In his Oct. 11 column, D.J. Tice accuses people like me of lacking “consistency and care” because we support government policy as a way to reduce gun violence but don’t believe government action has been effective in other areas like the war on drugs. Tice’s analysis (“Thought experiment: Could gun prohibition work?”) depends on his mistaken premise that gun policy reform equals a blanket gun ban, which I agree is unworkable. Why doesn’t Tice discuss what we are actually advocating, such as background checks before all gun sales, instead of changing the subject?
For two decades, the gun lobby has controlled the national policy of weakening U.S. gun laws. Its solutions haven’t worked. In the U.S., we have 88 gun deaths a day, most of them suicides. Guns are poised to surpass car crashes as a cause of death. Yet Tice holds proposed gun violence prevention policies to a ridiculously high standard: Will they stop all gun deaths?
A public-health-based standard asks instead: Does the policy measurably reduce gun death and injury? Leading public-health expert Daniel Webster of Johns Hopkins University provides careful analysis based on research. In a TEDMED talk, he aptly compares effective gun polices to the public-health-based campaign that dramatically reduced drunken-driving deaths in America without banning cars.
Webster notes three basic principles common to preventing both types of deaths:
1) Limiting access for inappropriate users: Just as a history of drunken driving can keep alcohol abusers off the road, effective gun policies prohibit access to guns by those with a history of violent or reckless behavior. Requiring a background check on every gun purchase stops prohibited buyers at the point of sale. Since the passage of the Brady Background Check law, 2.4 million sales to prohibited buyers have been stopped. But gun-show loopholes and unregulated Internet sales let too many people legally avoid a background check.
The problem is not unworkable gun violence policies, as Tice claims, but the continued weakening of gun laws. Webster’s research shows, for example, that after the Missouri legislature dismantled its state background check system in 2007, there was a twofold increase in the diversion of guns to the criminal market, a 25 percent increase in homicides and a 16 percent increase in suicides — none of which could be explained by factors other than the law’s repeal.
2) Holding users and sellers accountable: Accountability for drunken drivers and those who sell alcohol to prohibited buyers has been a key to success. Gun dealers, too, should be held accountable for unsafe practices. An example cited by Webster: A Wisconsin gun dealer who was embarrassed to be identified by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as the No. 1 seller of crime guns in America in 1999. The dealer reduced by 77 percent the diversion of its guns to the criminal market simply through safer business practices, including videotaped transactions, anti-theft measures and computerized sale records for cross-checking.
The gun lobby, for all its disingenuous bluster about “enforcing existing laws,” has induced Congress to protect reckless gun dealers from lawsuits, suppress information about crime gun dealers, defund gun-related public-health research and undermine the ATF’s ability to enforce laws governing gun dealers.
3) Incorporating new technologies: For cars, it was air bags and seat belts. For guns, it is smart-gun technology (guns that can recognize their authorized user and operate only for them) and microstamping of bullets to identify crime guns.
Change is coming. Since Sandy Hook, community support for gun violence prevention has grown exponentially. A recent Quinnipiac poll found a 93 percent national support rate for background checks before all gun sales.
The historically underfunded gun violence prevention movement has attracted millions of dollars in new resources and thousands of newly engaged activists. Per-household gun ownership is declining, driving the gun lobby to increasingly extremist positions. We have begun winning at the state level — most recently in Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington, New York and Oregon, where background check laws have been strengthened without banning guns.
Journalists ought to do their homework, force the gun lobby and its friends to defend their indefensible opposition to important new policies, and stop misdirecting the conversation by setting up straw men to destroy.
Heather Martens is executive director of Protect Minnesota: Working to End Gun Violence.