One argument we’ve seen ad nauseum is that Chicago has extraordinarily high violence due to its gun control laws. It’s true that Chicago’s homicide rate is higher than some other cities (Chicago has 6.4 homicides per 100,000 people, whereas New York has 4.5). There are so many variables affecting violence that we’re not sure how anybody could say conclusively how Chicago’s crime rates are affected by its gun control laws–especially since the city and the state have porous borders through which people can easily bring guns from neighboring jurisdictions. But what we CAN say conclusively is that Chicago is NOT EVEN CLOSE to having the worst violence in the U.S.
Young people between the ages 14 and 24 in the U.S. die from firearm-related murders at 42 times the rate that they do in nearly two dozen other developed countries. In other words, if you’re between the ages of 14 and 24 and you live in the U.S., your chances of being killed with a gun are 42 times higher than if you lived in most other developed countries. A recent study in the medical journal Pediatrics looked at how many youth who go to the ER as a result of gun violence own guns themselves — and where they get their firearms. Many of the findings of the study may not seem surprising — more firearm victims also owned guns, and most of the guns were obtained illegally. Still, more of this kind of research is necessary to learn the best policies that might eventually help reduce gun violence.
Such research on firearm injuries had been banned until the Obama administration removed a 17-year-long moratorium on firearm injury research. Hopefully this study is one of many more to come that can provide policymakers with a stronger evidence base for using research-based approaches to reducing gun violence.
The researchers, led by Dr. Patrick Carter at the University of Michigan Injury Center in Ann Arbor, surveyed 689 youth who came to the emergency department in Flint, Michigan with injuries related to assault (excluding child abuse, suicide attempts and sexual assault). The patients were all 14 to 24 years old, and the survey questions asked about the patients’ characteristics, firearm ownership, attitudes toward aggression, substance use and past history of violence.
About a quarter of those surveyed (23%) said they had carried or owned a firearm within the past six months, but only 17% of those with guns had gotten the gun legally. About 17% said they got the gun from a friend and 17% said they paid cash, and about half the youth said it would not be difficult to get a firearm. Among the youth who said they had carried or owned a gun, one in five had an automatic or semi-automatic weapon.
Given the number of youth in the study who had gotten a gun from a family member or friend, Dr. Robert Sege at the Boston University School of Medicine wrote in an accompanying editorial that the study’s findings provide reasons to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations regarding firearms: “that there should either be no guns in the home or, when that is not possible, the gun(s) should be stored unloaded and locked, with ammunition locked separately.”
The youths’ most commonly cited reason for carrying a gun is a familiar one: more than a third (37%) said they had the gun for protection. “The perceived need to own and carry firearms for protection among respondents with assault injury suggests a need to address youth’s perceived and real feeling of safety through individual and community intervention,” the authors wrote. Other reasons included “holding it for someone” (reported by 10% of those with guns) or having one because their “friends carry guns” (reported by 9%).
When the researchers looked at other characteristics of the patients, they found several patterns: the gun owners were more likely to be male, to use illegal drugs and to have been in a recent serious fight. For example, 40% of the gun owners binge drank, compared to 27% who didn’t own guns, and 67% of the gun owners used illegal drugs, compared to 49% of the non-gun-owners. White and black youth were equally likely to have guns, and higher income youth were more likely to have guns.
Most youth in both groups had been in serious physical fights in the past six months (86% of gun owners and 80% of non-gun-owners), but more than twice as many of the gun owners had caused an injury that required medical treatment. While 21% of non-gun-owners had caused such an injury in the past six months, 46% of the gun owners had. There were also high rates of intimate partner violence in both groups: 76% of youth who owned guns and 64% of those who didn’t reported violence with their romantic partner.
Those who had owned guns were also slightly more likely to have an aggressive or vengeful attitude, which is important “because health behavior models, which are key to many violence prevention efforts, suggest the first step to decreasing future aggression would be to modify aggressive attitudes.”
Unsurprisingly, those who owned guns were more likely to have been previous victims of gun violence (21% compared to 15%), to have been previously threatened by a gun (56% compared to 33%), to have pulled a gun in a fight (22% compared to 1%), or to have used the gun in a fight with someone they were dating (6% compared to 1%). However, one interesting finding was that only 3% of the youth in the whole study were involved in a gang, which included 9% of those who owned guns and 1% of those who didn’t.
The authors noted that their findings reveal how a gun owned reportedly for “defensive” purposes can also end up being used for non-defensive purposes. “Taken together, these findings demonstrate that even if the main reason youth reported that they obtained a gun was for protection, they are often both carrying and using the weapon,” the authors wrote. “In combination with high rates of substance use reported before the altercation, and higher rates of substance use seen in youth with firearms, this is particularly concerning for inadvertently increasing the risk of a firearm moving from a protective device to impulsive use and lethal outcomes.”
In his editorial, Dr. Sege pointed out the frustrating reality that great strides have been made in children’s public health when it comes to decreasing kids’ exposure to cigarette smoke, reducing lead poisoning in children, reducing kids’ car accident deaths and increasing efforts to address childhood obesity — yet “our failure to develop a public health response to gun deaths stands out as a unique exception.”
Dr. Sege notes one major reason for this lack of progress relates to the strangled research on gun injuries: only about $102,997 of the CDC’s $6.5 billion budget of the past three years has been devoted to firearm injury prevention. Insufficient funding has a predictable effect: “According to a study commissioned by Mayors Against Gun Violence, the volume of academic research on firearms violence has dropped by 60% since 1996, now accounting for only 30 articles per million academic publications,” Dr. Sege notes.
The Obama administration has pledged $10 million for the CDC to conduct further firearm injury research, but in the current funding climate it remains to be seen whether the funds are actually restored. If they are, the subsequent research and increasing awareness of gun violence as a major public health concern will hopefully push sensible, evidence-based firearm-related policies higher on legislative agendas.
Twenty-two states have no laws requiring adults to keep guns out of the hands of unattended small children.
Six months ago, as we all tried to process the horror of the Newtown massacre, many of us found each other on Facebook. We were friends, friends-of-friends, and total strangers. We were all parents, and like millions of others that week, we were struggling to cope with the tragedy and understand how our culture had reached this point, where the will to commit such inordinate violence and the means to do so had converged. Our empathy, grief and frustration led to the creation of this group, and today we celebrate with bitter sweetness the milestone of reaching 1,000 likes on Facebook. Not bad for a small organization of volunteers with full-time jobs, children to care for, and $0 budget — but still far from achieving the goals we have set for our group.
We remain committed to reducing gun violence in the U.S., including homicides, accidents and suicides. We also remain committed to being a reasonable, evidence-based voice in the national debate about this issue. Our group members’ politics are diverse, and several of the founding members and steering committee members own firearms. We have been cautious about teaming up with other organizations on individual initiatives because our mission is relatively unique in trying to bridge the more polarized “sides” in the national discussions about firearm safety and legislation.
In the short time since Parents Against Gun Violence formed, we have sponsored a Child Appreciation Day (in response to “Gun Appreciation Day”) that garnered national attention. We have spent many hours researching gun violence, from its causes and effects to the methods that might reduce it — and whether evidence suggests that those methods might (or might not) work. We have spoken with national media outlets and participated in a Huffington Post-sponsored discussion on the issue. We have created over a dozen graphics and “memes” that have been shared among tens of thousands on Facebook. (These are not snarky graphics that intend to demean gun owners; rather, they are designed to educate people about the facts related to gun violence in the U.S. and to make people think about where they stand on various issues.) Some members have also attended vigils and memorials as representatives of PAGV
As an organization, we are still in our infancy, and we know the road ahead is long and likely filled with obstacles. Yet many of our children are also still infants, and we’ve signed up for the hard work of raising them and keeping them safe. We’re in this fight for them, and we’re in it for the long haul. If this sounds like you, please join us.
In January, President Obama issued an executive order instructing the Department of Justice to analyze data on lost and stolen guns, and to publish a report on their findings. On Monday, the Justice Department released their report for 2012. It indicates that 190,342 guns were lost or stolen nationwide, with Texas leading the states with 18,874 lost or stolen guns. Nationwide, licensed firearms dealers reported 10,915 as “lost,” meaning those guns were in their inventory, and have just vanished.
You’ve probably heard about the Heller case, or at least heard the name “Heller.” But what was it all about, and what does it mean for gun control and gun ownership in the U.S.? One of our members, Kevin, explains.
In American government, the final word on the legality of legislation is the Supreme Court. When laws have conflicted with the Constitution, the Supreme Court has struck them down. The controversial issue of gun control is no exception. The most important gun control case in recent years (or very possibly ever) was District of Columbia v Heller.
Facts of the Case
The issue in Heller was a 1976 District of Columbia gun control law. This law made it a crime to possess an unregistered firearm and prohibited the registration of handguns. It further banned the possession of unlicensed handguns, with one-year licenses to be granted by the Chief of Police. The effect of these provisions was that it became illegal to possess a handgun not registered before the law took effect, and then those handguns had to be re-licensed every year. A final provision of the law required that lawfully-owned firearms be made temporarily inoperable for storage, which meant they had to be unloaded and disassembled or they had to have a trigger lock.
Heller was a D.C. special policeman who was denied permission to register a handgun that he wanted to keep at home. His suit against the law was dismissed in district court, but that decision was reversed by the D.C. Circuit Court. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on November 20, 2007.
In an extended oral argument, Washington D.C. argued that the Second Amendment applied specifically to a right to bear arms as part of a militia. This reading of the Second Amendment would allow virtually all forms of gun control, including the D.C. handgun ban. Concerns from several Justices over this interpretation stemmed from a belief that Congress had almost absolute authority over militias under the Constitution, including the power to disband them. It would thus be odd for the Second Amendment to prevent Congress from disarming them.
In regard to the requirement that guns be made temporarily inoperable while not in use, D.C. argued that such a requirement did not prevent the use of guns for self-defense. Both sides agreed that a right to self-defense exists, and D.C. argued that using a trigger lock would make a weapon useable in about 3 seconds, so it wouldn’t stop the owner from being able to defend himself.
Heller’s attorney argued that reasonable gun control measures were available to the government but that the handgun ban was unconstitutional because it unnecessarily infringed on a personal right to bear arms. He refuted the militia interpretation, arguing that the Second Amendment did in fact grant citizens an individual right to possess guns.
Heller’s side viewed the right to bear arms not only as an important part of the right to self-defense, but also as an inherent right enshrined in the Second Amendment and dating back to the English Bill of Rights. Additionally, the argument relied on the notion of “original intent,” the idea that the framers intended a right for individuals to bear arms under the Constitution.
Justice Scalia wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in favor of Heller. Scalia rejected the idea that the Second Amendment was limited exclusively to militia service, recognizing both a right to possess firearms and a right to use them for lawful purposes such as self-defense.
Scalia went on to note that several forms of gun regulation are acceptable under the Second Amendment. Some examples Scalia noted include concealed weapons bans, prohibitions on firearm possession by felons or the mentally ill, prohibitions on firearm possession in places such as schools and government buildings as well as regulations on the sale of firearms.
However, Scalia found that the D.C. handgun ban as well as the so-called “trigger-lock provision” were not acceptable. He found that the ban affected a class of weapons “that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense.” Similarly, he stated that the “trigger-lock provision” made it impossible for a firearm to be used in self-defense and was therefore unconstitutional. Scalia chose not to strike down the licensing requirement, noting that it is acceptable so long as it is not enforced arbitrarily or capriciously.
Justices Stevens and Breyer each wrote a dissent. Dissents lack the force of law, but they are often instructive in examining the issues of a case. Justice Stevens focused on the Majority’s interpretation of the Second Amendment. In his dissent, he claimed that the Amendment did not protect the use of firearms for non-military purposes. Justice Stevens argued that the Majority had set aside normal standards of interpretation in its decision. He believed that the Majority had inappropriately ignored the first part of the Amendment: “A well regulated Militia.”
He also cited the term “bear arms” as meaning “to serve as a soldier, to do military service, to fight,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In other words, his reading was that the right was tied inextricably to military service. Justice Stevens also presented historical evidence to counter the Majority’s claim of original intent, including a 1792 militia bill that required every white male of suitable age to “provide himself with a good musket or firelock.” That requirement to own a gun also suggests a military purpose.
Justice Breyer agreed with Justice Stevens’ reading of the Second Amendment, but he added that the right is not absolute. Justice Breyer appeared to be assessing the balance between state interest and individual rights — whether the state interest in gun regulation overrode any individual right to own a gun for military purpose. He said the D.C. law pursued government interests in protecting life and preventing crime, both repeatedly found to be compelling interests. Justice Breyer therefore found there was sufficient government interest served in the law, so it should have been upheld.
Following the Heller decision, D.C. began changing its gun laws. An amendment to firearms regulations relaxed several hurdles to gun registration, and provided for the creation of a list of “unsafe” handguns that could not be registered. The law kept a ban on automatic weapons and bottom-loading guns, which has already been challenged in court.
The ruling in Heller was extended when the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment applied to the states as well as the federal government in McDonald v Chicago. That case caused a Chicago handgun ban to be returned to lower courts for a ruling in line with Heller.
There is not yet a consensus on what exactly Heller means for gun control. Some have called this victory for gun rights activists a hollow one because it affirmed that there are many regulations consistent with the Second Amendment. The media has often portrayed the case as an absolute recognition of gun rights, but the Court’s majority opinion is more nuanced.
What Does It All Mean?
Heller is not the clear-cut case that some would like it to be. While it threw out certain provisions of the D.C. gun control law, it also explicitly recognized the possibility of others. In his opinion, Justice Scalia did not produce any sort of Constitutional test by which laws could be measured. The future of the field of gun control laws seems destined to be determined by more lawsuits.
However, a good understanding of the Heller case is essential for anyone advocating for new gun legislation that would remain consistent with the modern interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. The regulations specifically articulated by Justice Scalia would certainly be acceptable, and the oral arguments during the case reveal other regulations that also seemed acceptable to the Court, such as “safe storage” laws. Further, Heller did not rule out bans on certain classes of weapons. Justice Scalia emphasized handguns because they are so widely used in self-defense. An assault weapons ban could very possibly be found constitutional and consistent with the Heller opinion.
Likely the most important lesson from this case is that gun regulations must take individual liberty into account. The interpretation that individuals’ right to bear arms was limited to a military role only was dismissed in Heller. The case left room for a balance between gun rights and gun regulation.
Further Reading: Here is a great project which reviews Supreme Court cases and provides links to oral arguments, opinions, and supporting briefs known as Amicus Curiae)