Gun policy is back on the democratic debate stage in a way it hasn’t been in decades. But are the candidates’ proposals likely to save lives?
Daniel Webster directs the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, and he’s happy that for once, these issues are getting some campaign attention. But he’s also really hoping voters demand proposals based on evidence.
“You know, I hope that we get more substantive as we move forward. That candidates will have more fully developed plans,” said Webster.
At the moment, a lot of the Democratic hopefuls say they want to ban “assault weapons.”
It’s important to note, people do not agree on what that label means. Probably what comes to mind is something like an AR-15: a rifle, all black, kind of scary looking.
“I think part of the reason ‘assault weapons’ keep coming up is that it’s really the most horrific kinds of events that very very commonly these weapons come into play,” said Webster. He thinks it’s understandable Democratic voters worry about them.
“But if your overall plan is to significantly reduce gun violence, it can only address a fairly small portion of the problem,” he said.
Mass shootings, which researchers like Webster define as shootings resulting in four or more deaths, make up less than 2% of criminal gun fatalities. And even within that mass shooting category, Webster said “handguns actually play a bigger role than do ‘assault weapons.’”
That’s true of murder overall as well. According to the latest FBI data handguns were used in 60% of murders involving guns in 2016.
So what about “universal background checks”? That’s a very popular proposal among the candidates and polls well with the American public, Republicans included.
“What we know now is that the lack of comprehensive background checks clearly plays a role in trafficking of firearms,” said Webster.
But in the states that have enacted these measures, he said, “We haven’t seen that that actually is reducing firearm related deaths.”
Turns out, the latest research, some of which Webster worked on, shows something else saves more lives: gun licensing.
It means applying to law enforcement for a license to buy guns. The process includes both a background check and fingerprinting.
“The fingerprinting process in particular allows for a much more accurate way to identify criminal records,” said Webster. “Basically, you can’t fake your fingerprints.”
It also slows down someone who might buy a gun on a suicidal impulse. Webster says the laws are working in the nine states that have handgun licensing. It’s something Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., barely managed to squeeze in on the debate stage.
“In states like Connecticut that did that they saw 40% drops in gun violence and 15% drops in suicides,” said Booker in Miami.
That mention of suicides is an important point. Remember, when you hear about 40,000 annual gun deaths in the U.S., more than half of those are suicides.
“In the vast majority of states that these candidates are going to campaign in, the large majority of deaths with guns are from suicides,” said Webster.
He said it’s the form of gun violence that’s risen most steadily over the last two decades. And Webster says there is strong evidence that access to firearms makes suicide attempts more likely to be lethal.
Coming For Your Guns
Now, if you’re an American who really loves guns, most of what Democrats are proposing may boil down to this:
“All of the Democratic candidates are gun-banners.” said Tom Gresham, host of Gun Talk Radio. “It’s just a matter of how many guns, which categories of guns, and how they would like to take your guns away.”
He thinks phrases like “gun violence epidemic” are nonsense. But he does believe suicide is a serious problem.
“It’s a problem that we on the gun side have been working on,” said Gresham.
Now, does he think the suicide rate is linked to guns? Not at all. However, despite that stance, it’s something he’s more than willing to work on addressing.
“The National Shooting Sports Foundation has a program to work with gun stores to identify those who might be suicidal. We work with veterans groups. We work with suicide prevention groups. We find middle ground with all of that,” said Gresham.
Mental healthcare access is in some of the candidates’ platforms, but Booker is the only major candidate to release a plan on firearm suicide prevention. Either way, the issue didn’t get a lot of play on the debate stage in June.
And that may have something to do with the way the discussion was framed.
The Gun-Owning Public
On night one of the first round of debates, moderator Chuck Todd opened up the gun policy debate, by asking, “What do you do about the hundreds of millions of guns already out there? And does the federal government have to play a role in dealing with it?”
On night two, moderators opened up the question by calling on former candidate and current U.S. House Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., whose main campaign platform was banning “assault rifles” and aggressively prosecuting anyone who resisted a mandatory gun buyback.
“I think that when the Democrats call for more and more restrictive gun control, it actually does help wake up the gun-owning public,” said Gresham.
There’s some evidence Gresham is onto something.
Don Haider-Markel heads the Political Science department at the University of Kansas and has studied gun ownership and voter motivation.
He explains that while the movement for more gun regulation has arguably never been more mobilized, it is not clear that translates into votes.
“For the average citizen and voter, guns just don’t really motivate the likelihood of their participation or how they’ll vote in an incredibly strong way,” said Haider-Markel. “Whereas, for what you might call ‘pro-gun’ forces, it’s really a mobilizer, not only to get them to participate in politics, but then also in who they’re willing to support.”
Through his research, Haider-Markel has come to think of gun ownership itself as an increasingly relevant political identity. On the other hand, “non-gun-owner” hasn’t been shown to have the same motivating effect.
Haider-Markel said of course, regardless of what happens among the Democratic candidates, Republicans and Trump are likely to talk about guns.
“You know, raise the typical slippery slope argument: Any measure they’re trying to do is just the first step in them coming to take your guns,” he said. “It’s been the refrain for almost 30 years now and it’s just not going to go away.”
At the same time, he argues that honing in on specific, evidence-based policies might be much better than a broad argument against “gun violence.”
“On individual measures for gun regulation, there is majority gun owner support for many things,” he said.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.