In 1959 Gallup conducted a national poll which asked the following question: “Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of pistols and revolvers, except by the police and other authorized persons?” Had such a law then been passed, it would have brought the United States into line with just about every other advanced country and might have saved as many as 600,000 lives.
It’s also accurate to say that intentional, non-fatal gun injuries over the last 55 years may have ended up around 3 million, and these numbers prove there was every good reason for public health researchers to study what Catherine Kristoffel calls the “endemic” nature of gun violence, with works by Kellerman and Hemenway (among others) demonstrating a clear link between elevated levels of gun homicide/suicide and access to guns. Despite the continued campaign by Gun-nut Nation to argue that the benefits of gun ownership far outweigh the risks, the evidence that open access to handguns is a fundamental factor in explaining the 3.5 million deaths and injuries since the 1960s is compelling and true.
The problem with this argument, however, is that it might be considered valid by researchers and public policy advocates, but somehow this idea hasn’t been picked up by the average person because the six out of ten Americans who supported a ban on handguns in 1960 has now dropped down to less than one in four. And since one in three Americans now believe that having gun is a better way to protect yourself than not having a gun, obviously even lots of people who don’t own guns don’t buy the idea that owning a gun increases risk.
How does the consensus on gun risk within the medical and public health communities somehow not circulate within the public at large? The usual argument is that the ”gun lobby,” particularly the NRA, has been a powerful and effective voice in promoting pro-gun sentiment, thanks as well to a compliant Republican Party and a guy name Scalia who used to sit on the Supreme Court. All fine and well except for one little thing. The NRA may inundate its membership with emails, videos and offers for all kinds of crap you can buy, but generally speaking, the messaging doesn’t go out to people who don’t own guns. And since less than half of Americans own guns, obviously non-gun owners who should be receptive to the idea that guns are a risk aren’t getting told.
In 1969 Franklin Zimring published a government-funded research study, Firearms & Violence in American Life. As far as I am concerned, this 147-page document has never been surpassed by any subsequent work on gun risk, nor is it mentioned in any of the recent gun-risk discussions within or without public health. Zimring’s calculation about the number of guns that were floating around the United States before the government started keeping accurate records post-1968, remains the estimate on which even the work of pro-gun advocates like Gary Kleck is based.
According to Zimring’s careful research, there were slightly more than 100 million modern guns owned by civilians in 1968. But of this total number, less than 40 million were handguns, about which Zimring says: “When the number of handguns increases, gun violence increases, and where there are fewer guns, there is less gun violence.” And Zimring said this in 1969, before countless studies by public health researchers then said and continue to say the exact, same thing.
I know all the reasons why the gun violence prevention community believes that advocating a ban on handguns is a dead end. It’s a no-win position, there’s the 2nd Amendment, blah, blah, blah and blah. But the narrative should be based on what is true, not what is believed to be true. Because what a majority of Americans now believe about handgun risk simply isn’t true, and advocacy must inform based on truth, regardless of whether or not it will work.