Opinion: Gun Control, Public Health, and the Public Good

Jun 17, 2016

Credit Pavel Koucký / Flickr

In the aftermath of the mass murder in Orlando, the American Medical Association (AMA; whom I spent three years working for 10 years ago) has called gun violence a “Public Health Crisis” and plans to lobby Congress accordingly. From the perspective of public health, this shift in the AMA’s position is unsurprising. Perhaps the most provocative statistic about gun violence as a public health issue in the US: between 1968 and 2011, more people in the US died from gun violence than died in all the wars the United States has ever fought, starting with the War for Independence. While the number of gun violence deaths pales in comparison to the number of people who die annually from heart disease (about 600,000), more died from gun violence in 2013 (33,636) than died from skin cancer (12,650), prostate cancer (29,720), Leukemia (23,720), or HIV/AIDS (12,963). Additionally, in 2013, there were only 168 more motor vehicle deaths than there were gun-related deaths in the US.

The AMA’s new position commits it to actively lobby Congress to allow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to fund research into gun violence. Congress stripped the CDC of its funding for gun violence research in 1996 ($2.6 million at the time). At the same time, Congress forbid the CDC from funding research into gun control and its effects on gun violence (or at least that was how the legislation has been interpreted). The instigation of these Congressional moves was the apparent bias of the CDC administrators against gun ownership. Due to worries of biased conclusions, the funding was pulled entirely.

Let’s consider that for a moment. The National Rifle Association (NRA), concerned that research into gun control would be biased, successfully lobbied Congress to pull all funding for the research. This would be akin to responding to evidence that a city was corrupt in its handling of road repair contracts by pulling all funding for road repair.

For 20 years, then, no new science on gun violence and its causes has grounded our policies. Instead, the questions of our gun control policies have rested primarily on invective, emotion, and appeals to the 2nd Amendment. Our policies should be based upon scientific evidence and not emotional reactions or the appropriate parsing of the 2nd Amendment (more on the 2nd Amendment at the end of this column).

"...no new science on gun violence and its causes has grounded our policies. Instead, the questions of our gun control policies have rested primarily on invective, emotion, and appeals to the Second Amendment."

Our policies should be based upon scientific evidence and not emotional reactions or the appropriate parsing of the Second Amendment (more on the Second Amendment at the end of this column).

Defining “Assault Rifle”

There are large numbers of petitions swirling the internet right now calling for a ban on assault weapons and assault rifles. It remains unclear what precisely some of these petitions aim to do. In general, of course, they want to limit deaths by gun violence, but how they aim to do this remains ambiguous.

One quick illustration to drive this point home:

Using the a standard encyclopedia definition of “assault rifle”, assault rifles are already severely restricted in the U.S. That’s because citizens are (by and large) only allowed to own semi-automatic (one trigger pull for each bullet fired) weapons and an assault rifle has selective-fire actions—that is, it can be semi-automatic, burst, or fully automatic. On this definition, a ban on “assault rifles” would have had no effect on the weapons available to the Orlando assailant. Without clear definition, any new ban risks the ineffectiveness of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which banned “assault rifles” from 1994 to 2004. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban defined “assault rifles” such that manufacturers found loopholes within the law to continue manufacturing essentially the same weapons.

 Reactive Legislation

The response to the Orlando mass murder has been swift and powerful, such that many legislators, including Indiana’s Senator Dan Coats, are reconsidering their previous refusals to consider gun control measures. For their efforts in this regard, the Democratic senators (including Indiana’s Senator Joe Donnelly) who filibustered for gun control legislation should be recognized. But without science to support the recommended gun control measures put into place, the legislation runs a double risk. It may fail to put into place the most effective measures to limit gun violence. And it may unduly restrict individual freedom for gun control measures that will have limited, if any, effect. It’s for this reason that restoring the funding for the CDC to research gun violence and its relation to gun control is as important as any new gun control measures that seem to “make sense,” but lack robust scientific support. For example, even though background checks seem to “make sense”, the Brady Bill, which includes these, seems to have had a greater affect, in terms of gun violence, on suicides than homicides.

My hope would be that the current political momentum will be turned into a more rational approach to gun control. That it will lead to support for research into gun violence and gun control, that this research would provide clear guidance for policy, and that this guidance would be followed by legislators. I can appreciate that I am being optimistic, to say the least. But my hope is that we can find policies that rest less on the horror and the stubborn, and more on rational analysis.

Responding to the Research

We cannot know in advance what research on gun violence and gun control will demonstrate. It may be that evidence shows banning weapons like the AR-15 will do nothing to limit gun violence, but instead limits on magazine size or more extensive background checks or “No Buy” lists will have the biggest effect. Or it may be that the research will show that the most effective way to limit gun violence will be to ban all guns that make use of magazines. But without research and clearer definitions of what we mean by gun control, we are left without an empirical basis for our policies, risking ineffective and undue restrictions.

If the research demonstrates that the best way to limit gun violence is more severe restrictions on gun ownership, there is one predictable response: appeals to the Second Amendment. As a question of political action, this amendment is important. Repealing it would be, well, challenging. As a question of what are the best gun control policies, however, it’s irrelevant. To say that we, as citizens should have the freedom to own any gun, or this particular kind of gun, because of the Second Amendment makes one of two logical mistakes (or, more likely, both).

First, the argument concludes that because we have the right to bear arms, we should have the right to bear arms. This conflates what is the case with what should be the case. Just because something is legal does not mean it should be. It confuses the descriptive (what is the case) and the normative (what ought to be the case). To say that the Second Amendment ensures the right to own firearms may be descriptively accurate, but it tells us nothing about what the best policy is.

Second, the argument implicitly appeals to authority. The argument is: because the authors of the Bill of Rights included the right to bear arms, we should have a right to own firearms. This assumes of course that these authors were correct at the time and remain correct today. But to conclude that a policy is the best policy because somebody 240 years ago said it was the best policy is absurd. This tweet, perhaps, makes the point as clearly as it can be.

If research shows that the best policies are severe restrictions on gun ownership, one needs something other than the Second Amendment to explain why that policy should not be pursued. At the same time, if the research shows that the best policies do not require certain kinds of gun bans, one would need some additional argument to support banning those guns anyway. 

Abraham Schwab is an associate professor of philosophy and medical ethicist at IPFW.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the staff, management or board of Northeast Indiana Public Radio. If you want to join the conversation, head over to our Facebook page and comment on the post featuring this column.