Statistics, Politics, and Solutions in the Gun Discussion

Gun ownership, licensing and regulations are hot topics in Washington, on social networks, at the water cooler and around some dining room tables. As such, it is important to be a careful fact-checker and vigilant about sources of data and how they can be manipulated.

The Tea Party web page, on January 7, reprinted an article entitled FBI: More Club and Hammer Homicides than Rifle, which originally appeared on The New American.

The article claims:

In 2011, 323 murders were committed with a rifle and 356 with a shotgun, while a staggering 496 were committed with hammers and clubs.

This is true. Taking each type of firearm used in the commission of a homicide separately, no individual type of firearm outnumbers the club and hammer homicides. What the article fails to reveal, however, is that the FBI hyperlink provided  therein clearly indicated the following total statistics for 2011:

Total homicides:                                  12,664

Firearm homicides:                               8,583

Hammer and Club homicides:               496

Knife and other blade homicides:        1,694

Further, the 2009 findings of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime state that 66.9% of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm.

More than a million Americans have been killed by guns since 1968 – more than in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and various smaller conflicts, combined.

Yet sadly, the manipulated “statistics” which prove nothing in the already twice-published article, will undoubtedly get republished and quoted as fact by those who fail to follow through and check the inserted link, or do so and simply don’t care.

It is also important to bear in mind that none of these homicide statistics take into account the fact that more than half of all gun deaths in the U.S. are suicides and thus not included in any of these numbers. Nor are accidental fatalities by guns of all kinds included.

The United States suffers far more violent deaths than any other wealthy nation, due in part to the widespread possession of firearms and the practice of storing them at home in a place that is often unlocked, according to a report released Wednesday by two of the nation’s leading health research institutions.” January, 2013 report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.

But the issue of data and statistics is politically complicated.

“Scientists and policy makers say they have little scientific data about gun violence after Congress prohibited federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), from offering research grants to study anything that could be used to promote gun control,” according to an Associated Press report, which continues:

If Americans knew more about gun violence, they would take steps to end it”, says Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns….. The gun lobby has been working overtime to blindfold public policy makers for a generation.

The end of federal research into gun violence came in 1996 when Congress first passed a National Rifle Association-backed amendment to a CDC appropriations bill that prohibited spending federal dollars on research that could be used to “advocate or promote gun control.”

More restrictions on data came in 2003 when Congress passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., that barred the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from using an electronic database to record gun sales.

International Comparisons

International firearm death rate comparisons gathered on Wikipedia provide fertile, irrefutable grounds for discussion. The U.S. has 10.2 per thousand gun-related deaths; Switzerland, 3.84; Finland, 3.64; France, 3.0; New Zealand, 2.66; Canada 2.13; Israel, 1.86; Norway, 1.78; Sweden, 1.47; Denmark, 1.45; Germany, 1.10; UK, .25; Singapore, .24; Japan, .007. International comparisons on the rate of intentional gun deaths per 100,000 can also be found at GunPolicy.org , along with comparative gun ownership regulations.

It is estimated that there are 270,000,000 civilian-owned guns in America, ranking the U.S number 1 in private gun ownership of 178 nations, per GunPolicy.org. Not surprisingly, 15 of the 25 of the worst mass shootings in the last 50 years took place in the United States, a “major” gun manufacturing nation with 5,400 licensed firearms manufacturers in the United States in 2011.

One startling take-away from all of these statistical comparisons is that Finland has a higher rate of gun ownership than the U.S. with a far lower homicide rate.  While 41% of American households have guns, in Finland, 50% do. This indicates that it is possible to reach a goal of reducing homicides while upholding our second amendment right for gun ownership, by enacting stricter restrictions.

For instance, to apply for a gun ownership license in the United Kingdom, Finland and Germany, one must provide a valid reason to own a gun, such as hunting, target practice or collecting, and pass criminal, mental health and addiction background checks. Germany also requires that a gun safety proficiency test must be passed to receive a license, and in the UK, gun licenses must be renewed every five years. In the U.S., gun licensing laws vary by state.  PBS provides a quick a comparison chart.

Nations with the lowest gun homicide rates all have violent video games and none have achieved their levels of safety by having armed guards posted at their children’s schools.  In fact, all the comparative statistics point steadfastly in contrast to the suggestions of Wayne La Pierre, executive V. P. of the NRA, that more guns – in the hands of the “good guys” – is the solution to reducing gun violence. The only factor in the difference between homicide rates is the restrictions on gun owner licensing.

Seeking Safe Solutions

In addition to all the suggestions on the table to reduce gun violence, could we not work toward making guns safer, at least child-proofing them?  A novel idea might be to utilize our engineering, design and technological skills to devise a weapon that would be accurate at a good distance and allow multiple, repeated shots – something current Tasers, or “stun” guns are not capable of – but which could paralyze rather than kill. Star Trek, after all, had personal phasers small enough to fit in the palm of your hand  that could be set to “stun” with a beam that could be adjusted to strike multiple targets at once.

People are frightened, and they’re reacting by increasing their reliance on guns for protection. But more guns legally obtained simply put more guns in circulation, providing increased opportunity for them to be obtained by criminals. Could we not create an affordable version of the “phaser” that would be powerful enough for self-protection while reducing the number of gun-related fatalities?

If police and citizens armed themselves with non-lethal protection, we could eliminate unjust police killings as well as the murderous weapons that fall into the hands of the “wrong” people. It might also help reduce suicides and would certainly eliminate accidental deaths by gunshot – especially among children who gain access to their parents’ unlocked and loaded weapons.

There are no simple or quick fixes, but there seems to be no reason not to start working toward more non-lethal protection as a goal while continuing to enact other measures already on the table. Working to develop non-lethal technology, and testing the devices in real life situations with police forces while maintaining current gun backup, has the possibility to change the face of this nation in the long term.

The NRA, Politics and Constitutional Rights

Polls and surveys have indicated that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is in conflict with their own membership on issues such as criminal background checks for sales at gun shows and between private owners. Yet the NRA remains a powerful lobby for gun manufacturers and ammunition dealers.  It even has congressmen within its ranks, such as Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) that have gotten legislation enacted that ties the hands of the ATF – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice.

As of this writing, President Obama is set to nominate B. Todd Jones as director of the ATF, which has not had a permanent full-time director since 2006 when Congress first required the director be approved by the Senate. Jones has been serving as acting director for more than a year. At the same time, however, he doubles as U.S. Attorney from Minnesota. Business Insider reports on Jon Stewart’s coverage on the Daily Show saying, the ATF “has to confirm the position because of a 2006 provision inserted into a Patriot Act renewal by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.”

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) who allegedly accepted the NRA’s coveted Defender of Freedom Award in 2006, inserted legislation into the Patriot Act that same year that restricts the ATF by prohibiting them from creating a federal registry to track gun sales, and barred them from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor.

But Sensenbrenner didn’t actually write the ATF clause; he simply inserted it into the Patriot Act. The person responsible for writing the clause was Rep. Todd Tiahrt, who claims the solution is to urge the ATF to enforce our existing 2,200 gun laws. Rackjite.com points out that many of the executive orders recently signed into law by President Obama were to overturn the Tiahrt Amendments, ”which Tiahrt admits were written for him by the NRA.”

Meanwhile, 40% of guns in the U.S. are sold through unlicensed, private sellers. This is in addition to sales from 129,817 federally licensed firearms dealers in the United States.. There are more than three times the number of licensed firearms dealers than grocery stores (36,569) and far more than the number of McDonald’s restaurants (14,098) in the U.S. (2011).

Bans on assault weapons, and restrictions on the number of ammunition clips that one person could purchase, have been put forth to help stem the tide of homicides. Other solutions call for stiffer penalties for those who violate gun laws, from illegal sales to procurement; harsher punishments for those who use firearms in the commission of crimes; as well, perhaps, for those who did not adequately lock up their weaponry in order to prevent them from being used in the commission of a murder. All have strong opposition.

Yet civilian protections are continually enacted to meet current needs. We live with searches at airports, safety caps on medications, seat belts, and bike helmet laws. All of these infringements on our rights and freedom exist and are updated as needed.

The second amendment provides the right to bear arms; however, all rights are subject to restrictions. The right to free speech, for example, perhaps our most precious right, is restricted on grounds of obscenity; and child pornography laws. Speech that incites imminent lawless action is prohibited and there is also regulation of commercial speech such as in advertising. There is thus no reason that our second amendment right to bear arms cannot have some restrictions as well, if we can get the lobbyists out of the business of writing our legislation, reversing not just the violence facing us but also our democracy becoming a Corporatocracy.

Mirah Riben is an activist/author/lecturer. Read other articles by Mirah, or visit Mirah's website.