We are going about this all wrong. The folks on the left say with fewer or no guns we will have fewer or no more gun crimes. The folks on the right say with more guns we will have more safety from people who would abuse guns.
Despite thinking that they are keeping kids safe, both sides of this issue are arguing from what is in their own interest.
The right way to approach this issue is different than what we are doing. First, we need to realize that high profile events are high profile because they are unlikely. And trying to stop an unlikely event is very difficult if not impossible. Predicting a school shooting is a bit like predicting where lighting is going to strike the ground. There are some generic indicators but nothing that can act as an actual alarm bell. Guessing is what most politicians and pundits are doing right now when it comes to school safety.
What Drives Our Gun Crime Rates?
There are about 10,000 homicides with a firearm each year in the United States. Many of these are done by members of gangs. Their choice of weapon is a handgun. If should follow that if we want to reduce gun crime rates in America we would try to reduce the gun violence by the people doing it where they are doing it. Keep in mind that not all criminal shootings are the same; as such there is no one size fits all solution. But there are things that can and should be done. The OJJDP stated:
Long-term solutions to address the problem of gun violence must include a comprehensive approach to reducing the number of youth involved in gangs.
That said, gang related gun violence is not the only source of gun violence. I have previously written about how not all gun crimes are the same, but in general, here are several categories of the improper use of guns.
- Individual Shootings
- Mass Shootings
- Justifiable Homicides / Self Defense
- Accidental Shootings
- Suicide with a Gun
Our Misplaced Focus
We are focused on so-called assault rifles. We are focused on mental illness. We are focused on background checks for guns. None of these has all that much to do with our gun crime rates in America.
- Assault weapons are essentially rifles that look like they could be military use, but that is to the untrained eye. There are no 'machine guns' or automatic firearms commercially sold in the United States today. Handguns are the gun of choice when abusing guns.
- Mental illness is not common in people who are driving our gun crime rates. people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than someone who commits violence. And the research shows that people with mental illness are generally no more violent than the general population. With a few high profile shootings done at the hands of individuals with a history of mental illness in one form or another, we have suddenly shifted our national attention to mental illness at the culprit for gun violence in America. This is absurd.
- Background checks are not something that gang members subject themselves to. Law abiding citizens do. As such, getting more and more strict and increasing the layers of paperwork needed to get an FID or a LTC does little to nothing to reduce gun crimes.
The pool of what doesn't work is endless.
First of all, there is no correlation between the states' levels of gun violence and the Brady Campaign's ranking on states' gun law strictness - I have personally done the correlation. However, in the spirit of fairness, just because there is no correlation, it does not necessarily mean there is no causation. The point here is that the left often uses this claim in error. Second, the idea that more guns leads to less crime is all correlation. While the left makes the claim that a correlation exists when one does not, the right makes a claim that is nothing more than just correlation. Neither side has any sense of what actually works. They push talking points based on a political agenda, not good science. The research on gun bans shows they don't work.
People who claim that if we just arm schools and this will reduce school shootings need to prove that this. There is no evidence. By evidence I mean that we had a experimental group and a control group and we saw a decrease in school shootings in the experimental group. This data doesn't exist. In fact, we know that school shootings have still happened where there an armed guard was on the campus.
People who claim that fewer guns will mean less crime need to consider that there is a very robust literature on defensive gun uses (DGU). Admittedly, much of the research in this area was very poorly done. But it doesn't detract from the fact that there are legitimate DGU examples that can be referenced. In this same vein where we have more guns we also have more accidental gun discharges. Proponents who cherry-pick examples aren't using science or common sense.
So the bottom line is that we are talking about half a dozen of one, six of the other. Both the left and the right on this issue are missing the point. Both are pushing political agendas. Neither is pushing good science.
What works is a science. Neither side of the gun debate really uses science and research is a responsible manner. This hinders real progress.
If we are going to implement strategies to reduce school shootings, we have to keep in mind that we are not really going to reduce gun homicide rates in America. Just as in medicine, there is no one wonder drug that will reduce illness. So too is the case with criminal justice programs.
Considering that gang contribute to a significant amount gun violence, we should be pursuing interventions such as the Kansas City Gun Experiment or Operation Ceasefire, which have been proven effective as evaluated through rigorous scientific measurement.
If we want to try to reduce crime in schools we need to focus on the type of crime: antisocial behavior or aggression, truancy, drug use, or petty crimes. A list here adapted from David P. Farrington and Lawrence W. Sherman details some effective interventions.
Setting focused interventions
- specific school and discipline management interventions
- specific interventions to establish norms or expectations for behavior
- specific Classroom or instructional management
- Reorganizing of grades or classes
Person focused interventions
- Self-control or social competency instruction using cognitive-behavioral or behavioral instructional methods
- Cognitive behavioral, behavioral modeling or behavioral modification interventions
- Counseling, social work and other therapeutic interventions
- Mentoring, tutoring, and work study
Remember to keep in mind that what works reducing drug use, might not work for other types of crime. What works in reducing truancy might not work for reducing antisocial or aggressive behavior. Juvenile criminal justice prevention programs are a science. They should not be applied 'willy nilly'.
Unfortunately, in my career I have personally seen excitement in city and state agencies I have worked in and with when the prospect of getting funding for a program trump prudent implementation and measurement. Performance measures are not built into the administration of the program. No real discussion of the limitations of what the program is going to and not going to accomplish is had.
There is another critical element that we are missing in this debate and that is that we are a very violent society. We enjoy watching violence on TV and in movies, playing it in video games and listening to it in music. We pay money to have access to simulated violence in these mediums. Bullying may well be a part of the problem of the increase in mass school shootings, but bullying has always been with us. What is new is the availability of learning through media and social media about the reactions of others who were bullied. It is reasonable to surmise that the recent increase in school shootings is the result of copy-cat crimes.
My point of this article is that we need to consult the research on what works in a more objective and less self-interested manner, whether you are on the left, the right, a city or state administrator or a politician.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and with 5-12 year old children for seven years. Paul has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-639-9511.
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