Gun Control: Aiming at the Wrong Targets?


[Ed: The articles we post represent the authors’ opinions, not DRGO positions. Here are MarkPA’s thoughts about how data could be obtained and should be used to substantiate policies and laws affecting gun ownership and Second Amendment rights.]

With all the numerous gun control laws and further proposals, it strikes me that there is no clear target, except guns. If epidemiologists want to characterize “gun violence” as an epidemic, then why are they not trying to capture the “genome” (underlying causes) of the “disease”?  For every other public health challenge, this is the place to begin.  But not for gun laws.  We might wonder why.

First, the broad brush.  Deaths and injuries by gunshot are broadly classified as:

1. suicides = 2/3

2. homicides = 1/3

3. accidents = negligible

These are the gross proportions, but there is not much detailed drill-down published.  We can drill down on COVID-19 and for virtually every subject of public health inquiry.  Except for guns. 

We have a pretty good sense that gunshot suicides being mostly elderly males; females of any age rarely choose guns.  Strangely, inner-city dwellers from minority races and ethnicities don’t tend to suicide by gun.  We ought to have the detailed breakdowns of suicides by ZIP code, sex, age, occupation, marital status, military service, and importantly, method (gunshot, asphyxiation, over-dose, etc.) etc.  In what ways do gunshot suicides resemble/differ from non-gunshot suicides? 

If we understood such details we might craft more finely-tuned public policy.  For example, a waiting period for sales to youthful males might be more salient than for females.  Drugs usable for suicide might be dispensed in much smaller quantities.  We have no idea what innovative ideas might be worthwhile considering without data to support target strategies. Nor can we tell whether a sensible strategy couldn’t possibly work without clearly understanding its range of consequences.

Our heartstrings are pulled by advertisements/anecdotes of children killing themselves by gun.  Yet, we have no data.  (It can be hard to distinguish motives—accident or suicide—when children kill themselves by gunshot.) Without good data we cannot provide guidance forpublic policy or advise parents. 

Gathering this data would not be expensive.  There are 22,000 gunshot suicides per year and about as many by other means.  Most of the information is already recorded on death certificates.  Collecting, codifying and recording data on probably cause for three years and observing changes across time would be a start.  If we find “hot spots” we can make investigate further. 

For example, suppose the data confirms that large numbers of gunshot suicides are by elderly males in rural areas.  We might reasonably assume that these are associated with agricultural occupations or the shooting sports and assume long-term gun ownership.  Waiting periods would serve no useful purpose for this demographic.  If there are few young women who suicide by gunshot, we might make follow-up inquiries to see what fraction of these bought/rented/borrowed a gun shortly before they took their lives.  Some gun ranges adopt a house policy of not renting a gun to a customer who comes to the range alone.  Really detailed data about suicides could tell us which policies are pointless and which might actually save some lives without eroding general gun rights.

Homicides are the other major category.  We already have plenty of data indicating that the overwhelming majority are concentrated in inner-city precincts and are associated with criminals/gangs/drugs.  Yet, there are many more intertwined issues in these cases.  First, while we always know the object of a homicide, we often don’t know the actor.  It’s unusual that a perpetrator confesses or is convicted at trial.  Therefore, the quality of our demographic data on the killers is necessarily limited.  Nevertheless, if the demographics of suspects conforms to the demographics of confessed/convicted killers in like cases, then tabulating suspect data might be useful as well. 

Information regarding the victims is valuable.  Conventional wisdom is that battered women are often killed by gunshot.  Is this true?  How many battered women die at the hand of their significant others by gunshot vs. strangulation vs. stabbing vs. blunt-force trauma vs. overdose?  Was the perpetrator was an intimate partner, her drug-dealer, a jealous ex-? 

Victims do not always die.  What were those means— gunshot, strangulation, stabbing, blunt-force trauma, overdose?  What can the victim tell us about the motivation?  Even if the victim is not willing to name the perpetrator, nevertheless she could reveal the motivation (romantic rivalry, past-due account receivable). 

The kind of data available should be comparable to that for deaths.  There are roughly 11,000 gunshot homicides each year.  There may be another 4,000 non-gunshot homicides by comparison so, say, 15,000 homicides per year.  There may be 3 times as many gunshot batteries not resulting in death.  Police reports have a great deal of data on the victim and circumstances.  Over time, they will develop data on many perpetrators. 

How many of these perpetrators prove to be “pillars of the community?  How many were previously convicted of domestic violence, other violent crimes, drug dealing, drug/alcohol misuse?  We might discover that “Joe Six-Pack” doesn’t perpetrate as many homicides or batteries as we imagine. Mining the available information could be highly illuminating in considering criminal law and even gun laws.

The weight of the data will certainly underline illegal drug dealing and use as central issues.  Would we really want to mount a War on Guns to complement our success in the War on Drugs?  Or should we begin listening more respectfully to critics of the latter who point to how Switzerland and Portugal are using less conventional but effective approaches to drug use? 

Finally, accidents.  The total number of gunshot accidents has been plummeting in recent decades. It’s now so low that it’s approaching the X-axis, meaning that further improvement can only be minimal (and increasingly difficult).  The rate of accidents is now negligible, while during the same time the civilian inventory of arms has soared to 400 million. The number of accidents is, counterintuitively, inversely related to number of guns! The reason for this is probably that gun owners are most keenly interested in reducing accidents; after all, they and their family members are those most at risk and in greatest control of their firearms.  Perhaps unlike suicides and homicides, the interests of gun owners are entirely aligned with popular public health concerns.

There are so few accidents that we should also research non-fatal woundings.  Who dies, who is injured?  Is the problem immaturity or lack of training?  Is it carelessness?  Is it situational, at hunting venues or shooting ranges?  During gun administration (loading, cleaning, unloading)?  Revolvers or semi-autos?  Long-guns or handguns?  Even non-lethal firearm accidents may be so rare that they can’t realistically be reduced.  But when they occur, there must be illuminating data such as the user’s age, storage practices, gun-safety education or lack thereof.

If detailed data drives decisions in other areas of our public live and economy, why do we not have detailed data regarding gun mortality and morbidity?  The Centers for Disease Control gathers enormous volumes of data on numerous causes affecting public health.  Why not details about gunshot morbidity and mortality? 

Most of the useful data should be available from death certificates, police reports and hospital admission records.  Demographic data (such as sex, age, ZIP-code, occupation) should be relatively easy to collect.  Other data, such as from police reports or hospital admission records, would require more research.  Sampling techniques can make it possible to draw reliable inferences from relatively modest amounts of more expensive-to-acquire data.  Once we know where to look, drilling down to individual cases would be doable and illuminating.

We are continually reminded that “gun violence” is epidemic, seemingly second only to COVID-19.  If “gun violence” is a crisis then it’s wort understanding in detail.  With all the cries for more research, why have nationally available data like these not already been published?  Perhaps because they already know what it would show?  Researchers focused on limiting gun rights publish what they decide the public needs to know. The real data on gun violence wouldn’t support their agenda. And the CDC almost certainly knows that such is the case.

This Congress is going to debate gun control laws which will surely lead to laws that infringe on “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”, to a degree unprecedented by previous acts.  Shouldn’t we, the People, insist that what Congress does be based on facts and thorough, reliable data alongside respect for our Constitutional rights? 

Shouldn’t we call a halt before they “create a nation of lawbreakers” [Ed: Ayn Rand] and spend billions on enforcement of unconstitutional restrictions?  Before they trigger a potential civil war?

—‘MarkPA’  is trained in economics, a life-long gun owner, NRA Instructor and Massad Ayoob graduate. He is inspired by our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and holds that having the means to defend oneself and one’s community is vital to securing them.

All DRGO articles by ‘MarkPA’