POLITICS
08/27/2015 10:40 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2015

Gun Control Might Not Have Stopped The WDBJ Shooter. That's Not The Point.

Research still shows that new laws would save lives.

Would stricter gun laws have saved the lives of Alison Parker and Adam Ward? Probably not.

Would stricter gun laws have saved the lives of many other people? Probably.

That’s a fair reading of the latest research -- and something to remember now that Wednesday’s killing of the two television journalists, during a live interview, has politicians and pundits talking about gun violence again.

So far, the debate has played out in a familiar fashion. From the White House, Press Secretary Josh Earnest renewed the administration’s call for “commonsense” gun measures, such as extending federal background checks to private gun sales and limiting access to assault weaponry. Via Twitter, Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said “we must act to stop gun violence, and we cannot wait any longer.”

Probably the most impassioned plea for government action came from Andy Parker, Alison’s father, during an interview with CNN: “There has to be a way to force politicians that are cowards and in the pockets of the [National Rifle Association] to come to grips and make sense -- have sensible laws so that crazy people can't get guns.” 

The opponents of gun legislation also reacted to the shooting, with every major Republican presidential candidate expressing sympathy and offering prayers. But in between the words of solace, some offered warnings about the dangers of new firearms legislation. “It’s not the guns; it’s the people who are committing these crimes,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a leading GOP candidate, told an audience in New Hampshire. “What law in the world could have prevented him from killing them?”

Conservative media outlets like the National Review had stronger responses, bemoaning the “tired and opportunistic gun control agenda” and arguing that the kind of legislation now under consideration in Congress probably would not have stopped the suspected killer, Vester Lee Flanagan, from getting a weapon.

About the specific circumstances of Wednesday's killing, these conservatives have a point. Law enforcement officials have told media outlets that Flanagan used a Glock pistol without a high-capacity magazine -- and that he bought the weapon from a licensed gun store, after passing a federal background check. A letter that Flanagan apparently faxed to ABC News earlier in the week suggested he planned the shooting in advance, while reports of his past behavior toward co-workers raise the possibility that he may have had some mental health problems.

WDBJ

But the video of Parker and Ward’s slaying, which played over and over on social media, merely made vivid something that happens all the time, even though few Americans see it. On Wednesday alone, at least 13 other people died from gunshots, according to data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive, a not-for-profit corporation that tracks shootings around the nation. In 2013, the last year for which federally collected data is available, 33,636 people in the U.S. died.

No other developed country has a gun homicide or gun violence rate even approaching that level. (That’s true even though the rate is now much lower than it was in the early 1990s, likely because crime overall has declined.) And while America’s high rate of gun violence undoubtedly reflects many factors, researchers like David Hemenway, a widely cited professor from the Harvard School of Public Health, have found a clear, strong relationship between gun ownership and gun-related deaths. In places where more people have guns, more people get killed by them.

As Hemenway and others scholars are quick to acknowledge, this correlation does not prove that the availability of guns actually causes more gun deaths -- mainly because, as so commonly happens in social sciences, it’s impossible to run the kind of controlled experiments that would allow scholars to rule out other factors unrelated to the availability of firearms. But their research strengthens the case for a causal link.

Among other things, several scholars have found that states and countries with higher rates of gun killings do not have correspondingly high rates for other types of killings. In other words, when guns aren’t available, people don’t simply react by killing with different weapons. They actually kill less frequently. (There's also strong evidence linking gun ownership to suicide rates, which makes sense given that suicide is frequently an impulsive act, although the international data on suicide is fuzzy because different countries measure it -- and think of it -- in different ways.)

Demonstrating that gun laws might cut down on gun deaths is even more difficult than establishing a link between firearms ownership and the extent of violence. But here, too, academics have recently produced important scholarship that bolsters the case for more regulation. 

One recent study examined the murder rate in Missouri after that state repealed a law mandating background checks for all gun purchases, including ones that the federal system does not currently cover. The homicide rate increased once the gun law came off the books, the researchers found, even as the homicide rate in neighboring states -- and the U.S. as a whole -- was declining.

“There is strong evidence to support the idea that the repeal of Missouri’s handgun purchaser licensing law contributed to dozens of additional murders in Missouri each year since the law was changed,” Daniel Webster, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and lead author on the study, said at the time. Another leading researcher, Philip Cook from Duke University, told the New Republic that Webster’s paper “is probably the strongest evidence we have that background checks really matter.”

Still more persuasive evidence on the effect of gun control comes from Australia, which -- following a highly publicized mass killing in the 1990s -- banned many types of weapons, introduced a more restrictive permit system, and then launched a buy-back program in which states paid gun owners for turning in weapons that the new laws made illegal. Homicide and suicide rates dropped substantially. And while the murder rates was also dropping before the laws took effect, researchers found that the decline was sharpest for the weapons declared illegal and in those states reporting the highest buyback rates. (Zach Beauchamp, of Vox, has an excellent summary of that research.)

<span>A&nbsp;project supervisor with a local security firm holds up an armalite rifle similar to the one used in the Port Art
AFP via Getty Images
A project supervisor with a local security firm holds up an armalite rifle similar to the one used in the Port Arthur massacre and which was handed in for scrap in Melbourne after Australia banned all automatic and semi-automatic rifles in the aftermath of the Port Arthur shooting.

Australia’s gun legislation was stronger than anything likely to get consideration in the U.S. Congress, let alone pass and become law. And expert opinion on gun control is still not unanimous, despite all the recent work. Probably the best-known critic of new laws is John Lott, who has held positions at several top universities and now runs a think tank called the Crime Prevention Research Center. Lott famously published research in the late 1990s suggesting that higher gun ownership actually deters gun violence, because people will use guns in self-defense.

But Lott’s own work has come under withering scrutiny, from fellow scholars and in publications like Mother Jones. Lott said that a computer crash destroyed some key pieces of survey data on which he'd based his work; subsequent surveys produced different results, although Lott maintained those results still vindicated his findings. At one point, he even admitted to using a pseudonym to attack his critics in online comments.  (Lott has said his critics misrepresent his findings, and sometimes their own, while ignoring evidence that would show gun laws to be ineffective -- or even counterproductive.)

The ambiguity of all evidence on gun violence, including those studies on Australia and Missouri, make it impossible to say definitively that laws would have stopped any individual act of killing. But that’s the self-perpetuating political problem of gun violence.

The shootings that feature large numbers of casualties or spectacular circumstances -- like those in Sandy Hook or Aurora, or the incidents on military bases -- become national stories and galvanize the public. The vast majority of killings, which usually take place in the home and are twice as likely to be acts of suicide than murder, barely register. Yet it’s on these routine killings, which happen by the dozens every week, that stronger gun legislation is most likely to have an effect.

Of course, the extraordinary and ordinary killings have one thing in common. They all end in a tragedy -- the extinguishing of human life. Wednesday's shooting, and the horrific video that emerged as a result, revealed to many Americans what a tragedy that really is.

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