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Laws about who can buy guns work, laws about which guns you can buy don't

Washington Examiner logo Washington Examiner 8/21/2019 Claire Boine
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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

As a Harvard-educated, politically liberal researcher giving my first talks on firearm violence prevention, I was afraid the gun owners in the audiences would boo me. But the only backlash I faced was from a gun control advocate when I told her I was against assault weapon bans.

“Your policies wouldn’t prevent mass shootings!” she said. I was presenting Dr. Michael Siegel’s and my research on what policies are effective in reducing gun violence. Our main argument is that laws regulating what firearms can be bought are ineffective, but policies controlling who can purchase them tend to work.

There are many reasons for this finding. First, most people do not understand how arbitrary the definition of "assault weapon" really is. With the definition from the 1994 ban, you can turn a regular rifle into an assault weapon by adding two cosmetic or historic features such as a flash hider, a bayonet mount, or a grenade launcher. I would definitely push this policy forward if the goal were to reduce homicide by grenade and bayonet, but most mass-shooting killers could legally obtain firearms that are just as lethal, but not considered assault weapons.

Second, the single most effective predictor of violence is past violence. So ironically, the National Rifle Association’s rhetoric is accurate about how guns don't kill people, people do. As a result, preventing anyone with a history of violence from acquiring guns reduces homicide rates by 36%. Along the same lines, preventing domestic abusers from possessing firearms dramatically decreases firearm deaths. And if you think this does not apply to the 0.1% of total gun deaths caused by mass shootings, think again. A report reveals that the majority of mass shootings in the United States between 2007 and 2017 were related to domestic or family violence.

The Dayton, Ohio, shooting could have been prevented in a may-issue law state such as Massachusetts, where police chiefs have the discretion to refuse a possession permit. Although the Dayton shooter did not have a criminal record, the police had been aware of his “hit list” and “rape list.”

Finally, a major reason to regulate who buys weapons instead of what they buy is to protect American gun owners. Most people who possess rifles with bayonet mounts are collectors who form the roots of the historic American recreational gun culture. Telling law-abiding people what they can buy sends them the signal that we are holding them responsible for the high rates of gun violence in the country. In fact, this feeling of alienation, fueled by the NRA, is its biggest asset.

In a country where 97% of the population, and 97% of gun owners, support universal background checks, it has been impossible to pass any such federal legislation. Strikingly, this gap between perceived and actual public opinion relies only in small part on the few extremely active NRA members who call their legislators repeatedly. This gap mostly relies on the silent majority of gun owners who, in spite of supporting these laws, do not engage in the public debate because they feel marginalized.

I have been amazed at the number of gun owners who expressed support for our research — some even took us to their shooting range. They were all alarmed at the high rate of gun violence and the increasing number of mass shootings. As soon as they realized we actually respected their culture, we started having meaningful conversations that showed common values.

The perceived division created by the NRA between gun owners and non-gun owners does not exist. We all want to save lives and do what’s best for the country. We even agree on how to do it. However, if evidence from state law implementation and a 97% public support for universal background check are not enough to convince you, listen to the other 3% in the person of NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesh: “This individual was nuts, and I — nor the millions of people that I represent as a part of this organization that I'm here speaking for — none of us support people who are crazy, who are a danger to themselves, who are a danger to others, getting their hands on a firearm.”

If we all agree, then what are we waiting for?

Claire Boine is a Research Scholar in Public Policy and Health, exploring American gun culture and firearm violence prevention.

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