Guns, Round 2: Let’s Try Reason this Time
June 1, 2013
In “Round 1” of 2013’s gun debate, ignited by last December’s mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and ending with congressional rejection of new gun laws last month, both sides deployed emotional images and inflamed rhetoric that had little to do with reality.
President Obama and other gun control advocates invoked murdered school children, Sandy Hook’s grieving parents, images of youthful street violence, and calls to “protect our children” from young gunmen and mass shooters.
The gun-control campaign was countered by an even more emotional crusade by the National Rifle Association using much the same images (albeit with different parents and stories) to argue that law-abiding “good” Americans had absolute rights to firearms to protect themselves from shadowy mobs, aliens, dictatorial federal agents, and other gun-wielding “bad” guys.
In the end, gun-control advocates, whose mild background-check legislation was backed by large majorities of Americans, couldn’t out-emotionalize the NRA’s smaller, angrier constituency.
The NRA cornered the paranoid extremes, but the gun debate on both sides was extraordinarily factless. The warring factions’ few points of agreement in an otherwise acrimonious quarrel were strikingly wrong: that children, young people, and schools are the epicenters of more and more shootings; that a “culture of violence” consisting of video games and other media incites youthful shooters; and that placing more armed “resource officers” in the country’s 125,000 schools is a key solution.
The shooting of a child is an unspeakable tragedy; a mass shooting in a grade school all the more so. But Centers for Disease Control figures show children and teenaged youths under age 18 comprise only 3 percent of gun fatalities. Just one-tenth of 1 percent of gun fatalities occur in or around a school. Fewer than 2 percent of gun deaths result from mass shootings.
“Youth violence” may be a favorite politician and media topic, but FBI tabulations show youths under age 18 commit just 4 percent of homicides in the United States. Just one in six murdered children and youth are killed by peers; most are killed by adults, mainly at home. Violence and shootings by young people plummeted over the last two decades as violent games and media of every type proliferated; the FBI and other researchers agree that cultural and media influences are not important factors in real-world violence.
In sum, 99 percent of Round 1’s discussion fixated on perhaps 5 percent of gun killings and produced policy ideas that—even if implemented in far stronger form than proved politically achievable—would have had far less effect than major reductions in gun violence over the last 20 years have already achieved.
But that was just “the first round” of the gun debate, the president declared. The next mass shooting killing and maiming dozens or perhaps hundreds will ignite Round 2.
In the second round, Americans deserve not another emotional spectacle, but a White House that will lead the country’s first factual, scapegoat-free, science-driven discussion of a major social problem—the kind former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop tried (but failed) to initiate over AIDS, alcohol abuse, and cigarette smoking in the 1980s. Indeed, the momentous factors left out of previous gun debates offer new pathways for gun control advocates to explore instead of another losing emotional fight with the NRA.
It’s impossible to pursue sound policy without asking fundamental questions about crucial contexts that point to the larger realities of America’s crisis of 30,000-plus deadly shootings every year—a broader perspective crucial to protecting children and adults alike.
How do the vast majority of American victims get shot, and by whom? How—under very different gun regulation regimes and absent strong federal policies—did major locales such as the state of California, New York City, Chicago, and urban Texas achieve huge reductions in gun deaths of every kind over the last two to three decades? Why have other places, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona, had far less success?
The reason gun-policy debaters avoid factual discussion is obvious. Gun-rights dogma holds that states with strict gun controls and low gun ownership like California and New York should be ruled by armed criminals. Gun-control theory holds that zero-control, open-gun-toting states like Texas should be awash in bullet-riddled corpses.
Everyone has trashed Chicago as the Lord of the Flies of teenage street shootings. Yet, the city (particularly its youth) actually experienced one of the nation’s biggest drops in firearms deaths in recent decades. Over the last five years, many more Chicagoans in their 40s were killed by guns and arrested for murder than youths under age 18.
Nationally, Americans under age 25 comprised one-third of all gun fatalities 20 years ago; today, one-fifth. Meanwhile, those age 40-59 comprised one-fifth of gun deaths back then; today, one-third. Owing to increased middle-aged suicides, a majority of firearms victims now are 40 and older.
Allowing for population changes, gun fatalities of every type (murders, suicides, and accidents) have been dropping four times faster among Americans under age 25 than among their midlife parents. Yet, leaders have failed to even acknowledge—let alone learn from these striking local and generational developments.
The rapid decline in violence among young Americans accompanies two other encouraging trends. The Violence Policy Center’s analysis of the definitive General Social Survey finds “the aging of the current-gun owning population—primarily white males—and a lack of interest in guns by youth” has reduced the percent of homes with guns from half before 1980 to just one-third today.
Similarly, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a 64 percent decline in spousal and dating violence from 1994 through 2010, also led by the young. This trend is a crucial index, since domestic violence far outstrips school violence as a source of gun killings and other threats to young and old alike.
The best information from a variety of authoritative sources contradicts the image of gun violence presented by the White House, NRA, and news commentators. Far from “changing everything,” as gun-control advocates proclaimed, the Sandy Hook massacre was followed by another episode in America’s long, futile drama over social problems—including drugs, liquor, crime, violence, morality, and now, guns spanning the last 150 years.
That tradition consisted of invoking emotional calls to protect “our” children and families from “them”—whatever feared, powerless outgroup of the day could be blamed for causing the problem. Officials scapegoated the Chinese for opium in the late 1800s, black men for cocaine and Catholic immigrants for liquor in the early 1900s, Mexicans for “marihuana” in the 1930s, various ethnic groups for street drugs in the 1950s and ‘60s, inner-citians for crack cocaine in the 1980s, and young people for every social and health problem from gun violence to opiate abuse to obesity in the modern era.
Since scapegoating a feared minority population has little to do with addressing the larger crises afflicting American society, the result has been to sabotage reasoned debate and promote irrational policies that leave Americans far more endangered from epidemic social ills than citizens of comparable Western countries.
If the next gun debate is to confront vital facts and develop realistic policies from encouraging trends, the president has to lead by presenting the evidence-validated information he had promised would govern policy discussion. Unfortunately, on social issues, the White House tactic has been to stage a series of haphazard, popular summits and campaigns on narrow themes like cyberbullying, campus rape, “teenage dating violence,” “youth violence,” and obesity that misrepresent young people as society’s main troublemakers.
If Americans want the far lower levels of shootings and other social problems that Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other Western nations have, then the first step is for American leaders to insist on the kind of disciplined, broad-context policy discussion these countries feature. Whether a reasoned approach offers more chance of political success remains to be seen. But unlike the spectacle that followed Sandy Hook, we could at least debate American gun violence as it really is.