Gun Violence: We Need Better Gun Laws, But That's Not All

Bruce Maples
Bruce Maples
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It’s the same tug-of-war we’ve been having for decades:

“We’ve got to get control of our guns!” “You’ll pry my gun from my cold, dead hands!” “But we have to DO something!” “But guns aren’t the problem — people are!” “Ammosexual!” “Freedom hater!”

But in a year when we’ve had more mass shootings than days, in a country where you are 20 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than in any other country, there is a widespread feeling that the time has come to face facts: the United States has a problem with gun violence, and we need to deal with it. But how? The answer is plain, and two-fold:

We need better gun laws … AND, we need to deal with the rest of the problem as well.

What is that “rest of the problem”? Read on.

Better Gun Laws

Anyone who says “liberals want to outlaw all guns” is just running their mouth. When we talk about common-sense gun laws, that’s what we mean.

  • Background checks for all gun purchases, or even better, the National Permit-to-Purchase program. (This is a solid idea — read more here.)
  • Require training on gun safety before being allowed to get a permit. (We test people on being able to parallel park, but not on gun safety. Amazing.)
  • No gun sales to people on the terrorism watch list. (It is asinine that these people are too dangerous to allow on a plane, but can buy a gun anywhere.)
  • No gun sales to persons convicted of domestic violence. (Duh)
  • No high-capacity magazines. (We USED to outlaw these, but the NRA convinced lawmakers that you really needed 100-round clips to hunt for deer.)

These are just some of the ways we could limit the deadly impact of the flood of firearms in the US. How big a flood? There are now more guns in the US than there are people. Pretending that our current laws are adequate is willful ignorance of the facts.

And Address the System as a Whole

Addressing gun violence is not just a matter of passing some laws. Our epidemic of violence is part of a system, with causes and feedback loops and complex interactions of family, community, school, mental health, access to guns, and other factors.

And yet, we don’t know very much about that complex system. Why? Multiple reasons, but here is a major one: In one of the most cowardly acts of legislators kissing NRA butt, the US Congress in 1996 passed legislation forbidding the Centers for Disease Control from researching the causes of gun violence.

Yes, you read that right. For twenty years, our leading public-health research body has been prevented from finding out WHY this nation leads the world in gun violence. All because the NRA owns most of our elected officials.

That may, finally, be changing. On the same day as the San Bernardino mass shooting, nine different organizations petitioned Congress to lift the ban. Even the original author of the bill thinks it’s time to actually apply research to the problem. (Ignoring it has worked so well, doncha know.)

For a nation awash in gun violence, it’s surprising how little we know on what actually causes it. What causes someone to decide that killing someone is the answer? CBS News did a piece on what we do know, and two easy answers turned out not to be so easy: mental illness and video games.

There is no one factor that leads to lethal violence. Focusing only on mental health discounts the impact family, friends, and local communities have on gun violence. Substance abuse, poverty, a history of violence, and access to guns are much better predictors of violence than mental illness, according to a review published in the American Journal of Public Health. Mental illness can lead to suicide, but on its own it does not lead to homicide.

The same is true for video games. While violent video games can increase vulnerability to aggression, they do not cause violence, according to an American Psychological Association task force report. Video games have become the chosen form of entertainment for generations around the world. Most live their lives without any interference from video games.

Violence is a complex problem and requires systemic solutions. At the community level, partnerships between law enforcement, educators, and mental health providers have been shown to reduce gun violence. Teaching evidence-based parenting skills can divert families who are at risk for violence.

So, based on what we seem to know now, what should we do in addition to improving our gun laws? The American Public Health Association has some places we can start:

  • More Data. The National Violent Death Reporting System currently collects data from only 32 states. We need to fund it to cover all 50 states and the District of Columbia, so we have a more-complete set of data from which to draw conclusions.
  • More Research. This is related to the CDC ban mentioned earlier. As noted in the APHA article, “there is almost no credible evidence that right-to-carry laws increase or decrease violent crime, almost no empirical evidence to support dozens of violence prevention programs for children, scant data on the effects of different gun safety technologies on violence and crime, and scant data on the link between firearms policy and suicidal behavior.” Only with well-designed research can we figure out what is driving this epidemic of gun violence.
  • Commonsense Gun Policies. As noted above.
  • Expanded Access to Mental Health Services. “Funding for mental health services has been declining, and funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration continues to be threatened by budget cuts including cuts due to sequestration. We must ensure that state, local and community-based behavioral health systems have the resources they need to provide much-needed care.”
  • Resources for School and Community-based Prevention. “APHA supports comprehensive measures in community and school-based prevention, early intervention strategies and preparedness initiatives to prevent gun violence and prepare our communities and schools in the event of an emergency. We support providing on-site mental health services, including through school-based health centers, a common-sense approach to ensure that children and youth are able to access appropriate treatment and services. SBHCs also support all students’ mental health by creating school-wide programs that address bullying, violence, anger, depression and other social and emotional issues that impede academic achievement.”

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We don’t have all the answers to this epidemic — not yet. But we do have SOME of the answers, as listed above.

It is time to put aside our anti-gun / pro-gun struggle, and come together to face the face that we have a serious and growing problem. By passing common-sense gun laws AND dealing with the systems behind the violence, we can address this wave of violence like adults … and by acting like adults, we can give our children a better, safer future.

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Bruce Maples has been involved in politics and activism since 2004, when he became active in the Kerry Kentucky movement. (Read the rest of his bio on the Bruce Maples Bio page in the bottom nav bar.)

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