun free” zones aren’t, unless they’re behind a law enforcement checkpoint? “Zero Tolerance” schools have punished students for the most innocuous, sometimes inadvertent references to firearms, often in violation of First Amendment free speech. At least there is recognition that discipline such as “school suspension had negative effects on students”. The APA, along with many physicians, also mistakenly believes that quizzing patients about gun ownership is relevant to health care.
Of course “assault weapon” bans are recommended, supposedly to diminish casualties from mass shootings (even though they are used in less than 2% of all shootings and “mass shootings” are a rounding error in “gun violence”). But there is, contrarily, recognition that the “effect of the [1994 10-year] ban could not be detected on total gun-related homicides.” Similarly, “gun buyback programs … have not been shown to reduce mortality.” Gun prohibitionists do seem to have increasing difficulty finding data to support their restrictive aspirations.
At least the APA doesn’t explicitly vilify gun owners. It acknowledges that “Guns are not a necessary or sufficient cause of violence and can be used legally for a variety of sanctioned activities.” Although one wonders who they think ought to “sanction” our activities, this is more respectful than is often seen in public health discussions of gun issues. Despite plenty of mistakes and predictable bias in the APA’s assumptions and interpretations, there are some signs of rationality. Could reality be starting to infiltrate the ivory tower belief that the only good gun is a dead one?