Letter To The Editor: Gun Violence? We Are Fighting The Wrong War

Los Alamos

We are entering another legislative session and at least one gun control bill will be introduced. Such bills will treat the symptoms, gun violence, rather than the diseases. Gun violence is driven by deeper issues, namely our failed wars on drugs and poverty and our addiction to a culture of violence.

As many analysts have told us (e.g., a recent NPR piece) gun control laws are oversold. For example, a tiny fraction of guns traced to crime are purchased at gun shows. Most are trafficked through straw purchases, obtained from acquaintances, or stolen. Often, (e.g., Chicago), penalties for illegal gun possession, itself a precursor to more serious crimes, are minor, hence sending the message that illegal possession is not taken seriously. Some suggestions are nonetheless worth trying. 

The “gun show loophole” bill has a reasonable cost-benefit since gun shows are populated with licensed gun vendors; asking a private seller to work with a licensed one is probably worth the price, considering it may stop some prohibited purchases. I think we should concentrate on making background checks universally available rather than arguing over making them a requirement.

We must ask why there is so much gun crime irrespective of gun laws. Places with high levels of gun crime are highly correlated with poverty and drugs. A recent study showed that the best predictor of becoming a homicide victim is the actions of one’s social network. Meanwhile, areas with lax gun laws often have low levels of gun crime because they (Vermont, Wyoming, or closer to home, Los Alamos, NM) are relatively free of serious drug or poverty problems, many of which are connected to mental health problems.  If one has few options other than crime or the drug trade (which we have willfully handed over to organized crime), gun crime is a foreseeable option because there are so few others.

The War on Guns, therefore, is misdirected. One of its casualties is getting the political left and right to reformulate the way we treat drug offenses (as public health issues), and to directly address the economic and social conditions that have left many cities as poverty and drug infested war zones. Instead of treating both our drug and poverty problems as principally law enforcement issues, we need to treat these as public health and economic growth issues.

Finally, we see an increasing acculturation to violence. Someone created a video showing movie stars demanding an end to gun violence. Interspersed with their pleas were clips of these same people starring in roles drenched in gun violence. Many people practice being mass shooters on their computer screens. Given that we have 300 million guns, it is not surprising that some act out in real life. As gun regulators remind the gun industry, one cannot both profit from violence and condemn it.

Rather than fight a war on guns that promises stalemate (2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme), we should be solving the drug, poverty, and systemic violence problems that sustain gun violence. We should vigorously prosecute and penalize the misuse of guns, including theft, straw purchase, and crimes committed with guns. We should promote gun safety in the home and make purposeful efforts to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But let’s stop being shocked when there is gun violence in predictable locations, as we have failed to solve the problems that drive the violence in the first place.