“If someone wants a gun, they’ll get a gun.”
This is a claim that gun control advocates often hear when they call for stronger laws to prevent gun violence. The argument goes that because it would be possible to circumvent most restrictions on gun purchases, the laws themselves would be pointless.
In Michigan this week, however, a relatively non-controversial federal firearms law appears to have prevented a shooting at an airport. The law worked as intended ― in the process exposing the weakness of the “criminals don’t follow laws” argument that opponents of gun control frequently employ.
Amor Ftouhi, a 51-year-old citizen of Canada and Tunisia, walked into Flint’s Bishop International Airport on Wednesday and allegedly stabbed a police officer. The officer is now in stable condition, Ftouhi is in custody, and the incident is being investigated as an act of terrorism.
In the days before the attack, Ftouhi tried to purchase a gun. The sale was denied because Ftouhi is not a U.S. citizen. Instead of spending the extra time, effort and money to get a gun illegally, he bought a knife, which he allegedly then used to injure a single person before being subdued.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Ftouhi had been able to obtain a gun ― and with more than 300 million firearms in civilian hands and plenty of ways to buy them illegally through private sales or the black market, he probably could have done exactly that. But the outcome in this case is a reminder that just because someone can get a gun doesn’t mean they will.
For those who view gun violence as a public health issue, this basic equation helps explain the effectiveness of many gun restrictions.
“The fundamental law of economics and psychology is that when you make things harder to do and to get, fewer people do them,” David Hemenway, a professor at Harvard School of Public Health, told HuffPost.
“After the Oklahoma City bombing [in 1995], we made it a lot harder to get the ingredients for those enormous bombs, so fewer people could get them,” Hemenway said. “It doesn’t mean that nobody does, but it means that when we had the Boston Marathon bombing, they weren’t able to use as high-intensity explosives, so many fewer people died than you might have expected.”
The 2013 Boston Marathon attackers detonated a pair of pressure cooker bombs at the race’s finish line, killing three people and injuring hundreds of others.
Gun laws keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous individuals on a daily basis, but it’s hard to point to clear-cut examples of these laws’ effectiveness. Premeditated instances of violence, in which perpetrators are dead set on getting a gun and inflicting as many casualties as possible, are not the norm. What generally happens is that gun laws force criminals to make calculated decisions about how much they’re willing to pay, or risk, to get access to an illegal firearm, according to Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
“Is it completely impossible that they could get a gun? Well, of course not,” Webster told HuffPost. “But it’s really about how easy and with what degree of risk, and if they’re willing to incur it. All the data suggests that some significant share of people do care about that cost and risk, and they behave accordingly.”
But it usually doesn’t make headlines when a gun law works as intended. The high-profile incidents are the ones where people manage to bypass restrictions and inflict carnage.
“On an incredibly regular basis, the public sees people doing bad things with guns, and they virtually never see something in their news feed that says, ‘Breaking news, dangerous person does not get a gun and does not shoot somebody,’” Webster said. “It’s not something we can observe directly.”
All of this has made people “wired to be skeptical” that it’s possible for gun laws to prevent gun violence, Webster added.
But a large body of research has shown that strong gun laws do correlate with lower levels of gun violence ― even if the results only appear slowly over time and the effects of specific laws are hard to pinpoint.
“Any individual law, it’s much harder to say it has an effect, because it depends on what all of the other laws are and how well they’re enforced,” Hemenway said.
Gun restrictions in Massachusetts or Chicago, for example, would likely be more effective if the surrounding areas didn’t have relatively weak gun laws, which make it easier for legally purchased firearms to be used in an illegal context.
Of course, part of the reason many Americans doubt the effectiveness of gun laws is because the government has actively tried to make that information unavailable. For over two decades, Congress has blocked dedicated federal funding for research on the health effects of gun violence, largely forcing academics to take matters into their own hands.
“One of the big problems in the gun area is we don’t have as good data as we should have, and we haven’t had very much money for research,” Hemenway said. “So we don’t have nearly as many research articles that are enough to be convincing on very many issues.”
But even if this longstanding trend were to be reversed ― which seems unlikely under President Donald Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress ― Hemenway isn’t sure a stronger factual argument would necessarily persuade everyone that gun laws work.
“What I’ve figured out in life oftentimes is that if people want to believe something, they’ll believe it no matter what the evidence shows,” he said. “And you’re just trying to get the people in the middle to believe.”