Beyond the Assault Rifle Debate - by Ryan DeLoughry
The process has been all too mundane for most Americans. Tune in to the news or social media and discover another horrible mass shooting has occurred. Aurora. Newtown. San Bernardino. Orlando. Politicians offer “thoughts and prayers,” then engage in aggressive debate over the use of “assault weapons,” and reach an impasse. This cycle has continued for over 10 years now that the Assault Weapons Ban expired under the George W. Bush Administration. Politicians on the left see assault weapons as efficient killing machines that should not be sold to civilians, while those on the right see owning an assault rifle as a constitutional right and not an effective way of reducing gun violence. Meanwhile, America continues to suffer from the highest per capita rate of gun homicide in the developed world, as it has for decades.
With the current Republican control of the House, Senate, and White House, it does not appear that any progress can be made in the immediate future with respect to assault weapons. However, that does not mean that all policy work on gun homicides must be stalled. In fact, according to the FBI, only 2.6% of all gun murders in 2015 were committed with an assault rifle. This fact underscores that even if a ban was possible, it wouldn’t be very likely that a sizeable reduction in the gun murder rate would occur. Liberal politicians may be better served by working on policies that could affect all types of gun homicide, not just a small subset of gun murders.
To understand the context of the gun control debate, some facts about the current state of gun homicides in Americas are important to recognize. There are approximately 300 million guns currently owned by private citizens in America, almost one for each man, woman, and child. One troubling statistic to note is the fact that almost 80% of inmates incarcerated for gun crimes listed the source of their firearm as “friend, family, or street (illegal) sources.” A study in Preventative Medicine that also polled incarcerated individuals who were found with a gun at the time of their arrest revealed that only 10% had bought their weapons from a gun store. The unfortunate reality is that there is an established underground gun economy in America that is easily accessible to criminals. America is already so saturated with firearms that they are extremely easy to acquire through a human network. Phillip Cook, Professor of Public Policy at Duke University, admitted in a Newsweek article that “There have been few attempts to estimate the scope or scale of the underground [gun] market.”
This means that policies that are impactful at the gun store level, where firearms are first sold, will be unlikely to pack much of a punch because they do not address this underground economy. It’s important to recognize just how far removed from the store shelf that most guns are when they are used in a crime. One study demonstrated that the average age of firearms confiscated from Chicago gang members is over 11 years old, suggesting that the market that criminals have access to provides cheaper, older weapons that were likely sold legally at first, but have since had many owners before being used to commit a homicide or other gun crime.
Advocating for policies that lead to a better understanding of this human network of gun traffickers, family, friends, and gangs that buy, sell, gift, and lend firearms illegally would provide much needed clarity to a complex and misunderstood issue. Guns used in crimes almost never come directly from licensed gun sellers, instead they bounce around this human network for years through buying and selling (and sometimes stealing) until they finally end up in the hands of a criminal who use them to commit a crime. Increasing funding for studying and policing the underground gun market could be a wide-reaching and effective use of funding that could lead to a real reduction of gun homicides.
Another way to approach this problem is by seeking to reduce the incentives or pressures for individuals to act violently with guns. The best way to do this is to improve economic conditions in areas with high gun homicide rates. In 2015, the Center for Disease Control released a study of gun crimes in Wilmington, DE that showed that 86% of shooters were unemployed immediately before they committed their crimes, and 73% were the recipients of a social service at some point during their lifetime. These two statistics indicate that poverty is at least related, if not a massive driver of gun homicides. Individuals who cannot find adequate employment or are unfit for employment (lack skills/education for job/prior felony conviction) often resort to illegal, dangerous behavior in an effort to make money. Home invasions, robberies, and drug trafficking, are all common activities conducive to violence and gun homicides. Public works programs, mental health care, post-prison transition programs, investment in public schools and adult education programs, and incentives for private companies to invest in the community are all good ways to help steer people away from poverty and crime and towards legal behavior, reducing gun homicide rates.
In addition to improving local economic conditions, certain community intervention programs have shown signs of promise. The University of Chicago Crime Lab recently piloted behavior programs designed to specifically help young men growing up in areas of high crime. They focus on giving the participants tools to assess and de-escalate potential conflicts before they erupt into violence. In randomized control trials, the Crime Lab found that violent crime arrests were 30-50% lower among the group who had been through the program than those who had not. Many individuals grow up impoverished in high crime areas with easy access to firearms. Finding some way to help these individuals negotiate their difficult surroundings can be vital to lowering the rate of gun violence. Programs like these are one of the newer, more creative ways to limit gun homicides in high-poverty, high-crime areas.
Expanding background checks is often mentioned in the media and by liberal politicians as a good way to limit gun homicides. As the data shows there is only so much room for improvement as most guns used in the commission of a crime are obtained illegally, without background checks. Only about 3-11% of weapons used in crimes were purchased from legal sources. However, making sure everyone has a background check is still an important way to track the underground network that exists. Creating a gun registry and passing legislation that punishes individuals who transfer firearms in gifts and informal sales without background checks would be a great way to shed some light on the underground gun network.
According to a joint study at Northeastern and Harvard Universities, 22% of all gun purchasers bought their weapons in a “no questions asked” situation, either at gun shows or over the internet or from a friend or relative. Ensuring that gun sellers do not knowingly or even unknowingly sell to a convicted felon (who cannot legally own a gun), an individual with an outstanding arrest warrant, or an individual who suffers from a documented mental illness, is a regulatory goal that should be highlighted. Although the relationship between background checks and gun murders is not well documented, one study of Connecticut’s 1995 rule requiring background checks and permits to buy a gun shows a 40% decline in gun homicides the following year. It’s difficult to ascertain just how effective background checks are on gun violence as there are many potential factors at play (gang wars, policing tactics, poverty, drug epidemics) that determine the amount of people murdered with guns each year.
It’s important to remember that although they are shocking and horrific, mass shootings with assault rifles are only a small portion of the gun homicides that plague America each year. With Donald Trump and the GOP beholden to the NRA and unwilling to budge on federal gun laws, policies that improve visibility into the underground gun market, reduce the benefits from acting criminally (non-punitively), and teach de-escalation strategies are all potentially helpful tools at the local and state levels in the fight against America’s astronomical gun homicide rate.