by Daniel W. Webster
At the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, we are dedicated to reducing gun-related injuries and deaths through the application of a public health perspective and sound, science-based research.
In recent years, we have focused on illegal gun markets -- and opportunities to disrupt those markets so it is more difficult for dangerous people to get guns.
Overall, we feel that we are establishing a body of evidence that demonstrates a vitally important fact: Measures to make gun sellers and owners more accountable can reduce the likelihood that guns wind up in the wrong hands.
We also want to know what are the appropriate criteria for someone to purchase and possess a gun. In many cases, the standards are not strict enough. We often come across the notion that if you pass a background check, you are considered a law-abiding gun owner. But the fact of the matter is that you can be convicted of a whole host of crimes and still have access to a gun.
A number of things will suggest that it is not a good idea for you to have a firearm. For example, there is a large number of people who have been convicted of crimes involving violence, drugs, or alcohol abuse that are classified as misdemeanors -- yet they are still allowed to purchase, possess, and even carry a gun in public.
Discussions of gun policy usually focus on points of disagreement. But these discussions often lose sight of a key fact – that there is agreement among gun owners and those who don't own guns that they don't want dangerous people to have guns. Where we differ is whether we think regulations can be effective.
People who fight against regulation of guns often proclaim that regulation is a waste of time -- it will only inconvenience or harm law-abiding gun owners. And yet, we are building up a body of research evidence which shows that through comprehensive, well-thought out and enforced measures, we can limit the availability of guns to dangerous people.
There are a lot of studies that each side refers to on this issue. When you get to questions asking whether drug addicts, people convicted of any felony, people with serious mental illnesses, and other potentially dangerous people should have guns, the data is so clear. They should not. Risk assessment research identifies groups of individuals who are clearly dangerous -- and firearms in their hands can make them more dangerous.
And yet, there is a disconnect between what the public supports and what politicians adopt. Even among those who support a range of firearms regulations, there is skepticism that you can actually effect lasting changes. The NRA has perpetuated a myth that criminals will always find ways around laws and that laws that regulate gun transactions are an affront to the Second Amendment.
Our research refutes that notion.
What we need to do is move away from what is often a cultural debate to a policy debate.
A policy debate would start from generally agreed-upon goals -- and what I believe is an almost universally agreed-upon goal: Dangerous people shouldn't have guns. We must keep saying that and using evidence to back it up.
If we start from that premise and move to specific policies, we can focus on what measures can work. What is the alternative?
We can keep hearing what we often hear in our culture – angry discussion in the blogosphere, on cable television and in newspapers. One group shouting about freedom and the Second Amendment and another group that truly finds guns and gun owners distasteful. The logical place, at least for our Center, is in the arena of useful policy questions -- and working to advance almost universal goals to advance public safety.
We are open to all kinds of public health strategies that can fit the issue of gun violence. In the end, we believe it is essential to use credible science when finding out what works. One example is that in four different studies, our research focuses on retail gun dealers. These studies show that the flow of guns into criminal markets goes down in response to efforts to hold retailers accountable for illegal sales practices.
Simply put, we find that there is a direct correlation between higher degree of scrutiny placed on gun dealers and the reduction in how many guns are sold to criminals.
These findings debunk the notion that retailers have no role on this issue. We need to make it so that licensed sellers of guns are more accountable for what they do. The same thing applies to private sellers of firearms. States that regulate private sellers have significantly less gun trafficking than those that do not regulate gun transactions.
An interesting fact about this issue is that changes in how guns are bought and sold may not always require new legislation to be passed. It's not an "either/or" situation: we should shore up laws, but also do a much better job of enforcing those on the books. Either way, we see the potential of public policy to be a positive one that can save lives.
Daniel W. Webster, ScD, MPH is Co-Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research and Associate Director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.