Maybe this time is different
Sam Kamin is the Vicente Sederberg Professor of Marijuana Law and Policy at the University of Denver. He has taught at the Sturm College of Law at DU since 1999. Kamin has become one of the nation’s leading experts on the regulation of marijuana; in 2012 he was appointed to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s task force to implement legal recreational marijuana in Colorado and to the ACLU of California’s blue ribbon panel to study marijuana legalization.
Although the nation understandably recoils from senseless mass killings each time they occur, the horrors often pass quickly from the public consciousness. It appears that this time may be different, however. Led by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the country is engaged in sustained discussion of gun policy for the first time in a long while.
As we have that debate, however, it is important to avoid the trap of working to solve only the latest gun problem. Much of the debate post-Florida focused on limiting the sales of so-called assault-style rifles, raising the minimum age to purchase certain weapons, and arming teachers against future assaults.
However, if we step back and examine the facts underlying gun violence in America, we might think very differently about what’s wrong and how to fix it.
Suicide before everything else
While much has been written about the uniquely American homicide rate, the biggest impact guns make in this country is with respect to suicide. Suicides by gun outnumber homicides by gun in this country by nearly two to one. In a 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report on the latest data available (from 2014), there were more than 21,000 firearm suicides in the United States, which accounted for almost exactly half of all suicides nationwide. Three times as many Americans commit suicide with a gun every day as were killed at the Parkland, Florida, high school last month.
A large part of the reason that guns account for so many suicides in this country is that guns are far more lethal than other means of attempting suicide. A small percentage of suicide attempts by other means are successful, while nearly all suicide attempts by gun lead to death. Thus, keeping guns out of the hands of those likely to commit suicide makes a suicide attempt far less deadly. Given that more than 90 percent of those who survive a suicide attempt do not ultimately commit suicide, keeping guns away from suicidal individuals can truly save lives.
And doing so is more achievable than one might initially think. The Means Matter project at the Harvard School of Public Health has been working with some success to educate gun sellers, owners, and their families about how to counsel and, when necessary, temporarily remove the gun of a person in crisis.
Homicide in America
Turning to homicides, it’s worth noting that mass killings — however we define them – make up only a small percentage of the killings that take place in this country each year. An FBI report on 2015 homicides showed that killings involving just a single victim made up more than 85 percent of all murders and that those involving a single attacker and multiple victims — the prototypical mass shooting — made up just 6 percent of all killings.
Thus, solutions that focus exclusively on preventing mass killings will miss the overwhelming majority of killings (to say nothing of suicides). If the primary lesson we take away from the shooting in Florida is that we have to make schools (or workplaces, or movie theaters) safer, we are badly misplacing our attention.
Rather, attention should focus on who gains access to guns. Federal law requires background checks for any gun purchases made through federally licensed firearms dealers, but the enforcement of these laws is clearly insufficient. For example, in 2016 the FBI issued more than 4,000 orders to retrieve guns from purchasers who ought not to have received authorization to purchase them.
Perhaps more fundamentally, federal law applies only to licensed dealers; private sales are exempt from the background check requirement and provide an opportunity for those who could not pass a background check to obtain weapons. Tightening these laws should be a priority.
The AR-15 is a good place to start, but...
It is certainly easy to understand why the AR-15 has drawn the ire of those fed up with school shootings. It has been the weapon of choice in Las Vegas, Orlando, and now Parkland. Stepping back, however, it becomes clear that rifles of all kinds, including the AR-15 and similar assault-style weapons, account for only a tiny fraction of all gun homicides.
For example, between 2012 and 2016 more than 20 times as many Americans were killed with handguns than were killed with all kinds of rifles. Even among mass killings, a handgun is more likely to be the weapon of choice than a rifle; a Mother Jones database of mass killings between 1982 and 2012 indicated that more than two-thirds of mass killers had a semi-automatic handgun while only one in four had a rifle of any kind.
None of this is to say that the efforts of the Parkland students and others who recently have been energized on the issue of gun law reform are misguided. Rather, my point is merely that the problem of gun control is both broad and deep in this country, and that good data can inform policy regarding where to focus our efforts.
This is why it is so distressing that the Department of Justice recently curtailed its reporting of national crime data. The federal government’s role in law enforcement is necessarily limited, but one place it can show leadership is through collecting and publishing data about crime victimization in the United States. Without this leadership, sensible policymaking becomes that much more difficult.
This opinion editorial first published in The Hill on March 24, 2018.