If We Don’t Want People To Use Guns For Self-Defense, What Options Do They Have?

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Our good friends at the Center for American Progress (CAP) have just released an important and valuable study, America Under Fire, which I am going to review in detail later this week. But since the report is, so to speak, hot off the presses, I would like to raise one issue which needs to be considered when we try figure out whether gun violence can be reduced through new or expanded laws.

goetz           Which is not the intention of the CAP report per se; the tree they bark up is to determine whether gun regulations have any impact on gun violence at all.  And with a judicious use of data from a variety of sources, the authors of this report believe, as they state, that “the link between weak gun laws and higher rates of gun violence cannot be ignored.”  For the moment I’ll hold off on exploring the ins and outs of that link; my goal today is to raise a wider issue coterminous to the report but not a focus of the report itself.

The latest research from the Harvard-Northeastern team indicates that 22% of American adults admit to being owners of guns.  Within this population, two-thirds of these gun owners claim that their primary reason for owning a gun is for self-defense.  That gets us down to roughly 15% of American adults who have decided to respond to their concerns about personal safety by going out and getting a gun.

According to other surveys, two-thirds of all Americans also believe that a home is a safer place if it contains a gun.  And more than half of all Americans worry a ‘great deal’ about crime and another quarter worry about crime ‘a fair amount.’ So the bottom line is two-thirds of all Americans are concerned about their personal safety, two-thirds believe that a gun will make them more safe, but at best only a small portion of people who are worried about personal safety and believe that a gun is a proper and perhaps positive response to this problem actually invoke that response.

Now the gun industry would love it if everyone would run out a buy a gun, or at least everyone who is concerned about personal safety but has not yet acquired a gun.  The industry has been promoting using guns for self-defense for more than twenty years, and God knows a day doesn’t pass without another scam website opening up which promises to deliver the be-all and end-all training for everyone who just received their concealed-carry permit or lives in a state where walking around with a gun for self-protection (or any other dumb reason) doesn’t require any kind of licensing at all.

But the fact remains that most people who claim to be concerned about their personal safety, or at least believe that violent crime getting worse (if you don’t know anyone like that you might try going to the next Trump rally, even though there may not be many more Trump rallies) have made the conscious decision not to protect themselves with a gun. And for all the talk about guns and self-protection, I have yet to see one, single survey which asks people who don’t own guns how they protect themselves from crime. Not a single survey. Not one.

What I think would really move the GVP debate forward would be an attempt to figure out how people deal with their fears or concerns about personal safety without using or buying a gun.  Because if we are going to reduce gun violence, no matter how effective we believe certain laws might be, we have to be able to offer viable, non-gun options to folks who simply don’t believe they have any choice except to rely on their guns. If GVP can develop a strategy that makes gun owners feel they can be safe without relying on their guns, this would mark a fundamental change in how the debate about gun violence is currently framed.

Do We Really Know How Many Americans Own Guns? Depends Who Wants To Know.

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How many Americans own guns?  The answer to this question is probably the single, most important piece of data for both sides of the gun debate.  If the number of Americans who own guns is increasing, then arguments for gun control will be accepted by fewer and fewer people every year.  However, if fewer people turn out to be gun owners, then efforts to push new gun control legislation will run up against less resistance over time.  Either way, figuring out the actual number of people who own guns is difficult because very few jurisdictions actually require that every individual gun owner register his or her guns.  So we are forced to fall back on various surveys or polls, which always leave room for doubt because, by definition, the results of any public survey can be interpreted in more than one way.

The latest example of how a survey of the number of gun owners can be looked at from two very different perspectives are the reactions to the latest General Social Survey conducted by the AP-NORC Center at the University of Chicago and published every two years.  The survey asks many questions that have been unchanged since 1972, it is based on interviews with 2,500 respondents, and it is generally considered the most reliable indicator of American socio-political attitudes and how these attitudes change over time.

The GSS has been asking the following question since 1972: “Do you happen to have in your home or garage any guns or revolvers?”  Since the question was first asked in 1972, when the overall response was roughly 50%, the number of positive responses has been slowly but surely going down.  It’s higher in households who declare themselves to be Republicans as opposed to Democrats or Independents, but in all three groups, notwithstanding a brief Obama-provoked increase among Republican respondents between 2008 and 2012, the overall number keeps edging South, with the high watermark of 53% reached in 1978 and the 2014 figure sliding to its current 32%.

gss                This part of the report, as you can imagine, came in for its share of positive versus negative press depending on the general attitude towards guns.  The Violence Policy Center issued a very detailed analysis of the findings, and announced that the shrinkage of American gun ownership was an “unavoidable conclusion” of the GSS survey, reflecting “the aging of the current-gun owning population, primarily white males, and a lack of interest in guns by youth.”  The NRA, on the other hand, touts a Gallup survey which showed household gun ownership at 42%, although they neglect to mention that this number has also dropped nearly 10 points since 1994.

I happen to think that the GSS findings are probably accurate for three reasons.  First, the GSS develops its data based on in-person interviews, rather than telephone contacts, and the in-depth questioning of each respondent tends to make it easier for the post-interview analysts to differentiate between valid, as opposed to questionable responses received by the survey teams in the field.  Second, while the specific numbers on gun ownership between GSS versus Gallup may differ, the trends over time are the same.  Finally, I am at a loss to understand why the pro-gun community still believes that gun owners are afraid to disclose their ownership of guns, which continues to be the nonsensical, knee-jerk response to every survey that points to Americans losing interest in guns.

If the NRA is still convinced that gun owners tend to be afraid of disclosing their ownership of guns, why don’t they conduct a study like the one conducted by the head of the GSS,  Tom Smith, who found in a 2001 survey of 800 CCW-holders that 90% admitted to owning guns. This study was conducted, incidentally, to eliminate the possibility that the GSS data was based on too many false-negative responses, which it turned out wasn’t true.  Instead of theories, opinions and random selection of data, I’d love to see the pro-gun folks just once produce a serious survey to back up their own claims – just once.

Are Any Gun Control Measures Reasonable? I’m Not Sure The NRA Would Agree.

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This is going to be a difficult column to write but it needs to be written.  So I’m going to ask all my friends on the gun-sense side of the aisle (my friends on the pro-gun side seem to be dwindling – gee, I wonder why?) to read what I write very carefully and don’t jump to the conclusion that Mike the Gun Guy has finally lost his mind.  He hasn’t, he’s just trying to respond to a very difficult issue that has come up of late.  And what I am referring to is the recent Pew poll which finds that, for the first time since the poll began in 1993, “there is more support for gun rights than gun control.”  I am quoting Pew.

As can be imagined, the poll results created lots of chatter on both sides.  The NRA immediately weighed in, claiming the poll showed that, “Americans of nearly every description are embracing the Second Amendment at historic levels, even as its opponents pour historic amounts of money and effort into suppressing it.” The Campaign to Stop Gun Violence and other groups, went online with a petition asking Pew to change the wording of their poll question because the current question “creates a false perception of gun safety advocates, who are not trying to ‘control gun ownership’ but rather want reasonable regulations that keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous people.”

gv                I have seen confidential marketing surveys conducted by more than one gun company which asks the same questions not just of telephone respondents, but focus groups, door-to-door surveys, the whole bit.  These studies are expensive, they are conducted with care, and the gun companies rely on this information (after all, they pay big bucks for it) more then they rely on public opinion polls from Pew, Gallup, or anyone else. And what these polls consistently show is that, by a margin of two-thirds over one-third, Americans support the idea of private gun ownership, but by the same margin support the idea that gun ownership should be subject to some kind of government control.  And this two-third, one-third breakdown appears in virtually every demographic, every geographic, every way in which the marketing companies slice and dice the information they receive.

So the argument gets down not to whether the government should control firearm ownership, but to what extent and to what degree these controls should exist.  And by the way, despite what all these 2nd-Amendment “absolutists” who are opposed to any government gun controls may say, no less a gun nut than Antonin Scalia gave the government explicit authority to “regulate” firearm commerce in the Heller decision of 2008.

I think it’s not such an easy task, indeed perhaps a very difficult task, to convince gun advocates that “reasonable regulations” to keep guns out of the wrong hands can be understood as something other than more “gun control” laws.  And what makes it very difficult is that the NRA and its allies have never positioned themselves as being against “reasonableness” of any sort; rather, they dodge this issue by claiming that even the most ‘reasonable’ gun regulation becomes a ‘slippery slope’ that leads to real gun control, i.e., confiscation of guns.  Whether it’s banning Saturday Night Specials, or hi-cap magazines or expanding background checks, they have used this argument to fight against every ‘reasonable’ gun-safety measure over the last twenty years.

I’m not so sure that the Pew poll is necessarily catching responses to the wrong question as much as it reflects the degree to which opposition to government regulation, any kind of regulation, is increasingly the watchword of a major chunk of the electorate, particularly the electorate that is painted a bright red. The problem for the gun-sense movement is not that reasonable gun regulations are a partisan issue in and of themselves, but they have become a part of a wider argument about the role of government in and of itself.


Do Guns Make Us More Or Less Safe? The NRA Seems To Be Winning The Argument

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In 1993 Art Kellerman, Frederick Rivara and several other colleagues published an article which found that guns in the home increased the risk of homicide in the home.  I recall reading this article a year after it was published and wondered how something so incontrovertible; i.e., guns are lethal, needed to be validated in a peer-reviewed medical journal.  I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t understand it now.  Of course there are lots of ways that you can kill someone, but a gun really doesn’t have any other purpose.  It’s not like a knife which you can also use to cut a slice of steak.

Nevertheless, within a year after this article appeared, the gun folks produced a contrary argument about guns, in their case an alleged national survey conducted by Gary Kleck, who claimed on the basis of an alleged 213 telephone interviews that Americans used guns each year to prevent more than 2 million crimes.  Did his publication appear in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal?  No.  Did he attempt to validate in any way the reports of respondents who said they used a gun to prevent a crime? No.  But Kleck’s argument became the basic selling-point for justifying gun ownership and it remains the war-cry of the pro-gun movement to this day.  After all, even if Kellerman was right and guns lying around the home resulted in higher levels of injury and death, what’s 30,000 deaths from guns when compared to 2 million crimes that didn’t take place?

cdc logo     Meanwhile, within two years after Kellerman’s article appeared, the NRA successfully moved to cut off funding by the CDC of all gun violence research, citing Kellerman’s work among others as promoting a negative view of guns, gun ownership and gun owners, not necessarily in that order.  The debate between pro-gun and anti-gun advocates continued and went over the top again after Sandy Hook, with the two sides basically holding to the positions taken by Kellerman and Kleck.  According to groups like the Violence Policy Center and others who want more controls over guns, the greater number of guns floating around, the more violence will take place.  The NRA counters this argument by saying that every law-abiding citizen should be walking around with a gun because it’s all those good guys carrying guns that will stop the bad guys before any harm is done.

In 2011 David Hemenway published a review of the literature on this argument (through 2007) and found that the published studies confirming the idea that more guns equals more violence outpaced the published studies that argued the reverse by something like 20 to 1.  In other words, despite the fact that public health research on guns had not been funded by the CDC for more than ten years, when it came to the written word on this subject, the folks who said that guns constituted a social risk as opposed to a social benefit were way out in front.

There was only one little problem.  In the place where the argument really counts, the arena of public opinion, the folks who believe that guns are a risk have fallen far behind. This week the Gallup Organization published a poll on whether Americans feel safer around guns, the fourth time they have conducted this poll in the last 14 years.  In 2000, the poll showed that 35% of respondents thought the house with a gun safer and 51% thought it was less safe.  This year, more than 60% thought a house with a gun was safer and only 30% believed it to be less safe.

Why is there such a clear disconnect between the consensus among health researchers and the general public regarding the safety of guns.  Somehow, the results of an awful lot of research doesn’t seem to be getting through.  I’ve been a gun guy all my life and if anyone tries to convince me that guns aren’t lethally dangerous, it’s a discussion that will come to a quick end. But it’s not a discussion that seems to be happening between gun scholars and anyone else.

What Happened To All The Concern About Guns?

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For a few months after Sandy Hook, it looked like the government was going to pass a new gun control law, specifically aimed at keeping guns out of the “wrong” hands. The president got behind a bill, ditto the gun-control advocacy groups, the pundits wrote and spoke, even the lamentably tragic Newtown parents had their moment on the White House porch.

Meanwhile, everyone forgot the simple fact that the Democrats could barely muster 60 votes for any kind of legislation, a weakness that was exploited by the NRA and its allies to a remarkably-effective degree. All the polls showed a majority of Americans favored stricter gun control, but those numbers didn’t translate into 60 votes on the Senate floor, so Manchin-Toomey quickly died.

Then nine months and one day after Adam Lanza went on a rampage in Newtown, another loony named Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Navy Yard in DC and the response from the White House and Capitol Hill was no response at all. But here’s the more important news: Four days after the Navy Yard shooting, Gallup conducted its annual poll on whether Americans thought we needed stricter gun control, and the percentage of respondents who wanted stricter laws declined significantly from the previous year!

Gallup has been running this poll since 2000, and the question is always the same: “Do you feel that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” The high watermark for making the laws more strict was the first year of the poll, with 62 percent wanting the laws to be more strict and 31 percent wanting them to remain the same.

Year after year the trends narrowed until 2011-2012, when the percentage of Americans who wanted stricter gun laws versus those who saw no reason for change were basically the same. Then we had Sandy Hook, and for the first time since the poll was initially conducted, respondents by almost a two-to-one margin once again opted for stricter laws covering guns.

And yet, according to the latest Gallup finding in the aftermath of both Newtown and the Navy Yard, for the first time since 2008, less than 50 percent want stricter gun laws and the percentages who want the laws unchanged (37 percent) or want the laws to be less strict (13 percent) have both gone up.

How is it that a majority of Americans now believe gun laws should be weakened or remain the same? Part of the answer lies in the degree to which the NRA and the NSSF have continued their grass-roots efforts to mobilize their memberships while the gun control groups, lacking a legislative push on Capitol Hill, have gone back to sleep. The gun folks have become obsessively safety-conscious, just take a look at the NSSF’s Project ChildSafe website and you’ll get my point.

But the real reason for this attitudinal change is because public opinion doesn’t push politics, it’s usually the other way around: political leadership shapes public opinion. The jump in public demand for more gun control after Sandy Hook occurred because the president made guns an issue in every speech he gave. Once Obama and the Democrats stopped talking about gun violence, so did everyone else.

If you believe that we need stricter gun laws, then the year since Sandy Hook should give you no comfort at all. You might cynically believe that gun control will remain on the back burner until another massacre takes place, but if it happens when political agendas are focused on other issues, even the slightest attempt to push a common-sense response to gun violence probably won’t get very far.