Are mass shootings occurring more frequently, or is the media more focused on such incidents (since Aurora and Newtown)? Do mass shootings draw attention away from other aspects of gun violence that may be more pressing?
Mass shootings remain, thankfully, relatively rare. I don’t think there’s evidence that mass shootings are occurring more frequently. The media understandably focuses attention on these mass shootings—especially those involving children such as the incidents in Newtown or Columbine. But we have more than 30,000 deaths by gunfire in the United States every year, including about 11,000 homicides. This adds up to more than 30 per day. So, as a nation, we’re actually experiencing a Newtown or a Columbine or a Virginia Tech every day—the shootings are just happening under the radar.
Nationally, how robust and informed is the current debate on gun policy?
I think that the Newtown tragedy has really caused a change in the national conversation about guns. And when President Obama threw his own political capital into the debate— that too was a defining moment. The goal of our Gun Summit at Johns Hopkins was to make sure that the ongoing debate is informed by the best available evidence about what works (and what doesn’t) to prevent gun violence.
What’s the most misunderstood aspect of the debate, and what misinformation gets the most traction (on either side)?
There remains a lot of misinformation in the gun debate. For example, most people think that our gun laws are stronger than they actually are. People don’t realize that, with the exception of a handful of states, we don’t license gun owners or register their guns. People don’t realize that gun buyers don’t have to undergo a background check unless they’re buying a gun from a licensed gun dealer (like a gun store). And they don’t realize that some dangerous people, like those convicted of violent misdemeanors, can still lawfully buy guns.
I think some folks who oppose new gun regulation often think, mistakenly, that any new law will be the first step on a slippery slope to banning all handguns. That view is used by groups such as the National Rifle Association to scare and mobilize its members. But banning handguns has never seriously been on the legislative table. and the Supreme Court has recently said that banning all handguns is constitutionally impermissible.
What surprised you most about the recent Hopkins summit on gun violence?
At the Gun Summit, we released new polling data showing that a majority of the public supports almost all of the measures to make it harder for dangerous people to get guns that we asked about. Even a majority of gun owners supported most new policies. Also encouraging has been how much interest the Summit generated—not just among the public and media, but also among policy makers. And more than 7500 copies of our accompanying book, Reducing Gun Violence in America, have been sold or distributed. That’s incredible and encouraging.
What do you think of the efforts to get new laws/licensing passed in Maryland?
I’m very excited about efforts to require gun buyers in Maryland to be licensed. Requiring a gun buyer to be licensed increases accountability if that buyer then sells the gun to someone who shouldn’t have one or engages in other criminal activity. Licensing also makes it harder for so-called ‘straw purchases’ (people with a clean record buying a gun for someone who is prohibited from owning one). Our research shows that licensing reduces illegal gun trafficking. Maryland has a chance to continue its leadership role in working to keep guns from dangerous people.
Based solely on the research (and disregarding the rhetoric about this issue), what do you feel is the single piece of legislation, nationally, that would have the most positive effect?
Probably the most important piece of legislation being considered nationally is universal background checks for all gun buyers. Under current federal law, if I knock on the door of my local gun store to buy a gun, I have to undergo a background check to make sure that I’m not a convicted felon or other prohibited, dangerous person. But if instead, I knock on my neighbor’s door (who’s not a dealer), and buy an extra gun he or she has for sale, in most states I can buy that gun with no background check at all. That’s the single largest loophole in our gun laws—about 40% of all guns change hands each year in this unregulated private market. Universal background checks would change that and require all buyers to undergo a simple background check.