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Criminal Justice, Gun Control, Gun Violence, Media, Media Bias, Politics, Public Health, Public Policy

New Harvard Research Debunks Gun Lobby’s Favorite Talking Points


New research from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center shows that firearms experts are in consensus against many of the most prolific talking points from the conservative media and the gun lobby.

According to an April 2 analysis of the research by Mother Jones, the study revealed that the arguments pushed by the gun lobby “don’t stand up to scrutiny.” Quoting Dr. David Hemenway, the center’s director, the article noted that some in the media have continued to promote myths about guns, treating them as “legitimate points of debate” and inserting doubt where there is in fact a consensus among experts in the field:

Anyone familiar with the gun debate has heard the talking points of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates: “Carrying a gun for self-defense makes you safer.” Or: “If only more ordinary citizens were armed, they could stop mass shootings.” As we’ve shown in our reporting, these arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, commented on another long-running assertion from the gun lobby: “There is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime,” he told the New York Times.

Yet, Hemenway says that some in the media have continued to treat such assertions as legitimate points of debate. That leaves the public thinking, “Okay, so there’s disagreement on this,” he says.

Inspired by a groundbreaking 2010 study on climate change, which found that 97 percent of researchers believe that humans are responsible for global warming, Hemenway and his team at Harvard wanted to know if a similar consensus exists among experts on guns and gun violence. The researchers reviewed 1,200 scientific articles on firearms published since 2011 in peer-reviewed journals from a range of academic disciplines including public health, public policy, sociology, and criminology. Next, the team started sending monthly questionnaires to the 300+ authors of these articles, surveying the experts on issues related to firearm use, background checks, and other gun policies.

Hemenway’s team has conducted nine surveys since May 2014, with at least 100 experts participating in each. They are still collecting data and plan to compile the results for a journal article in the near future, but Mother Jones took a look at the existing dataset to see what the Harvard researchers have uncovered. Here are some of the findings:

1. Do Strong Gun Laws Help to Reduce Homicide?

The Pro-Gun Talking Point: Strong Gun Laws Are Linked to Higher Rates of Homicide. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies in Congress frequently claim that gun violence is highest in places with the toughest gun laws — a variant of their “more guns, less crime” myth.

For example, in the wake of the terror attack that killed 12 people at the offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo  in January, right-wing media figures were quick to blame the tragedy on France’s strict gun laws. On Fox News’ Fox & Friends, network national security analyst KT McFarland said that one thing that stood out to her about the attack is “that in France they have a very strict gun control policy.” Later on The Five, host Greg Gutfeld claimed the victims of the attack were “sitting ducks” because the country “has the most powerful gun control in the world, and nobody’s armed.” On Twitter, conservative favorite and frequent Fox guest Donald Trump wrote that the attack occurred “in one of the toughest gun control countries in the world,” implying that somehow the strict laws were at fault for the shooting.

A brief look back at other recent firearm tragedies reveals many other iterations of the same talking point. Last year, after the Fort Hood shooting, Fox News host Martha MacCallum suggested that “lives could have been saved” with more armed individuals. Speaking on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom, MacCallum claimed, “in every one of these cases, what stops these shooters, is another person with a gun who stops them. I mean, we know that. So in this case, if other people had been armed on that base … it’s highly possible that some of these lives could have been saved.” Similarly, after the Navy Yard shooting in 2013, MacCallum, along with Fox News contributor Katie Pavlich, falsely characterized the facility as a “Gun-Free Zone” that invited attack, and suggested that easier availability of guns could have prevented the shooting. And after the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, conservative talk radio host Glenn Beck claimed that the shooter “wouldn’t have gotten off more than four shots” if armed individuals had been present. And who could forget when the pro-gun crowd tried to blame the Sandy Hook massacre on gun control laws?

What Experts Say: Strong Gun Laws Help Reduce Homicide. The Harvard survey found that 71 percent of experts agreed that strong gun laws help reduce homicide rates:

Gun Myth 1

What The Evidence Shows: Strong Gun Laws Are Linked to Fewer Firearm Homicides. An expansive and growing body of evidence indicates that stricter gun laws are strongly associated with lower rates of gun violence, including homicides.

In an extensive 2013 report called “America Under The Gun,” researchers ranked each state in the country (from 1-50) on 10 indices of gun violence, and then ran a statistical regression comparing these rankings with the strength of gun laws. The results showed that there was a strong, statistically significant correlation between weak gun laws and higher gun violence levels, leading the researchers to conclude that states with looser gun laws contribute the highest share of firearm injuries and deaths to the national gun violence toll:

While many factors contribute to the rates of gun violence in any state, our research clearly demonstrates a significant correlation between the strength of a state’s gun laws and the prevalence of gun violence in the state. Across the key indicators of gun violence that we analyzed, the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have a level of gun violence that is more than twice as high—104 percent higher—than the 10 states with the strongest gun laws.

Several other studies have established similar links between gun deaths and loose gun laws. And not surprisingly, gun death rates tend to be lower in states with restrictions such as assault-weapons bans or safe-storage requirements.

Even stronger evidence was presented in a 2013 study in The American Journal of Public Health that looked at 30 years of homicide data from all 50 states and found that for every one percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there was a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate. The researchers concluded that gun ownership is a “significant predictor” of firearm homicide rates, noting that states with higher rates of gun ownership have “disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides”.

Research also disputes the claim that strict gun laws and gun-free zones make people vulnerable to mass shootings. In an analysis of 62 mass shootings over the last 30 years, investigators found that “not a single case includes evidence that the killer chose to target a place because it banned guns. To the contrary, in many of the cases there was clearly another motive for the choice of location.” In fact, many of the safest public places — like schools and college campuses — have the strictest bans on possessing weapons. And according to an an analysis conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, fewer than one quarter of mass shootings in public spaces occur in gun-free zones. Columbine High School had an armed guard during the shooting in 1999 and Virginia Tech had its own campus police force, and in neither case did these good guys stop the shooter(s). During the mass shooting in Tucson, AZ, an armed man nearly shot the unarmed individual who disarmed Jared Loughner when he was reloading.

In fact, the presence of armed bystanders may actually increase the fatality of a mass shooting. In the analysis of mass shootings mentioned above, investigators found that armed bystanders did not effectively provide help in any of the 62 mass shootings – rather, they increased the numbers of innocent people killed: “In cases in Washington and Texas in 2005, would-be heroes who tried to take action with licensed firearms were gravely wounded and killed. In the Tucson mass shooting in 2011, an armed citizen admitted to coming within a split second of gunning down the wrong person—one of the bystanders who’d helped tackle and subdue the actual killer,” the report says.

2. Do Concealed Carry Laws Reduce Crime Rates?

The Pro-Gun Talking Point: Concealed Carry Laws Reduce Crime. As pro-gun groups lobby to expand concealed carry laws even to those without gun permits, they commonly rely on the myth that crime rates drop when concealed carry laws are introduced because more people are armed and prepared to defend themselves — a variant of the “Good Guy With A Gun” myth.

For example, in a March 27 segment on NRA News program Cam & Company, host Cam Edwards made just this argument when he lashed out against a recent editorial that explained concealed weapons would not help reduce rates of campus sexual assault. Edwards defended such laws by claiming that the burden of preventing sexual assault was actually on the victim. Similar arguments have long popped up across conservative media, like on a June 2011 edition of Fox & Friends when guest John Velleco claimed: “Every time a state tries to relax concealed carry laws, we hear the Chicken Littles of the world saying that blood is going to flow in the streets, and it just doesn’t happen. In fact, crime doesn’t go up, crime goes down, because criminals don’t know who is carrying a firearm to defend themselves.” Pro-gun groups like the Crime Prevention Research Center have also attempted to link the rise of concealed carry laws in states with a decline in violent crime.

What Experts Say: Concealed Carry Laws Don’t Reduce Crime Rates.  Sixty-two percent of experts disagreed with claims that concealed carry laws reduce crime rates:

gun myth 2

What The Evidence Shows: Concealed Carry Laws Are Linked to Higher Violent Crime Rates. Research indicates that more permissive concealed carry laws are linked with higher rates of violent crime, not lower rates, and that many people with concealed carry permits are not “good guys with guns.”

A study released by Stanford last year took a look at the data and found clear links between allowing concealed carry without a permit and some types of violence. It was difficult to tie right-to-carry laws to violent crime, but researchers did find an estimated 8 percent increase in aggravated assault cases — and this is likely an underestimate, according to the researchers. “The totality of the evidence based on educated judgments about the best statistical models suggests that right-to-carry laws are associated with substantially higher rates of aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder,” said the researchers, who described the analysis of such laws as a “vexing task.”

Moreover, research has demonstrated that those who obtain concealed carry permits can pose a threat to public safety — that they’re not always the “good guys” the NRA makes them out to be: A Violence Policy Center study found that Texas concealed handgun license holders were arrested for weapon-related offenses at a rate 81% higher than the general population of Texas aged 21 and older (offenses included 279 assaults, 671 unlawfully carrying a weapon, and 172 deadly conduct/discharge of a firearm). Between January 1, 1996 and August 31, 2001, Texas concealed handgun license holders were arrested for 5,314 crimes—including murder, rape, kidnapping and theft. And a 2007 investigation by the Florida Sun-Sentinel found that the state’s permit system had granted concealed carry permits to more than 1,400 individuals who pled guilty or no contest to a felony, 216 individuals with outstanding warrants, 128 individuals with active domestic violence restraining orders, and six registered sex offenders.

3. Are Guns Used More Often To Commit Crimes Or In Self-Defense?

The Pro-Gun Talking Point: Guns Are Mostly Used As Tool For Self-Defense. Right-wing media frequently promote the myth that guns are primarily used for self-defense, despite guns rarely being used for that purpose.

The myth usually goes something like this: Guns are used defensively “over 2 million times every year—five times more frequently than the 430,000 times guns were used to commit crimes,” as the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank, claimed in anti-gun-control report. Or, as Gun Owners of America claims, “firearms are used more than 80 times more often to protect the lives of honest citizens than to take lives.” Former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum has also perpetuated the myth numerous times, claiming: “In fact, there are millions of lives that are saved in America every year, or millions of instances like that where gun owners have prevented crimes and stopped things from happening because of having guns at the scene.” Meanwhile, Fox News frequently claims that guns could “deter more crimes than they cause” while NRA News features daily segments on The Sportsman Channel and their SiriusXM radio program promoting the myth.

What Experts Say: Guns Are Not Used In Self-Defense More Often Than They Are Used In Crimes. Seventy-three percent of experts disagreed with the claim that guns are used “in self-defense far more often than they are used in crime”:

gun myth 4

What The Evidence Shows: Guns Are Used For Harm Far More Than For Self-Defense. A large body of research shows that firearms are rarely used for true self-defense purposes and are far more likely to be used to inflict harm. Furthermore, there is strong evidence that crime victims are more likely to be shot if they are in possession of a gun.

Despite the fact that there are more than 200 million firearms in private hands in the United States and 48 states now allow some form of concealed carry, instances in which law-abiding citizens successfully shoot and kill criminals are exceedingly rare. In 2005, there were a total of 12,352 gun-related homicides and an overall total of over 30,000 gun deaths in the United States. Yet, during the same year, the FBI reported only 143 justifiable homicides involving a firearm. A 2000 study, conducted by Hemenway and colleagues at Harvard concluded that, “Guns are used to threaten and intimidate far more often than they are used in self defense. Most self reported self defense gun uses may well be illegal and against the interests of society.” Hemenway noted that respondents may also have a distorted view of “self-defense”—e.g., mistakenly thinking they are legally defending themselves when they draw a gun during a minor altercation. And a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that owning a gun in the home increases the risk of accidents, suicides, assaults and homicides, and intimidation occurring in the home.

Similarly, in a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that individuals in possession of a gun are more likely to get shot than individuals who don’t possess guns. In fact, guns are used 5-6 times more often to intimidate and threaten than they are used to thwart crime, and victims of crime who are in possession of a gun are 4.5 – 5.5 times more likely to be shot during the crime than unarmed people. According to the FBI’s Crime in the United States report for 1998, for every instance that a civilian used a gun to kill in self-defense, 50 people were murdered with firearms – and another 75 were killed in firearm accidents and suicides. And in 2011, almost 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to prevent a crime.

As Politico explained, “[d]espite having nearly no academic support in public health literature, this myth is the single largest motivation behind gun ownership. It traces its origin to a two-decade-old series of surveys that, despite being thoroughly repudiated at the time, persists in influencing personal safety decisions and public policy throughout the United States.”

4. Do Guns Protects Domestic Violence Victims?

The Pro-Gun Talking Point: Guns In The Home Protect Victims Of Domestic Violence. Conservative media argue that looser gun laws would help protect victims of domestic violence, claiming that they would be safer with increased access to guns to use as self-defense.

For example, in April 2014, Breitbart.com’s AWR Hawkins criticized efforts to raise awareness that the presence of guns in a home make domestic violence situations many times times more deadly, saying that “the gun may be the only thing that gives the victim of abuse a fighting chance of survival.” Fox contributor Katie Pavlich told NRA News that the gun safety group was playing on the fears of “ignorant, emotional women.” And former Washington Times senior opinion editor Emily Miller claimed on Fox that these gun safety efforts were merely an effort “to lure in women voters,” arguing that because gun murders are down, it was somehow impossible that intimate partner homicides could be a significant problem facing women. Lawmakers have even used this myth as the basis for passing pro-gun legislation — claiming that access to guns would make victims of domestic violence safer — while the NRA has condemned lawmakers for “jeopardizing victims’ safety” after upholding gun safety legislation.

Another iteration of this talking point is that guns could help prevent rape. Wayne LaPierre, the executive director of the NRA, has often tried to make the case that personal gun ownership prevents rape, saying last year that “the one thing a violent rapist deserves is to face is a good woman with a gun!” And in February, a Republican lawmaker from Nevada asserted that “young, hot little girls on campus” need to be armed with guns to prevent themselves from being raped.

What Experts Say: Having A Gun In The Home Increases Risk That A Woman Living There Will Be The Victim Of Homicide. The Harvard survey found that 72 percent of experts agreed that “having a gun in the home increases the risk” that a woman living there “will be the victim of homicide”:

gun myth 5

What The Evidence Shows: Victims of Domestic Violence Are Many Times More Likely To Be Killed If There Is A Gun In The Home. As I have written about numerous times previously, evidence clearly demonstrates that firearms are incredibly deadly for women in abusive relationships.

Research shows that abused women living in a home with a gun are six to eight times more likely than other abused women to be killed. During an abusive incident, the presence of a firearm rapidly escalates the level of violence and increases the risk of fatality by a staggering 500 percent. Guns kill more female victims of intimate partner violence than all other weapons combined, and they also increase the risk of repeat abuse by more than 80 percent.

The evidence also clearly shows that guns are rarely used by victims to defend themselves. For every one time a woman uses a gun in self-defense, 83 women are murdered by an intimate partner with a firearm. And among women who have used a weapon successfully to defend themselves, only 2 percent used a gun. Research also shows that a gun in the home is more than 10 times more likely to be used by an abuser to threaten, intimidate, or injure/kill a victim than it is to be used by a victim in self-defense, which may explain why guns greatly increase the risk of repeat victimization.

5. Does Access To A Firearm Affect Suicide Rates?

The Pro-Gun Talking Point: Link Between Firearm Access And Suicide Is Bogus. Conservative media figures have consistently downplayed the role of guns in suicide deaths, despite extensive evidence linking firearm availability to suicide in the United States.

For example, in February 2013, NRA News program Cam & Company claimed that “we know that the prevalence of firearms does not always indicate increases in suicides.” That same month on Fox News’ Hannity, guest Ann Coulter claimed that “suicide rates do not go up with the availability of guns” and that claims to the contrary are “false.”

What Experts Say: Having Guns In The Home Increases Risk Of Suicide. According to the survey, 84 percent of experts agreed that “having a gun in the home increases the risk of suicide”.

gun myth 3

What The Evidence Shows: Having A Gun In The Home Increases The Risk Of Suicide. Research shows that having a firearm in the home is one of the strongest risk factors for suicide, in large part because of the wide availability of guns and the high case-fatality rate.

Studies demonstrate a strong and consistent link between gun ownership and suicide that cannot be explained by factors such as mental health or prior suicidal tendencies. One reason for the strong connection is that the case fatality rate for suicide-by-gun is far higher than that of any other common method. Suicide attempts are successful more than 90% of the time when a firearm is used. By comparison, such attempts are fatal only 3% of the time when a drug overdose is the method used. The wide availability of guns in American homes also contributes to the alarming rates of suicide-by-firearm. Research confirms that the vast majority of youth who commit suicide via firearm do so with a gun that was obtained from their own home. The reverse is also true: reducing the availability of firearms drastically reduces the risk of completed suicide. One study that examined college student suicide from 1920-2004 found that, “It is the reduced use of firearms as a method of suicide that is responsible for virtually all of the benefit associated with being a student … and that the relationship between student status and firearms may be the key to understanding why students commit suicide at a lower rate than does the general U.S. population.”

Studies suggest that the suicide risk associated with firearms is lower in homes that practice safe storage of weapons, which is why leading medical associations are calling for physicians and other health professionals to take a more active role in promoting gun safety. Unfortunately, these efforts are being thwarted by NRA-backed Republican lawmakers, who have even gone so far as to pass “gag lawsbanning physicians from discussing gun safety with their patients.

6. Are Background Checks Effective?

The Pro-Gun Talking Point: Background Checks Are Ineffective. Right-wing media figures often claim that requiring background checks on gun sales is unlikely to reduce gun violence, despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary.

For instance, in a December 2014 article, the editorial board of the Reno-Gazette-Journal claimed that not only would background checks fail to prevent mass shootings, it would also be “unlikely to be effective” at reducing gun violence in general. In April 2013, Kathleen Parker wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post making a similar claim, asserting that expanding background checks has “no practical purpose” because criminals won’t submit to them. And after Missouri repealed a law that required gun owners to prove they had passed a background check, Kevin Jamison, president the National Rifle Association affiliate in the state, told the Kansas City Star: “It’s something we’ve advocated for some time. This makes it easier for people to buy firearms. They don’t have to get permission first.”

What Experts Say: Background Checks Can Help Keep Guns Out Of The Hands Of Violent People. Sixty percent of experts agreed that background checks “can help keep guns out of the hands of a significant number of violent people”:

gun myth 6

What The Evidence Shows: Background Checks Save Lives. Research shows that background checks can and do prevent guns from getting into the hands of violent criminals, and that expanding background check requirements reduces firearm deaths by a number of means.

Background checks are the only systematic way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. According to a 2013 report by NBC News, “Nearly 1.8 million applications for firearm transfers or permits were denied between the passage of the law in March 1994 and December 2008, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The FBI and state law enforcement denied firearm purchases to 153,000 people in 2010 alone, the most recent year for which data is available.”

But under current federal law, background checks are only required for gun sales at licensed dealers. Forty percent of gun transfers take place between unlicensed, “private” parties — often at gun shows or through anonymous online transactions — and are not subject to background checks under federal law. This loophole allows millions of guns to exchange hands each year with no checks, no records, no questions asked. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 40 percent of prison inmates who used guns in their crimes got them by exploiting this loophole. And despite claims otherwise, one investigation found that 62 percent of online gun sellers were willing to sell to buyers who said they couldn’t pass a background check. Another study found that 20 percent of licensed California gun dealers agreed to sell handguns to researchers posing as illegal “straw” buyers. These studies clearly show that closing the background check loophole would reduce the number of guns that end in the hands of criminals.

Seventeen states and Washington, DC, go beyond federal law by requiring a background checks for all handgun sales: CA, CO, CT, DE, IA, HI, IL, MD, MA, MI, NE, NJ, NY, NC, PA, RI, and WA. Evidence from these states shows that requiring comprehensive background checks reduces crime and saves lives. In states that require background checks for all handgun sales, 46 percent fewer women are shot to death by intimate partners, while overall there are 17 percent fewer firearm aggravated assaults. Additionally, in states that require background checks for private handgun sales, 48 percent fewer law enforcement officers are shot to death with handguns. Background checks also save lives from suicides: there are 48 percent fewer firearm suicides in states that have closed the background check loophole, while the rates of suicide by other methods are nearly identical.

Perhaps the best evidence for the effectiveness of background checks comes from a 2014 Johns Hopkins study in which researchers assessed violent crime trends before and after Missouri repealed its background check law. The study revealed that gun homicides went up 25 percent and the overall homicide rate jumped 14 percent after the state repealed their background check requirement, despite a national and regional decline in homicides. Using state-level murder data for the time period 1999-2012, researchers concluded that removing the licensing requirement contributed to an “additional 49 to 68 murders per year in Missouri between 2008 and 2012.” The increases occurred in the first full year after the repeal, during which the state saw “large increases in the number of guns diverted to criminals and in guns purchased in Missouri that were subsequently recovered by police in border states that retained their [background check] laws.” Daniel Webster, the study’s lead author, said the findings “provide compelling confirmation that weaknesses in firearm laws lead to deaths from gun violence,” while gun expert Philip Cook, from Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, told the New Republic: “This is probably the strongest evidence we have that background checks really matter.”



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