Why Can’t We Stop Gun Violence?

Since the Sandy Hook tragedy of 2012, there have been 17,042 gun deaths and . The Onion captured the frustration many Americans have about the gun violence problem: “ ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” It’s certainly true that gun violence is unique to America, the chart below created with data from a recent paper by Sripal Bangalore and Franz H. Messerli, who find that higher levels of gun ownership correlate with more gun deaths (the study finds no correlation with the level of mental illness).

GunsKillPeople

 

The data show that the U.S. is the clear outlier with regard to gun violence (with 10.2 gun deaths per 100,000) while Japan, which has almost no firearm ownership, has almost no deaths as well (.06 deaths per 100,000 people). Japan’s success is due to having possibly the most strict gun-control regime of any country. In an article on Japan’s gun control regime, David Kopel notes that, “The only type of firearm which a Japanese citizen may even contemplate acquiring is a shotgun.” But even shotguns require an extensive licensing procedure which involves a written test as well as a test of mental health. Applicants and their relatives must undergo a background check and all guns must be kept in a locker. Handguns are banned. In many parts of America, a prospective gun owner can simply go to a gun show and obtain a gun, no questions asked.

Unlike in the U.S., mass shootings frequently spur policy changes in other countries. Australia, for example, passed strong gun control laws after a deadly massacre in 1996 and now has  a far lower gun violence rate than the U.S. (1.04 deaths per 100,000). However, a Japanese or Australian-style gun control regime is impossible in the United States. The Supreme Court struck down a ban on semi-automatic weapons and handguns in District of Columbia v. Heller, meaning that the only weapons that could be subject to a Japan-style ban are assault rifles. This decision was extended to the states in McDonald v. Chicago. Sadly then, the U.S. will ever get to down to a level of gun ownership as Japan or Australia.

But simply because the U.S. won’t get down to the gun ownership levels of Japan doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Within the U.S., states have dramatically divergent gun ownership rates. The Daily Beast finds that Kentucky had 58,196 background checks per 100,000 residents in 2012, while New Jersey had only 938. Hawaii, New York and Rhode Island had 1,208, 1,652 and 2,106 respectively. A 2013 study in The American Journal of Public Health performed an analysis similar to the Bangalore/Messerli study and finds the same results across the United States. Some states have very high levels of gun ownership (and therefore gun deaths) while others have low rates of gun ownership. Studies find that states with stricter gun control laws also have lower levels of gun violence. Other studies show that fewer guns lead to fewer gun suicides. Commonsense regulations like expanding background checks and removing the gun-show loophole have empirical backing as well as the support of most Americans. The question, then, is not “how” to prevent gun deaths, but rather, why we’re not, and the answer is clear: the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The NRA is high on its own political success. As David Frum notes, “No crime or atrocity, not even the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, has checked the strong trend of U.S. public policy to make ever more lethal weapons ever more easily available to ever more people, including people with histories of domestic violence.” Frum understates the NRA’s extremism. The organization has  has even gone as far as fighting smart guns, which use new technologies to ensure that children can not unintentionally fire the gun (one requires the user to wear an accompanying wristwatch to fire it). Given that one study finds that smart guns reduce gun deaths significantly, such technologies are a no-brainer. The NRA also opposes laws requiring gun owners to safely store weapons, which have a track record of success.

The problem is that the NRA gains these political successes by lobbying against the interests of most Americans. Political scientist Martin Gilens writes in Affluence and Influence, “By far the strongest association between interest group alignments and policy outcomes concerns gun control.” He compares the stated policy preferences of Americans to those of interest groups, unions and corporations. He finds that interest groups tend to align with Americans on economic and social welfare policy, but strongly diverge on gun policy and environmental policy (on the chart below, a positive number indicates that the organization is pursuing policies that are aligned with Americans’ preferences, while a negative number indicates that they are lobbying against Americans’ preferences).

IGAlignment1NRA

 

Gilens finds, disturbingly, that interest groups are incredibly successful on the issue of gun control, but also that interest groups pursue policies that are radically divergent from public preferences. Gilens breaks down the data so we can see individual organizations.

IGAlignment2NRA

 

The chart shows that while some organizations, like the AARP lobby for policies with broad support among Americans, the National Rifle Association (NRA) does not (and this holds across the income spectrum). How does the NRA exert such a powerful influence on Washington? Certainly part of the answer is money. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics show that organizations in favor of gun control are vastly outspent by those opposed to it.

PoliticalDonationsNRA

Americans will always likely have more guns than other developed countries. The Supreme Court has decided strongly in favor of the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment (in District of Columbia vs. Heller). But most Americans, including myself, aren’t trying to “take away your guns.” We’re trying to keep guns out of the hands of killers and children. Sadly, the NRA has the power to stop these common sense regulations. The Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds, but there is still room to act. We know what works. The people want it. The question is whether politicians have the gumption to tackle organized interests.

Something resembling this piece was published on Policymic.

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