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Saving Lives from Gun Violence
We know how to cut the death toll from firearms, albeit imperfectly. We just lack the will.
What we lack in trying to reduce gun deaths in America isn’t solutions. As I’ve repeatedly argued over the years, there are many steps that are imperfect but could still reduce the death significantly. In a new essay for The New York Times, I outline some of those steps forward. I also did this podcast interview about gun policy for The Times.
We also don’t lack resources. The steps needed aren’t particularly expensive.
What we lack is political will, and that’s in part because of our polarized political landscape and a macho N.R.A.-backed culture that celebrates firearms without acknowledging the downsides. We saw that with a tweet from Texas governor Greg Abbott when he was running for governor in 2015, urging Texans to acquire more guns:
Or consider a recent post from Daniel Defense, the company that made the gun believed to have been used in the Texas school shooting. Before that attack, it displayed a photo of a small child with an assault weapon.
Likewise, I saw this quote in The Times from Senator Tommy Tuberville, an Alabama Republican: “Guns are not the problem, OK? People are the problem.” But that’s an empty talking point. Of course, guns don’t spontaneously kill people, and of course people are a problem, but if the same young man in Texas were living in another country then he wouldn’t have had two assault rifles. He might have had a club, or a knife, and he might indeed have killed a number of children — but probably not as many as he managed to slaughter with a modern firearm made for war. There’s a reason we sent guns to Ukrainian troops rather than knives.
There are a few factoids about gun violence in America that I’ve cited in column after column to try to shake people up:
—The United States now has more guns than people. Nobody really knows, but an educated guess is that we have about 400 million guns, with the number growing significantly. Last year, another 18 million guns were sold in the United States. When guns are so widespread, outcomes change. Instead of taking pills, someone who is suicidal shoots himself; pill suicides often fail, but gun suicides mostly succeed. Brutish men in other countries put their wives or partners in hospitals; in America they send them to their graves.
—Since 1975, more Americans have died in gun violence (including suicides, murders and accidents) than died in all the wars in American history, going back to 1776. And the number of annual gun deaths is now rising, exceeding 45,000 a year.
—As we see with school shootings, many of the victims are utterly innocent and often are very young. In a typical year, more American preschoolers (ages 0-4) die from guns than police officers do. And teenagers in the United States are 82 times more likely to be shot dead than teenagers in our peer countries.
These figures seem incredibly depressing, I realize. But don’t give up all hope! I do think that there’s a path forward, but it’ll be difficult and won’t accomplish all we would like. Still, it would make us somewhat safer, and that’s better than the path we’re on — which is propelling us toward rising numbers of gun deaths.
The path I recommend is the public health approach, modeled on our approach to learning to live with other dangerous products — cars, ladders, tobacco, alcohol, gas ovens and so on. We’ve reduced their lethality through a combination of tinkering with the devices themselves (seat belts), reducing access to them (graduated licenses for young drivers and crackdowns on drunk drivers), and broader societal interventions (campaigns against drunk driving and for designated drivers).
What would that mean in the gun space?
It would mean crackdowns on ghost guns, bump stocks and large-capacity magazines for assault rifles. It would mean raising the age to acquire a gun to 21 (with the exception of hunting rifles, which could stay at 18 as they are almost never used in crimes), plus red flag laws and limiting access among those with misdemeanor convictions for violence, stalking or alcohol/drugs. Finally, it would mean more robust mental health services and suicide interventions.
In my home state of Oregon, for example, it’s still legal for an 18-year-old to purchase a handgun or an assault rifle, even though the conservative pro-gun state of Wyoming sets the age to buy a handgun at 21. How is it that Oregon has more lax rules on this than Wyoming?
There are of course many other steps we can take as well. I’m a long time advocate of universal background checks, and I would be inclined to add them for ammunition purchases as well, as is the case in California. I think it’s worth conducting more research on smart guns to reduce the problem of the 380,000 firearms stolen each year. Safe storage may help, and the same with gun buybacks. If doctors ask about smoking, they might also ask how guns are stored in the house. In short, there are many steps we can take.
To the extent possible, though, we should gather evidence of what works rather than just rely on hunches. Conduct randomized controlled trials to experiment and see what lowers death rates, and by how much.
One encouraging sign is that voters themselves do welcome tougher action. About 90 percent favor universal background checks. Most favor safe storage. At some point the dam will break and we’ll move forward, but we should be as rigorous and evidence-based as possible in doing so.
We can change culture and become safer. I’ve seen it. Drunk driving used to be a joke, and now it’s a serious offense — and lives are saved as a result. So let’s push for careful, evidence-driven steps that may seem modest but can collectively save lives.