Solving America’s Gun Problem

Paul Amestoy Pic

Contributor: Paul Amestoy, American Military University

INTRODUCTION

            Among developed nations, the United States is unique. Unlike other former British Colonies, the United States gained its independence through force of arms, and the new nation’s Bill of Rights ensured that its citizens would be allowed to keep and bear arms as a right. Pioneers and frontiersmen would push west; their rifles were tools for both defense and food. Less than 100 years after its founding, America found itself tangled up in a bloody civil war that would claim the lives of over 600,000 Americans. The territory of the United States was expanded by armed struggle, specifically with Mexico and the Native Americans. The uniquely American myths of “the Wild West” or “cops and robbers” are inextricably linked with firearms, such as the Colt .45 revolver or the Thompson submachine gun. In modern times, heroes and villains alike can be seen wielding their own firearms across all platforms: movies, television, music, books, and video games all depict guns in ways that can be interpreted positively or negatively. For better or worse, guns have always been a part of American life and American mythology.

In recent decades, many have pointed out that the United States has a problem with gun violence. While rare, mass shootings are high-profile incidents whose body counts only seem to rise. Five of the 10 highest-casualty mass shootings in America have occurred within the past 10 years; the deadliest occurred in 2017 with the second-deadliest having occurred only the year prior (Nestel & Miller, 2017). Outside of these extraordinary incidents, overall gun-related deaths are often among the top five leading causes of death for people under the age of 65 (most of these are suicides) and rates of gun-related injuries are approximately twice as high as the death rate (Government Accountability Office, 2017, pp.6-7). While issues regarding gun control have taken the spotlight, increased partisanship in Washington and the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms make it difficult for measures to be enacted that could effectively address the problems America has with guns. However, it is possible to take action to potentially alleviate the problem without infringing on the Constitutional rights of individual American citizens, and without eroding the gun culture that is important to many Americans.

CONSTITUTIONAL BACKGROUND

            The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is a brief and vague document which reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The primary interpretations of the Second Amendment are whether it guarantees the right to keep and bear arms as a collective right (“well-regulated militia”) or as an individual right (“the right of the people”). Further still, the words “shall not be infringed” are enshrined by many as the most important words of the Amendment, and interpreted to mean that any law regulating firearms is an infringement of a right.

While the courts in the United States have weighed in on the Second Amendment debate a number of times in American history, a landmark Supreme Court decision has upheld the right to keep and bear arms as an individual right (District of Columbia et al v. Heller, 2008). According to the decision, individual citizens have the right to keep firearms at home for lawful purposes such as self-defense. However, Justice Antonin Scalia (a conservative Justice who certainly cannot be seen as an advocate for gun control) wrote in the majority opinion of that case that “(l)ike most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited” (District of Columbia et al v. Heller, 2008, p. 54). The Court acknowledges that certain restrictions in regards to where guns can be carried and restrictions on which kinds of guns can be purchased and owned, for example, are lawful restrictions that do not infringe on an individual’s right as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

It is not necessary to repeal the Second Amendment or to prevent citizens from owning guns or to confiscate firearms from citizens who already own them. Given the public health issues that guns have created, though, there are certain lawful measures which can be taken to alleviate it. These measures are in keeping with the laws of the United States.

THE DICKEY AMENDMENT

            In 1996, Jay Dickey (R-AK) of the House of Representatives added a rider onto a federal spending bill restricting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from conducting research that may advocate gun control; in 2012 all agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (Public Law 104-208, 1996; Government Accountability Office, 2017, pp. 20-22). This is commonly referred to as the Dickey Amendment, and it has been inserted into all federal appropriations bills since its inception. While the Dickey amendment does not stand as an outright ban on research regarding gun violence and gun-related deaths/injuries, the CDC has interpreted it almost as such and both they and physicians’ organizations admit that it limits their ability to conduct research that may be needed (Government Accountability Office, 2017; Frankel, 2015). Unfortunately, the Dickey Amendment is a provision that appears entirely political, and the politicization of guns and funding used toward research into gun violence has spread outside of the CDC- it is often difficult for researchers in other agencies to secure funding for their research, and independent researchers often stay away from the research out of fears of being blackballed (Frankel, 2015).

The CDC is not an organization dedicated to political campaigning; part of its function is to gather data on public health issues, of which gun violence and gun safety are certainly facets. Lawmakers and organizations that advocate for less gun control and restrictions often cite the need for better mental healthcare and more mental health awareness. This is, indeed, a worthy cause that is useful for the government to fund; more action regarding mental health may well help prevent murders and especially suicides. However, that does not change the fact that more research needs to be done in regards to firearms in the realm of public health. Those who advocate for better mental healthcare/mental health awareness would do well to listen to the American Psychological Association (APA). Writing on behalf of the APA, Jamieson (2013) points out that the organization endorses more research into specific gun-related incidents, advocates for a scientific panel to be set up to guide public policy regarding guns, and advocates for longer-term gun research by the National Academy of Sciences to be distributed across the Federal Government. The APA also endorsed a plan by President Barack Obama that would have seen federal resources devoted to researching gun violence and its causes (Jamieson, 2013). While the APA (obviously) does advocate for more access to mental healthcare in relation to gun violence (which policymakers who claim to be for should endorse and facilitate), they endorse a multi-faceted approach to addressing gun violence as a public health issue, to include research (APA’s Advocacy on Gun Violence Prevention, 2017). The APA’s advocacy could serve as a solid baseline for how policymakers can approach, not only research, but further measures that could curb gun-related problems.

Policymakers should not be making research a political issue. Research should be funded, even if the results may not be what certain individuals will want to hear. Effective policy will be far more difficult to create and implement without sound data to back it up. The Federal Government should resume funding into gun-related research. Research itself does not equal advocacy. It is also important to note that even Jay Dickey himself has expressed regrets over his amendment, and has stated that it was never intended to fully stall federal research into gun violence (Ex-Rep Dickey Regrets Restrictive Law on Gun Violence Research, 2015).

SAFE STORAGE

            The Heller decision in 2008 found it unlawful for Washington D.C. to mandate that gun owners keep their guns unloaded and either disassembled or locked. The Supreme Court rightly noted that this impedes an individual’s ability to defend themselves, and self-defense is one of the most common reasons why people own guns. Aside from this case seemingly making it unconstitutional for it to be mandatory that firearms be kept locked and unloaded, the enforcement of such laws would undoubtedly be difficult without intruding upon other Constitutional rights. Still, the government can, and should, do more to promote safe storage of firearms- safe and proper storage of guns could, at the very least, prevent accidents and prevent unauthorized users (i.e. children) from accessing them.

First, “safe storage” must be defined. The National Rifle Association (NRA), which is certainly no advocate of gun control or direct legislation regarding how citizens should use (or store) their guns, does provide useful information on gun safety. First, the NRA explains that there are three basic rules for gun safety: always keep a gun pointed in a safe direction, always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot, and always keep the gun unloaded until ready to use (NRA Gun Safety Rules, 2017). The same website also goes on to outline further safety rules, but the basics are emphasized as the beginning point for both the safe handling and storage of firearms. The NRA also mentions six methods of safe gun storage, and provides guidance on how to implement them properly; though they only appear to define five. The five methods are: trigger locks, gun cases, strong boxes/security cases, locking steel gun cabinets, and gun safes; these are very similar yet slightly more detailed than four methods defined in another report (Horman, 2016; Government Accountability Office, 2017). These kinds of awareness efforts, by any organization, should be encouraged and perhaps even funded by the government (provided that resources allocated are used solely for the intended purpose of increasing awareness on gun safety).

In their 2017 report on safe storage of guns, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) notes that there were almost 1,500 firearm-related deaths and over 6,900 gun-related injuries among children under 18 in 2015. They also indicate that about 61 percent of gun-related deaths in 2015 were due to suicide. The GAO (2017) report points out a number of campaigns across the United States aimed at increasing awareness on safe firearms storage, presumably with the aim of reducing those tragic numbers. These campaigns employ a variety of tactics, from simply distributing literature to actively issuing gun locks to potential users. The report identifies how organizations have created partnerships to promulgate their message: gun rights groups partnering with communities to distribute literature on safe storage, some organizations working with gun sellers to distribute information (not always successfully), and medical providers providing information to gun-owning parents on how to safely keep their guns away from children or even in some instances providing extra counseling to those who own guns and may be a suicide risk (medical providers also provide educational materials and literature as other organizations do) (Government Accountability Office, 2017).

The GAO (2017) admits that research into the effectiveness of these safe storage is lacking for reasons already mentioned previously, but the research that has been done into safe storage programs suggest that they are effective. The GAO evaluated five studies into the effectiveness of locking device distribution programs that utilized different methodologies and controls. Those studies indicated that gun owners who were given the means to safely store or lock their guns tended to use them- one study in particular saw the percentage of homes storing unlocked guns drop from 95 percent to just 35 percent, and the percentage of those storing ammunition unlocked dropping from 89 percent to 36 percent (Government Accountability Office, 2017, pp. 23-25). Seven studies were identified that examined physician consultation regarding firearms storage; four studies showed little or no change in the behavior of gun owners, while three indicated that there was some increase in safe storage practices (Government Accountability Office, 2017, pp. 25-27). The GAO found that, among programs meant to promote safe storage practices, few of them evaluated how effective they were, but one that did had indicated an increase in safe storage practices; programs that did not conduct self-analysis do appear to have made progress, and it can be inferred from other studies analyzed that these programs may be effective (Government Accountability Office, 2017, pp. 28-29, pp. 30-31). Further studies analyzed regarding campaign awareness indicate that safety campaigns do at least increase awareness when implemented properly (Government Accountability Office, 2017, pp. 29-30).

Again, more research will need to be conducted into how effective campaigns that promote safe storage are, especially when one considers that there does not seem to be data regarding how these programs may or may not directly affect rates of firearms-related injury and death. However, findings that do exist appear to be promising. Policymakers should encourage these campaigns at national, state and local levels. Because these programs do not create any restrictions on the type or number of firearms or ammunition an individual can possess, they certainly do not infringe on the right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. As such, the government would do well to provide resources for these campaigns to continue, and hopefully for them to flourish.

WAITING PERIODS

            Many states across the country enact waiting periods between the purchase of a firearm and its actual delivery. These are designed to prevent impulsive suicides or so-called “crimes of passion.” It is difficult, especially in the realm of politics, to argue a negative (i.e. “lives are being saved by implementation of waiting periods”), but recent research strongly indicates that waiting periods do, in fact, reduce rates of gun-related suicides and homicides.

In their study published in 2017, Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin found that waiting periods enacted between the purchase and delivery of guns has a significant effect in reducing gun-related homicides, and a smaller but still measurable effect in reducing gun-related suicides. The study is robust in that it examines data from 1970 through 2014, across all 44 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have had waiting periods for at least some time in that timeframe, and that it controls for a variety of variables such as other gun laws and state-specific effects (among others). They found that waiting periods result in a roughly 17 percent reduction in gun homicides (or about 36 fewer gun homicides for the average state); when narrowing analysis to 1990-1998 (the years of Brady Act mandated waiting periods), gun homicides fell by the same percentage or roughly 39 fewer deaths per year in the average state (Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2017).          Their analysis further found a 7-11 percent reduction in gun suicides during the overall period (22-35 fewer gun suicides per year in each state), or a roughly six percent reduction in gun suicides during the Brady Act period (around 17 fewer suicides per year in the average state) (Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2017). Overall, this research suggests that current waiting  period laws as of 2014 prevent around 750 gun homicides per year, and that expanding waiting periods to states that do not currently implement them would avoid a further estimated 910 gun homicides annually (Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2017). Some may be keen to argue that even without a gun, a person is still likely to commit murder, but the research done by Luca, Malhotra, and Poliquin indicates no change in non-firearms-related homicides in waiting period states, suggesting that lives saved by gun waiting periods would not have been taken if the perpetrators were to utilize other means of murder.

Further research should be done regarding the effectiveness of waiting periods. However, the data of the above-cited 2017 study appears very promising. Clearly, waiting periods will not solve America’s issues with gun deaths, but the study demonstrates that they can be reduced by a statistically significant margin. What’s more, a waiting period does not impede on an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, and poses no restrictions whatsoever on the type of firearms they are allowed to own. Policymakers should encourage states without them to enact waiting periods; hopefully mandatory waiting periods can be enacted at the federal level and seen nationwide.

CONCLUSION AND SUMMARY

Gun deaths rose between 1993 and 2000, but the overall rate of death due to firearms in America has stayed roughly the same since then (Government Accountability Office, 2017; Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2017). Given recent analysis, though, it appears that certain policies can be enacted that could be a step toward alleviating the problem.

Safe storage of firearms undoubtedly can prevent many firearm-related accidents, especially involving children. If the Federal Government devotes resources to encouraging safe firearm storage and other gun safety awareness and training campaigns, it may have the effect of reducing gun deaths and gun-related injuries. These campaigns again do not prevent citizens from owning whatever legal firearms they may, just as alcohol awareness or safe drinking campaigns do not impede the right of adults to buy, sell, or consume alcoholic beverages as guaranteed by the 21st Amendment.

Recent research has indicated that, in states where they exist, waiting periods for firearm purchases have reduced gun-related fatalities. If estimates of that research are accurate, even more lives could be saved if the rest of the United States followed suit. As such, the Federal Government should look into enacting a minimum waiting period policy across the United States, leaving it up to individual states to make that period longer if they so choose. Because most states tend to have waiting periods between two to seven days long (Luca, Malhotra, & Poliquin, 2017), a baseline waiting period of three to five days may be a good baseline. Even though a purchaser must wait to bring their guns home, they are not further restricted in the type or number of guns they can own.

Effective public policy cannot be enacted without research to back it up. The HHS conducts research on every public health issue conceivable, but guns appear to be the exception. The Dickey Amendment should not be renewed in the future, and policymakers should work to ensure that it never is. Research is not necessarily advocacy, and further research may find that certain gun control measures are not effective. However, if gun policies are backed by research, they can be then judged on their overall effectiveness and policies can be altered based on data as opposed to feelings.

If all three of the above recommendations are adhered to, the United States will not likely have solved its problems with gun violence, it is a problem that is rooted in American culture as much as it is American law. However, these policy changes are steps in the right direction. America will likely see rates of gun death and gun injury decline almost immediately if safety programs are reinforced and if waiting periods go nation-wide. Gun policies can be further implemented, dismantled, or honed if the proper resources are devoted into their research.

References

APA’s Advocacy on Gun Violence Prevention. (2017). apa.org. Retrieved 4 November 2017, from http://www.apa.org/advocacy/gun-violence/index.aspx

District of Columbia et al v. Heller, 554 554 U.S. 570 (Supreme Court of the United States 2008).

Ex-Rep. Dickey Regrets Restrictive Law On Gun Violence Research. (2015). Morning Edition, NPR.

Frankel, T. (2015). Why the CDC still isn’t researching gun violence, despite the ban being lifted two years ago. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/storyline/wp/2015/01/14/why-the-cdc-still-isnt-researching-gun-violence-despite-the-ban-being-lifted-two-years-ago/?utm_term=.80c7e3f8b579

Government Accountability Office. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/687239.pdf

Horman, B. (2016). 6 Ways To Safely Store Your Firearms. NRA Family. Retrieved from https://www.nrafamily.org/articles/2016/4/14/6-ways-to-safely-store-your-firearms/

Jamieson, C. (2013). Gun violence research: History of the federal funding freeze. Psychological Science Agenda. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2013/02/gun-violence.aspx

Luca, M., Malhotra, D., & Poliquin, C. (2017). Handgun waiting periods reduce gun deaths. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1619896114

Nestel, M., & Miller, A. (2017). These are the 10 deadliest mass shootings in modern US history. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/US/10-deadliest-mass-shootings-modern-us-history/story?id=50234345

NRA Gun Safety Rules. (2017). Gunsafetyrules.nra.org. Retrieved 4 November 2017, from https://gunsafetyrules.nra.org/

Public Law 104-208 (1996). Washington D.C.