Before I get into the body of this column, let me make one thing very, very clear. Mike the Gun Guy™ has not decided to switch sides and begin promoting the false narratives about gun violence used by my friends in the NRA. I do not believe that having a gun around is more of a benefit than a risk; I do not believe that civilians, trained or not, should be walking around with guns; I do not believe that when Mike Bloomberg, et. al., takes away all the guns, that only the ‘bad guys’ will have guns.
On the other hand, the fact that I do not subscribe to the most hallowed beliefs of Gun-nut Nation doesn’t mean I am willing to accept the basic assumptions or arguments about gun violence promoted by the gun-control side. And the reason I cannot accept the current gun-control narrative is that it is based on public health research by scholars at first-rate institutions like Johns Hopkins and Harvard, and I find most of this research to be fundamentally flawed.
Public health gun research does not lead to substantive advances in firearm regulation for three reasons: (1). The researchers know absolutely nothing about the industry which they believe needs more effective regulation; (2). the research never focuses on the behavior of individuals who commit 85% of all intentional gun violence by picking up a gun and shooting someone else; (3). the research uses data which is chosen to promote an answer to the problem of gun violence rather than to figure out how to understand the problem itself.
Along with raising these concerns about the value and validity of public health gun research, I want to raise one more issue which is the most troublesome of all. To put it bluntly: I have never (read never) encountered a field of academic research in which the researchers are as unwilling and/or unable to engage in critical, public discussions about their own work. If these scholars consider that the absence of such a critical dialog helps them better understand both the possibilities and the limits of their research, then all I can say is that this field of academic research fundamentally differs from every other academic field, including other research done by public health.
Yesterday I attended a presentation about a new strategy for diagnosing autism that is being tested at the Harvard School of Public Health. The lecture was presented before a room of clinicians and medical students who were encouraged to ask serious questions about the methods and findings of the strategy itself. Do any of the scholars who conduct gun violence research ever appear before audiences other than various gun-control groups who already agree with what they are going to say? They don’t.
Here’s an example of how seriously flawed gun research can be and how such flaws take us further, rather than closer to solving the public health crisis caused by guns. David Hemenway has made an international reputation for himself by arguing that the United States suffers an inordinately high level of fatal violence because we have so many guns. He has made this argument in numerous articles as well as in his formative book.
In the book (2nd edn., page 2) he compares gun homicides in the U.S. with homicide rates in other ‘frontier’ countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and finds that the overall U.S. rate is 6.1 (for 1999 – 2000) while in the other countries it is 1.7 or 1.8. That difference is because we have twice as many households with guns, even though rates of non-fatal violent crimes in those other countries (burglary, robbery, rape) are either higher or the same.
I don’t recall the last time I listened to a public discussion about gun violence or looked at a gun-control website that I didn’t see reference to this argument again, again and again. But what I find most interesting about Hemenway’s approach is not what he says, but what he doesn’t say. Because the fact is that the non-gun homicide rate in the U.S. is more than twice as great as the non-gun homicide rate anywhere else. And while Hemenway gives us those comparative numbers, he ignores what they really mean.
Because if you think the imbalance in violence between the United States and other advanced countries started when the NRA or John Lott began promoting a gun culture, think again. In fact, we were killing people at a much faster rate than other advanced countries all the way back to the decades prior to World War I.
It’s one thing to argue that we are a violent society because we own so many guns. But are there other, equally compelling explanations that might inform us as to why the United States may be a more violent society pari passu? I’m not saying that Hemenway’s argument is totally wrong; I am saying that it is, at best, incomplete. And I am still waiting for anyone in the public health research community to consider that using incomplete arguments as a guide to public policy just doesn’t work.
If any of my public health research friends want to submit a response, I’ll be happy to post it here.