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Do we really want to keep kids safe, or just keep them safe from guns?

While most of us would prefer the former, our national conversation seems focused on the latter. Let’s infuse this conversation with facts, data and thoughtful discourse.

168 people, including many children, were killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, but no guns were involved.
REUTERS/Jim Bourg

There have been calls from many quarters, including the White House, for Americans to engage in a national conversation on gun violence. While we were talking, the president and vice president were writing executive actions, 23 in all. Is this a conversation or a monologue?

Meanwhile, we toil with boots on the ground, engaging in meaningful dialogue, or so we think. On Facebook, the conversation is carried by the sharing and liking of placards. The placards share data parsed carefully, to selectively illuminate shards of the issue, to paint guns-are-bad pictures, which artfully merge into an America-has-a-gun-problem mural. It is a mosaic short on terra cotta and long on grout.

Before the mortar sets, let’s review how the shards can be arranged to form a distorted image:  Start at the conclusion and work backwards to selectively include and exclude data points based on weapon of choice, age of victims, place of attack, and perpetrator affiliation (terrorist group or terrorist individual). Blatantly absent from the graphs and from the conversation are the largest mass killings in America and around the world, because either guns were not used or were not the principal mode of killing. Out of the dataset fall the victims of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995; 168 killed, including 19 children under age 6. The graphics deftly navigate around the bodies of mass killings victims who did not fall on school grounds, on American soil, or by gunfire. Some charts graph incidents, some graph death toll, and some don’t define what the numbers represent. All of the data germane to the conversation is not being brought to the conversation.

One of the most eye-popping placards features a graph of mass school shootings in America since 1940, with each decade including the accumulation all of the tragedies of all previous decades. Through this treatment of numbers, the graph line can flatten, but it can never go down; a cumulative death toll never decreases. This has the visual effect of making shootings appear to be always increasing, even when that is not the case. This cherry picking and data graphing lack the honesty needed in this conversation. The graph to which I refer was created by Dr. A. Charles Catania, and it appears, among other places, on Rachel Maddow’s blog

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The most salient data point dodged by this graph is the Bath School killings in Bath Township, Michigan, which were perpetrated by Andrew Kehoe in 1927. Kehoe killed his wife with a blunt object and set his farm ablaze before setting off explosives in the school, killing 45, including 38 children. It is the deadliest mass school killing in U.S. history. Again, this is seen as uninteresting to the conversation, as children were not killed by guns. Internationally, the Beslan school siege and subsequent massacre in 2004 involved the capture of more than  1,100 Russian hostages, including 777 children. It ended with the deaths of 380 people; the majority of them succumbed to explosion and fire, not gunfire.

For those only concerned with shootings, a comprehensive look at mass shootings in America, 1900-2012, is provided in this link from Grant Duwe’s book “Mass Murder in the United States: A History.”  To be clear, it is adjusted for population (per capita), and it is a graph of shooting incidents in which four or more victims were killed publicly by gun.  Duwe is director of research and evaluation at the Minnesota Department of Corrections. 

Unintended consequences of the conversation

The executive actions and gun-ban talk have motivated many Americans to get out of their easy chairs to do something; buy a gun and/or join the NRA. The NRA reports 250,000 new members in the four weeks following the Newtown tragedy. People who never before needed the NRA are learning that the representation they sent to Washington is being sidelined by an emboldened president — leaving them without a voice, while sensing a challenge to their constitutional rights.

If you haven’t been to a gun shop in the past several weeks, you have not seen firsthand how many firearms and boxes of ammunition the president and vice president have helped to sell; picture bare walls, empty display cases and barren shelves. It is a great time to buy a scope, as little else remains in stock.

The rush to do something, anything

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo rushed a bill through the New York State Assembly using a procedural shortcut known as a “message of necessity,” which shielded the bill from public view. The NY SAFE Act, which Cuomo signed into law, bans all magazines that hold more than seven rounds and prohibits the carrying of guns on school grounds. New York Assemblyman Al Graf commented, “I got my hands on the bill at 11:30 at night,” adding that he had only an hour to review it prior to a meeting of the Codes Committee. “Nobody was really able to look at the bill.”

The new law has been lauded as containing reasonable restrictions, common sense measures, and sensible solutions. Those terms are often invoked to stifle the conversation, as common sense is not open to debate. Unfortunately, in the rush to act, New York police were not exempted from the new gun restrictions; they are not permitted on school grounds with a gun. Now New York schools are arguably a less safe environment for children, as police officers are more likely than criminals to know and obey the new law. Cuomo’s actions make a knee-jerk bill appear to be a thoughtfully considered course of action. Time was of the essence; the policy had to be wrought before the emotions of the Newtown tragedy diminished. Data is durable; ignored, it waits patiently to be noticed, shared, and discussed.

Would banning firearms reduce murder and suicide?

This was the question asked and answered by American criminologist Don Kates and Canadian criminologist Dr. Gary Mauser.  Their study was not performed or funded by any pro-gun individuals or organizations; it was published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy (Vol. 30, No. 2). If there were to be one required reading for participants of the conversation, this would get my vote. I will provide four key quotes, to pique interest in reading the report:

  • From the introduction, “There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate.  Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.”
  • “In the late 1990s, England moved from stringent controls to a complete ban of all handguns and many long guns.  Hundreds of thousands of guns were confiscated from those owners law-abiding enough to turn them into authorities. Without suggesting that this caused violence, the ban’s ineffectiveness was such that England and Wales had Europe’s highest violent crime rate, far surpassing even the United States.”
  • “In sum, though many nations with widespread gun ownership have much lower murder rates than nations that severely restrict gun ownership, it would be simplistic to assume that at all times and in all places widespread ownership depresses violence by deterring many criminals into nonconfrontation crime. There is evidence that it does so in the United States, where defensive gun ownership is a substantial socio-cultural phenomenon.”
  • “In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research.  It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents.  The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control review of then extant studies.”

What is the goal of the conversation?

Are we interested in keeping our children safe, or are we only interested in keeping our children safe from guns?  While most of us would prefer the former, the conversation seems focused on the latter.

Not enough of this conversation focuses on the root causes of violence. The very fact that the conversation is focused on gun control indicates that we are more focused on a solution than on the problem. As the research of data bears out, gun control is not only ineffectual at preventing murder, it is counterproductive.

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Let’s infuse this national conversation with facts, data, and thoughtful discourse. Setting policy for a nation: Should it be the outcome of rational thought following careful analysis of data, or should it be a brew of inchoate social-media arguments, anecdotal evidence, false assumptions and letters from children? 

Steve Rose lives in Minneapolis.

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