Ending Homicide and the Right to Arms


It would seem now that every few months there is a mass murder outbreak within the country most famous for a "right to bear arms". Indeed, the rate of mass shootings is accelerating[1], and they are becoming deadlier. The conflict of interests has been brought again to public debate with the recent Stoneman Douglas High School shooting [2], where the U.S. president, Donald Trump, offered his prayers and condolences, ordered flags be flown at half-staff, and then suggested arming teachers as a deterrent [3]. In contrast student survivors have demanded stricter gun controls [4], a position rejected by pro-gun activists as being ineffectual at best and dangerous at worst insofar it provides opportunities for armed homicide. The question of who is correct in this matter is an empirical one whereas, the question of what alternatives can be feasibly be implemented, is a political one.

Several seemingly obvious statements need to be made, at least in part because the arguments are often raised in the debate. The gun is not the only deadly technology available, and a determined person can, of course, carry out a homicide through other means. But the availability of a deadly ranged technology does make it easier. Ceteris paribus, because humans are imperfect, the greater the quantity of guns, the more opportunities there are for deliberate misuse or mishap; in a tragically prescient article the New York Times [5] pointed out that the United States and Yemen (which is the midst of a civil war) are two exceptional countries which both have a high number of guns per capita and mass shooting per capita. Likewise it should be unsurprising to discover that restrictions on firearms (e.g., restricted purchase, storage requirements) result in less firearm injuries, intentional or otherwise [6]. The latter point is important - gun suicides far exceed gun homicides and given that suicides are surprisingly a split-moment decision, an easy means to perform such an act correlates with the event [7].

Gun Control and Other Correlations

Whilst mass shootings are certainly dramatic a more serious question is whether gun controls are correlated with lower rates of homicide. Australia is an oft-cited example where, following the Port Arthur Massacre of April 1996, legislation was introduced later that year (the National Firearms Agreement), which implemented controls on semi-automatic and automatic weapons with some exceptions, a firearm registry, and also included a buy-back programme. For a few years after the implementation of the programme (96-97 to 01-02) there was minimal change in the number of homicide victims per capita, but after that a sharp decline (the same can be said of suicide) [8]. This correlates with declines in homicides in other OECD countries, which led some early studies to conclude that there was little evidence of the effectiveness of the legislation [9].

Reviewing the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes International Homicide Statistics database however, a different picture evolves [10]. Accepting the caveat of the scope of the time series, Australia's homicide rate declined from 1.9 per 100,000 to 1.1 (43%). In comparison The decline in Canada was 0%, in the US was a mere 15%, in NZ (where there is some cultural similarity) it is 31%, in DE it is 33%, in Switzerland (which has interesting gun laws) 40%, in the UK (famous for stringent gun laws) 42%, in France 45%. Iceland had an impressive reduction, partially helped because the two data points on the time series were oddities (the average is a lot flatter), whereas Norway had the reverse effect. However, overall, the statistical reality is that the introduction of gun control in AU correlated in a reduction in homicides and that reduction is far in excess of similar countries. It would seem, based on statistical reality, that the gun controls caused a greater than normal decrease in homicide.

Now correlation is not causation, thus the search is on to find something that has a greater relationship. It's pretty well-established that the more guns certainly does not result in less crime [11]. It is likewise established that mental health diagnosis won't help in the majority of cases [12], as a killer's thinking evolves prior to the act. As if it needs to be said, there is little evidence to suggest a link between video games and homicides either [13]. What does have strong correlations is two perhaps surprising factors; economic inequality and being male. Economic inequality predicts homicide better than any other variable, and men make up the overwhelming majority of the perpetrators [14], especially when gendered economic and political inequality is prevalent. Thus, in the absence of other correlations, the best means to reduce homicides and suicides, based on available data is (a) higher levels of economic equality, (b) higher levels of sexual equality, and (c) stronger gun controls.

On The Right to Bear Arms

Unsurprisingly, especially in the United States, there are those who would argue that regardless of the data they would prefer a "right to bear arms", typically as expressed as The Second Amendment. This reads, in its ratified form, as "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.". This amendment obviously has a historical context [15]; many of the founders of the United States had a deep suspicion of standing armies and their propensity to become invading armies and yet they wanted a means of preventing a government from exerting tyranny upon the population. A regulated and armed civilian militia seemed to be a logical choice, and the reasons is still raised to this day as justifications, even in a country that notoriously has a massive standing army and tyrannical governments.

Through a series of political lobbyings and judgments, the legal interpretation of the Amendment has been clarified, and with tragic results. The most substantial of these is the argument that the second clause represents an individual right rather than a collective right, and that it is independent of the first clause, rather than a pre-condition. The argument is that The Second Amendment should be read with the first clause establishing the reason for the second, and that the second clause specifically states "the people" as a collective category, rather than an individual right (as is more explicit in the other amendments enacted in the same period). It is notable that the courts, the most important being the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) [16] interpreted "the people" to mean individual rights (as it does in other constitutional clauses) and that the prefatory clauses is not a condition for the subsequent clause.

Solutions

Given these legal decisions and the power of precedent, the removal of individually-owned gun ownership in the United States seems implausible without modifying the existing amendment, and the probability of this is extremely slim. There have been over ten thousand proposals to amend the U.S. Constitution, of which only twenty-seven have been ratified. Indeed, achieving higher levels of income equality is more likely, even considering how adverse the United States seems to be sometimes to this ideal. Given the additional social benefits this brings [17], this may be the most effective policy approach. Whilst it initially seems an orthogonal answer to the question, there can be no doubt that a most effective means to reduce homicide, suicide, and various violent crimes. The presence of guns makes these social ills easier.

However, in addition to this - and some things that can be implemented under current US constitutional requirements - include nation-wide background checks, licensing, registration of items, limit their locations, storage requirements, age requirements etc. Whilst these are "controls", they should be phrased in the sense of public health measures, because that's what they are, in the same way that licensing rather than prohibition is required for other dangerous items. There is no argument here against a "well-regulation civilian militia" as a means to protect the people against oppressive governments from within or without - and that also means increasing the funding for health research in firearms in a manner that is proportional to its danger [18].

Endnotes

[1] Amy P. Cohen, Deborah Azrael, Matthew Miller, "Rate of Mass Shootings Has Tripled Since 2011", Harvard Research Shows, Mother Jones, Oct 15, 2014
https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/10/mass-shootings-increasing-h...

[2] Oliver Laughland, Richard Luscombe, Alan Yuhas, Alan, "Florida school shooting: at least 17 people dead on 'horrific, horrific day'". The Guardian, February 15, 2018
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/feb/14/florida-shooting-school-...

[3] Dan Merica, Betsy Klein,, "Trump suggests arming teachers as a solution to increase school safety", CNN, February 22, 2018.
https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/21/politics/trump-listening-sessions-par...

[4] Stephanie Ebbs, "Survivors of Florida high school shooting call for action on gun control". ABC News. Archived from the original on February 16, 2018.
http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/survivors-florida-high-school-shooting-ca...

[5] Max Fisher, Josh Keller, What Explains U.S. Mass Shootings? International Comparisons Suggest an Answer, New York Times, November 7, 2017. See also Harvard Injury Control Research Center, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/hicrc/firearms-research/guns-and-death/

[6] Julian Santaella-Tenorio, Magdalena Cerdá, Andrés Villaveces, Sandro Galea, "What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?" in Epidemiologic Reviews, Volume 38, Issue 1, Pages 140–157, 1 January 2016, https://doi.org/10.1093/epirev/mxv012
https://academic.oup.com/epirev/article/38/1/140/2754868

[7] Firearm Access is a Risk Factor for Suicide, Harvard University School of Public Health, undated.
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/risk/

[8] c.f., Crime Statistics Australia, Homicide Incidents, Victims and Offenders, 1989-90 to 2013-14 (rate per 100,000),
http://crimestats.aic.gov.au/NHMP/1_trends/

[9] Mark Antonio. "Australia's 1996 Gun Confiscation Didn't Work – And it Wouldn't Work in America". National Review, 2 October 2015

[10] UNODC Homicide Statistics 2013
https://www.unodc.org/gsh/en/data.html

[11] Melinda Wenner Moyer, "More Guns Do Not Stop More Crimes, Evidence Shows", Scientific American, October 1, 2017
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/more-guns-do-not-stop-more-cr...

[12] Benedict Carey, "Are Mass Murderers Insane? Usually Not, Researchers Say", New York Times, Nov 8, 2017
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/health/mass-murderers-mental-illness....

[13] Max Fisher, "Ten-country comparison suggests there’s little or no link between video games and gun murders", Washinton Post, December 17, 2012
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2012/12/17/ten-country...

[14] Maia Szalavitz, "The surprising factors driving murder rates: income inequality and respect", The Guardian, Dec 8, 2017
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/dec/08/income-inequality-murder...

[15] Carl T. Bogus, Michael A. Bellesiles (eds), The Second Amendment in Law and History: Historians and Constitutional Scholars on the Right to Bear Arms, The New Press, 2000

[16] See District of Columbia et al v Heller, 2008. Antonin Scalia in particular should be remembered for his role in the majority decision.
https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/07-290.ZS.html

[17] Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,

[18] Nicholas Kristof, "How to Reduce Shootings", New York Times, Nov 11, 2017
https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/06/opinion/how-to-reduce-sho...

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Also of note.

"New survey, part of most definitive portrait of gun ownership in decades, shows just 3% of American adults own half of guns in the US

Americans own an estimated 265m guns, more than one gun for every American adult, according to the most definitive portrait of US gun ownership in two decades. But the new survey estimates that 133m of these guns are concentrated in the hands of just 3% of American adults – a group of super-owners who have amassed an average of 17 guns each.

The unpublished Harvard/Northeastern survey result summary, obtained exclusively by the Guardian and the Trace, estimates that America’s gun stock has increased by 70m guns since 1994. At the same time, the percentage of Americans who own guns decreased slightly from 25% to 22%."

Gun inequality: US study charts rise of hardcore super owners, The Guardian, Sept 19, 2016
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/19/us-gun-ownership-survey

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