By Tim Axtelle
While there is no shortage of opinion on how to reduce gun violence, the perception persists that established facts are unknown. Without facts, the entrenched opinions of gun rights and gun control advocates dominate the debate but are of little value in defining effective policy. Facts based on objective studies using proven methods are required. In fact, many such studies have been performed and their results strongly support the case for tighter gun restrictions.
The premises underlying each side’s position in the firearms debate are relatively straightforward. The premise for gun-rights advocates is that firearms are an effective means of protecting one’s home and family. The best research available proves this premise is false. Multiple epidemiological studies conducted with methods used to determine if new drugs are safe and effective agree that owning a firearm actually increases the risk being a victim of firearms violence.
As an example, investigators at the University of Pennsylvania conducted an elegantly simple study. They tallied victims of gun assault, determined whether they had access to a firearm and, if so whether they had a chance to use their firearm in defense. Victims of self-inflicted and unintentional firearms use were excluded. The results demonstrated that those with firearms access were over 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those without. Even more striking, gun owners who used their weapons in defense were 5.4 times more likely to be shot than those who did not.
These findings turn the rationale for owning a firearm on its head, but are not surprising. Assaults happen under circumstances favorable to the perpetrator, not the victim. In short, they’re ready and you’re not.
Studies supporting the efficacy of firearms in preventing assault do exist, but are not based on objective and verifiable data. Instead, they are based on accounts of gun owners describing how they used their firearms in self-defense. These accounts are not sufficiently reliable. They reveal as much about gun owners’ emotional attachment to and personal identification with their firearm as they do about personal safety and they do not take into account the fact the owner may perceive a non-existent threat.
Fewer epidemiological studies testing whether firearms restrictions effectively prevent U.S. gun violence have been completed. Nevertheless, an extensive, recently published study presents a compelling case for tighter controls. Epidemiologists at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital examined all U.S. firearms-related deaths between 2007 and 2010 and determined whether they occurred in states with restrictive or non-restrictive firearms control laws. They found that gun related deaths averaged 42 percent lower in states with the most restrictions in comparison to states with fewer restrictions. The disparity in frequency of gun deaths in states with and the least and most restrictive laws was staggering. Gun mortality in Louisiana (18 per 100,000 persons), a state with few restrictions was over five times higher than in Massachusetts (3.4 per 100,000), a state with tighter restrictions. Requirements for background checks and permits were associated with the lowest rates of gun violence.
In deeds, if not words the NRA implicitly acknowledges that the epidemiological evidence is against them. In 1995, the NRA effectively lobbied Congress to prevent the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting studies on gun violence. President Obama’s recent executive order establishing resumption of these studies is the proper response.
Effective solutions to gun violence must be based on reason, not opinion. Reason depends on established facts and facts depend on objective studies conducted using proven scientific methods. Compelling evidence suggests that greater restrictions on gun ownership, especially universal background checks and permit requirements will be effective. These measures will certainly be difficult to implement in the face of strong opposition. However, the high cost in human life of inaction and the sense of urgency after the Sandy Hook tragedy suggest that the time to implement them is now.
Tim Axtelle is a pharmaceutical scientist specializing in development of drugs for infectious disease. He, his wife and his four children make their home in Edmonds.