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Monday, December 09, 2019

What Researchers Learned About Gun Violence Before Congress Killed Funding

by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

President Obama has directed the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence as part of his legislative package on gun control. The CDC hasn’t pursued this kind of research since 1996 when the National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to cut funding for it, arguing that the studies were politicized and being used to promote gun control. We’ve interviewed Dr. Mark Rosenberg, who led the agency’s gun violence research in the nineties when he was the director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

We talked to Rosenberg about the work the agency was doing before funding was cut and how it’s relevant to today’s gun control debate. Here’s an edited transcript.

There’s been coverage recently about how Congress cut funding for gun violence research, but not much about what the agency was actually researching and what it was finding. You were in charge of that. Tell us a little bit about what the CDC was doing back then.

There were basically four questions that we were trying to answer. The first question is what is the problem? Who were the victims? Who was killed? Who were injured? Where did they happen? Under what circumstances? When? What times of the year? What times of the day? What was the relationship to other events? How did they happen? What were the weapons that were used? What was the relationship between the people involved? What was the motive or the setting in which they happened?

The second question is what are the causes? What are the things that increase one’s risk of being shot? What are the things that decrease one’s risk of being shot?

The third question we were trying to answer is what works to prevent these? What kinds of policies, what kinds of interventions, what kinds of police practices or medical practices or education and school practices actually might prevent some of these shootings? We’re not just looking at mass shootings, but also looking at the bulk of the homicides that occur every year and the suicides, which account for a majority of all gun deaths.

Then the last question is how do you do it? Once you have a program or policy that has been proven to work in one place, how do you spread it? How do you actually put it in place?

So what were you were able to find before funding got cut off?

One of the critical studies that we supported was looking at the question of whether having a firearm in your home protects you or puts you at increased risk. This was a very important question because people who want to sell more guns say that having a gun in your home is the way to protect your family.

What the research showed was not only did having a firearm in your home not protect you, but it hugely increased the risk that someone in your family would die from a firearm homicide. It increased the risk almost 300 percent, almost three times as high.

It also showed that the risk that someone in your home would commit suicide went up. It went up five-fold if you had a gun in the home. These are huge, huge risks, and to just put that in perspective, we look at a risk that someone might get a heart attack or that they might get a certain type of cancer, and if that risk might be 20 percent greater, that may be enough to ban a certain drug or a certain product.

But in this case, we’re talking about a risk not 20 percent, not 100 percent, not 200 percent, but almost 300 percent or 500 percent. These are huge, huge risks.

I understand there was also an effort to collect data on gun violence through something called the Firearm Injury Surveillance System. What did that involve?

We were collecting information to answer the question of who, what, where, when, and how did shootings occur?

We were finding that most homicides occur between people who know each other, people who are acquaintances or might be doing business together or might be living together. They’re not stranger-on-stranger shootings. They’re not mostly home intrusions.

We also found that there were a lot of firearm suicides, and in fact most firearm deaths are suicides. There were a lot of young people who were impulsive who were using guns to commit suicide.

So if you were able to continue this work, what kind of data do you think would be available today?

I think we’d know much more information about what sorts of weapons are used in what sorts of firearm deaths and injuries.

Let’s say you look at robbery associated homicides, and you find that in those homicides certain weapons are used in almost all of them and that these weapons come from a limited number of sources and that those weapons are not used by people to defend their home or to hunt or to target-shoot. Then you can say, “Here’s a type of weapon that seems to be only used in criminal enterprises and doesn’t seem to have any legitimate uses, and maybe we ought to find a way to restrict the sales or access to that type of weapon.”

I think it’s also important to look at what the impact of these data might be.

If you look at how many deaths have occurred between 1996, when there was this disruption to surveillance and research, and now, so that’s 16 years, and if you assume that there are about 30,000 gun deaths every year, you’re talking about 480,000 gun deaths over that period of time.

If even a fraction of those deaths could have been prevented, you’re talking about a significant impact in terms of saving lives.

Lawmakers are now trying to figure out what the most effective policies might be to curb gun violence, and how to implement them. What were you beginning to find on that?

The largest question in this category is what kind of larger policies work? Does it work, for example, if you have an assault weapon ban? Does that reduce the number of firearm injuries and deaths? In truth, we don’t know the answer to that. That requires evaluation.

Does gun licensing and registration work to reduce firearm injuries and death? We don’t have the answer.

The policies that make it easier to carry concealed weapons, do those reduce or do those increase firearm injuries and deaths? We don’t have the answer. Do gun bans, like they have in the city of Chicago, work? We don’t have the answer yet to those.

These require large-scale studies of large numbers of people, over a long period of time, to see if they work or don’t.

I don’t think those studies were fully funded or completed.

How do you think the gun control debate might be different today, if you had been allowed to continue that research?

I would like to think that we would have had answers to what works and what doesn’t work. I would hope that we know whether the kind of bans and restrictions that they have in Chicago really make a difference or don’t. I would hope that we would have had information about whether an assault-weapon ban saves lives or doesn’t. Unfortunately, when you don’t have those data that really show you, scientifically, whether or not something works, then you end up with people making statements like, “Obviously, the assault-weapon ban didn’t work, because Columbine happened.”

That’s kind of like saying, “Vaccines don’t work because someone got the flu.”

The Obama administration is asking Congress for $10 million to pursue gun-related research. If you had that budget and you had your old job, what would you use the money to look at?

I think we’d want to look at what the impact of different policies would be, both restricting and enabling policies.

The other thing that I would make sure we looked at is not just how do we prevent firearm injuries, but how do we also protect the rights of legitimate gun owners? I think it would be very important to look, for example, at legislation that restricts access by certain people to firearms.

People often think that there are maybe three things we should consider passing right now, something like an assault-weapons ban, a ban on large-capacity magazines, and background checks on all gun purchasers.

The truth is that there’s not going to be a simple, magic pill or even three pills that cure the whole problem. If you look at suicides and the whole range of homicides and firearm injuries, the answers are going to come, bit by bit, over time, incrementally.

It’s not one, two or even three things that are really going to solve the problem. They may solve our conscience, but they won’t solve the problem. The research is really, really important. We really need to find out what works, so that we can save more lives.

It’s been presented to people that research is going to hurt legitimate gun owners. That’s the threat and how the NRA leadership has often presented it to the NRA membership. “Any sort of research is only going to result in your losing all your guns.”

That’s a tactic of fear. It’s not at all the case. There are things we can do that will both reduce firearm injuries and protect the legitimate rights of gun owners and protect the children and their families.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

How The NRA Undermined Congress’ Last Push For Gun Control

by Joaquin Sapien,ProPublica.

Last week, President Obama unveiled sweeping proposals on gun control, including a ban on military-style assault weapons, a reduction of ammunition magazine capacity and stiffer background checks on gun buyers.

National Rifle Association president David Keene quickly accused the Obama administration of being opportunistic. The president is “using our children to pursue an ideological anti-gun agenda,” he said.

The NRA has already begun to lobby on Capitol Hill to counter the administration’s effort.

To get a sense of what the NRA might do, it’s helpful to look at how it scored a victory during the last major federal initiative to tighten gun control.

After a Virginia Tech student killed 32 students and faculty in April 2007, the Bush administration proposed legislation that would require all states to share the names of residents involuntarily committed to mental health facilities. The information would be provided to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database.

The idea, in part, was to help gun dealers get important information about whether potential customers were mentally ill.

In order to get the support of the NRA, Congress agreed to two concessions that had long been on the agenda of gun-rights advocates — concessions that later proved to hamstring the database.

The NRA wanted the government to change the way it deemed someone “mentally defective,” excluding people, for example, who were no longer under any psychiatric supervision or monitoring. The group also pushed for a way for the mentally ill to regain gun rights if they could prove in court that they’d been rehabilitated.

The NRA found allies on both sides of the aisle to champion the concessions.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) reportedly pushed the provisions, ultimately with the support of the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), whose husband was killed and her son wounded in a 1993 shooting on the Long Island Railroad.

The NRA agreed to support the bill, in exchange for provisions pushing states to create gun rights restoration programs.

Here’s how it worked. It would cost money for states to share their data: A state agency would have to monitor the courts, collect the names of people who had been institutionalized, and then send that information to the FBI on a regular basis.

So, to help pay for data-sharing, Congress created $375 million in annual federal grants and incentives. But to be eligible for the federal money, the states would have to set up a gun restoration program approved by the Justice Department. No gun rights restoration program, no money to help pay for sharing data.

A spokesman for Dingell’s office did not respond to calls for comment on this story. A McCarthy spokesman, Shams Tarek, said the congresswoman is now working on new legislation to “provide more incentives and stiffen penalties for states to put names in the database.”

“We definitely think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Tarek.

The NRA supported Dingell and McCarthy’s version of the bill, but the group won further concessions when the legislation reached the Senate.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) who once joked he’d like to bring a gun with him to the Senate floor, blocked the legislation, citing concerns about privacy and spending.

He negotiated language that, among other things, would allow a person’s application for gun rights restoration to be granted automatically if an agency didn’t respond within 365 days of the application and allowed people to have their attorney’s fees reimbursed if they were forced to go to court to restore their rights.

The final bill was sent to President Bush for his signature in January, 2008.

The NRA praised Coburn and released a statement calling the law a victory for gun owners: “After months of careful negotiation, pro-gun legislation was passed through Congress today.” (The NRA didn’t respond to calls for comment.)

In an email, a Coburn spokesman told ProPublica that the senator “does not operate as an agent of the NRA when considering legislation regarding gun rights” and pointed to a recent statement on the president’s gun proposals. (In the statement, Coburn said he supports improving the mental health database, but said overall, “we first must ensure our Constitutional rights and individual liberties.”)

Since the bill’s passage, two analyses have shown that National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database has significant gaps, partly because of the way the NRA managed to tweak the legislation. Many states aren’t sharing all of their mental health records.

A July 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that while the overall number of records increased exponentially since the law passed, the rise is largely due to cooperation from just 12 states.

The nonprofit group Mayors Against Illegal Guns also released a report in 2011 showing that many states have failed to fulfill their obligations to report data on the mentally ill to the federal government. While Virginia and a few others have disclosed tens of thousands of records, 23 others and the District of Columbia reported fewer than 100 records. Seventeen states reported fewer than 10 records and four submitted no data at all.

“Millions of records identifying seriously mentally ill people and drug abusers as prohibited purchasers are missing from the federal background check database because of lax reporting by state agencies,” the report said.

According to the report, the reasons for such uneven compliance vary by state. Some states don’t turn over data because their privacy laws prevent them from doing so. Some states have a different interpretation on what kind of data needs to be provided, or what, exactly, constitutes “mentally ill” or “involuntarily committed.”

Still others simply can’t afford the expense of gleaning the data from the courts, providing it to the relevant state agency and then passing it on to the federal government.

The NRA-backed language creates problems for these states.

As a New York Times investigation found, many states haven’t qualified for federal funding to share their data because they haven’t established gun rights restoration programs.

In 2012, only 12 states received federal grants, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

A Coburn spokesman pointed out that some states have had trouble setting up restoration programs because gun control advocates in those states have protested them.

While mental health data has remained sparse, some states have made it easier for the mentally ill to restore their gun rights. As the Times noted, in Virginia some people have regained rights to guns by simply writing a letter to the state. Other Virginians got their rights back just weeks or months after being hospitalized for psychiatric care.

It’s difficult to know just how many people in Virginia have had their gun rights restored because no agency is responsible for keeping track.

Despite the limitations of the mental health database, some gun control advocates still see it as better than nothing.

“The fact that so many states have been able to get so many records into the database does demonstrate a willingness on the part of certain groups to work on this issue and that’s a good sign. The others really need to step up,” said Lindsay Nichols, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

The group, then known as the Legal Community Against Violence, was one of several gun control organizations that opposed the legislation when it was first signed into law.

Nichols is optimistic that the NRA won’t succeed in commandeering the gun control debate the way the group did after Virginia Tech.

“I think there’s new awareness among the public and legislators that we need to take this issue seriously and it’s not an issue where the public is going to accept political wrangling.”

Photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci

 

Mass Shootings Do Little to Change State Gun Laws

by Joaquin Sapien, ProPublica

Following the mass shooting in Connecticut, the Obama administration and lawmakers around the country have promised to re-examine gun control in America.

ProPublica decided to take a look at what’s happened legislatively in states where some of the worst shootings in recent U.S. history have occurred to see what effect, if any, those events had on gun laws.

We found that while legislators in Virginia, Alabama, Arizona, New York, Texas and Colorado sometimes contemplated tightening rules after rampage shootings, few measures gained passage. In fact, several states have made it easier to buy more guns and take them to more places.

Here’s a rundown of what’s happened in each of those states:

Virginia: After 23-year-old Virginia Tech student Seung Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members at the university in April 2007, then-governor Tim Kaine assigned a blue-ribbon task force to examine gun policies in the state. The task force made dozens of recommendations that, among other things, suggested that the state intensify background checks for gun purchasers, and ban firearm possession on college campuses. None of the recommendations became law.

The most significant change in Virginia came two weeks after the shooting, when Kaine signed an executive order requiring the names of all people involuntarily committed to mental health facilities to be provided to a federal database called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS. Licensed gun dealers are supposed to check the database before they sell anyone a gun.

President George W. Bush subsequently signed federal legislation requiring all states to submit their mental health records to NICS, but to gain the support of the NRA, Congress agreed to two concessions. It made changes to the way the government defined who was “mentally defective,” excluding people, for example, who had been “fully released or discharged” from mandatory treatment. The law also gave mentally ill people an avenue for restoring their gun rights if they could prove to a court that they had been rehabilitated. After the law passed, the NRA pushed state lawmakers to limit roadblocks for people applying to regain their rights.

Virginia is particularly open to restoring people’s gun rights. A 2011 New York Times investigation found that the restoration process in the state allowed some people to regain access to guns simply by writing a letter to the state. Others were permitted to carry guns just weeks or months after being hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

This past year the Virginia state legislature repealed a law that had barred people from buying more than one handgun per month — a law put in place because so many guns purchased in Virginia were later used in crimes committed in states with more restrictions.

The legislature also has made several changes to its gun permitting process. In March, the state eliminated municipalities’ ability to require fingerprints as part of a concealed-weapon permit application. The state used to require gun owners to undergo training with a certified instructor in order to get permits, but in 2009 it adopted a law allowing people to take an hour-long online test instead. Since Virginia adopted the law, the number of concealed handgun permits the state has issued increased dramatically and many of the permits were issued to people who live in other states where Virginia permits are accepted.

In 2010, Virginia became one of five states to allow permit holders to carry concealed and loaded weapons into bars and restaurants.

Alabama: In Alabama, gun control advocates have won two small legislative victories since March 2009, when 28-year-old sausage plant worker Michael McLendon went on a three-town shooting spree, killing 10 people.

In 2011, the state made it illegal for people to buy weapons for someone else who doesn’t have permission to carry one or to provide false information about their identity to a licensed gun dealer. The law was intended to help crack down on gun trafficking. (According to data compiled by nonprofit Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the state had the fifth highest rate of crime gun exports in 2009.)

After Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in February, 2012, the Alabama state legislature made a slight revision to its version of a law known as the “castle doctrine,” which is meant to allow property owners to protect their homes against intruders. Alabama changed its law so that a shooter would only be entitled to civil immunity for shooting a trespasser if the property owner reacted “reasonably.”

Arizona: After former U.S. rep. Gabrielle Giffords, (D-AZ), was shot in the head in a hail of bullets that killed six and wounded 13, a bill was introduced in the state legislature to limit gun magazines to 10 bullets, but the bill failed in the face of pressure from the gun lobby. A similar bill was proposed in Connecticut last year; it didn’t pass either.

In March, 2012, Arizona governor Jan Brewer signed a bill with the opposite effect, forbidding the Arizona Game and Fish Commission from limiting magazine capacity for any gun approved for hunting.

According to rankings assembled by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Arizona is “49th out of 50 — having enacted some of the weakest gun violence prevention laws in the country.”

Arizona doesn’t require a license to carry a concealed firearm in public, nor does it limit the number of firearms that someone can buy at once.

New York: After a mass shooting at an immigration services center in Binghamton, N.Y., where 13 people were killed and four were wounded, the state assembly entertained several bills on gun control. None passed. One bill would have given police more control over records related to firearm sales. Another would have banned 50-caliber weapons and allowed people to turn them in to the state in exchange for fair market value.

Perhaps the most controversial bill in the package would have required the use of a technology called microstamping on all bullets sold in the state.

Using this technology, a serial number could be stamped on bullet casings so they could be traced back to a particular gun. The gun industry argued that the technology would be too expensive and was still unproven. Some gun manufacturers were so upset by it that they threatened to leave the state. The bill passed the Assembly in June, but the Senate did not vote on it.

In January, 2012, the legislature repealed a law that previously required handgun manufacturers and dealers to share information about bullet casings and ballistics with the state. Critics of the law said the database used to maintain the information cost too much and didn’t help police.

Texas: There’s been no effort to tighten gun control in Texas since Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, 39, killed 13 and wounded 32 at a military processing center at Fort Hood in 2009.

In 2011, legislators passed two bills that gave gun carriers greater freedom to take their weapons to more places. One bill restricted employers from prohibiting guns from vehicles in parking areas and another allowed foster parents to carry handguns while transporting their foster children, as long as they are licensed carriers.

Colorado: Colorado’s state legislature has not convened since Aurora graduate student James Eagan Holmes, 24, killed 12 and wounded 58 in a movie theater in July. At the time, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper suggested that families of victims needed time to grieve before a discussion on gun control could begin in the state.

After the Connecticut shooting, Hickenlooper said that “the time is right” for the state to consider stronger gun control legislation. He has introduced a measure to strengthen background checks for gun buyers.

Photo credit: “Ilmo Joe” via Flickr.com