It’s complicated. That’s the best way to describe the answers that Guns in America: Examining the Facts seeks to give. Like all wicked problems, if you define them one way the answers are simple; defined another, still legitimate, way, the answers are simple – but different. Guns in America asks and attempts to answer 25 controversial questions about gun rights, gun control, and the evidence in America.
Gun Control and Gun Rights
There’s a somewhat obvious conflict between those who believe restricting gun rights would be better for the public and those who believe in the universal rights provided by the second amendment. The Heller case held that the right to bear arms need not relate to militia service. With limited exceptions, it’s a constitutional right to own a firearm in the United States. What’s at issue is those exceptions – whether they are enough and whether they’re properly enforced.
It’s important to realize that there are parties on both sides who are so entrenched in their positions that they’re willing to select the statistics that most support their positions. Donald Campbell in Guns in America seeks to call out when proponents of their position make choices that aren’t consistent with the truth. In politics, this is known as gerrymandering, and while it still exists, we’re becoming less tolerant of attempts to manipulate things to get the answer you want rather than the answer that’s objectively more fair.
The following table reports the questions that Campbell answers – and my shortest form summary of Campbell’s presentation.
|1. Does violent gun crime increase with increases in the availability of firearms?
|Unclear, but violent crime is down and gun ownership is up over the last several decades.
|2. Do criminals have a preference for certain firearms over others?
|Yes: reliable handguns, just like the population.
|3. Does the “gun show loophole” substantially contribute to violent crime?
|No, and it’s not a “gun show” or “loophole;” it was explicitly added for private sellers.
|4. Do current gun regulation laws reduce violent crime and help apprehend violent criminals?
|No, but Rand reports inconclusive.
|5. Do ballistic fingerprinting and microstamping techniques currently in use help police solve gun crimes?
|Yes; however, ballistics marks are only presumed to be unique, this hasn’t been tested. Microstamping results have been disappointing.
|6. Would a ban on “assault-style” rifles prevent or reduce violent crime?
|No, not in any meaningful way. Note characterizations of “assault-style” is probably not accurate or fair. (See also It’s How We Play the Game.)
|7. Does gun ownership and having a gun in the home increase personal safety?
|No, the dangers outstrip the protective value.
|8. Does mandatory gun safety training reduce gun accidents and suicides?
|No, a lack of standardization hampers efficacy. It doesn’t appear that the skills are transferred from training. See Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation for more.
|9. Do mandatory safe storage laws reduce accidental shootings and suicides?
|10. Do “stand your ground” laws increase an individual’s personal safety?
|Maybe. The perceived impact is positive, but they appear to increase justifiable homicides and are likely to be overly impactful to minorities.
|11. Do “red flag laws”/extreme risk orders increase domestic and family safety?
|Maybe. For suicides, yes. No evidence for homicides. Serious concern about due process since the orders can be issued ex parte (without presence).
|12. Is gun violence increasing in America?
|Not over timeframes measured in decades. The peak was the 1990s. See The Blank Slate for more.
|13. Are the police in favor of armed citizens?
|14. Can implementing “smart gun” technology make society safer?
|15. Would banning “bump” stocks and large-capacity magazines (LCMs) reduce shooting casualties?
|Not materially. Magazines are quick and easy to change and therefore aren’t a meaningful delay. Bump stocks come at a huge cost of accuracy.
|16. Can a comprehensive database on gun sales reduce gun violence?
|Unknown. Even if it identified people newly prohibited from owning firearms due to situations after purchase, it’s unclear whether the danger to law enforcement would justify confrontation.
|17. Would mandatory gun liability insurance decrease gun violence?
|Unlikely, but legal barriers exist in many states.
|18. Do gun control regulations increase the safety of minority group communities?
|Unclear, but likely no.
|19. Are school shootings increasing in America?
|No, but multiple victim shootings are.
|20. Does intensive media coverage inspire school shootings?
|Yes. See also No Easy Answers.
|21. Does allowing guns on college campuses increase campus gun violence?
|No, but it may not reduce it either.
|22. Are current gun regulations effective at preventing school shootings?
|23. Does designating schools as “gun free” zones increase school safety?
|Unclear, but probably no. There are very extreme positions being taken by different groups in this space.
|24. Does arming willing teachers and school staff increase school safety?
|Unclear, but teachers don’t want it.
|25. Are American gun laws laxly enforced?
|Yes, in some cases.
What Do I Mean by Unclear?
In the five instances I answered with “unclear” in the above table, there is mixed evidence. Gun control advocates cite one set of statistics, and gun rights advocates cite a different set of statistics. In some cases, they’re using the same raw data sources but they’re choosing different cutoffs. How many casualties are needed for an event to be a mass shooting? Is it 4 (as is common), or is it 6 (as has been used in some cases)? Does it count as a mass shooting if it’s a rival gang fight? What about the family where one parent kills everyone, including themselves? The problem is that, depending on how you decide these questions, you get radically different answers.
“Simple” definitions like gun-free zones are even confusing. Would you expect that a military base is a gun-free zone? Soldiers, other than military police, aren’t permitted to carry their sidearms. Does that make it a gun-free zone? Military bases are the size of towns. Do you say that, because military police can have guns, they’re not gun-free? (Some have argued they shouldn’t be considered gun-free zones because military police can have firearms.)
Woody Allen once said, “Confidence is the feeling you have before you understand the problem.” That seems to be the case for most people when they speak about guns. They don’t understand the problem – and they’re not willing to research the answers. Their opinions are not formed on data, but they’re not willing to investigate, evaluate, and consider what we do know. I applaud Campbell for being so intentional about providing balanced perspectives on difficult questions. I’d encourage everyone to start by evaluating Guns in America and examine the facts.