Better Gun Control?

The nation morns the senseless murder of 17 mostly young students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Everyone would like to find ways to make such attacks less likely in the future. Though we can understand the sentiments of the surviving students demanding “never again”, we know that that is impossible, just as we know that we cannot end death on our highways. In 2016 37,461 people died in the United States in car accidents while 15,094 died from guns, of which over 60% were suicides and 383 were from mass shootings.

Many things have been done to make automobiles and roads safer (car deaths per 100,000 dropped from 26.4 in 1969 to between 10 and 11 in recent years) but no one has proposed outlawing cars. What can be done to make America safer from guns?

David Hogg, one of the student survivors of the shooting said on CBS’s Face the Nation: “We’ve seen a government shutdown, we’ve seen tax reform, but nothing to save our children’s lives,…’’ Michael Udine, a county commissioner in Broward County, stated that: “Any politician who is coming to just talk or just to give their thoughts and prayers, that’s not needed,” Udine said. “Thoughts and prayers are not good enough anymore.” “The student activists repeatedly expressed optimism and hope for constructive conversations and changes to U.S. gun laws, “ but at this point the newspapers are not reporting the specifics of what those changes in gun laws should be. “Florida-students-plea-with-congress-its-about-the-guns

“Teenage survivors of the shooting, propelled by their haunting experience, announced the creation of “March For Our Lives” and what they hope will be a huge demonstration in Washington on March 24. On its new website, the group’s mission statement says: ‘Not one more. We cannot allow one more child to be shot at school.’ The more adult Priti Kothari, a child and adolescent psychiatrist based in nearby Boca Raton, stated that “The adolescent brain is searching for meaning, and these funerals offer a way for them to ask, ‘How can I be of service?’ ” Kothari said. “How does this anger turn into something that’s productive?” “Funeral after funeral…” Washington Post. This is the serious, non-partisan question that we are all asking.

E. J. Dione, Jr., presumable an adult, stated that: “ it’s a mark of political corruption when unaccountable cliques block solutions that enjoy broad support and force their selfish interests to prevail over the common good. On gun violence, the United States has become a corrupt failed state.” Mr. Dione’s rant illustrates just who difficult it is to have a serious discussion of this issue. “On-gun-violence-we-are-a-failed-state”

Gun laws must respect the second amendment of our constitution and should actually contribute to reducing gun violence. Thus we should start by examining the evidence on what actually has or might work to reduce gun violence.

Serious studies of the effectiveness of popular control measure have found little evidence that they would or have helped. “Gun-control-solutions-supported-by-experts”. Dan Mitchell has provided a series of articles summarizing some of these studies under the title “another honest liberal debunks gun control.” “Now-there-are-four-another-honest-liberal-debunks-gun-control”

Dan’s most recent in that series (linked above) quotes passages from Leah Libresco’s must-read column in the Washington Post.

“Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly….

My colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people, and the case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence.” “A-cure-for-mass-shootings-doesn’t-exist”

Part of the problem is that most of us don’t understand what differences between weapons are important and what are not. The term “assault weapon” is a meaningless one invented by gun control advocates. There is no coherent definition of such a weapon. The AR-15 used in Florida by Nikolas Cruz is a semi-automatic rifle (it shots one bullet every time you pull the trigger) with pretty much the same fire capacity as most any other hunting rifle. “An-assault-weapon-ban-won’t-stop-mass-shootings”

Maybe more stringent background checks of those wanting to buy guns would reduce the number of dangerous people getting them? Maybe, but will enforcement be rigorous enough? The FBI failed to follow up on trouble signs reported to it about Nikolas Cruz. The Florida mass shooter passed his background check. A waiting period would have made no difference as he bought his AR-15 semiautomatic rifle a year before his attack. “Florida-shooter-Nikolas-Cruz-bought-AR-15-legally” However, most gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides and restricting ownership is correlated with fewer suicides.

It also doesn’t help when politicians lie about the facts. The Washington Post’s fact checker gave Sen. Bernie Sanders four Pinocchios for repeating the lie that because guns can be sold at gun shows without background checks (not true) “Forty percent of the guns in this country are sold without any background checks.” “Though Sanders referred to the “gun show loophole,” not a single person surveyed said they obtained a weapon at a gun show without a background check.” “Bernie-sanders-resurrects-a-zombie-claim-on-gun-sales-without-background-checks” Nor is it true as claimed by former President Obama after the November 27, 2015 Planned Parenthood attack that the U.S. has the worst record of mass shootings. Obama claimed:  “I say this every time we’ve got one of these mass shootings: This just doesn’t happen in other countries.” The ten countries with a significantly worse record than the U.S. include Norway, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Finland. “Comparing-death-rates-from-mass-public-shootings-in-the-us-and-europe”

If none of the restrictions on gun ownership or the types of guns that may be owned have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing gun deaths, especially mass shootings, what can be done that might be more effective? As with medical doctors, the first principle should be DO NO HARM.

One proposition, explored by Jeff Goldberg in the Dec. 2012 issue of The Atlantic, is to encourage a better-armed public to counter shooters. “Today, the number of concealed-carry permits is the highest it’s ever been, at 8 million, and the homicide rate is the lowest it’s been in four decades—less than half what it was 20 years ago.

“It is also illogical for campuses to advertise themselves as “gun-free.” Someone bent on murder is not usually dissuaded by posted anti-gun regulations. Quite the opposite—publicly describing your property as gun-free is analogous to posting a notice on your front door saying your home has no burglar alarm. As it happens, the company that owns the Century 16 Cineplex in Aurora in which 12 people were killed and 70 were injured by one gunman in 2012 had declared the property a gun-free zone.” “The-case-for-more-guns”

A powerful statement was made to a congressional committee by Suzanna Gratia Hupp who watched her parents shot to death by a madman and was angry that the law in Texas had required her to leave her hand gun in her car: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1u0Byq5Qis

We still do not know the specific motive of Nikolas Cruz. But he was clearly emotionally “challenged” for which he had been receiving care. It is not possible to predict when one of the millions of American suffering emotional problems of one sort or another might turn mass murderer. When someone does, the only “remedy” at that moment is to shoot back as Goldberg and Ms. Hupp argue. Dan Mitchell has an excellent discussion and another real life example of this point. “Law-abiding-texans-gun-ownership-and-saving-lives”

What besides self-defense (confronting shooters with a gun) might be done that might offer some prospect of effectiveness?

David French in National Review presents the case for Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVRO) that can be sought by members of the family or those close to the targeted individual on the bases of evidence (seeing or hearing something). “As with Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence — these people have not only demonstrated their unfitness to own a weapon, they’ve been granted due process to contest the charges or claims against them. There is no arbitrary state action. There is no collective punishment. There is, rather, an individual, constitutional state process….” “Gun-control-republicans-consider-GVRO”

Another measure that builds on the same legal foundation of due process has been introduced by Republican Senator Jeff Flack and Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich. The bill would ensure that anyone convicted of domestic violence in military court couldn’t legally purchase a firearm, thus matching the existing prohibition for anyone so convicted in a civil court. “Flake-heinrich-introduce-bill-to-permanently-close-gun-loophole-used-by-texas-shooter” If neither of these measure make much of a positive contribution to reducing gun violence, at least they DO NO HARM.

Those who grow up in gun homes normally are taught to respect and use guns carefully. But are there other messages that might go in the other direction that we should be concerned about?

Mass shootings by young adults or children have a quite remarkable common theme that began appearing in the late 1980’s.  Children shooting other children began to increase and it was almost always in the head. Columbine was the first schoolyard mass shooting.  Almost all of the victims were shot in the head.  Shootings by children at schools or anywhere else were exceedingly rare until the introduction of first-person shooter video games. “Video-games-desensitize-to-real-violence”

The above and subsequent studies argued that the first person shooter video games greatly desensitized the player to violence.  While that, in and of itself is a problem, the effect is more profound on those with a spectrum of mental disorders. The impact is especially profound in those children with disassociative disorders as they are mentally able to disconnect their actions from the consequences.

The same studies on what creates or nurtures addictive behavior are being used by the scientists behind game makers to create just such experiences in video games.  Those with some forms of mental disorders, such as disassociative disorders, can lose themselves in a video gaming world.

It is note worthy that in most first person shooter video games you earn the most points with headshots. As we all know guns do not cause violence – people do.  And creating games that foster and nurture violent dissociative behavior in people and especially children can have real, quite undesirable consequences. Parents beware.

In many respects our problem with mass murderers is similar to our problem with highway deaths. It is not practical to ban cars any more than to ban guns for both legal and practical reasons. We are left looking for practical ways to diminish or mitigate the risks without throwing out the baby with the bath water. “Yes-this-is-a-good-time-to-talk-about-gun violence”

About wcoats

Dr. Warren L. Coats specializes in advising central banks on monetary policy, and in the development of their capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy. He is retired from the International Monetary Fund, where, as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department, he led missions to over twenty countries. Before then, he served as Visiting Economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, and to the World Bank, and was Assistant Prof of Economics at the Univ. of Virginia from 1970-75. Most recently he was Senior Monetary Policy Advisor to the Central Bank of Iraq; an IMF consultant to the central banks of Afghanistan, Kenya and Zimbabwe; and a Deloitte/USAID advisor to the Government of South Sudan. He is currently a member of the Editorial Board of the Cayman Financial Review and until the end of 2013 was a member of the IMF program team for Afghanistan. His most recent book is entitled "One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina."
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