The president should be talking about guns (and gun control) a lot more. This goes way beyond horrific school shootings
President Obama opened his remarks at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tennessee with a brief mourning of the death of a student there on Tuesday, the day of his State of the Union speech. Obama mentioned gun violence once in his address to the nation. Again yesterday, the bulk of his speech was about education policy, not gun control.
The fact that McGovock was itself the site of a gun fatality only gave a glancing emphasis on the firearm policies he says he is trying to move forward. The setting perhaps emphasized just as much the futility of the rhetorical gesture. President Obama needs to talk more about gun policies in this country, but he has to do it differently. As horrific as school shootings are, gun violence takes more lives outside our classrooms than in them.
In the five years of Obama’s presidency, mass shootings have been the one reliable catalyst for a presidential push on our nation’s uniquely liberal firearm laws. He broke a three-year streak of non-engagement on the issue in January 2011, after the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and 17 other people in Tucson, Arizona, giving one speech and writing one op-ed calling for more legislation. Then, the White House was for the most part silent for another 10 months, until Newtown. That tragedy brought a flurry of urgent officials pleas: 18 sets of remarks in five months, according to C-SPAN. After that, another season of silence, until the Naval Yard shootings in September 2013.
I understand that Obama has vowed to do what he can to limit access to guns “with or without” Congress, but it’s clear that his administration sees mass shootings as their best leverage to accomplish the more substantial changes that come with new federal regulation. It’s equally clear that it isn’t working. I have some suggestions for a shift in emphasis.
Perhaps the White House believes the deaths of children are the most sympathetic emotional wedge. Fine. If you look at the data, Obama should have been talking about gun control legislation in the Senate twice a day, as 215 children died in the 99 days the Senate was in session last year. As many have argued, Americans are becoming numb to gun violence. If it’s the scale of a tragedy that might inspire Congress, the murder of, say, three or more, then he should have hammered at them about once every two and half hours, the entire year. Over 12,000 people, adults and children, died from gun violence in 2013 – about 30 a day.
I suppose another aspect of mass shootings that makes them, in theory, the best bet for Congressional actions is that we assume that anyone who plans a massacre is, by most definitions, crazy. No one wants crazy people to have guns, right?
There are numerous different proposals that try to prevent the definably mentally ill from obtaining firearms, indeed, one of Obama’s “without Congress” proposals to curb gun access is an expansion of the ways a “lawful authority” can report on an individual who is prohibited by federal law from owning a gun. This is a step forward, to be sure, though the rule also gives the impression that the current background check system (National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS) is working at all – and that the prohibited category is a useful screen.
First of all, using the NICS is voluntary – only 13 states use it for all commercial gun purchases (leave alone the gun show loophole for now). States that report to the database have incredible latitude as to what they include: some states limit the time period of the reporting (letting those with older sign of trouble slip through), some states narrowly define “mentally ill”.
The patchwork of laws about reporting means that of all those denied a gun purchase because of a NICS search, even after the Virginia Tech shootings prompted a tightening of the reporting and search laws in many states, less than 2% of individuals run through the NICS database are turned down for mental health reasons. This is almost certainly an under-representation. What’s more, evidence implies that many of mentally ill who are determined to get firearms will wind up “jurisdiction shopping”. After Virginia started reporting its mental health records to NICS, 378 of the 438 those denied guns because of a Virginia mental health record were trying to purchase a firearm in another state.
So I have a radical suggestion: cede to the gun rights lobby that bad actors who want weapons cannot be stopped – perhaps especially the mentally ill ones. Instead of focusing on how to stop a “bad guy with a gun”, see what we can do to stop the guy in the mirror with a gun: a majority of gun deaths are suicides, as I have noted repeatedly. (And will undoubtedly repeat again.) This actually opens up the debate about gun regulation rather than narrows it, because recent research has shown that any reduction of gun ownership in a population decreases the number of suicides overall: looking at the years between 2000 and 2009, the study authors found that for each percentage point the portion of gun owners in a population goes down, suicides decrease by at least half a percent.
Many assume that focusing on preventing gun suicides falls under laws keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, but most people who commit suicide do not meet even the lowest bar for gun ownership prohibition set by federal or state laws: previous documentation of violence to self or others.
Two-thirds of suicides do not have a contact with a mental health profession in the year leading up to the attempt. Another set of studies found that only 24% of those that attempt suicide go on to another attempt. Suicide ideations are also fleeting; 25% of suicide attempts are based on less than five minutes consideration. What’s more, those who commit suicide by firearm are the least likely of all attempts to have a record of mental illness – the most likely, it follows, to attempt suicide because of temporary crisis and moment of desperation. But 85% of those who attempt suicide by firearm will never see the other side of that crisis.. Firearm suicide beats the next most effective means (hanging) by a margin of 16%.
The math is easy: if you somehow (a waiting period, sophisticated gun locks) kept guns out of 10% of the over 19,000 in 2010 that died from a firearm suicide – if you forced the determined to use next most effective method – then about almost 600 of them would get another chance at life. And 76%, over 400 of them, would decide they’d stick around.
That’s over 15 tragedies the size of Newtown’s that could be prevented but weren’t, and weren’t mourned as the tragedies they all were. To put it in Obama-moved-to-speak math (18 speeches for each Newtown-sized group of deaths): would Obama be willing to give a speech on gun control 250 times a year, just about every day?
I don’t know if such a consistent appeal would work on Congress. Would it work on you?