What To Talk About Gun Violence? Facts Aren’t Enough.

When all is really said and done, there’s one basic point of disagreement between Gun-sense Nation on the one hand, and Gun-nut Nation on the other. And the difference goes like this: Gun-sense Nation believes that 120,000+ or more gun deaths and gun injuries each year is a public health crisis which needs to be addressed the way we deal with all threats to public health, namely, through a combination of research, education, and enforced legislation. Gun-nut Nation, on the other hand, does not believe that guns cause any kind of threat to public health; to the contrary, legal gun ownership protects the public from threats to its welfare both from within the country and without.

area51           I think that the gun violence prevention (GVP) community needs to stop worrying about what the other side says or what the other side thinks. To be honest, I’m not sure that anyone who truly believes that the 2nd Amendment keeps us ‘free’ or protects us from an invasion by ISIS has actually thought about the issue at all. And let’s not forget that we now have a real bully in the bully pulpit who appears to share Gun-nut Nation’s point of view. Nevertheless, the folks who want to do something about gun violence still need to figure out what to do.

Or more specifically, what to say.  Because the argument between the two sides resembles a similar argument that made a brief appearance during the 2016 Republican primary campaign, when Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon, made a remarkable statement during the 2nd debate when he said there were many vaccines that aren’t really necessary, a claim that medical science has long ago decided is simply not true.

Carson was responding to a slimy attempt by Trump-o to thrill his supporters with yet another conspiracy theory, in this case the idea that childhood vaccines lead to autism, a loony and completely disproven idea that’s been floating around on the fringes of the mentally-challenged population for years. Unfortunately, what’s scientific fact to one person may be fiction to someone else, and if you don’t believe me, just spend some time perusing websites which claim that global warming is a complete and total hoax.

In essence, the GVP community faces the same issue every time they talk about gun violence as a public health problem, because they run smack up against a response from Gun-nut Nation which has nothing to do with science, or research, or facts at all.  How many peer-reviewed articles have appeared in scientific/medical journals over the last 50 years which provide substantive data showing that access to guns increases the risk of getting shot or shooting yourself with a gun?  Probably somewhere around 1,000 articles, give or take a few. How many articles have appeared in scientific/medical journals over the same time period which provide data supporting the idea that access to guns protects us from harm?  None.  That’s another way of saying ‘zero,’ in case you didn’t know.

So when it comes to figuring out whether guns are a good thing or a bad thing, or what I call the ‘social utility’ of guns, the scientific evidence goes in only one direction, the research uniformly says one thing: i.e., the social costs of free access to firearms outweighs the social benefits – period, done

There’s only one little problem.  The people who promote free access to guns, who want everyone to walk around with a gun could care less about what the scientific evidence shows.  And didn’t they just help elect a President who could also care less about the difference between fiction and fact? So Gun-sense Nation better figure out some messaging which can respond to how Gun-nut Nation feels about their guns. Because talking about gun violence by citing this or that scientific study works fine when you’re talking to someone who believes in science and facts.  But what happens when you find yourself in a discussion about gun violence with someone who believes that Martins really did land in Area 51?





31 thoughts on “What To Talk About Gun Violence? Facts Aren’t Enough.

  1. Exactly. GVP people need to launch emotional campaigns featuring children and pregnant woman who are killed with legal guns like the idiot who shot and killed a pregnant woman in Florida near Tampa while showing off his quick draw skills, and never got any jail time. Play up domestic violence against woman and children and terrorists who get guns legally. Emotions are always a better sell that facts and evidence, just ask sales experts on Madison av. How many perfume adds say that their perfume is better than the rest after scientific studies prove they are?

  2. Mike, While I agree that there is an element on the fringes that is not amenable to persuasion regardless of the evidence and while I agree with Peter that emotional appeals can be powerful, my experience on the speaking circuit (discussing my book “Confronting Gun Violence in America”) tells me that there are many reasonable people in the middle ( including NRA members) who are simply unaware of the many loopholes and flaws in our system of vetting owners, licensing of gun carriers, etc. Many are woefully unaware of some reasonable and nonintrusive practices in other countries. I find that a non-confrontational message that educates people can bring them on board and may create daylight between lobby groups and the rank and file. Characterizing the public as totally entrenched in one of two polar positions is, in my view, unproductive. I may be naïve but I think public opinion can shift if the messaging is firm but always evidence-based and respectful.

  3. T. Gabor, there are a lot of reasonable people on the gun-rights side.(I am not, but that is another discussion). However, I speak for many here, I believe. New gun laws might be considered if 1. They are not transparently intended as an excuse to generate a Federal data base of all legally owned firearms 2. Are not transparent attempts to use the standard Alinski strategy of singling out, demonizing, and then eliminating one sector of your enemies at a time. (For example -“We are not against all guns, just the evil ones that are black and scary looking and that no decent person would want to own.”) 3. Are not advanced by people and groups who, when in private or in the past, advocated for the elimination of the right of self defense for ordinary Americans. There are many others, but these are I beleive a good start.

    • Rum, I do not advocate adopting a gun registry, which is contrary to federal law and has not been successfully implemented in other countries. I believe that the right to self-defense is sovereign and is recognized in every legal system I have studied. However, I do not support Stand Your Ground Laws, such as that in Florida, which encourage people to use lethal force based simply on a belief that it is necessary and without an obligation to avoid violence by retreating. Lethal force should be a last resort, not a first response. This law has been shown to increase homicides in the state. In addition, much violence prevention has nothing to do with gun laws at all, but teaching nonviolent conflict resolution skills, addressing the social conditions that underlie violence, and building stronger, more inclusive communities.

  4. Stand your ground laws have variations State to State. The most popular aspect they have in common is not the “no duty to retreat” clause but the possibility of a judicial short cut and civil immunity if the short cut works. In essence, a request is made for what always gets called a SYG hearing before a judge to plead that the evidence and applicable law rises to more-likely-than-not proof of the innocence of the shooter. If granted, this stops the criminal process (which needs beyond-a-reasonable-doubt in the other direction to convict) and eliminates later claims of civil liability which need more-likely-than-not findings in the other direction to hold liable.. This is only logical, imho. FWIW, G. Zimmerman never asked for a SYG hearing in the T. Martin case. He would have probably prevailed in one if the massive publicity had not made anything but a jury trial radioactive. The enactment of a SYG law in Texas was followed by an upward bump in shootings but the numbers were so tiny for a state with 26 million it is hard to get excited. What is exciting is the fact that the murder rate in Texas (and Florida) have fallen by more than 50% over the 20 plus years of shall-issue conceal carry laws. To skip the arguments, I will say up front I doubt there is a causal connection. But that may be the point: There are no meaningful, worth-the-effort results of stricter or looser gun laws in the context of most of the US. Not to mention that gun ownership is about the most private of activities and the push back from a cram-down of unwanted gun restrictions would permanently wreck the relationship between Law enforcement and what are generally the most law abiding group in the US. Something really valuable would need to be on the other side of the scale to justify that.

    • Yes, Stand Your Ground laws have been associated with greater, not fewer, homicides in various states. Two studies now show that with the Florida variation. With regard to state gun laws, I would refer you to my analysis (Confronting Gun Violence in America, Chapter 8) which shows that states with stronger gun laws have far lower gun death rates than states with weaker laws, statistically controlling for violent crime rates, levels of poverty, and the level of urbanization. Other researchers have drawn the same conclusions.

  5. In my home state of Texas the concealed carry law was debated for a long time back in the mid 90s. Those against said it would lead to higher rates of violence and murder. Those for it said, “No it wont. Things will get better.” So, what would have been your prediction back in 1996?

    • Many factors influence a state’s homicide rates over a 20-year period. The most sophisticated and recent studies either show that concealed carry has no effect (National Academy of Sciences) or that it increases rates of violence. The best studies hold other influences (e.g., demographic) constant.

  6. There are many benefits to a well done CC law that have nothing to do with crime rates. In Texas, the program is highly IT based. It is not a piece of paper, it is a computer bar code that can be instantly scanned and checked. A CHL therefore functions like a high-grade piece of ID. The “background check” is continuous. If you get any number of types demerits, you lose it instantly without any adjudication. In practice, this means that if your car plates are scanned by a patrol officer into their on-board computer and it comes up that you have a valid, current CHL that officer knows that you are a law-abiding person that they do not need to waste time on. It is an excellent source of information for LE. Also, the fact that a path exists for a shall issue licence exists, there is no excuse for carrying without one. Cops and especially juries have no patience for carrying without one for this reason. In a may issue state, having a permit means that you are corrupt, ie, willing to play the influence game, ie, willing to pay someone in the system for a favor. They are never given away just because you are a law abiding person. You have to demonstrate a “need”. How much that will cost, and in what form, varies from place to place. In Chicago, lots of concealed permits are given out to cronies. Having one (or their local equivalent) suggests that you are a politician/criminal with connections more than anything else. In Texas, it is a sign that you can pass a background check today if needed and have never done violence as an adult. In Texas, LE wants you to go thru the program. It makes their job easier.

  7. I should re-write the preceding comment. It could be a lot shorter. It should just have said,”A well run CHL program dramatically improves the relationship between Cops and Civilians.” OK, that may not matter if you are a researcher because it is hard to measure. But consider this: What is the best thing about decriminalization of MJ? Answer= it improves the relationship between honest, hard-working, un-hurtful, otherwise law abiding pot smokers and LE that has more important problems to deal with. Again, that is hard to quantify. But this perspective goes a long way towards explaining why all but a few states now have shall issue CC and none of them are considering going backwards on this issue. And I personally do not belong to the NRA. They are way too soft on the big questions, IMHO.

  8. Rum, as you say, concealed carry licensing varies greatly across the country. There is a trend toward permitless carry. In Florida and many other states, the vetting and training of permit holders is far below the standards advocated by the leading experts on firearms training and law enforcement (e.g., Joe Vince). Again, I discuss this at length on pages 176-180 in Confronting Gun violence in America.

  9. My interpretation of the push for permitless carry or “Constitutional carry” is that gun rights advocates are trying to produce “facts on the ground” examples of the harmlessness of undoing existing laws. If one operates on the theory that gun laws are so inherently unenforceable (or so rarely enforced) because virtually all gun ownership is highly private and victimless, one can cheerfully go about dismantling existing strictures with confidence that nothing bad will happen. So, the standard gun rights arguments get another public demonstration of truthfulness. Whether this is exactly, scientifically true is beside the point I am making. It remains easy for the gun rights side to win the public theater contest by using this approach. For example, back in about 2004-5 Texas allowed for legal carry in ones own vehicle as if it were ones “home.” That had always been strictly illegal without a CHL. Now, any adult could keep a loaded revolver in their lap while driving thru down town in a rush hour. The antis hyperventilated and made up stories of shoot outs and dead children rolling around in their own blood, etc. The pros just mocked them loudly and wrote everything they were down while waiting for what they knew would happen: which was nothing would happen. Gun violence would go on being influenced by all the real factors and not influenced by things like unenforce-able laws being undone. The pros knew something the anti gunners didn’t. Everyone who wanted to have a gun in their car already had 2 or 3. The law never had much to do with it. And, as sure as the sunrise, GV rates continued in a smooth, straight constant decline over the following years. I have not read your book. I have not heard of it before. (I did read Alan Winklers. It seems that he took the unprecedented step of actually getting first hand knowledge of gun functionality before writing it.) With careful study of demographics and controlling for enough factors, etc. one could tease out a percent rise or fall here or there as a refutation of the null hypothesis as regards the effectiveness of gun laws. But that approach will always fail in a public argument when the other side is saying what will turn out to apparently true in the near future and your side is talking about blood and carnage that almost assuredly will not happen. Meanwhile, relations between cops and civilians are vastly improved. Because there can be more honesty on both sides. Just like if you had a small bag of weed.

  10. It is exactly the same dynamic in play with respect to “open carry” laws in places where they did not exist before (like Texas). The point was never that significant numbers of Texans felt the need to wear their guns outside their pants. The point was to show that nothing would change if the old law was eliminated. We are coming up on a year now after open carry being allowed (for CHL holders) and in this state of 26 million there have been essentially no problems at all. Everyone who put their names on lurid predictions of mayhem, etc. must now face the voters.

  11. Rum, you can have the final word, if you wish. This is my final volley for now. There are opinions on all sides of the debate and then there are facts. Among high-income countries, as defined by the World Bank, the US is an outlier in terms of its level of gun ownership, its concealed carry laws, and its rates of gun deaths. When states are compared, those with higher gun ownership levels and more permissive gun laws tend to have higher, not lower, gun deaths. If gun ownership and carrying served more to protect than to harm us, we would see fewer gun deaths where we have more guns and gun carrying. Nationally, so-called gun free zones, such as colleges, have had less violence than the surrounding community but the gun lobby insists on forcing colleges to allow guns on campus. University administrators, professors and students are overwhelmingly against this practice. Americans ought to be outraged by the amount of gun deaths and injuries in this country. The evidence shows that the mayhem will get worse as gun carrying by people who are poorly vetted and have little or no training becomes more prevalent and is allowed in an increasing number of settings.

  12. Dan Nolan, who is director of research at Angiocrine Bioscience, and I recently looked at some Florida data in our spare time. The recent JAMA study claiming that SYG increased homicides in FL was guilty of cherry picking data, selectively interpretation, and didn’t look at statistics for other states with SYG laws either by statute, or by court interpretation of the right of self defense, as controls or comparitors. Nor was there an effort to find out if any increase in homicides were the result of SYG, which would have meant a deep dive into individual cases. Nor a justification of why the sociology of the states chosen as comparitors are valid. One could compare homicide rates in Chicago and New York City and find,lo and behold, they are different. Its not the only study that has come out that is both lousy and which substitutes a purported correlation for causation.

    I agree that lethal force should always be a last resort but also think all states have to make clear that a person does not have to put one’s self at undue risk before exercising our Age of Reason-based right to defend ourselves.

    Of course Peter suggests we should use emotion even when facts are lacking. But Mike, you criticize some in Gun Nut Nation for doing the same. We recently experienced an election where emotion replaced facts. Was that such a good idea? Or to paraphrase, we are all entitled to our own emotions, but not our own facts.

  13. Here is the gist of the Florida law.

    “A person is justified in using or threatening to use deadly force only if he or she reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. A person who uses or threatens to use deadly force in accordance with this subsection does not have a duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground if the person using or threatening to use the deadly force is not engaged in a criminal activity and is in a place where he or she has a right to be.”


    So first, the use of deadly force is only justified if someone “reasonably believes” it is neccesary to prevent a forcible felony. I am not convinced it encourages people to use deadly force frivolously and frankly, think it would take more than a half a dozen page JAMA paper to prove that it does. The question of retreat is a good one but the converse, that one feels compelled to retreat before one can defend one’s self is equally problematic. Mind you, I once talked a big guy down in a nasty situation when I could have as easily drawn the weapon I was carrying (I was on my way to a deer hunt, not simply packing heat). I always suggest conflict resolution rather than escalation and frankly, think that anyone carrying a weapon has the duty to be at least as good in conflict resolution skills as in defensive firearm skills,

    Thomas Gabor’s second comment comes right out of recent sociology research by folks like Andrew Papachristos, i.e., one has to look at why people are violent as well as control the implements of violence. We can pass all the gun laws we want but if we don’t solve the problems that create places like the South Side of Chicago, we will have solved little and nothing short of draconian reductions in gun availability would keep those gangs from getting guns. As someone recently said, its a demand-driven market.

    Like Mike, I agree that a society with more guns but without the self control and self-examination to see guns as simply a tool that expels a high velocity projectile, will simply be a more violent society. Guns are not magic and they don’t solve social problems. But there are places with both strong and weak gun laws that have low gun crime. There are places with both strong and weak gun laws that have high gun crime. Somehow, some in “gun sense nation” seem to always see gun laws as the solution, regardless of the nature of the problem. That’s my beef. Its easy to blame guns while one is blind to social inequality and economic polarization. Just keep the rabble disarmed.

  14. And finally, no, the Martians did not land at Area 51. It was the Kanamits, but they decided we did not taste good.

  15. Khal, I’m interested in learning more from about your analysis of SYG laws. An analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found that the number of justifiable homicides in Florida tripled following the introduction of SYG in 2005. A subsequent study by the Times that defendants claiming SYG are more likely to be successful if the victim is black. In nearly a third of the cases analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person, or pursued their victims—and still went free. In 79 % of the cases the shooter could have retreated to avoid the confrontation. 60 % of the defendants had been previously arrested and drug dealers have successfully invoked SYG despite the fact they were in the middle of a deal when the shooting started. Cheng and Hoekstra of Texas A&M University found that homicide rates in states with an SYG law increased by an average of 8 % over states without it. This translates to roughly 600 additional homicides per year. In yet another national study, in SYG states, a white shooter who kills a black victim is 350 % more likely to be found to be justified than if the same shooter killed a white victim. I discuss evaluations of these laws at length in Confronting Gun Violence in America (chapter 10).

  16. Nothing about SYG laws alter the basic framework of self defense laws in general. Which is fundamentally, if there is no reasonable fear of imminent death, etc, force is never justifiable. Therefore, I am mystified to hear that some shooters “pursued” their victims and were subsequently acquitted. In no place I have ever heard of would that be consistent with justifiable use of force. It is an explicit contradiction in terms. It is like saying, “Boiled Ice.” Pursuit = proof of not being afraid. This does not come close to passing the smell test. And I have read the Texas A&M study. The numbers involved are miniscule and therefore close to meaningless.

  17. SYG, Florida style, bears no resemblance to self-defense as enshrined in Anglo-American law for centuries. Think of George Zimmermann pursuing Trayvon Martin in his car and then on foot. An altercation ensues and Zimmermann claims that he used lethal force in defense of his life. The Times study shows that the use of lethal force in Florida is often justified in such cases. The American Bar Association reviewed the Texas A&M study and found no major fault with it. It’s always easy to dismiss studies we disagree with, but you offer no facts Rum.

    • I would have toned down the wording in SYG as the wording makes me uncomfortable too.

      Basically, no one should feel compelled to retreat if by so doing it increases the risks to the law abiding citizen vs standing your ground; I would have said that instead. Also, as the law says, SYG is only justified if one believes lethal force is necessary to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. It is more that a lot of people are probably not prepared to make such a judgement in the heat of the moment. Maybe that is less a function of SYG law than one would want to admit, and more a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  18. Dan Nolan got the Florida homicide rates and justifiable homicides from the FL Dept. of Justice and a Politifact link. The total homicide rate was highest in the seventies and had a minimum in 2001-2004 and then went up a little bit. The rise in justifiable homicides, up from 0.1-0.17 per 100k pop, is a few percent of all homicides. All homicides, not just JH, rose about the same percent, so there was nothing special about JH and the JAMA authors looked only at SYG and now why all homicides went up a small amount.

    At work right now have not looked at the other paper.

    • Justifiable homicides are notoriously undercounted in FBI statistics. In any event, homicides of all types went up following SYG, not down. National studies corroborate this. Please see the Tampa Bay Times story which asserted, based on Florida Dept of Law Enforcement data, the tripling of justifiable homicides following SYG: http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/crime/five-years-since-florida-enacted-stand-your-ground-law-justifiable/1128317

      P.S. I admire your efforts to dig deeply into these statistics and, as I told my students for 30 years, all studies have flaws and they should review all research with a critical eye. As you will appreciate, when you are writing a book with about 1,000 sources, you cannot dig into each study in such depth or it will take you a century to complete it.

      • I just looked at murder rates 1971-2015. Its been almost continuously decreasing for the past third of a century. 10-15 per 100k in the seventies to down around 5 per 100k circa 2000. There is a small upward blip of 20% to 6 circa 2006-2009 and then it drops again to 5. Did Floridians learn the limits of SYG or did something else happen? What caused the upward blip ten years ago?

        Sure, there were more JHs since the law was liberalized but these still make up a small fraction of the total and I wonder how many of these would have happened anyway. But as I said above, I would not have written the law as it was written. To me it does not counsel prudence. I think we agree on that.

        ps. Overall, the violent crime index in Fl dropped from about 700/100k to 470/100k since 2006. I would not hypothesize that SYG caused this but I’m not the NRA. Who knows?


        Just started reading it but so far the Cheng and Hoekstra paper looks good!

      • Thanks Khal. There are many factors that influence homicide rates that are probably more important than what we do about guns. My concern is that SYG Florida style sends a powerful message that we can use lethal force without considering nonviolent or less drastic options first. I don’t think the burden of proof is on those who are defending self-defense law as it has existed for centuries to show that SYG does not work but for those proposing such a radical law like SYG to show why we need it and that it is going to dramatically improve public safety–it is not and may even be undermining public safety depending on what we make of the “blip” in homicide trends. My experience in Florida is that there is no public demand for SYG, campus and airport carry, and open carry. It is all driven by the gun lobby and its radical agenda.

  19. With all due respect, I fail to see how SYG laws overturn the basics of self defense law. Without justifiable fear of death, etc, force is never sanctioned. With justifiable fear, force is always sanctioned. One can argue that SYG laws create a climate of relecklessness that is bad for society, but no law has ever required you to die in order to be compliant with it. G. Zimmerman never used SYG in his defense. It was never mentioned in the trial. His defense rested solely on traditional self defense law. GZ was acquitted because the evidence was there that T. Martin was physically stronger than GZ, was in a superior fighting position, and manifested no tendency to stop inflicting potentially lethal head injuries. (More people die from hands and feet to the head each year than long guns in the US.) This is what the investigators knew from day 1 and explains why some local authorities resigned rather than bring the case. The state AG who did bring the case had the necessary political cover and did not have to worry about ending up like Mike Nifong. Tellingly, the AG carefully avoided ever presenting the case to a Grand Jury. They knew it would not survive even that. They knew.

    • Rum, there are different degrees of force. The most fundamental difference between Florida style SYG and traditional self-defense is that in the latter lethal force can only be used when there are no other options. One must retreat or use just enough force (proportional force)to repel an attacker. One cannot resort to lethal force without considering other options simply because one believes their life is in danger. There is a strong burden to prove that one’s belief was reasonable and that one had no other options than the use of lethal force. No one here is disputing the right of self-defence. The question is whether we want to live in a world where people think it is ok to kill when they feel threatened without considering less drastic alternatives. What message does that send our kids?

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