In the wake of the horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the debate about gun control in America has begun anew. It’s a debate that doesn’t seem to ever really go away. As the frequency of these types of mass shootings appears to be increasing, we seem to be talking about guns with more regularity.
While the debate has persisted, there has been little change in policy to reflect the intensity of the debate. In fact, courts have continued to move in the other direction in many places (like Washington, DC and Chicago), to make gun ownership more available, not less.
This debate over guns is fraught with assumptions on both sides. Those advocating for stricter gun control laws hold the assumption that the reason we have such terrible events like Newtown and Aurora and Virginia Tech and Columbine is because there are too many guns. Gun control advocates push for the idea that if guns are harder to get, then these types of crimes will not — or are less likely — to occur.
On the other side, gun rights advocates assume that the Second Amendment is absolute. They hold that the Constitution allows them to own guns — virtually any type of gun — with as little restriction as possible. Also, they argue that guns actual make society safer because it provides citizens with a symmetrical form of self defense against criminals who, invariably, are carrying guns, legally obtained or not.
One thing that both sides can agree on is that guns, regardless of who is possessing them or using them, are very effective and efficient means of killing someone. This fact is indisputable. It’s the reason that the military and police departments use guns as a primary weapon in combat and law enforcement. Other than large munitions, like bombs and missiles, guns do an excellent job achieving what they are designed to do — put bullets into the objects at which they are pointed.
But what about those other assumptions? Do they hold up under close scrutiny? If both sides in this debate were to put aside their assumptions and truly examine the reality of violence in American society, would they reach the same conclusions that they presently hold?
Violence. When a mass shooting like Newtown occurs, there is a widespread sense that our society is becoming — or already is — a very violent place. Mass media reinforces this perception with their tendency to amplify coverage of violent events. It’s rare to watch or read the news in any form and not see some kind of story about a violent crime. The old adage of, “If it bleeds, it leads,” seems to be as true as ever.
The reality, however, is that America is actually a less violent country now than it has been in a while. The homicide rate in America after World War II hovered around 5 homicides per 100,000 people until the late 1960′s. Then, the number spiked to 10 by 1974 and stayed above 8 until 1996. Since then, it’s dropped steadily, to about 6 by the end of the 20th century. In 2011, the number was down to 4.8 homicides per 100,000 people — fairly close to where it was just after World War II. Other violent crimes, like rape and assault, have followed this same trend.
The reasons for this decline have much to do with changes in our criminal justice system. The number of police officers increased in the mid-1990′s, largely in response to the increase in violence for that past two decades. At the same time, the prison population has increased significantly, as more prisons have been built and courts have kept criminals behind bars longer.
During this era of declining homicides and other violent crime, mass murders — the killing four or more people in a single incident, not including the killer — have remained fairly steady. Despite the media portrayals, there is not an epidemic of mass shootings. Each year, on average, there have been about 20 mass murder incidents, with about 100 total victims per year. Any murder is horrible and tragic, and while these numbers are nothing to be proud of, they certainly don’t indicate that violence, in general, or mass murders, in particular, are getting worse. Quite the opposite is true. Our society is safer now than it has been in many generations.
Guns. Whenever a mass shooting happens, guns are blamed. Just as with the assumption about the increase of violence in America, there is a parallel assumption about the increase in the number of guns. Clearly, the argument goes, this kind of violence is increasing because more people have guns. The truth, however, is different. Gun ownership is America is declining. Based on the available data, it appears that gun ownership is lower now than it has been since data on the issue began being collected.
The reasons for the decline in ownership likely vary. It might be due, in part, to stiffer gun control laws or the perception of gun control laws, which deters a person from even attempting to purchase a gun. Many states have closed so-called loopholes in laws that prevent the purchase of a gun without a background check. Another reason may be the stigma around gun ownership that has grown in recent years. Perhaps it’s become less culturally acceptable to own a firearm than it was fifty years ago. This might be a generational shift, too. There also might be changes in geography affecting this trend. As the population shifts to more urban and suburban areas, the perceived need for a weapon might decrease.
At the same time that gun ownership has declined, the rate of homicides committed using guns has dropped considerably since the 1990′s and has leveled off in the past few years. Even though fewer people own guns and the rate of violent crime overall is decreasing, gun-related violence seems to be holding steady.
This data seems to suggest that a straight line of causation cannot be drawn between guns and gun-related violence. If that was the case, then the decline in gun ownership should have meant a parallel decline in gun-related violence. That doesn’t appear to be exactly the case.
The relationship between guns and violence isn’t as cut and dry as gun control advocates would have us believe. The data doesn’t seem to support a strict causality between more guns and increased violence. The two are certainly related but in less ways than you might suspect.
There are plenty of pro-gun folks who would argue that the more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens, the fewer violent crimes that will be committed. That assertion is wildly suspect. There simply isn’t enough data to support such a conclusion. In fact, the overwhelming majority of school shootings since 1982 have involved legally purchased firearms.
However, the outlier in this debate seems to be concealed-carry. These are laws, currently on the books in 49 states (and about be 50 now that Illinois’ ban has been overruled by a judge), that allow permit holders to carry firearms in public. The requirements for these permits vary widely from state to state, which an issue of deep concern; however, concealed-carry permit holders — the most ardent gun owners — are also the safest. Those individuals who have concealed-carry permits are less likely than to commit crimes than the general population. This shouldn’t be surprising. These are people who take the law seriously enough to comply with the requirements to receive a permit. These requirements usually include strict background checks and some form of advanced training. These are people who believe in law and order. They aren’t cowboys.
The problem is that the requirements for these types of permits are so different. In some states, there is no permit required at all to carry a gun in public, like Montana, Arizona, and Alaska, among others. Meanwhile, some states require a strict litany of background checks, fingerprinting, and safety classes, and in some cases, even if there is no history of mental illness, a local sheriff has the discretion to cite any item on a person’s criminal record as a reason to deny a permit. This is the policy in Colorado.
Sometimes, though, permits are granted by states to individuals who, by all accounts, shouldn’t have one. In Florida, the requirements are relatively light. They include a background check, a brief class, and a nominal fee. This is how George Zimmerman received a concealed-carry permit in Florida, despite having a criminal record that included accusations of domestic violence, resisting arrest, and speeding.
A good first step in solving the problem of gun violence might be to increase the requirements for concealed-carry permits, not to discourage gun ownership, but rather, to encourage only the best-trained and most law-abiding citizens to apply for permission to carry their weapons in public.
Would we be safe if there were more well-trained and better-prepared citizens carrying guns? It’s tough to say for sure, but it’s clear that these are the kinds of people in whose hands guns might actually make a positive difference.
So the issue may be less about how many guns are owned in America, but rather who the people are that have access to those guns.
Mental Illness. In nearly every case of a mass murder shooting in the past thirty years, the shooter was suffering some form of mental illness. From Colin Ferguson, who killed six people on the Long Island Railroad, to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harriss at Columbine, to Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, to Anders Breivik in Norway, to James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado, the common denominator was mental illness … and the fact that they were all young men under the age of 40.
For a variety of reasons, the mental health system in America underwent significant reform during the 1960′s and 1970′s. Some of it was positive, as doctors and therapists reformed the ways in which mental illness was understood and treated. One result of this reform was the de-institutionalization of mentally ill patients. Rather than being treated in hospitals, they were released back into society, and treated at out-patient facilities, halfway houses, and other community health centers.
The problem with this approach is that its lead to millions of mentally ill patients unable to get the treatment they need because the funding for these outside programs, particularly for young adults, doesn’t exist. The days of a person being committed to a mental hospital for long-term treatment are gone. Such provisions still exist, but nowhere near the levels they did forty or fifty years ago.
This leaves a gaping hole in the health care system — a hole that many young men are falling into. Increasingly, young people are not diagnosed with mental illness, and when they are, receiving proper and consistent treatment is often out of reach.
Meanwhile, these young people subjected to an increasingly violent and ugly culture. When Klebold and Harris went on their rampage at Columbine, there was widespread debate about violent video games and music. In the end, much of that debate was dismissed in favor of blaming the guns first and the parents second. In the years since Columbine, the music, movies, and video games have gotten more violent and more realistic. Access to these diversions has gotten easier. Everyday, hundreds of thousands of boys and young men gather online to play multi-player first-person-shooter video games, simulating the kind of violence we see at places like Newtown, Aurora, and elsewhere.
What kind of effect does years of exposure to these kinds of stimuli have on the brains of mentally ill young men? Not to mention the effect of repeated exposure to hardcore pornography that is accessible online with virtually no restrictions. To not believe these are contributing factors is either ignorant, delusional, or both.
Does every young person suffering from mental illness who is exposed to video game violence pick up a gun and go on a shooting rampage? Thank God, no. But that’s not an argument that such exposure isn’t dangerous to many.
Mental illness is a major issue that needs to be debated in the wake of Newtown and other mass shootings. This is especially true when research shows that the mentally ill are equally like to have access to a gun in their home as those without psychiatric problems.
When you have a society with a widespread untreated mental illness epidemic, under-girded by increasingly violent stimuli, and easy access by the mentally ill to guns, you get to where we are today. An increasingly less violent society, with fewer people owning guns, but a steady occurrence of mass shootings that cannot be solved solely by limiting access to guns.
The hours after a school shooting aren’t the time to talk about how to fix the problem. The time for that conversation is during political campaigns, when leaders are chosen. We just finished a grueling 18-month presidential campaign, during which we heard more talk about birth control and women’s reproductive rights than we did about gun control and mental illness. Unfortunately, this illustrates the problem we have with our politicians, who would rather pander than lead.
In the weeks ahead, as the rawness of the pain of Newtown begins to soften, may we begin this conversation anew, and may it be a conversation about the real issues and the real issues, for the sake of all of us.