The Perplexing Phenomenon of Gun Violence in the U.S.
Gun violence in American has reached a disturbing level, 3.85 deaths per 100,000 individuals. This level of violence is nearly on par with Iraq, a conflict state with a rate of 4.28 deaths (IHME, 2018). When compared to other highly industrialized democracies, such as the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States), America's rate of gun violence is 10 times higher. If we expand the aperture to include a global perspective, 83% of the world's economies have rates of gun violence lower than U.S. The salient point to this sort of comparison is that the majority of the world's population live in societies with minimal gun violence. States with huge populations and vastly different political/cultural systems, e.g. China and India, have rates much lower than the U.S., as well as, significantly smaller states, like Yemen, with serious economic problems and the second highest number of civilian owned firearms. There is no intelligent reason why America should be ranked as the 32d country with the highest rate of gun violence. This is a travesty of our Constitution and the Founders who envisioned "a more perfect union" through the establishment of justice and domestic tranquility. America has become one of the most highly developed, technologically advanced, and powerful states in the world; we should be leading global efforts to reduce gun violence. Instead, we remain mired in destructive and divisive discourse driven by hyper-partisanship that is eroding away our Great Union. What does this say about America's culture and who we as a society aspire to be?
Gun owners represent somewhere between 32-37% of U.S. households, but nearly 46% of all civilian owned firearms, globally, reside within the U.S.; estimated to be 393,300,000 firearms (DeSilver, 2013; Karp, 2018). In 2016, 16,207,104 new firearms were added to the U.S. domestic market: 11,069,333 manufactured locally and 5,137,771 imported (DOJ, 2017; ATF, 2017). This is the highest number of firearms manufactured since 1986 and on-par with a trend that has seen production numbers tripling since 2012. One question that quickly surfaces, is America's gross proliferation of firearms directly related to its rate of gun violence? The authors of a 2013 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, researching the relationship between gun ownership and firearm homicide rates made the following observation, "[there is] a robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates. Although we could not determine causation, we found that states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides" (Siegel et al, 2013). Out of the 41 American states with the greatest percentage of gun ownership, 69% of them had rates of gun deaths higher than the national average and the majority of these states have the most permissive gun regulations (Kristof, 2018). While this one study in and of itself is not conclusive, it clearly demonstrates that much more robust research is needed if we are going to solve this malady of violence that has become a crisis of culture.
Federal funding for gun violence research remains grossly underfunded. According to the CDC, mortality rates for motor vehicle accidents and all firearm related incidents is nearly the same, 11.3 deaths per 100,000 (CDC, 2015). Despite having near identical mortality rates, federal research funding allocated to gun violence has been disproportionately low, only 5.3% of the funds allocated to motor-vehicle accidents (Gregory and Wilson, 2018). This condition of underfunded research is generally attributed to the 1996 Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 1997, which included the following language, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control”(Jamieson, 2013). Referred to as the Dickey amendment, the language did not explicitly ban research on gun violence, rather it had a chilling effect on the research community. Furthermore, Congress reapportioned $2.6 million within the CDC’s budget — the amount the CDC had invested in firearm injury research the previous year. Since the insertion of the Dickey Amendment, Congress has maintained this restrictive language in subsequent funding bills as well as extending the language to other institutions, e.g. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Without dedicated funding for qualitative research, drafting sound and reasonable policy becomes an exercise in futility.
Good data regarding firearm ownership is virtually nonexistent. Despite the vast technological advances of the 21st century, there is no centralized firearm registration system. Only firearms purchased from a Federal Firearm Licensee (FFL), a firearm retailer, require the purchaser or 'transferee' to complete a Firearm Transaction Record (ATF Form 4473). Once completed, this record is kept on file, locally with the FFL and is only forwarded to the ATF's National Tracing Center (NTC) when an FFL goes out of business. When records do arrive to the NTC, they can only be stored in a non-searchable format, e.g. in their original paper format, on microfilm, or a non-searchable PDF (Laskas, 2016). This is because in the 2012 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, Congress made three long-standing annual appropriation riders permanent law. These riders prohibit:
1. DOJ from consolidating or centralizing any records maintained by federally licensed gun dealers related to the acquisition and disposition of firearms.
2. ATF from electronically retrieving firearm transfer records that have been submitted to ATF, when federally licensed gun dealers go out business, by searching those out-of-business records by any individual’s name or other personal identification code.
3. The FBI from charging a fee in connection with a Brady background check for firearms transfer and possession eligibility, and requires further that the FBI destroy all Brady background check records related to approved firearm transfer records within 24 hours (§511) (Krouse, 2012, p81-82).
Without a searchable-centralized firearm registration system establishing a positive chain of custody, it is nearly impossible to account for the 393 million firearms located within America's domestic borders, and it makes any effort towards qualitative research extremely difficult to accomplish. Moreover, because peer to peer transactions, often conducted under the auspice of gun shows, do not require background checks, the ability to disrupt or prevent unlawful activities such as gun trafficking and straw purchasing is a near impossible endeavor. Therefore, any reasonable strategy that seeks to reduce America's affliction of gun violence seems fairly self-evident.
First, Congress should not only repeal the Dickey Amendment, but should set gun violence research funding as high priority in the budget. Secondly, Congress should repeal all language inserted in the 2012 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act that limits the DOJ's ability to consolidate and centralize the acquisition and disposition of firearms; and the ATF's ability to electronically retrieve firearm transfer records. However, such positive change is unlikely unless the American public is willing to disrupt our current political system by challenging the status quo --- electing Independent candidates who have demonstrated a willingness to prioritize public safety over party interests and who are less likely to be easily manipulated by special interest groups aligned with political party agendas.
Congress' feckless approach to this crisis of culture is merely a reflection of America's apathy to get involved in our political system. We The People have abdicated our civic responsibilities, becoming politically complacent as our government has ceased to function as a Democracy and is now operating as an Oligarchy of minority interests. If we collectively stop voting Republican and Democrat and do our due diligence to seek out Independent candidates, then there is a real opportunity to bring about positive change and to reinstate our beloved Democratic system that Advances the Will OF THE MAJORITY while PROTECTING THE RIGHTS OF MINORITY.
1. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Global Burden of Disease Chart, IHME, 2018.
4. Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, Craig S. Ross, MBA, and Charles King III, JD, PhD, The Relationship Between Gun Ownership and Firearm Homicide Rates in the United States, 1981–2010, AJPH, 2013. See also, Nicholas Kristof, "How to Reduce Shootings," NYT, May 2018.
5. All Injuries, CDC, 2015.
6. Sean Gregory and Chris Wilson, "6 Real Ways We Can Reduce Gun Violence in America," Time, March 2018.
7. Christine Jamieson, "Gun violence research: History of the federal funding freeze," APA, February 2013.
8. Jeanne Marie Laskas, "The Federal Bureau of Way to Many Guns," GQ, August 2016.
9. William J. Krouse, Gun Control Legislation, CRS, November 2012, p81-82. See also, Jeanne Marie Laskas, "The Federal Bureau of Way to Many Guns," GQ, August 2016.
10. Dickey Amendment is named after its author, former U.S. House Representative Jay Dickey (R-AR). This amendment was in response to a 1993 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM): “Gun ownership as a risk factor for homicide in the home.” The author, Dr. Arthur Kellerman, led a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) funded research study concluding that rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. Keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide.
11. PDF version with footnotes available upon request.