Last week, I left New York and headed for my home state of North Dakota. The plan was to fly to Minneapolis and then ride the rest of the way with my dad and stepmom, who were driving in from Wisconsin. Just before I headed to the airport, I sent my dad a text.
I’m not a hunter or a gun fanatic, but I thought it might be fun to shoot something. I envisioned us blasting beer cans off fence posts — father-daughter bonding. Instead we aimed at a cardboard box. I killed it dead. Turns out I’m kind of a crack shot despite my awkward stance. Apparently the skeet shooting I did in college as part of hunter’s safety paid off.
While I find guns thrilling, I also recognize that they’re designed to be deadly weapons. Just last month, an army veteran shot and killed six people in a Sikh temple just outside Milwaukee. Two weeks before that a gunman murdered 12 people in a movie theater in Colorado. Gun violence isn’t as rampant as it once was, but it’s still a serious problem. In 2009, 31,347 people died of gun-related deaths. That’s slightly fewer than the number of people killed in car accidents. So what’s the solution? Would curbing access to guns prevent gun deaths? It’s a loaded question. (Pun intended.)
These days, a mentally competent and law-abiding adult can buy a gun anywhere in the United States. You can conceal that weapon and carry it around with you anywhere but Illinois. In Arizona, which has some of the laxest gun laws in the country, you can tote a concealed handgun without a permit. You can slip it in your purse and bring it to the bar if you want. In Florida, if you perceive someone to be a deadly threat, the law says you can stand your ground and shoot even if you’re not in your own home.
Common sense suggests that having guns readily available leads to more shootings. So reducing the number of guns should curb gun violence. But this logical conclusion is actually really difficult to prove. Say you institute a ban in City X. If the number of gun-related deaths drops, how do you untangle whether the decrease was due to the ban or to other factors? Similarly, if gun deaths increase, that either signals that the ban didn’t work or that gun violence would have been worse had the ban not been in place. Linda Singer, the former Attorney General of Washington, DC, which instituted a ban on handguns in the 1970s, put it this way: “You can’t measure what didn’t happen,” she said. “You can’t measure how many guns didn’t come into the District because we have this law.”
In the early aughts, an independent task force conducted a systematic review of the research to assess the effectiveness of a variety of gun control measures, including gun bans, waiting periods for buying guns, firearm registration and licensing rules, and much more. But their conclusion was far from conclusive. “The Task Force’s review of firearms laws found insufficient evidence to determine whether the laws reviewed reduce (or increase) specific violent outcomes,” they wrote. “Much existing research suffers from problems with data, analytic methods, or both.” Sigh.
Both Chicago and Washington, DC, had handgun bans in place for decades. Both bans were recently struck down by the Supreme Court for violating the second amendment. But even if they hadn’t been, it seems naive to think that a ban on guns in a single city or even a single state could have much of an impact on gun availability. Brian Malte, director of legislation for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, told the LA Times, “states with stronger gun laws are undermined by states surrounding them with weak laws. Which means we need federal laws.”
But would nationwide restrictions really reduce gun violence? A thriving black market already exists for firearms, and it seems safe to assume that individuals who want guns to commit crimes won’t worry overmuch about the legality of having a gun. One of the lessons of the war on drugs seems to be that even draconian restrictions can’t make a problem go away.
“There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States: a hundred and six million handguns, a hundred and five million rifles, and eighty-three million shotguns. That works out to about one gun for every American,” wrote Jill Lepore in the New Yorker. That is a staggering number of guns. My dad owns a few that stay tucked away, unloaded and locked up. He takes them out occasionally to shoot up beer cans and cardboard boxes. But what of the other millions of gun owners? Can we trust that they’ll be as responsible?
That’s my dad in the first photo, and unfortunately I’m not sure who snapped it. My stepmom took the second photo of me with my dad’s pistol.