Understanding Gun Control & Violence In America: Four Articles That Start The Conversation

America is having a national conversation about gun violence, which is good and needed, but that conversation needs a foundation in facts and a diversity of perspectives. This survey, which touches both sides of the gun debate, provides a starting point.

America is embroiled in a debate on gun violence, and this is a good and necessary thing. The Sandy Hook shooting may have started the conversation, but it is clearly only the tip of the iceberg: since Sandy Hook, more than 1,100 Americans have died due to gun violence.

Much has been written and said on what we should do about guns (in case you hadn't noticed), and, while there is as much bloviating and vitriol as one would expect, there have been plenty of thoughtful arguments on both sides, including some that don't fit neatly on either side. I will present four such pieces, not as endorsements, but as the beginning of a foundation to build a level-headed, fact-based conversation about gun violence in America.

Released shortly after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, Ezra Klein put together twelve facts on gun violence in America, which for a useful baseline for talking about America's depressingly evident gun problem. From Klein's twelve facts:

9. States with stricter gun control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.

Last year, economist Richard Florida dove deep into the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. Some of what he found was, perhaps, unexpected: Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths. The disclaimer here is that correlation is not causation. But correlations can be suggestive:

Some takeaways here: most rural states do not have a single firearm law to protect children, but all the most populous states do. The Northeast, Northwest and Midwest do the best in reducing gun violence. Florida (the author of the map, not the state), found strong negative correlations between gun violence and the existence of assault weapons bans, and mandated trigger locks and safe storage.

The Daily Beast/CNN writer David Frum has a thoughtful piece attempting to dispel the notion, now being repeated in certain right-wing circles, that guns are not an issue, because the vast majority of gun homicides happen among the poor, among Afircan Americans, and among young men. The statistics invite the dangerous conclusion that people outside of those demographics can ignore the problem. Frum addresses this idea from several angles, but does his most efficient takedown in this passage:

Those young men in Baton Rouge who are killing each other in such horrific numbers do not manufacture their own guns. They did not organize the gun trade that brings the guns to their town. They did not write the laws that prevent their town government from acting against guns. They carry guns -- and misuse guns -- thanks to a national system of gun regulation that makes guns easily accessible to those least likely to use guns responsibly.

Poverty and unemployment are unvaviodable factors when talking about gun violence, and I hope that the national conversation on guns expands to those issues as well.

Jeffrey Goldberg makes a case for more guns. Better regulation, but also more guns, around the principle of: guns are out there, you can have one or not, but you can't make them go away. Here is Goldberg's big finish:

But even some moderate gun-control activists, such as Dan Gross, have trouble accepting that guns in private hands can work effectively to counteract violence. When I asked him the question I posed to Stephen Barton and Tom Mauser—would you, at a moment when a stranger is shooting at you, prefer to have a gun, or not?—he answered by saying, “This is the conversation the gun lobby wants you to be having.” He pointed out some of the obvious flaws in concealed-carry laws, such as too-lax training standards and too much discretionary power on the part of local law-enforcement officials. He did say that if concealed-carry laws required background checks and training similar to what police recruits undergo, he would be slower to raise objections. But then he added: “In a fundamental way, isn’t this a question about the kind of society we want to live in?” Do we want to live in one “in which the answer to violence is more violence, where the answer to guns is more guns?”

What Gross won’t acknowledge is that in a nation of nearly 300 million guns, his question is irrelevant.

Helena Bachmann of Time Magazine offers a look across the pond at another country with high gun ownership per capita: Switzerland. According to Bachmann, Switzerland is fourth behind the U.S., Yemen and Serbia in gun ownership per capita, but has only one tenth the gun homicides that the U.S. does: in 2010, Switzerland had 0.5 firearm-related homicides per 100,000 people, while the U.S. had 5 per 100,000. Bachmann attributes a culture of responsibility among the Swiss for the difference:

One of the reasons the crime rate in Switzerland is low despite the prevalence of weapons — and also why the Swiss mentality can’t be transposed to the current American reality — is the culture of responsibility and safety that is anchored in society and passed from generation to generation. Kids as young as 12 belong to gun groups in their local communities, where they learn sharpshooting. The Swiss Shooting Sports Association runs about 3,000 clubs and has 150,000 members, including a youth section. Many members keep their guns and ammunition at home, while others choose to leave them at the club. And yet, despite such easy access to pistols and rifles, “no members have ever used their guns for criminal purposes,” says Max Flueckiger, the association’s spokesperson.

Culture is hardly a trivial factor, but, as we saw with Frum's piece, neither are demographics, and Bachmann's piece ignores the fact that Switzerland has a stable economy with very low unemployment and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

This survey is not meant to be comprehensive or to provide definite answers. It is meant to help build a conversation about guns based on fact and reason. Clearly poverty is a factor that has to be considered, but so are the laws and checks we have around gun ownership and gun use. One thing is certain: we have a gun problem, and it won't cure itself.

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