An imPERFect action plan on gun violence
A new PERF report has several biases influencing its firearms policy recommendations
The Police Executive Research Forum, which faced criticism for ignoring police officer safety in its 2016 release of Guiding Principles on Use of Force, has issued its latest report: Key Findings and an Action Plan to Reduce Gun Violence (available in full at the end of this article). While most of PERF’s recommendations are not surprising or controversial, the report seems to ignore one of its major recommendations: make policy based on research.
Opinion research is one type of legitimate information seeking. What policy makers are thinking can be enlightening, and can predict future policy and legislation, but on what facts are those opinions based? Here are six biases readers of the report should recognize.
The label “gun violence”
There are no other crime labels attached to the instrument used to commit a criminal act. We talk about domestic violence and sexual violence, but those are categories. We don’t hear of fist violence, knife violence, or penis violence. The subtleties of language influence thinking. Instead of talking about firearms offenders, we talk about the instrument rather than the actor. For better or worse, this naturally leads the mind to find a solution with the gun, rather than with the offender.
When firearms-related deaths are calculated, the number of self-inflicted deaths is often included in the total. While suicide prevention is a great societal concern, there is a moral and philosophical difference in protecting people from themselves and protecting people from involuntary victimization by others.
Nearly two-thirds of deaths by bullets are by suicide, a relatively small number of deaths from accidental shooting (a number “plummeting” according to this LA Times article), and PERF reports 1,000 deaths in domestic violence gunfire. Accepting the tragedy of any of these deaths does not lead to the ultimate conclusion that the same laws – other than making all firearms disappear – could or should address the whole universe of firearms-related death.
The liberty versus safety principle is different when government protects us from others than when government acts to protect us from ourselves.
Many of the first objectors to sweeping regulation of firearms ownership based on controlling access to guns by the mentally ill are mental health care professionals. According to one expert, “Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness.”
Adding shame, suspicion and blame to those with mental health concerns to gain political traction on firearms legislation only serves to discourage individuals – often already reluctant to seek help – to get the mental health care they need.
Even the NRA is supportive of background checks. The PERF action plan cites 1.5 million gun purchases blocked by the federal background check requirement. What isn’t clear is how many persons managed to obtain a firearm regardless of the law. That doesn’t make the law useless, but the numbers don’t prove its effectiveness either; especially as homicide rates have increased at the same time background checks became required practice for gun sales.
Mental images of the notorious killers with hundreds of rounds of ammunition color the reality of any potential effectiveness of limiting weapon capacity to 10 rounds. Is that number based on how many murders are committed by offenders with lower capacity weapons? Would a smaller round capacity limit the planning of a mass killer? Would a magazine reload pause increase the chance of a killer being stopped? Those questions haven’t been addressed in research, only conjecture.
PERF recommends a ban on “the future sale and importation of military-style weapons that have no purpose except to kill large numbers of people as quickly as possible.” Among people who should know better, the PERF survey of police executives perpetuates the mythologies that there are good rifles and bad rifles based on their design. If the weapons referenced have no other purpose than mass murder, what is the explanation for the millions of weapons being used for hunting, sport shooting and home defense that have not been used in mass murder?
The PERF report acknowledges that intensive investigation and prosecution of unlawful acts involving firearms has great potential to stem the tide of murders associated with chronic offenders. We do have offender data that offers predictive value in assessing potential violence, including violence perpetrated with firearms, so those recommendations have some traction from research.
Perhaps every recommendation from the document has merit. But few of the recommendations pass the tests of being based on facts and a discussion of the role of government in our lives.