Remarks from Vanderbilt Gun Policy Discussion

As policy director for The Safe Tennessee Project, I was asked by a public policy class at Vandy to participate in a discussion on gun policy. – In the interest of providing citations for my responses, below are a series of topics from the discussion and my responses (with hyperlinks) as well as additional information that may be helpful to the students.  Please note that some of the classroom discussion centered on data by Gary Kleck and John Lott.  At the conclusion of the questions and responses, I have provided additional follow up on their research.

Additional research on gun violence and gun violence prevention, including peer-reviewed academic studies are available in the research portion of our website.

Questions for Gun Regulation Discussion

What do you believe the purpose/goal of gun legislation should be?

To both respect the second amendment and a person’s right to have a gun for protection while also taking necessary steps to do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people like criminals, domestic abusers, terrorists. But also, people who are a danger to themselves and others, those who’ve been adjudicated as mentally ill, and far too often, children who pick up loaded guns and injure or kill themselves or other people.

Do you think society would be more safe if there were no guns at all, or if everyone owned a gun?

Of course if there were no guns, there would be no shootings, but that’s not realistic, either constitutionally or logistically.  We have the second amendment and we have millions of guns.  Furthermore, to be clear, there are no organizations or candidates calling for any kind of repeal of the second amendment or any kind gun confiscation.

As for everyone owning a gun, no, I do not think society would be safer if everyone had a gun.  

A study published in The American Journal of Medicine earlier this year, noted that compared to 22 other high-income nations, the US gun related murder rate is 25 times higher.  And, although our suicide rate is similar to other countries, our gun-related suicide rate is 8 times higher than other high-income countries.

Some of their findings:

The study reveals some stark truths about living and dying in the United States. When compared to other high-income nations, as an American you are:

  • Seven times more likely to be violently killed
  • Twenty-five times more likely to be violently killed with a gun
  • Six times more likely to be accidentally killed with a gun
  • Eight times more likely to commit suicide using a gun
  • Ten times more likely to die from a firearm death overall

So what we see is that we have the most firearms per capita in the world and we suffer disproportionately from firearm-related deaths compared with other high-income countries.

The researchers conducting this study came to the conclusion that our guns are killing us more than they’re often protecting us.

So, no, I don’t think everyone owning a gun would make us safer.

Current Gun Laws

If you could change anything about the current gun policy what would it be? Why?

There are a number of things that I would like to see changed.  Look, gun violence is a complicated issue and there is no single policy or law that will bring an end to all of it.  But, I think there’s value in using research and listening to what I call validators – people who are knowledgeable in their field and not necessarily beholden to a side in the so-called “gun debate.”

For example, I think we should expand background checks to include all gun sales – those purchased by licensed dealers and those transactions between private sellers.  This is a policy that is widely supported by a variety of public health researchers, law enforcement, and citizens.  States that have background checks have seen reductions in key categories like domestic violence shootings, police killed on the job, and guns trafficked to other states.

Law enforcement have been a growing voice in support of expanding background checks.  Last year, at their annual conference, US police chiefs called for universal background checks.

“This is a no-brainer, this is the simplest thing in the world,” Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said. “It troubles me all the time.”

I think we need to fight harder to protect women from domestic abusers with guns.  Most states have laws that prohibit convicted abusers and people with orders of protection against them from having guns.  They are required to relinquish or dispossess their firearms.  But the problem is, there is very often no follow up to be sure that they did actually dispossess. We are actually working on this issue now in Tennessee.  Back in June, we convened a task group of domestic violence advocates, members of law enforcement, district attorneys, and judges to discuss closing this loophole.  We are still working on this issue and are reconvening later this year.

According to the Violence Policy Center, Tennessee is 9th in the nation for women murdered by men, based data from 2014, the most recent data available. The most common cause of death is a gunshot.  In 2014, 69% of the women murdered were killed with a gun, the highest percentage in a decade.  96% of the women killed knew the person who killed them. Our state is consistently in the top ten for women murdered by men.

 A recent report from The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence further details these        loopholes and the need to close them.

I think we need to do more to keep guns out of the hands of people who are likely to be a threat to themselves or others.  Gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) allow immediate family members or members of law enforcement to petition a judge if they feel someone is at great risk of harming others or harming themselves.  If the judge agrees, that person’s guns are temporarily removed from their possession.  More and more states are filing these bills because they make sense.  We call them “Families Know First” bills.

The Chattanooga shooter’s parents were concerned about his substance abuse, his recent DUI arrest, his mental state, and the fact that he had guns.  They asked him to get rid of them.  He refused.  Had GVROs been an option for them, it is possible that they could have intervened and prevented that horrible tragedy.

Here is some additional information on GVROs from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

I think that if an adult’s choice to leave a loaded gun unsecured and a child picks it up, fires it, and injures or kills someone with it, I think that parent should be charged with a crime.  Safe storage is one of the most important responsibilities a gun owner has.  In a perfect world, all gun owners would be responsible.  But we don’t live in a perfect world.  So far this year, there have been at least 130 incidents of a child under 13 gaining access to a loaded weapon and firing it.  48 kids have been killed in this way and 67 have been injured. 4 adults have been killed in this way.  There are very rarely any charges filed.  My organization supports the passage of child access prevention (CAP) laws in states like Tennessee where they don’t exist, and strengthening them in states where they are lax.

The NRA uses their Eddie Eagle program to educate children about gun safety and uses the program as a way to block CAP legislation.  Samantha Bee recently did a “bit” on Eddie Eagle on her show.  Although she uses satire to make a point, her point remains valid.  Furthermore, just telling a child, especially a young child, is no substitute for a gun owner storing guns responsibly and safely.  Numerous news programs have used hidden cameras to demonstrate that kids are curious and even kids who know better still make bad choices sometimes.

I think we should listen to law enforcement when they speak out against expanding where guns can be carried. I also think that decisions about where guns are carried should be left to those closest to the issue – be it local authorities such as mayors, city councils and law enforcement, or chambers of commerce, or business owners. They have spoken out against allowing guns in our bars, our parks, our local businesses, and most recently on our college campuses.

How do you feel your stance on guns is supported by the second amendment?

A more accurate answer for me would be to say that my stance is supported by the landmark Heller decision in 2008.  In Heller, the SCOTUS, in a 5-4 decision, found that the second amendment gives Americans the right to own guns for personal self-defense, despite the amendment’s opening line about a “well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state.”  This was considered a big victory for the National Rifle Association and those who support reducing or eliminating restriction on gun ownership.  But, there is actually more to the Heller decision.

But, writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia, also made sure to include some limiting language – specifically: “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited… It is “…not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”

 “We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller (an earlier case) said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time”. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’ ”

So, what we see in that opinion by Justice Scalia is that although the SCOTUS believes that individuals can own guns for personal protection, they also made it clear that there are limitations.  They spoke about it not being a right to keep and carry any kind of weapon a person chooses.  They spoke about it not meaning you can carry guns everywhere and they spoke about the technical interpretation about “the sorts of weapons in common use at the time.”

Therefore, I feel that organizations like mine who advocate for policies to prevent gun sales to criminals and those adjudicated mentally ill, policies to take steps to keep guns out of the hands of those who are exhibiting behaviors predictive of gun violence, and policies to keep guns out of schools and other sensitive places are on solid legal ground, based on Justice Scalia’s opinion and the opinion of SCOTUS.

How do you feel about UT’s decision to allow guns on campus?

This was not UT’s choice.  In fact, this was far from their choice.  Their choice and the choice of the Tennessee Board of Regents to decide whether or not to allow guns on their campus was actually taken from them in the past legislative session.

Against the wishes of the students and faculty of these colleges, local law enforcement, and the campus police chiefs of these various institutions, the legislature passed a controversial law this past session that forces all public colleges and universities to allow faculty and employees with gun permits carry guns on campus.  This bill was widely opposed.  A number of faculty indicated that they might consider finding teaching positions elsewhere.  Upon hearing this, senators laughed and said they hoped they would quitTwo campus police chiefs testified against the bill, very clearly stating that the bill would make campuses less safe, slow down first responders, put law enforcement at risk, and would require them to scrap their current federal active shooter protocol training and come up with something different.  On the day they were to testify, however, the committee chair forgot to call them until after the vote had been taken.

This year, the legislature has indicated that they plan to expand the law to include students.  Our position on this – and the position of law enforcement – is that this is a really bad idea.  In Texas, this law was passed against the will of students and faculty.  It was controversial and led to numerous protests.  Within a month of the law going into effect, a student at public Texas college unintentionally discharged his gun in his dorm room.  This past weekend at the University of Illinois-Urbana campus, a fight on campus led to gunshots, injuring three and killing one.  The 22-year-old man killed was a bystander, just walking by.  He was about to start nursing school.  There were 3 shootings on or near Tennessee campuses over the last two years.  One outside of the Sigma Chi house on the ETSU campus, one at TSU over a dice game, and another at TSU over a debt. Each one of them involved the same 4 variables – students, alcohol, arguments, and guns. 

Lastly, you are statistically far safer on a college campus than you are elsewhere.

Why have other countries been able to introduce gun legislation so much sooner than us?

We are the only country that enshrines the right to have a gun in our constitution.  So, any legislation must work within the second amendment.  Beyond that, even gun law reform legislation that would be constitutional is extremely difficult to pass because of the incredibly powerful and extraordinarily wealthy National Rifle Association.  Other countries do not have the second amendment, nor do they have a powerful lobbying group fighting against any attempt to make it harder for people to access guns.

Background Checks

What qualifications should be necessary for an individual to purchase a firearm, if any?

Everyone purchasing a firearm should undergo a background check.  Anyone who is a felon, a stalker, is under an order of protection, or has been adjudicated as mentally ill should be prohibited from purchasing a firearm.  Anyone who is considered by the federal government to be too dangerous to board a plane should be considered too dangerous to purchase a gun. Issues around due process are valid, but can easily be addressed by congressional action.  Anyone that a judge has determined to be a likely danger to themselves or others should be prohibited from purchasing a firearm.  Anyone who has ever been convicted of a violent crime – murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault, domestic violence – should not have their rights to own a gun restored.  We were able to defeat an attempt last legislative session to restore gun rights to people with violent felony convictions.

In the last five years (2010 – 2015) according to Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data, over 94,700 attempts to purchase a gun were denied because the buyer could not pass a background checks.  Some of the denials were appealed, but around 50,000 of the denials were upheld meaning 50,000 people who should not by guns were kept from doing so.  In that same period, as a result of the background check system in Tennessee,  2,341 stolen guns were discovered and 2,346 wanted persons were identified and apprehended.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-9-44-22-amMany of those who were denied undoubtedly sought out private sellers at a gun show or through a website like Armlist.com.

NPR recently published an informative report on the ease of buying guns through online gun exchanges like Armslist.  The Chattanooga shooter purchased at least some of his guns through Armslist.

In the last legislative session, Rep. Mike Stewart, who was the sponsor of a background check bill, purchased an AR-15-style rifle through Armslist.com and brought it to the committee hearing in an effort to illustrate the ease of buying guns without background checks.  The bill failed to get enough votes to pass out of the committee.

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Do you think it would be helpful to have the background check/registration digitized?

Yes, the NRA has actually passed laws that require the ATF to not digitize their records.  This means that when LEOs recover a crime gun and want to trace it, they call the ATF, give them the serial number of the gun, and wait.  The ATF then must pore through boxes and boxes of paper records and review microfiche to determine the provenance of the gun.  It’s well-documented, incredibly inefficient process that hinders investigations. Clearly, it would be better for everyone if that information was more easily obtainable, much the way it is for cars.  It would make it much easier for police to investigate crimes and prosecutors to get convictions if this process was streamlined and modernized.

Do you think the background check process in its current state is efficient?

Actually, yes.  Most every state in the country uses the NICS background check system.  In Tennessee, however, the TBI administers the TICS system which uses both the NICS data and data specific to Tennessee.  It takes a matter of minutes to undergo a background check to purchase a firearm in Tennessee.

What would be your ideal legislation on background checks?

I’d like to see all private gun sales undergo a background check.  This could be done by the seller and buyer going to a licensed dealer and having them do the background check.  There are any number of ways to do this.  Currently, there are 8 states that require universal background checks and more are considering them.  90% of Americans say they want universal background checks.  According to polling done by both Vandy and MTSU, 83-84% of Tennesseans want universal background checks.

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And regarding the transfer of guns between family members, organizations like mine have no problem with including such exceptions into an expanded background check bill.  Our issue is with strangers buy and selling guns to each other with no way to know if the parties involved are legally allowed to purchase or possess firearms.  Our issue is not with a brother selling his gun to his brother or a grandpa giving his grandson a gun for Christmas or a hunter letting his buddy take a shot with his rifle.

Automatic Rifles and Mass Shootings

What types of firearms should be permissible? Which should be banned?

Obviously, this is a controversial topic and one that is very politically charged.  My feeling is that any gun that allows dozens of rounds to be fired in a matter of seconds should not be available to the public.  Whether that firearm is what people would consider an “assault rifle” which is itself a term with different definitions depending on who you ask, or whether it’s a more traditional hunting rifle that can use a high capacity magazine, I don’t believe that those should be available to anyone who wants one.  These types of guns are not designed for hunting animals, they are designed for hunting people.  They are not designed for self-defense, they are designed for warfare.

I feel that the 2A and Heller both would allow for the ban of these kinds of high-cap rifles. 

What is your take on citizens owning fully automatic weapons?  Should regulation be increased?

Let’s make an important distinction.  There is very important difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  A full auto gun is like a machine gun – you hold the trigger and bullets keep firing.  These are the types of guns used by soldiers.  A semi-auto gun requires the trigger to be pulled each time a bullet is fired.  You can still fire dozens of bullets quickly with a semi-auto gun, but you must pull the trigger each time.  The carnage from a semi-auto high capacity rifle can be devastating.  Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Orlando are a few examples of the high number of casualties that can result from an angry shooter with a high cap semi-auto rifle.

It’s already difficult for private individuals to own fully automatic weapons.  You have to obtain a special license and pay an extra fee.  You also must designate a gun dealer to take possession in the event of your death.  You also cannot purchase a new automatic weapon, only used ones, and they tend to be very expensive.  That being said, the US is still one of the few countries in the world that allows citizens to own fully automatic weapons.

Should regulation be increased?  Maybe the question should be should people ever be allowed to own these types of guns.  Although I see no need for any civilian to own a fully automatic firearm, these types of guns are hardly the types of weapons being used in crimes, so I don’t think of them as a threat to public health or safety and I don’t see additional regulation or prohibiting their sale from public as a real priority.

Taking into consideration the current American climate (in the wake of various mass shootings), how do you feel your stance has a positive impact on society? 

With each of these high profile mass shootings, I think that people start asking questions like – why do we allow these types of guns on the street?  Why do we allow guns to be sold without background checks?  Why do we allow guns, especially guns designed to inflict mass casualties, to be sold to people on the terrorist watch list?  Why do we not have any mechanism in place for family members to intervene and remove guns from a loved one they believe could be dangerous?

Our positive impact, as I see it, is that we are able to give this growing number of frustrated citizens a voice.  We are working with public health experts, physicians, and law enforcement to study and promote evidence-based policies that can reduce the number of lives lost and impacted by gun violence.

To what extent do guns cause these mass shootings?

Guns don’t cause mass shootings.  However, if someone wants to kill lot of people and to kill a lot of people quickly, clearly the best tool for doing so is a gun.  To insure massive casualties, a high capacity firearm allows anyone, even someone who is a poor shot, to kill many people in a matter of a minute.

At a recent event at the White House, I was invited to screen a new documentary about Newtown.  The father of Ben Wheeler, a 1st grader who was killed that day said something that really stuck with me – especially when considering Sandy Hook, the Planned Parenthood shooting last November, San Bernardino, and Orlando – “When you have hate in your heart, what’s in your head matters less than what’s in your hand.”

Gun Policy Moving Forward

Do you feel the United States would benefit from CDC research regarding gun violence?

Yes, absolutely.  The fact that we have a NRA-written law that prohibits federal funding to study gun violence is shameful.  When you study public health, you must have access to good data.  You study the data to understand the scope of the problem, to understand trends.  Based on those studies, you can make recommendations to address the problem.  Take for example the case of children and cars.  A long time ago, children – even babies – were not required to be in car seats.  Back then, seat belts weren’t even in all cars, much less was their use required by law.  But, doctors began to grow tired of caring for children who were injured in car accidents and seeing the number of kids, especially young kids, who were being killed in car accidents.  So, public health researchers did what public health researchers do.  They studied the issue, they assessed risks, studied remedies, and over time, came up with car seats.  Over the years, using data and technology, they have continued to refine the design and effectiveness of them. And as a result, the numbers of kids killed in car wrecks dropped dramatically.  They were able to do this without banning cars and without banning transport of children in cars. 

Interestingly, the sponsor of the 1996 legislation that prohibited that funding, a retired Arkansas congressman named Jay Dickey, has since recanted his position.  He says he now regrets his involvement in passing the bill and regrets the 20 years of useful data that’s been lost by not researching the gun violence – homicides, domestic violence, suicides, and unintentional shooting deaths – over the last two decades.  Congressman Dickey has joined his former nemesis at the CDC to push for a lift of the ban.  The two men appeared together on The Daily Show earlier this year.  

What do you think about taking away the ability to have a concealed weapon?

It would require a SCOTUS decision.  Any attempt by a city or state to do so would be challenged immediately in the courts.

Generally speaking, carrying a concealed weapon requires a carry permit.  Carry permits require both a background check and completion of a training class, albeit a not particularly challenging class.  Although most permit holders are law abiding citizens, permit holders still manage to have unintentional discharges of their weapons and unfortunately, even those with permits still sometimes use their guns to kill people.  Last Thursday in Athen, Tennessee, a permit holder with no criminal history attended a meeting at work, grew angry with his supervisors, left the meeting, grabbed a gun from his car, returned to work and gunned down his two supervisors before turning the gun on himself.

According to the Safe Tennessee Project database, since January of 2015, there have been at least five accidental shootings involving permit holders.  Four of them occurred in public (three at the permit holders’ place of employment), and one involved a permit holder whose 3-year-old shot himself with a loaded, unsecured firearm.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-8-17-07-amLast year according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, 3,292 permit applications were denied, a five year high.  2,076 were suspended, and 291 were revoked.

The NRA likes to say “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  But, even members law enforcement are not always the most reliable shots.  Studies have been done that show that in high stress situations, even trained police officers miss their targets more than they hit them.  There is simply no way that a person with a permit, which in Tennessee requires a background check, 4 hours of classroom instruction on gun nomenclature and gun laws followed with 4 hours on the range, can be expected to know how to respond in a high stress situation.  Being well-intentioned doesn’t guarantee accuracy.  Law enforcement have cited their concerns about cross fire and friendly fire as reasons they oppose allowing guns in places like schools, public parks, bars, and college campuses.

In 2013, the Tennessee legislature passed a law to keep all permit holder data confidential, so unless a witness volunteers the permit status of a shooter to a reporter, there is no way to know their permit status.

The National Rifle Association favors national reciprocity laws.  Organizations such as The Safe Tennessee Project oppose such legislation.  Not all carry permits are created equal.  Some states have very stringent requirements to obtain a permit while other states require every little.  Some states have strict rules about who they will let obtain a permit, while others do not.  Some states require applicants demonstrate basic efficiency on a range while others do not.  We think a state that takes steps to be sure they are only giving permits to those who have met strict standards should not be forced to allow permit holders from states with weak permitting standards to carry in their state.

At the same time they advocate for both reciprocity and expansion of where permit holders can carry, noting that permit holders are law-abiding and trustworthy as a result of their training and vetting, the NRA and other gun rights groups continue their push, both at the state level and federally,  for “constitutional carry” or permitless carry legislation.  Constitutional carry would allow anyone who has purchased a gun to carry it in public without any kind of a permit.  Every year, constitutional carry bills are introduced in the Tennessee Legislature, and so far, we have been able to defeat them.

So far this year, we have tracked 69 unintentional shootings in Tennessee.  We view eliminating training requirements to carry a gun in public as bad policy and an issue of public health and safety.

Who should be allowed to sell firearms? Should there be training or qualifications for those selling firearms?

Anyone who sells firearms professionally is required to obtain an FFL or Federal Firearms License.  This has been the case since passage of the Gun Control Act of 1968.  FFLs must keep certain records and upon retiring or selling their business, they must turn their records over to the ATF.

There is gray area, however, around what constitutes being a professional seller. After the Brady background check bill was passed, only FFLs were required to conduct background checks.  The Gun Control Act of 1968 allows private citizens to engage in the occasional trade of firearms.  “Occasional trade” however is never defined.  Is an occasional trade 1 gun per year or 5 guns per week?  This is the crux of the “gunshow loophole” debate.  FFLs selling at gun shows conduct background checks while private sellers at the show or in the parking lot do not.

Should modifications to weapons be allowed? Silencers, larger magazines, etc…

In my opinion, no.  I see no need or justification for civilians to have silencers or larger magazines.  Also, there is language in the Heller opinion that addresses certain limitations for dangerous or unusual weapons which could apply to devices like silencers.

How do you feel about having different laws based on different populations, like rural and urban?

I believe that certain decisions like this should be made by local jurisdictions.  For example, in 2015 the legislature passed a controversial law that would allow those with permits to carry guns in any public park.  Mayors, city councils, chambers of commerce and law enforcement in cities were vehemently opposed to the law as were educators.  Many public schools in cities like Nashville share playgrounds with public parks.  Clearly an urban public park in Nashville that’s next to a school is completely different from a large wooded park in a rural area.  The cities and municipalities opposed to “guns in park” asked that cities be given an “opt-out” option to allow them to make a choice based on what was best for their community, to allow those most knowledgeable about the community to decide how best to keep it safe.  The “opt-out” provision was ignored.  After opposing the bill throughout the session, Goveror Haslam signed it into law anyway

*Note: the NRA held its annual convention in Nashville in April of 2015.  When the original “guns in parks” bill was signed, it had the unusual effective date of April 15, just before the convention was to begin.  Most all bills have an effective date of July 1st.  Problems with the bill, amendments to it, and the lengthy debate on it delayed its passage and it wasn’t signed until two weeks after the convention.

Should there be a limit to how many guns an individual can have? Perhaps how many of each type of firearm an individual can have?

No, not if they have obtained their guns legally and have undergone a background check.

Should there be a limit to the firing rate or a limit to the number of rounds in a magazine?

Yes, in my opinion there should be, at least as it pertains to guns sold commercially to civilians.  Weapons designed to inflict maximum casualties in seconds have no place in the hands of civilians, many of whom have not undergone sufficient training.

What’s the role of the police in the gun control situation?

The vast majority of law enforcement support common sense gun law reform.  They support background checks for all gun sales, they support limiting the types of firearms and ammunition sold to civilians.  They support policies like gun violence restraining orders. 

There are numerous reasons we are seeing these police-involved shootings that are dominating news cycles these last few years.  While some of them are of course related to very complicated social issues, you must also consider the role of guns and the proliferation of them in our current society.  I’m of the opinion that 99% of law enforcement officers are good people.  Brave, hardworking men and women who put their lives on the line everyday.  I have had the privilege of working with them, of participating in panel discussions and task groups with them.  Every time an officer encounters a person in America, they know that there is a very good chance they’re armed.  Every time they confront someone, they know that there is a a very good chance they might be fired on. They also know that sometimes, the “bad guy with a gun” has better weaponry than they do and could be using ammunition that can penetrate their protective vests.

I see their role as being one that continues the collaboration with organizations like mine that support the second amendment, but who also support common sense policies that can reduce the number of people – including law enforcement – injured and killed each year.  We believe that their opinions on the best way to keep communities safe should be heard.  

How would you like to collaborate more with the other side to achieve your own group’s goals?

There is a narrative out there that the gun issue is so polarizing that there will never be movement on it.  I reject that narrative.  It has been created almost completely by the gun lobby.  Most prominent gun violence prevention groups are like mine – they support the second amendment, but also believe there are very basic steps that can be taken to make it harder for the wrong people – be it “bad guys”, individuals with suicidal ideation, those exhibiting behaviors predictive of violence, or too often in Tennessee, children – from getting their hands on guns.

I would like to see both sides come together.  I would also like to see an end to what I call “the straw man strategy.”  A straw man argument is a form of argument based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent.  What that means in this case is that I say that I support expanding background checks for all gun sales, but then I’m accused of wanting to prevent people from being able to protect themselves. Or I’m accused of wanting to repeal the second amendment. Whenever we report on an accidental shooting and talk about the importance of gun safety and responsible gun ownership, I get emails asking why I want to take guns away from law abiding people. 

In 2015, 8 children were killed and another 13 were injured when they or another chid picked up a loaded, unsecured gun and fired it unintentionally.  In early 2016, our state was flagged in a Johns Hopkins School of Public Health study as having both a disproportionately high number of unintentional shootings and no meaningful “child access prevention” or CAP laws.  In response, we tried to pass MaKayla’s Law last session.  (The bill was named after an 8-year-old girl who was shot by her 11-year-old neighbor.  The 11-year-old used his father’s loaded, accessible shotgun.  The 11-year-old was convicted and is currently in a juvenile detention center.  His father was not charged with any crime and has since left the state.)  #MaKaylasLaw would have held adult gun owners responsible if they left a loaded gun accessible and a child – under 13 – picked up the gun, fired it, and injured or killed themselves or someone else.  The NRA sent out email alerts to their members saying the law would allow police to search their homes to see how guns were stored and would allow them to be prosecuted or their guns taken from them.  They purposefully misrepresented the bill’s language and intent.

What I know is that there is a lot of middle ground out there, nationally and in Tennessee.  The overwhelming majority of Americans want expanded background checks.  83-84% of Tennesseans want them.  MaKayla’s Law received support from district attorneys, police, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.  It also received support from gun sellers, range instructors, and responsible gun owners who understand that guns must be safely stored to prevent these kinds of horrible tragedies.  There was extensive media coverage of the bill, including several blog posts in the Nashville scene.

There is middle ground.  There is opportunity for compromise.  But both sides have to traffic in the truth and stop vilifying the other side.  Reducing the number of people injured and killed by guns each year is something everyone should support.  The constitution and its amendments are important but so are the lives of the citizens it governs.


Gary Kleck and John Lott (author of More Guns, Less Crime) are two of the most well-known pro-gun rights researchers.  Their work, the majority of which was conducted in the early nineties but is still referenced today, is not without controversy.

Kleck and Lott estimate that each year, there are 2.5 million incidents of defensive gun use, or DGUs.  That breaks down to 6,849 per day or 285 per hour or 4.75 every minute.  This number is highly disputed.  Other researchers estimate the actual number to be a fraction of Kleck and Lott’s number.  Gun Violence Archive is a nonprofit that aggregates all news stories related to any kind of gun violence, including police-involved shootings, accidental shootings, and incidents of defensive gun use as well as general shootings related to homicides. Each of their incidents is linked to a news story or police report.

So far this year, they have tracked 1,302 DGU incidents.

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Concerns about the research methodology and ethics of both Kleck and Lott

The Virginia Center for Public Safety discusses flaws in Kleck’s research methods, namely that his numbers (which come from a telephone survey he conducted in 1992) include defensive gun use against animals and law enforcement using guns in self-defense.

Shooting Down the Gun Lobby’s Favorite “Academic”: A Lott of Lies
Armed with Reason

The other Lott controversy – Conservative Michelle Malkin expresses ethical concerns with Lott’s research
Town Hall

The Mystery of Mary Rosh – How John Lott used an internet persona to defend his research
Reason.com

Who Is Behind the Lie That More Guns Makes Us Safe?
The Nation

More Guns, Less Crime? Not Exactly.
Washington Post

Academic research regarding right-to-carry laws 

The Effect of Nondiscretionary Concealed Weapon Carrying Laws on Homicide
The Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery

The Impact of Right to Carry Laws and the NRC Report: The Latest Lessons for the Empirical Evaluation of Law and Policy
The National Bureau of Economic Research

Can Easing Concealed Carry Deter Crime?
University of California, Merced

Systematic Measurement Error with State-Level Crime Data: Evidence From the “More Guns, Less Crime” Debate
Research in Crime and Delinquency

Regression to the Mean, Murder Rates, and Shall-Issue Laws
The American Statistician

Right-to-carry gun laws linked to increase in violent crime, Stanford research shows
Stanford University

More Guns, More Crime
University of Chicago and National Bureau of Economic Research