America’s Path to Fewer Gun Deaths
by Daniel Webster
As prepared for delivery on September 10th, 2014 at TEDMED.
Conversations about gun violence in America tend to be bleak. – 11,000 people are killed each year in homicides committed with guns.1 That’s 30 a day.
The worse cases often prompt calls for stronger gun laws. Then the polarized politics of guns kick in, and usually nothing happens.
So I understand why people feel little will change.
But I don’t think that our current level of gun violence is here to stay. Nor is it necessarily built into American culture or American law.
When you compare the United States to other high-income countries on most measures of violence, we’re average on most measures of violence.2,3 But we’re a huge outlier when it comes to lethal violence; our homicide rate is 7 times higher than the average.4
Having more guns plays an important role, but it’s not merely that we have a lot of guns. It’s that our standards for legal gun ownership are too low and our laws are too weak to hold individuals accountable if they put guns into the hands of criminals.
I have a prediction and a path for significantly reducing gun violence in America.
I think that we will adopt smarter gun policies in the coming years that, within 20 years, will help reduce our murder rates by 30% to 50%.5,6,7 With population growth, that’s 4,000 to 6,000 fewer homicides a year. The measures would also prevent many suicides.
We’ll do this by taking a uniquely American path – without gun bans – without violating the Second Amendment -- and embracing values held by most gun owners. Values I understand as a native Kentuckian whose father owned a hunting rifle, grandad a revolver, and beloved great-grandmother shot a guy robbing her tavern.
Think about how we dramatically reduced another leading cause of death for youth – motor vehicle crashes.
In 1978, 10,000 American teens were killed in motor vehicle crashes.8 But American teens now face a 69% lower risk of dying in a car crash compared with 1978.
How did we do it? We didn’t ban cars or alcohol. No, we:
- increased the drinking age from 18 to 21,
- increased legal standards for sober driving,
- increased the odds of being arrested and the penalties for drunk driving,
- we held people accountable if they sold alcohol to an underage youth, especially if t contributed to injuries or deaths;
- and we required more advanced safety technology like air bags.
These policies worked because they promoted higher standards, greater accountability, and the best available technology. Similar approaches can work to curb gun violence.
I think we will adopt 4 types of gun policies that will save many lives.
Currently, there are too many not-so-law-abiding people who can legally own and carry guns about anywhere they want.9 The first type of policy would fix this problem by prohibiting anyone from having a gun if they have:
- been convicted of multiple offenses involving violence, alcohol abuse, or drugs; or
- had a restraining order for domestic violence; or
- committed a serious crime that was handled in juvenile court.
People and circumstances change, so someone prohibited for one of these offenses could earn back the right to own guns by living crime-free for 5 to 10 years.
Each of these standards is based on data and studies show higher standards for legal gun ownership reduce violence.
You might think, “What’s the difference, criminals will just break laws to get guns anyway?” This idea is based on our understanding that criminals often get their guns through sources in the underground gun market.
But where do the guns in that underground gun market come from in the first place? They don’t sprout from the ground or fall from the sky. The vast majority were sold to criminals by people who correctly assumed that our gun laws were too weak to hold them accountable. The 2nd and 3rd policies I’ll discuss address this problem.
A small percentage of gun dealers are major conduits for guns getting to criminals. A single gun dealer can divert thousands of guns to criminals and go years before facing consequences.
Whether a gun dealer allows illegal straw purchases, colludes with gun traffickers, or fails to secure his guns depends on whether our policies hold them accountable.
Here’s a perfect example. In 1999, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms – the ATF – published a report identifying the gun stores that had sold the most guns that were later connected to crime.10 At the top of the list – the nation’s leading seller of crime guns – was a gun shop near Milwaukee, Badger Guns & Ammo.
Within days of ATF’s releasing the data, Badger’s owners announced that they would voluntarily take measures to prevent their guns from being used in crime.
What happened next was amazing. The rate at which new guns were diverted to criminals after being sold by Badger immediately dropped 77%.11
But in 2003, Congress passed a new law to protect gun dealers like Badger and prohibit the ATF from publishing or sharing data connecting crime guns to the gun dealers who had sold them.12
If the owners of Badger Guns & Ammo were polite, they sent a thank you note to Congress. The rate at which their new gun sales were going to criminals immediately shot up 200% immediately after the law.13 By 2005, Badger was back on top as the nation’s #1 seller of guns used in crimes.
So the second type of reform I think we’ll see would bring more accountability for gun dealers by 1) making data on dealers’ safety records publically available – this would create a strong incentive for safer business practices.
And secondly, we should require business practices that prevent guns from getting to criminals like security cameras, electronic records for inventory and sales –practices used in nearly every retail establishment, but not in some of the shady gun shops.
Dealers should also be required to keep computer records to flag a gun purchaser if he previously bought guns that were later used in crimes. Anti-theft measures would reduce risk even more.
These modest changes can have a powerful impact. When New York City sued gun dealers caught making illegal sales, the dealers signed agreements to implement these same safe sales practices.
The results were remarkable! The probability that the guns the dealers sold would end up being recovered from criminals in New York dropped by 82%.14
Transferring a gun to a criminal is a serious offense, but it’s incredibly hard to hold someone accountable without mandatory background checks and record-keeping. The 3rd policy would close the other conduit for guns to criminals – the nonsensical exemption for background checks if the gun seller isn’t a licensed dealer.15 Ideally, this would be done by law enforcement agencies issuing permits to purchase firearms that would be required for sales by private gun owners as well as by gun shops.16
These laws reduce gun trafficking.17 Missouri had a purchaser permit law that covered all handgun sales until lawmakers repealed it in 2007. Felons and unscrupulous gun sellers had a field day. The repeal led to a 25% increase in gun-related homicides.18
The fourth type of policy would promote the use of new technology to combat gun violence. Here’s just one example. More is certainly on the way.
If you’ve watched cop shows you’ve probably seen police use computers to match spent bullet casings to the guns that fired them. The problem is that police don’t typically recover the guns used in shootings.
But there is a laser application that manufactures can use to have guns record a unique code, called a microstamp, on shell casings of bullets fired by the gun.19,20 Manufacturers can put these codes into a database along with information they are already required to keep for each gun - its make, model, caliber, and serial number21 – and provide it to the ATF.
When police find a spent shell casing from a crime scene, they could easily link it with the gun that fired it. ATF could then contact gun sellers to identify the first retail purchaser as they would just as if they had recovered the gun.
Using this approach – far more accurate than the current ballistic imaging technology22 – the number of shooting suspects and gun traffickers that could be identified would grow exponentially. We’d also have a powerful deterrent to shootings and illegal gun sales.23,24
Requiring micro-stamping would add less than $10 to the cost of a gun.25 A small price to pay for fewer shootings.
But we’re here in the capital of America’s political gridlock. What are the chances we’ll actually adopt these reforms? The odds may seem slim now.
But these policies have already been advancing at the state level. Since the tragedy at Newtown, nearly half of all Americans live in states that passed new laws to strengthen standards for legal gun ownership, improved background checks, or both.
America’s gun owners usually have their way when it comes to gun policies. That’s why I think that these reforms will become a reality.
That’s right; we’ll pass these laws because they have broad support among gun owners who don’t want dangerous people to have guns. National surveys show gun owners’ support at:
- over 80% for comprehensive background check laws;
- 70% to 80% for the increased standards for gun ownership I discussed;
- and nearly 60% to 80% support for measures to improve gun dealers’ accountability.26
It’s always hard to imagine a political reality different than the one we’re living in. Not long ago, it was considered political suicide for a politician to be against stiffer penalties for drug offenders. Today, there is broad and growing bipartisan support for reducing sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, offering treatment as an alternative to incarceration, and decriminalizing marijuana.
When more from the silent majority of gun owners speak up, the reforms I've outlined will become widespread.
Following the Newtown shooting, Joe Manchin, the U.S. Senator from West Virginia who had earned an A rating from the NRA before sponsoring a bill to extend background checks for gun sales, said "I'm a proud outdoorsman and hunter, but this doesn't make sense."27
He’s right. We can save lives by increasing standards and accountability in our gun laws. We’ll do it with the overwhelming support of gun owners and without infringing upon their rights or lifestyle.
We can forge ahead with a classically American solution- that of “liberty within law.”
- ￼Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. National Center for Injury Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). Available from: www.cdc.gov/injury/wisqars/ [2014, Sept. 9].
- van Kesteren J, Mayhew P, and Nieuwbeerta P. 2001. Criminal victimization in seventeen industrialized countries: Key findings from the 2000 international crime victims survey. In Netherlands Ministry of Justice: Research and Documentation Centre Netherlands.
- Pickett W, Elgar J, Brooks F, de Looze M, and Rathman K. 2013. Trends and socioeconomic correlates of adolescent physical fighting in 30 countries. Pediatrics 131 (1):18-26.
- Richardson EG and Hemenway D. 2011. Homicide, suicide, and unintentional firearm fatality: Comparing the United States with other high-income countries, 2003. Journal of Trauma Injury, Infection and Critical Care 70 (1):238-243.
- Zeoli AM and Webster DW. 2010. Effects of domestic violence policies, alcohol taxes and police staffing levels on intimate partner homicide in large U.S. cities. Injury Prevention 16 (2): 90-95.
- Wright MA and Wintemute GJ. 2014. Firearm Prohibition for Persons Convicted of Violent Crimes: a potential non-legislative approach. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 47 (2): e3-e5.
- Swanson JW, Roberston AG, Frisman MA, Lin HJ, and Swartz MS. 2013. Preventing gun violence involving people with serious mental illness. Reducing gun violence in America: Informing policy with evidence and analysis. Eds Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick. Baltimore: JHU Press.
- Triplett W. 2005. Teen Driving. CQ Researcher 15 (1): 1-24. Available from: http://www.cqpress.com/product/Researcher-Teen-Driving-v15-1.html [2014, Sept. 9].
- Vittes KA, Vernick JS, and Webster DW. 2012. Legal status and source of offenders’ firearms in states with the least stringent criteria for gun ownership. Injury Prevention 19 (1): 26-31.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 2000. Following the gun: enforcing federal laws against firearms traffickers. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Treasury.
- Webster DW, Vernick JS, and Bulzacchelli MT. 2006. Effects of a Gun Dealer’s Change in Sales Practices on the Supply of Guns to Criminals. Journal of Urban Health 83: 778-787.
- Pub.L. No. 108-7, § 644, 117 Stat. 11, (2003): “No funds appropriated under this Act... shall be available to take any action based upon... [Freedom of Information Act] with respect to records... maintained pursuant to [the Gun Control Act]... or provided by... law enforcement agencies in connection with... the tracing of a firearm.”
- Webster DW, Vernick JS, Bulzacchelli MT, and Vittes KA. 2012. Temporal Association between Federal Gun Laws and the Diversion of Guns to Criminals in Milwaukee. Journal of Urban Health 89: 87-97
- Webster DW and Vernick JS. 2013. Spurring Responsible Firearms Sales Practices through Litigation: The impact of New York City’s Lawsuits against gun dealers on interstate gun ￼trafficking. Reducing gun violence in America: Informing policy with evidence and analysis. Eds Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick. Baltimore: JHU Press.
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. 2012. Federal Law on Background Checks. Available from: http://smartgunlaws.org/federal-law-on-background-checks/ [2014, Sept. 9].
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. 2013. Licensing Gun Owners & Purchasers Policy Summary. Available from: http://smartgunlaws.org/licensing-of-gun-owners-purchasers- policy-summary/ [2014, Sept 9].
- Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, and Alcorn T. 2013. Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearms Sales Laws. Reducing gun violence in America: Informing policy with evidence and analysis. Eds Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick. Baltimore: JHU Press.
- Webster DW, Crifasi CK, and Vernick JS. 2014. Effects of the Repeal of Missouri’s Handgun Purchaser Licensing Law on Homicides. Journal of Urban Health 91 (2): 293-302.
- Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. 2013. Microstamping & Ballistic Identification Policy Summary. Available from: http://smartgunlaws.org/microstamping-ballistic-identification- policy-summary/ [2014, Sept. 9].
- Coalition to Stop Gun Violence & Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. No date. Microstamping Technology: Precise and Proven. Available from http://www.efsgv.org/wp- content/uploads/2013/06/Microstamping-Technology-Precise-and-Proven-Memo.pdf [2014, Sept. 9].
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. 2013. Records required for firearms licensees. ATF Rul. 2008-2. Available from: https://www.atf.gov/files/regulations- rulings/rulings/atf-rulings/atf-ruling-2008-2.pdf [2014, Sept. 9].
- Lizotte TE and Ohar O. 2008. Forensic firearm identification of semiautomatic handguns using laser formed microstamping elements. SPIE Proceedings 7070: 1-15.
- The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. 2004. Cracking the Case: the crime-solving promise of ballistic identification. Available from: http://www.efsgv.org/wp- content/uploads/2013/06/Cracking-the-Case-Report.pdf [2014, Sept. 9].
- American Bar Association. 2010. Resolution on Microstamping. Available from: http://csgv.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/aba-resolution-on-microstamping-sept- 10.pdf [2014, Sept. 9].
- Hsu T. 2007. Gun ID bill takes a shot at illegal weapons market. Los Angeles Times, August 15. Available from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/aug/15/local/me-guns15 [2014, Sept. 9].
- Webster DW and Vernick JS. 2013. Public Opinion on Proposals to Strengthen U.S. Gun Laws: Findings from a 2013 survey. Reducing gun violence in America: Informing policy with evidence and analysis. Eds Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick. Baltimore: JHU Press.
- Safier, D. 2012. Sen. Joe Manchin: “It’s changed. It’s changed America.” Blog for Arizona. December 17. Available from http://blogforarizona.net/sen-joe-manchin-its-changed-its- changed-america/ [2014, Sept. 9].