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Guns and the Village: where we are, what to do

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This is the first in our series “Guns and the Village.”
Click here to see all the articles in the series.

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., in which a young man shot and killed 20 children and seven adults, has sparked many things: a renewed national focus on gun control and gun rights, a passionate debate over the causes of gun violence, new federal efforts to pass gun control laws, a resulting backlash of increased gun sales, and just last week, the news that the state of Ohio was offering free training for teachers to protect against shooters (and in Clinton County, a gun shop owner offered free firearms training for teachers). While a national dialogue on gun violence also spiked after other mass shootings, those discussions quickly withered away. However, the aftermath of Newtown shows no signs of abating anytime soon.

This debate is often a passionate one.

“I am reading and hearing that some flea markets and gun shows require no qualifications other than perhaps age, to sell a gun. If there are no standards being followed, then we are all potentially held hostage to a person’s poor mental health or anger,” wrote villager Sue Parker in an email this week. “President Obama should have more clout than ever before in this term. I hope he can use it to enforce gun laws that will stick.”

However, many gun rights advocates believe that when good people are armed, violence drops. And they believe gun laws take away Americans’ Constitutional right to self -defense.

”It is a freedom issue,” said Larry Moore, the southwest Ohio region leader for the Buckeye Firearms Association, in an email. “Are we going to be a country that recognizes the Constitution and rule of law where citizens are entrusted and empowered to own property, including firearms? Or will we be a country where freedoms are constantly regulated by the government under some guise such as safety, public good or health issues?”

Here at the News, we hope to use this national dialogue as an opportunity to look at the issue of guns and gun safety in our own backyard. In this series, “Guns and the Village,” we plan to examine various aspects of this conversation, beginning with gun violence in this country compared to other developed nations, along with studies on the correlation between gun ownership and gun violence. In future articles we’ll look at how guns are purchased, local gun ownership, safety plans in local schools, and police perspectives on local violence. We’ll interview villagers about the issue, examine how Ohio gun laws compare to those of other states, and how politics affects the gun rights/gun control debate. And we’ll conclude with a look at how communities are attempting to address this issue.

U.S. and the world

If the two groups agree on anything, it might be that there is a lot of gun violence in this country.

In a 2009 study of 23 populous, high-income countries, 80 percent of all firearm deaths occurred in the United States, according to an article in the Journal of Trauma, Injury, Infection and Critical Care by Harvard researchers Erin Richardson and David Hemenway. In 2011 about 11,000 Americans died in gun homicides and 19,000 people killed themselves with guns, according to a study by the Geneva-based nonpartisan Small Arms Society. In Britain that year, there were about 60 gun-related murders, and 115 gun-related suicides.

The firearm-related death rate among U.S. children is nearly 12 times higher in the U.S. than in 25 other industrialized nations combined, according to a 1997 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. And the same organization concluded that the U.S. has the highest rate of youth gun-related homicides and suicides among the 25 wealthiest countries in a 1997 study, “Childhood homicide, suicide and firearm deaths: an international comparison.”

Gun violence is now seen as a public health issue. A study released last week by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council identified gun violence as one of three main causes of death ­— along with car accidents and drug overdose — for Americans under age 50, according to a Jan. 10, 2013 New York Times article. The study shows that life expectancy for young men in this country ranked last out of 17 developed countries in the study, including Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and Spain. Death rates for American women were second from last.

An abundance of guns

This country has no serious competition in the world regarding the number of guns owned by civilians, according to a 2007 survey of gun ownership in 178 countries by the Small Arms Society. That group concluded that the U.S. had about 88.9 guns per 100 people, with the next highest rate of ownership in Yemen, with 54.8 guns per 100.

In terms of other developed countries, the next highest ranking of per capita gun ownership went to Switzlerland, with 45.7 guns per 100 people, and Finland, with 45.3 per 100.

According to firearms analyst Philip Alpers of the University of Sydney in a Dec. 20, 2012 Huffington Post article, there are two reasons why gun availability in the United States makes it an outlier among other developed countries.

“You are basically the only country in the developed world that doesn’t license gun owners across the board and you are almost alone in not registering guns across the board,” he said.

In a 2011 survey by the Small Arms Society, citizens of only two countries — the United States and Yemen — considered gun ownership a basic right. However, the government of Yemen was at the time beginning to push for more gun control laws, Alpers said.

More guns, more violence?

But gun rights advocates refute the premise that more guns necessarily lead to more gun violence.

In a February 1990 article in American Rifleman, David Kopel and Stephen D’Andrilli point to Switzerland as a highly armed, developed country that nonetheless has a low crime rate. Almost every house has a gun, the authors state, since the country has no standing army and most males undergo military training throughout their life, as a sort of nationwide militia. The authors point to the country’s weak, decentralized federal government and strong local governments as elements that cultivate high personal responsibility, along with cultural factors such as stable families, strict schools and traditional family ­structures.

“What have we learned from Switzerland? Guns are not a cause of gun crime; if they were, everyone in Switzerland would long ago have been shot in a domestic quarrel,” the writers stated.

Gun rights advocates also point to the breakdown of this country’s mental health system as a more likely cause of gun violence than gun availability. It’s hard to argue that someone who walks into a grade school and kills 20 children is not mentally ill, they say, and shooters such as Jared Loughner of the January 2011 Tucson tragedy had previously been diagnosed with mental illness.

Recent attempts to address gun violence include some mental health components. The bill passed last week by the New York State legislature requires therapists to report to authorities any client thought to be “likely to engage in” violent behavior, and new efforts proposed by President Obama in response to Newtown include more sharing of records between mental health practitioners and law enforcement.

But looking to mental health as a key component in gun-based violence is flawed, according to Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist who has compiled a database of about 200 mass and serial killers, in a Jan. 15, 2013, New York Times article. Out of those, Stone estimates about 40 were likely to have had paranoid schizophrenia or severe depression or were psychopathic, he said, while “most mass murders are done by working class men who’ve been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated — and who then undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in our country.”

And mental health professionals’ ability to predict a patiant’s potential for violent behavior is more an art than a science, according to Dr. Terry Schell, a senior behavioral scientist at the nonpartisan Rand Corporation, in a Jan. 13 blog on the Rand website.

“As a field, we are not able to identify individuals who are likely to use guns against others on the basis of their mental health, nor do we have any evidence-based treatments to reduce the likelihood of violence,” he wrote. “If mental health care is to play a substantial role in reducing gun violence, a new research agenda will need to fill these gaps in the scientific literature.”

Guns less safe, or more?

The issue is not that Americans are inherently more violent than citizens of other countries, according to University of California/Davis Medical Center researcher Dr. Garen Wintemute, who practices emergency medicine and conducts research on the nature of gun violence, in the Dec. 20 Huffington Post article. Overall rates of violence in this country are similar to Australia, Canada and Western Europe, Wintermute reports, but where the United Stated carves its own path is the high rate of gun-related homicides.

“That’s a weapon effect,” Wintermute said. “It’s not clear that guns cause violence, but it’s absolutely clear that they change the outcome.”

One of the most passionate debates between those who favor gun rights and those who favor gun control is the effect on gun violence of having a gun in the home. Gun rights advocates believe that civilians who own guns help curb violence, because they defend themselves against criminals. Gun control advocates argue that when guns are available, minor skirmishes in a home escalate into potentially fatal conflicts.

A key figure in this debate has been Dr. Arthur Kellermann, a former emergency room doctor who is now director of the research division of the Rand Corporation.

After analyzing gun-related deaths in Seattle over a six-year period, Kellermann found that 54 percent of gun-related deaths occurred in the home where the gun was kept, although there were 1.3 times more accidental gun deaths in the home as self-protection shootings; 4.6 times as many criminal firearm-related homicides in the home compared to self-protection shootings, and 37 times as many suicides in the home where the gun was kept compared to self-protection shootings. Overall, for every time a gun was used in self-defense, there were four accidental shootings, seven criminal assaults and 11 attempted or completed suicides, according to a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine article

Kellermann concluded, “the advisability of keeping firearms in the home for protection must be questioned.”

Kellermann conducted several more studies in the early 1990s that were funded by the Center for Disease Control, or CDC, comparing data from other cities and coming to the same conclusions. Researchers at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center have found similar results in more than 20 studies published over the past two decades.

In contrast, gun rights advocates point to the research of criminologist Gary Kleck of the Florida State University, whose 1993 study of 5,000 households concluded that crime victims who defend themselves with guns are less likely to be injured or lose property than those without guns, and use their weapons 2.5 million times a year in self-defense.

However, a review of research related to gun use for self-defense, conducted in 2004 by the National Research Council’s Committee on Law and Justice, noted that estimates of annual defensive gun use range wildly, from about 100,000 instances yearly to the 2.5 million uses from Kleck’s study.

“While even the smallest of the estimates indicates that there are hundreds of defensive uses every day, there is much contention over the magnitude and the details,” the study reports, citing as a primary cause of the confusion, “a disagreement over the definition of defensive gun use.”

Crime has dropped

Gun rights advocates point to the fact that while gun ownership is high, gun crime has been declining in this country, according to In 2012 the rate of gun murder dropped to its lowest point since 1981, with 3.6 gun homicides per 100,000 people. However, non-fatal gun injuries from assaults increased last year for the third year in a row, and that rate is the highest since 2008, according to FactCheck.

Guns rights proponents, such as Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas, attribute these changes to states having passed more concealed-carry laws, allowing citizens to carry guns legally to places where guns had been forbidden in the past, providing a deterrant to crime.

But some gun violence researchers question this conclusion. In 2008 the Harvard Injury Control Research Center released a study on the effects of new concealed-carry laws related to gun violence that concluded “the changes have been neither highly beneficial nor highly detrimental” to the deterrence of crime.

Advocates for gun control say that the crime rate would be even lower if stricter laws were in place. Evidence for this position is inconsistent, however. Two cities with relatively strict gun restrictions, Chicago and Washington, D.C., have seen opposite results. According to an NPR report on January 8, while Washington gun homicide rates are near record lows, gun murders in Chicago spiked in 2012.

A 2004 study from the National Academy of Sciences determined “no credible evidence” one way or another that gun controls reduced or increased violent crime.

However, the presence of guns does increase the crime rate, according to two studies from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, one covering the 1990s and one 2001-2003. The authors concluded that “states with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide.”

Calls for more research

Kellermann’s research, which concluded that guns in the home were far more likely to result in accidental shootings, assault or suicide than self-protection, was funded by the CDC. Gun control advocates say that his findings were linked to the push by a Republican-controlled Congress, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, or NRA, to cut funding to the CDC by $2.6 million in 1996, the exact amount that had been used for his studies. Since then research has seriously lagged, since Congress adopted language in funding the CDC which stated that no funds “may be used to advocate or promote gun control,” according to an article last week on the ScienceInsider website. The article focuses on a letter from 100 scientists to Vice President Biden that urges Biden to re-instate research on gun violence in this country.

According to one of the letter writers, Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, “The tragedy of gun violence is compounded by the fact that the usual methods for addressing a public health and safety threat of this magnitude — collection of basic data, scientific inquiry, policy formation, policy analysis and rigorous evaluation — are because of politically-motivated constraints, extremely difficult in the area of firearm research.”

The NRA did not respond to a request for comments regarding the scientists’ letter, according to the Web article. However, in a response to the Obama administration’s recent announcement of new gun control efforts, the group issued a statement that said, “It is unfortunate that this administration continues to insist on pushing failed solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems. We will not allow law-abiding gun owners to be blamed for the acts of criminals and madmen.”

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