Where do we take guns from here?


This one has been a long time coming.

In the last few months, especially since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., guns have been a major part of the national conversation. This conversation hasn’t gone far beyond “something must be done and soon.” Some suggested things to do include: gun bans, increased gun ownership, increased access to mental health care, mandatory background checks for gun sales, the repeal of gun-free zones, mandatory prayer in schools, bans on violent movies and video games, massive changes to how violent crimes are covered in the news, and armed guards at schools.

All of these suggestions are relatively simple solutions to a very complex situation – the whole of the United States – that address different parts of the situation. There isn’t a lot of compromise going on either.

In short, the conversation is one great big mess.

This looks like a job for stasis theory.

Stasis theory is a formal structure for defining and taking action with regard to a conflict or disagreement. It’s a four-part structure: facts, definitions, quality, policy.

Here are the facts: A young man stole two semiautomatic handguns from his mother, then killed her and 26 other people at her workplace, an elementary school. He may or may not have had a history of mental illness.

But wait, that’s just one event. It’s impossible to go back and fix what happened at Sandy Hook. What is being proposed as a response would affect the whole country; Sandy Hook is just one of many sets of data.

Let me try again with more general facts: In 2012, there were seven mass shootings in the United States. “Mass shootings” is herein defined as four or more people killed or injured by gunfire in a single event. According to David Brooks of The New York Times, despite dropping crime and homicide rates, mass shootings are more common in the last two decades than they have been in the rest of the century.

However, according to John Fund of the National Review, mass shootings are still rarer than they were in 1929. James Alan Fox of the Boston Globe says mass shootings haven’t shown a consistent trend up or down since 1976 when tracked year-to-year. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post says that, however mass shootings may be trending, six of the 12 deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history happened in 2007 or later.

Time to add some general gun death statistics. According to www.gunpolicy.org, the rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people has been pretty stable for the last 20 years. Gun homicides are also stable after a massive drop between 1993 and 1995, while all homicides are slowly trending downward.

Based on this data, it looks like the U.S. is seeing gun murders tending to cluster and happen in large incidents, rather than spread out throughout the year. It’s hard to say whether mass shootings are more common than they have been in the past, but they are probably deadlier than they have been.

Of course, based on 2011 statistics, the U.S. still had the 21st highest gun homicide rate of any country in the world – and more than double the rate of civilian gun ownership of any country with a higher gun homicide rate. But it’s not fair to compare the U.S. to the 20 countries with higher gun homicide rates. We are far wealthier and more economically stable than any of those countries.

The U.S. gun homicide rate per 100,000 people is higher than any of the other top-25 gun owning countries: 3.6, which is comparable only to Uruguay’s 3.4. Next is Montenegro, with 2.1 gun homicides per 100,000. Compared to the rest of the 25 richest countries in the world, the difference is even more glaring; the next highest gun homicide rate is in Israel, at 0.8 per 100,000 people.

In talking about gun violence in the U.S., do we want to compare our situation to our own past or to the rest of the world? Looking at the latter, our situation is dire, but looking at the former makes our situation hopeful.

I have one better idea: look at overall homicide rates. The picture here is better, but it’s still not good. In the U.S., the homicide rate per 100,000 is 5.1 – the highest of the 25 richest countries – followed by Taiwan at 3.6 and New Zealand at 3.18. While the U.S. has the second highest homicide rate of the top 25 gun owning countries, behind Uruguay’s 6.1, our homicide rate is still more than double that of Iraq.

With a nice portfolio of facts in hand and a set of consistent definitions, we can move on to better define the problem and figure out what to do about it – the quality and policy steps in stasis theory. But the facts show the problem is complex. There are a lot of questions left to ask to better define it.

Addressing gun violence in the U.S. is a tricky proposition. I do agree something must be done, but right now, I think that something is research. Based on the statistics I’ve cited here, however bad things may be in the U.S., but they’re not really getting worse. Homicide rates and gun homicides are both trending downward. As such, it’s better to get the facts and think things out than go off half-cocked.