Guest essay: Gun laws rarely help

By Leah Libresco

Before I started researching gun deaths, gun-control policy used to frustrate me. I wished the National Rifle Association would stop blocking common-sense gun-control reforms such as banning assault weapons, restricting silencers, shrinking magazine sizes and all the other measures that could make guns less deadly.

Legal gun owners and women are rarely the problem (Photo: Stu Bykofsky)

Then, my colleagues and I at FiveThirtyEight spent three months analyzing all 33,000 lives ended by guns each year in the United States, and I wound up frustrated in a whole new way. We looked at what interventions might have saved those people. The case for the policies I’d lobbied for crumbled when I examined the evidence. The best ideas left standing were narrowly tailored interventions to protect subtypes of potential victims, not broad attempts to limit the lethality of guns.

I researched the strictly tightened gun laws in Britain and Australia and concluded that they didn’t prove much about what America’s policy should be. Neither nation experienced drops in mass shootings or other gun related-crime that could be attributed to their buybacks and bans. Mass shootings were too rare in Australia for their absence after the buyback program to be clear evidence of progress. And in both Australia and Britain, the gun restrictions had an ambiguous effect on other gun-related crimes or deaths.

When I looked at the other oft-praised policies, I found out that no gun owner walks into the store to buy an “assault weapon.” It’s an invented classification that includes any semi-automatic that has two or more features, such as a bayonet mount, a rocket-propelled grenade-launcher mount, a folding stock or a pistol grip. But guns are modular, and any hobbyist can easily add these features at home, just as if they were snapping together Legos.

As for silencers — they deserve that name only in movies, where they reduce gunfire to a soft puick puick. In real life, silencers limit hearing damage for shooters but don’t make gunfire dangerously quiet. An AR-15 with a silencer is about as loud as a jackhammer. Magazine limits were a little more promising, but a practiced shooter could still change magazines so fast as to make the limit meaningless.

As my co-workers and I kept looking at the data, it seemed less and less clear that one broad gun-control restriction could make a big difference. Two-thirds of gun deaths in the United States every  year are suicides. Almost no proposed restriction would make it meaningfully harder for people with guns on hand to use them. I couldn’t even answer my most desperate question: If I had a friend who had guns in his home and a history of suicide attempts, was there anything I could do that would help?

However, the next-largest set of gun deaths — 1 in 5 — were young men aged 15 to 34, killed in homicides. These men were most likely to die at the hands of other young men, often related to gang loyalties or other street violence. And the last notable group of similar deaths was the 1,700 women murdered per year, usually as the result of domestic violence. Far more people were killed in these ways than in mass-shooting incidents, but few of the popularly floated policies were tailored to serve them.

[Editor’s Note: Since this was published in 2017, many jurisdictions have “red flag” laws to address domestic violence.]

By the time we published our project, I didn’t believe in many of the interventions I’d heard politicians tout. I was still anti-gun, at least from the point of view of most gun owners, and I don’t want a gun in my home, as I think the risk outweighs the benefits. 

But I can’t endorse policies whose only selling point is that gun owners hate them. Policies that often seem as if they were drafted by people who have encountered guns only as a figure in a briefing book or an image on the news.

Instead, I found the most hope in more narrowly tailored interventions. Potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections.

Older men, who make up the largest share of gun suicides, need better access to people who could care for them and get them help. Women endangered by specific men need to be prioritized by police, who can enforce restraining orders prohibiting these men from buying and owning guns. Younger men at risk of violence need to be identified before they take a life or lose theirs and to be connected to mentors who can help them de-escalate conflicts.

Even the most data-driven practices, such as New Orleans’ plan to identify gang members for intervention based on previous arrests and weapons seizures, wind up more personal than most policies floated. The young men at risk can be identified by an algorithm, but they have to be disarmed one by one, personally — not en masse as though they were all interchangeable. A reduction in gun deaths is most likely to come from finding smaller chances for victories and expanding those solutions as much as possible. We save lives by focusing on a range of tactics to protect the different kinds of potential victims and reforming potential killers, not from sweeping bans focused on the guns themselves.

Leah Libresco is a statistician and former newswriter at FiveThirtyEight, a data journalism site. This appeared in the Washington Post on Oct. 3, 2017.

[Editor’s Note: Despite Libresco’s analysis, I still support certain gun measures, such as expanded background checks for all gun sales.] 

12 thoughts on “Guest essay: Gun laws rarely help”

    Nice job in finding this educational piece written by Ms Libresco and friends.
    I understand that this is a condensed version or answer to our problems. Each section can be – and should be further subdivided. e.g. older men committing suicide. Every case that I know of was related to medical problems. Many times, it was murder suicide. An elderly gent couldn’t bear to watch his spouse suffer any longer, so he took her life, then his. I hope that there is an understanding God for a brave soul(s) such as those.
    You and I would like to see some positive changes with the current laws. I’m a bit curious as to why a civilian needs body armor ?

  2. A civilian doesn’t ‘need’ body armor, he just WANTS to own body armor. It’s the same way a civilian doesn’t ‘need’ a Ferrari that can top 200 miles an hour, he just wants one. The minute we start trying to figure out ‘needs’ versus ‘wants,’ we set ourselves up for a form of government that will, in time, run our lives in toto. Try to remember that famous saying that should still frighten us: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Who wants a government to determine our ‘needs’?

    1. Lots of laws restrict “wants.” I have weapons for self defense, and I can carry them. Am I going to wear body armor for walking the dog? In some jurisdictions so-called “cop killer” bullets are banned, why does Joe Citizen need armor-piercing rounds?
      There have been several cases where coos were thwarted by murderers in body armor. The Buffalo security guard”s pistol was useless, and he died trying.

      1. I respectfully disagree. In Philadelphia, especially around Temple University, wearing body armor makes a lot of sense.

        In memory of Johnny Carson, a slight revision of his New York City joke: “It was a beautiful night in Philadelphia — so quiet you could hear a knife drop.”

        1. Addendum to above: The government loves ruling by incrementalism. E.g., you ask who needs armor piercing bullets; I ask, who needs .45 caliber cartridges? Why not limit private sales to .22 shorts? Why not limit rifles to single shot bolt action? Why not require all pistols to be double action and single shot? If government can’t do away with the 2nd Amendment, it can strangle it with regulations.

  3. “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem,” to quote Ronald Reagen. This is more obvious and dangerous today than anytime in my lifetime. Like Vince said “incrementalism.”
    Slow and easy all these years, and now the big push, the Great Reset. And I do believe we are there. I spoke to this once before with, ‘bit by bit, one piece at a time, can’t you hear our Founding Fathers shouting out this cry,’
    “‘You’ll crave freedom when it’s gone.'”

    Stu and Vince,
    I said ‘need’ rather than ‘want’ to make a point. If you could get inside the mind of a criminal, you would have a much clearer image of ‘their’ side of life. Ramos and everybody like them know exactly what they are doing. They want the most armor they can get and they want the biggest canons they can find. Their intention is to inflict the most damage possible in the shortest amount of time. Had Ramos a fully automatic weapon – a real assault weapon, he would have went classroom to classroom.
    Part of the problem with thought provoking conversation is that we are ‘normal’ human beings. The criminal is not. In this case, he was far from normal. We rationalize, where as Ramos just had one objective. KILL !
    We don’t think that way. Even our warriors don’t think that way. They have to be taught how to kill . The criminal or even the terrorist is already programed.

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