In the wake of the most recent school shooting, and in the wake of any mass shooting, pundits and politicians fill the airwaves and cable TV stations with the need for greater gun control or the need for more guns. Both sides of the issue use statistics to make their point. And both sides of the issue abuse statistics to make their point.
Meanwhile, the NRA likes to point out that without guns people won't be able to defend themselves. This isn't exactly accurate; the NRA should say that without guns people won't be able to defend themselves with a gun, but there are still other means of self defense.
The NRA likes to point out that people use guns to defend themselves, and they do. In an article titled Armed Resistance to Crime: The Prevalence and Nature of Self-Defense with a Gun, the author makes the point that people use guns to defend themselves far more than official statistics reveal. However, there were a number of issues with this research described in an article titled Survey Research and Self-Defense Gun Use: An Explanation of Extreme Overestimates, which specifically noted:
It is clear, however, that its conclusions cannot be accepted as valid... The K-G survey design contains a huge overestimation bias. The authors do little to reduce the bias or to validate their findings by external measures. All checks for external validity of the Kleck-Gertz finding confirm that their estimate is highly exaggerated.
There is more to guns than people defending themselves. Their effectiveness and ease of use make guns a unique way of creating carnage. Between 1976 and 1998, using BJS statistics, we find that gun violence accounts for nearly the entire increase in overall rates of serious violence. With an increase in the availability of guns, so too was there an increase in gun homicides. With an increase in the caliber of guns, so too, was there an increase in gun lethality. With an increase in the number of bullets a gun can carry, so too was there an increase in the number of times a victim has been shot, and so too, was there an increase in the number of homicides. Criminologist Alfred Blumstein wrote:
The transition from revolvers to semiautomatic pistols as homicide weapons was closely linked to trends in handgun production. The production of revolvers fell rapidly in the 1980s, but pistol production mirrored handgun homicide rates.
Economist John Lott likes to point out that wherever there has been a gun ban we have seen crime increase. Lott has specifically made the point concerning England's 1997 gun moratorium. Unfortunately, this example is a little loose with the statistics. In some countries where an increase in gun homicides followed a gun ban, it was part of an already rising trend, as it was in England. In other cases it followed the ban. In short, there is no causal relationship; the relationship is spurious. Additionally, Lott also said that he did not accept that the US is the leader in gun homicides in the developed world. This flies in the face of the facts.
Lott has also noted that the common denominator of the recent mass shootings is that they all occurred in a gun free zone. This implication is that the shooters targeted the zones because they were gun free. This can't and won't be proven, and it is unlikely anyway. First, we know that students all over America carry guns to schools every day, so schools are not really gun free. Second, Fort Hood is a military base with lots of guns, and Virginia Tech is a university with its own police force. Third, there is more reason to believe that the recent mass shootings targeted the people at the locations because of who they were, not because of where they were. The presence or absence of a gun ban is spurious.
Different Types of Gun Violence
At the core of this issue is that we are talking about cracking down on the availability of guns to reduce school or mall shootings -- mass shootings. However, what is often proposed may not work all too well for the incident in mind. The reason for this is that not all gun violence is the same. There are different types of gun violence, just like there are different types of diseases. And just like difference types of diseases and illnesses, there are different approaches to reduce gun violence.
For example, pundits on cable TV make note that there are about 10,000 homicide shootings every year when they are discussing a school shooting. But they then wrap the two (mass shootings and individual homicides) into having one solution. The real world doesn't work like that. It would be akin to saying that there is one treatment for all public health problems, cancers, or illnesses. Clearly, this is not the case.
There are several types of gun violence including, but not necessarily limited to, the following five categories. The facts of each type of shooting are different. And to reduce each of these types of gun violence, a different approach needs to be taken.
1) Individual Shootings
The use of a gun to commit a murder is all too commonplace in the United States. There are impulse and planned homicides. The U.S. has far more gun homicide than any other developed country in the world. This is an unquestioned fact. And, with more guns, we have more homicides. We find this to be true across states; across nations; and when we have more guns, we find more homicide.
The important point of this research is that it looks at large scale trends and does not necessarily apply to high profile events such as mass shootings.
2) Mass Shootings
A mass shooting, such as the shooting of Gabby Giffords in 2011, the Aurora, Colorado shooting in 2012, the Columbine shooting in 1999, or the Newtown shooting in 2012 are all very different than a single shooting that we might see when considering a young person shot in a gang dispute. The common denominator in all these these mass shootings are young males with a history of mental illness and disturbed thought patterns. Mental illness does not cause violence but when left untreated it is a risk factor.
3) Justifiable Homicides / Self Defense
The NRA loves to make reference to data that supports their point. There is absolutely no question that guns are used by law abiding citizens to defend themselves, and there is nothing wrong with this.
However, the research that the NRA and gun rights advocates cite to make their case has been called "junk science" and it has been debunked for several methodological flaws. The main research article that says that guns are used in self defense over one million times a year includes defenses against animals, or just showing someone a gun even though there was no actual threat from another person. This research has been found to be a gross over-exaggeration. Furthermore, even if someone didn't have a gun, there would still be other means of self defense available.
4) Accidental Shootings
The statistics on accidental shooting deaths find that there are perhaps less than 1,000 per year. The NRA is right in stating that education is a good way to decrease accidental shootings. Sometimes it is a gun cleaning accident or an accidental discharge in a holster. However, too often it is a child finding an unsecured gun. Albeit, educating the child would decrease these accidents but even more important than educating the child is making sure that the gun is properly locked up in the first place. The availability of a gun dramatically increases the risks of accidental shootings.
5) Suicide with a Gun
The research on gun use in suicide is alarming. When the availability of guns increases, so too does gun related suicides. A gun makes suicide attempts more successful, and the availability of guns raises suicide rates. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes: Although most gun owners reportedly keep a firearm in their home for "protection" or "self defense," 83 percent of gun-related deaths in these homes are the result of a suicide, often by someone other than the gun owner; firearms are used in more suicides than homicides; death by firearms is the fastest growing method of suicide; and firearms account for 50 percent of all suicides.
There are a lot of statistics in this article that Second Amendment rights advocates will argue with. They should not. Being defensive in the face of facts undermines their case. The Second Amendment isn't going anywhere. Embrace the facts and work with them to keep people safe.
The Bottom Line
When you hear the pundits or politicians on TV talking about the only or the best way to reduce gun violence, ask yourself if you have heard the person talk about the different types of gun violence. Not all gun violence is the same. Going into the different ways to reduce the different types of gun violence is well beyong the scope of this article. If someone is proposing a one-size-fits-all approach to reducing gun violence, you can change the channel -- there is no such thing.
Paul Heroux is a State Representative-elect from Massachusetts. He previously worked for the Massachusetts Department of Correction and the Philadelphia Jail System, and he has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.