The “March for Our Lives” brought hundreds of thousands of people to the National Mall to protest gun violence. It was an understandably emotional and evocative event that hopefully can spur a constructive discussion about what to do about the problem. As someone who has studied gun violence for more than 10 years, a productive discussion would be a welcome change from the yelling and shouting that typically accompanies the gun debate. The kids have spoken, and I applaud them for their passion and effective activism. Now it’s time for the adults to talk about what to do.
America is a great nation that, when it buckles down and stops bickering, can do great things. In 1961, President Kennedy committed the country to putting a man on the moon before the decade was out. So let’s make a similar pledge: let’s commit ourselves to lowering American gun deaths-meaning both homicides and suicides-by 50 percent in the next ten years. Like the moon landing, we will employ the best thinkers on this issue and instruct them to doggedly pursue the task at hand.
Every thinker we put to this task will tell us the same thing: don’t focus on mass shootings and “assault weapons,” focus on inner-city violence and suicides of middle-aged men. Fifty percent of gun deaths equates to roughly 17,000 per year. Because suicides are two-thirds of gun deaths, any policy proposal that doesn’t focus on those will not, by itself, get us to our goal. Even eliminating all gun homicides would not get us there.
Here’s a further break down of the gun-death numbers. Roughly 6,000-7,000 people are killed in homicides using pistols, and two-thirds of those are young black men between the ages of 15-34, often living in urban areas. “Assault weapons” are difficult to define, but they are a type of rifle that is sometimes used in high-profile mass shootings at schools and elsewhere. All rifles, of which “assault weapons” are a subset, killed approximately 524 people in 2016, compared to 7,105 killed by pistols (there are some holes in the FBI’s data). While we’re not sure because the data don’t go deep enough, “assault weapons,” as a popular subset of rifles, likely kill approximately 200-300 people per year. About 10 students per year are killed by gunfire in schools, sometimes by “assault weapons.” A “mass shooting” can be defined in a variety of ways (it’s a highly contentious question), but if we’re talking about public “spree killings,” where someone goes to a public place to indiscriminately kill, they’re only a fraction of gun homicides.
But all those homicide numbers pale in comparison to the amount of people killing themselves with a gun. Of all gun deaths, two-thirds are suicides, and of those suicides 85 percent are male, with more than half being of men 45 years or older.
Given those numbers, it is a little perplexing why “assault weapons” and mass shootings are the focus of the debate over gun violence. Those tragic events understandably elicit deep emotional reactions, but if we’re to make a concerted effort to reduce gun death by 50 percent, we should focus on the demographics and situations that suffer the most from gun violence.
Focusing our political attention on relatively rare events can have real costs. As any political observer knows, democratic will is a fickle commodity. Sometimes the people will march, and sometimes they don’t care. Sometimes legislators will hear the people, sometimes they’ll turn a deaf ear. This precious commodity should not be squandered on policies that won’t do much to mitigate the problem.
Moreover, a social-justice minded person of the left might say that those who are trying to make the gun-control debate about the “assault weapons” that are used in school shootings in predominantly white suburbs are gaslighting the true victims of gun violence: young black men in the inner city. From positions of privilege, denizens of affluent suburbs expect and demand that their extremely safe schools be made even safer by going after a specific category of weapons. Using their political and economic power, they focus the debate on their problems and then use their positions of privilege to take some time off work or school to jaunt on down to Washington, D.C. for a rally about their safety.
Similarly, a middle-aged male MAGA-ized Trump supporter might complain that his demographic is being ignored due to the nationwide apathy toward the declining condition of middle-aged men. Suicides of men between the ages of 25-64 are 37 percent of all gun deaths, yet we still spend more time talking almost anything else, whether that’s gun accidents, teen suicide, or mass shootings with “assault weapons.”
In light of these numbers, will the policy proposals of the Parkland student advocates help us achieve our goal?
Assessing the Parkland Students’ Proposals
The policy proposals of the Parkland student advocates cover a variety of issues. Below, I assess them on how much I think they will contribute to the goal I’ve set out of reducing gun deaths by 50 percent. There are some proposals, such as increasing school security, that are not intended to broadly mitigate gun violence. Others proposals-such as raising the age at which rifles can be purchased - are likely contemplated as small improvements. For other proposals, it’s fair to ask whether they will effectively reduce gun deaths.
The grades reflect my subjective estimation of how many gun deaths the policies are likely to prevent, focusing on reducing gun deaths in inner city African-American communities and suicides. If, in my mind, policies could feasibly prevent few deaths, I give it around a D. If a policy could feasibly prevent a few dozen or more, I give it around a C. Policies with the real possibility of preventing hundreds or thousands, I give B’s and above.
Ban semi-automatic weapons that fire high-velocity rounds: It’s unclear what this means, but if they mean semi-automatic rifles, such a ban would do very little. As mentioned above, compared to handguns, rifles (semi-automatic or otherwise) are used in relatively few homicides, around 300-500 per year. Even if the ban were instituted perfectly-meaning every semi-automatic rifle is taken out of circulation-it certainly wouldn’t mean that we would save 300-500 lives per year. Pistols might be used instead. And, whereas high-velocity rounds can sometimes be more lethal than pistol rounds, pistols are more easily concealable, which could create more shootings. This “substitution effect”-one gun being substituted for another banned gun-is one of the reasons gun policy is hard.
And, although the data are not deep enough, there’s good reason to believe that the use of rifles in inner-city gun violence is quite low due to price and preferences for concealability. As for suicides, only one bullet is needed for a suicide, high-velocity or otherwise.
Because rifles are rarely used in crimes, rarely used in inner-city crimes, and rarely used in suicides, this policy will not do much to eliminate overall gun deaths. But will it help mitigate school shootings and mass shootings? It probably won’t stop any school shooting-school shooters don’t commit their crimes because they have a high-powered semi-automatic rifle, they seek out those weapons after they decide to commit their crimes. It’s feasible that a few lives could be saved if mass shootings were committed with pistols rather than rifles-mostly due not to lethality but to the effective rate of fire being lower for a pistol-but very lethal mass shootings can certainly be carried out with pistols.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: C
Ban accessories that simulate automatic weapons: Most people had never heard of bump stocks until the black-swan massacre in Las Vegas. Using one in a homicide is so rare that there’s no data on it, and such novelty items have no role in suicides.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: F
Establish a database of gun sales and universal background checks: This one is also difficult to assess because in practice this can mean many different things. Any effectiveness would depend on enforcement. Our current system of background checks is poorly enforced, and it’s unclear that another layer would do much good. When it comes to suicide, while sometimes people buy guns to commit suicide, I know of no comprehensive study that has looked at the issue. If they were to do so, however, they’ll likely pass any background check.
Inner-city violence is a slightly different story, but those guns come from a variety of sources, particularly theft and other forms of black-market sales. Such sales are already illegal, yet it is feasible, but unlikely, that a policy like this could have a small effect on inner-city violence.
As for mass shootings and school shootings, unfortunately background checks as we have them would not have stopped the majority of mass shootings. According to one database, 82 percent of guns involved in mass shootings over the past three decades were acquired legally. While it is possible to say, “we need a better system for figuring out who these people are beforehand,” in practice that is very difficult, if not nearly impossible.
A feasible small effect on inner city violence and a feasible small effect on mass shootings means that it’s possible a few dozen lives could be saved, therefore this gets a C.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: C
Change privacy laws to allow mental healthcare providers to communicate with law enforcement: Some mass shooters, such as the killer in Parkland, have many red flags before they commit their atrocities. Others seem perfectly normal. It’s possible that effective changes to privacy laws could occasionally catch a spree killer before he commences his rampage. This would of course be a good thing, but it wouldn’t put a measurable dent in the total gun-death numbers, for reasons mentioned above. When it comes to gun homicides, especially within the inner-city African-American community, mental health is not the issue, if mental-health services are even available.
For suicides, however, it’s plausible that such record sharing could have a meaningful effect, but it could also prevent those who are depressed from seeing mental-health professionals, which could make the problem even worse. Gun owners I know who have been depressed have told me they were afraid to visit doctors due to a fear that their guns might be taken away. Here, as with so many policies, it’s crucial to see how it is instituted. As discussed below, it’s probably better to get suicidal people to voluntarily give up their weapons for a time than to involve law enforcement, but given that this policy could feasibly save hundreds of lives from suicide if done correctly, it gets a B.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: B
Close gun show and secondhand sales loopholes: Like the issues with “universal” background checks, it’s difficult to assess how many guns come through this so-called loophole. When it comes to the inner-city violence killing black youth, the numbers are even more difficult to determine. It seems clear that guns associated with the criminal underworld have a variety of sources, although few come from gun shows. A 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, assessing studies done in 1997 and 2004, found that “in 2004, among state prison inmates who possessed a gun at the time of offense, fewer than 2 percent bought their firearm at a flea market or gun show, about 10 percent purchased it from a retail store or pawnshop, 37 percent obtained it from family or friends, and another 40 percent obtained it from an illegal source.”
If someone is purchasing an illegal gun from a black-market gun merchant-a type of “secondhand sale”-many laws are already being violated. It’s unlikely that closing more loopholes will help, especially since illegal gun merchants change their business models when laws change. Close one loophole, and other sources will be found, particularly when the illicit conduits for trafficking illegal drugs also facilitate bringing in illegal guns. The better question is why the demand for illegal guns is so high, and we would do better to look to what the drug war has done to inner cities than any gun policy.
As for suicides, again it is unlikely that any attempt to close a loophole or strengthen background checks will do much when guns are seemingly not often purchased for suicide and the buyer is likely to pass a background check. Overall, this policy might save a few dozen people, but I doubt it would do more.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: C
Allow the CDC to make recommendations for gun reform: First of all, the CDC is not “banned” from studying gun violence. Here is a 110 page CDC study on gun violence from 2013. The CDC is banned from advocating or promoting gun control, which makes sense because such advocacy is not science. Advocacy from the CDC is problematic, such as when it advocates state-controlled liquor sales, and the imprimatur of the CDC can confuse as well as illuminate.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: Too unclear to give a grade.
Raise the firearm purchase age to 21: Current federal law prohibits those under 21 from purchasing a handgun, but rifles can be purchased at 18. Given the rarity of rifle homicides, these policies are unlikely to make any difference in the areas we’re focusing on: inner-city violence among young African-American men, which is predominantly carried out with pistols, and suicides of middle-aged men, also pistols. Middle-aged men committing suicide, who again are 37 percent of all gun deaths, would of course be old enough to purchase the weapons. This would save few, if any, lives.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: D
Dedicate more funds to mental health research and professionals: For reasons already mentioned, inner-city violence has little to nothing to do with mental health, even if access to mental-health resources were widely available. More research and funding for professionals, however, could help with suicides. Two goals should be our focus: 1) not dissuading those with suicidal thoughts from seeking help, and 2) not defining “mental health problems” too broadly.
With those problems in mind, it’s possible that this proposal-which only calls for more funding initially-could make more than a dent in gun deaths. According to one study, 64 percent of people who attempt suicide visit a doctor in the month before, and 38 percent visit a doctor the week before. If these numbers are accurate and at least somewhat describe the behavior of our subset of suicides-middle-aged men who use guns-then this presents an opportunity. If even half of those men who visit a doctor before a suicide attempt can be convinced to give up their guns for a time, then there’s the potential for thousands of lives to be saved.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: B
Increase funding for school security: As I’ve written before, this is an obvious first step to preventing school shootings. For our focus, however, it will have no effect on either middle-aged male suicides or inner-city violence. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done, because, of the realistic options on the table, it is probably the most effective way to address the specific problem of school shootings.
School security could help save the 10-20 students who are victims of gun violence at school, therefore this gets a C.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: C
So, What Do We Do?
Much of this piece has been critical, but it is a criticism that seeks to wade through half-truths to focus on the biggest areas for effective reform. The first step is realizing the nature and scope of the problem. The next step is producing research, brainstorming, and building coalitions. That said, here are two policies that I believe would go further to reducing gun deaths than the policies discussed above.
End the Drug War: Rather than focusing on guns, we should ask why people are committing violence with guns in the first place, and the drug war is a good place to start. For almost 50 years, the drug war has engendered violence in our inner cities. The reasons are well known: illegal and highly profitable markets create violence.
But the drug war doesn’t just create violence between rival factions seeking to establish territory and expand profits, it creates violence between the police and those who they are supposedly sworn to protect. This can come not just in the form of military-style SWAT raids, which have increased 1,400 percentsince the early 1980s, but in more subtle forms of violence that come with heavily policing drugs. Physically stopping a black kid on the street in order to search for drugs is another form of violence that comes with the drug war. That type of violence, however, can slowly erode any trust between police and the communities they police. That makes solving actual violent crime very difficult, and leads to a startling amount of unsolved murders, particularly in the inner city. Today, the national rate at which murders are solved is 64.1 percent, but 50 years ago it was above 90 percent. In the inner city it is even worse.
All of this creates a disturbing and vicious cycle. The prohibition of drugs leads to illicit and violent markets. Police enforce the prohibition of drugs in violent and unpredictable ways, sending scores of young black men into the criminal justice system for drug offenses. Meanwhile, actual violent crimes go unsolved and distrust is fomented within the community, further breaking down opportunities for success and incentivizing the pursuit of careers in the drug trade.
Ending the drug war would do more than any gun-control policy to lower the amount of inner-city homicides.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: While reliable numbers are difficult to obtain, partially because “drug-war associated violence” is hard to define, it’s possible that up to 25 percent of inner-city gun deaths are associated with the drug war, which would equate to thousands of lives per year, therefore I give it an A.
Identifying Suicidal People and Asking Them to Temporarily Give up Their Guns: If we’re going to look at why middle-aged men are killing themselves, the mental-health angle is certainly on the table. It’s difficult to come up with a coherent story about suicide rates, given they vary so wildly on an international level. In some studies, Sri Lanka currently has the highest suicide rate in the world, but countries like South Korea, Japan, Belgium, and Finland all have higher suicide rates than the U.S. The teen suicide rate is quite high in New Zealand, double the U.S. rate, and Lithuania, triple the U.S. rate. These countries seem to have little in common except for higher than average suicide rates.
The gun ownership rate seems to be correlated to the firearm-suicide rate, which makes sense as it would be difficult to commit suicide with a gun if you didn’t own one. According to one recent interpretation of the data:
If 10 percent more males have guns, then their gun suicide rate goes up by 3.1 per 100,000, but their non-firearm suicide rate goes down by 1.6. So 1.6 suicides per 100,000 simply switch from (other method) to (gun), and then 1.9 additional suicides per 100,000 happen because of the convenience, and the finality, of the gun as a method.
As mentioned above, according to one study, 64 percent of people visit the doctor a month before committing suicide. If that number is roughly accurate for men committing suicide by gun, which it may not be because such men may not seek help at a similar rate, then there is an opportunity to save thousands of lives if guns can be requested from suicidal male gun-owners. If, as mentioned, suicidal men have particular difficulties seeking help, then that is something else that should be researched and, if possible, addressed.
Grade for Effectiveness in Reaching Goal: Given that suicides are two-thirds of gun deaths, relatively small changes in the suicide rate can have significant effects on the total amount of gun deaths, possibly saving thousands per year. It gets an A.
I applaud the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas for speaking up. I fear, however, that many of their proposals will be difficult to pass and, if they are passed, will be more difficult to implement. What’s worse, they’ll be largely ineffective at putting a measurable dent on the problem of gun death in the United States.
While saving one life is worth it, public policy is a coarse tool that should strive to save lives in the most effective way possible. In so doing, we should not be distracted by headlines but try to look behind them.