The Atlantic's James Fallows on how the fight over SCOTUS highlights the media's struggles to cover this political moment.
Guest Host: Tamara Keith
The United States has the highest rate of gun violence in the developed world — six times higher than Canada’s and 15 times more than Germany. In mass public shootings, defined as when four or more people are killed, the U.S. leads as well. There are an estimated 33,000 gun related deaths — which include accidents, suicide and murder — every year. The sheer number of guns in the U.S. is clearly a key factor, but many believe Americans’ apparent willingness to accept these gun violence plays an important role. We look at how American attitudes toward restrictions on guns compare to those in other industrialized countries.
- Peter Squires Professor, criminology & public policy, University of Brighton
- Devlin Barrett Reporter, security and law enforcement, The Wall Street Journal
- Dr. Liza Gold Clinical professor of psychiatry, Georgetown University Medical Center; vice president, American Academy of Psychiatry & The Law
- A. J. Somerset Writer; author of "Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun"
MS. TAMARA KEITHThanks for joining us. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out for a voice treatment. The murders near Roanoke, Virginia, last week of a TV reporter and cameraman live on TV brought the nation's attention back to the issue of gun violence. Then, over the weekend, a sheriff's deputy was shot in the back while pumping gas. Why are the rates of this type of violence so extraordinarily high in this country and why do these shocking events always seem to spur the same old political and ideological debates?
MS. TAMARA KEITHJoining me to talk about what other countries have done to address gun violence are Devlin Barrett of The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Liza Gold of Georgetown University's Medical Center. By phone from Brighton, England, Peter Squires of the University of Brighton. And by phone from London, Ontario, A.J. Somerset author of "Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun."
MS. TAMARA KEITHBefore going to our guests, though, I want to welcome our listeners from WNYE in New York who, starting today, are listening live to both hours of "The Diane Rehm Show." We're so glad to have you with us. And I want to start with you, Devlin. What has happened since last week's live-on-TV shooting event and where is the national conversation now?
MR. DEVLIN BARRETTWell, the national conversation has been stalled for a long time. I mean, I think politically you see a real lack of energy in Congress to change any laws, even though every time you have a, frankly, sensational shooting like the one we had last week, there's a lot of increased anger and frustration on the part of folks who would like to see the gun laws change. You know, there are debates going on all the time around the country about these issues, especially when a high profile shooting happens in a particular state or a particular city.
MR. DEVLIN BARRETTBut the truth is that those discussions have been stalled in Washington where it perhaps matters most for a long time.
KEITHA.J. Somerset, I want to go to you. Over the weekend, we heard about a Texas sheriff's deputy who was shot in the back and killed, allegedly because he was wearing a police uniform and I want to talk to you about the statistics on gun violence in the U.S. Are we really off the charts here?
MR. A.J. SOMERSETWell, yes. The United States is the clear outlier among developed nations, both in the rate of gun ownership, which is way up there with almost one gun for every American, and also the firearms death rates, which is 10.64 per 100,000. That's, I think, five times the rate in Canada. That's 2013 number. It varies a little, you know, year to year, but, you know, clearly the U.S. is an outlier.
KEITHAnd we got an email based on just our show intro that I want to read. This is from Richard in Rochester, New York. He says, "The United States of America ranks number 110 of all the nations in the world in murder rates at 4.2 per 100,000, roughly in the middle of all nations." A.J., does that jive with your understanding of the statistics?
SOMERSETWell, yes, but that's among all nations. It's probably fairer to compare the United States to developed nations so that we're not including places like El Salvador, for example. So among developed nations, the United States is the leader. 2012 homicide rate was 4.7 per 100,000 in the United States. In Canada, it was 1.6. And the difference there is that the firearms homicide rate in the United States is about seven times higher than it is in Canada so it accounts for that difference of three per 100,000.
KEITHAnd Dr. Liza Gold, you're a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine and you also have a book coming out, "Gun Violence and Mental Illness." These events that happened last week, they are quite sensational, but I think what you are saying is pull back a little bit. There's a huge number here and it's not just the mass shootings or the things that get splashed on the front pages.
DR. LIZA GOLDAbsolutely. It's, you know, people seem -- become interested and get involved in the national discussion when there is a high profile or sensational shooting. The fact of the matter is 30,000 people a year die in the United States from gun violence. When you say, you know, 4.7 per 100,000, it's hard to kind of put that into a real number. So to understand, that's 30,000 people a year. That's a lot of people and we only seem to have the national discussion when there is a very high profile -- a tragic and they are tragic.
DR. LIZA GOLDBut the majority of gun violence in the United States, of that 30,000, 20,000 are firearm suicides. It's the primary means of suicide in the United States. Of the 10,000 or so that are left, about 90 percent of that or so per year is a form of interpersonal violence, people who know each other. The number of people who are killed by strangers with guns is less than 1.5 percent a year. And it's...
KEITHAnd yet, that's the thing we're all afraid of and that's the thing that makes the front page.
GOLDThat's right. And it's not to say that those are not tragic circumstances, but every time something like that happens or something like the shooting last week, what happens is people say, oh, angry, no good reason, violent, et cetera, this person must have serious mental illness, which is not necessarily the case. What that does is it reinforces the idea that people with serious mental illness are behind a lot of the gun violence in this country.
GOLDThat is only true if you take into account the 20,000 firearm suicides, which is not what people are talking about. And so one of the reasons that the national discussion is so stalled is because people are kind of coming at it from the wrong end. They're looking at the rare occurrence, statistically speaking, incredibly rare, tragic, horrible, no question, but statistically rare. It's very difficult to predict or stop something that is statistically so rare, less than .5 percent, I mean, per year.
GOLDSo we have to be asking different questions and coming at firearms and injury and firearm death from another perspective.
KEITHPeter Squires, you're a professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton. I want to bring you into the conversation as well. You say that the murders last week near Roanoke, those are not technically considered mass murder, but in terms of the impact, that are. Can you explain that?
MR. PETER SQUIRESWell, yes. I mean, I came to this debate when I was asked to comment on a University of Alabama professor's article on mass shootings for the FBI. A mass shooting is only included in the database when there are four or more victims to the Virginia case with the perpetrator killing two other people would not have qualified as part of this database. What your contributors have said so far is absolutely spot on.
MR. PETER SQUIRESThe U.S. is mid-table in the world, but in developed nations, it's way out in the league. But when you come mass shootings, the U.S. is way out in front with 90 of these. Only three other countries in the world get into double figures and around 100 other nations have had one or two.
KEITHAnd 90 since when?
KEITHOkay. Listeners, we want to get you involved in this conversation, of course, as well. The number to call is 1-800-433-8850 or email us, some of you have already used that email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook, Twitter @drshow. So please join this conversation. Peter, I want to come back to you. Most gun-related murders don't actually make the news, is that right?
SQUIRESWell, they don't make national news. I think it takes an exceptional event. And one occurring live on-air obviously plays into a media story. Mass shootings invariably make the news and they shape and move the debate. But as your commentator from Georgetown just said, the kind of run-of-the-mill shootings, the suicides and the partner violence, it's routine. It's 30,000 a year. That becomes something like 85 to 90 a day.
SQUIRESHere in Britain, we only get 50 odd shootings a year and it's down, I'm afraid, to the proliferation of guns and the relatively lax control of them that puts them in the hands of the wrong people.
KEITHAnd Devlin, after Sandy Hook where those school children were killed, there was this big surge in political energy to change the gun laws in some way and then it kind of fizzled and I guess that's sort of a pattern.
BARRETTRight. And so what you saw after Sandy Hook was that Democrats thought that the horror over that incident would give them momentum to get beyond the mathematical problem they have had for a long time in Congress, which is to pass new gun laws. It turned out they didn't have the momentum to do that. The argument fell back. No one really changed their minds after Sandy Hook and, if anything, people became more convinced of the rightness of whatever their view on the subject was.
BARRETTAnd folks are right. The U.S. has a very different gun culture. It's, to me, it's a very urban/rural split in America and that's where you see the sharpest differences of opinion and I think there are some very valid reasons for that, but I also think, you know, people just have very different views about guns and I see it in my own family. You know, there's just very strongly held opinions and it's an interesting dynamic that, you know, you can yell at each till your blue in the face and no one is moving.
KEITHDevlin Barrett, reporter on security and law enforcement at The Wall Street Journal. Coming up, more of our conversation about gun violence in America and how we compare to the rest of the world.
KEITHWelcome back. I'm Tamara Keith sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about gun violence in America and how we compare to the rest of the world. In studio, we're joined by Devlin Barrett, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Liz Gold, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton, and A.J. Somerset, writer and author -- writer-author of "Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun."
KEITHAnd A.J., I wanted to come back to you. We were, before the break, talking about the American gun culture and you've written about this. What makes America unique here?
SOMERSETWell, the thing in the United States is not -- I think it's not even the proliferation of guns that is the root of the problem, it's the set of values and attitudes that create that proliferation, which is the gun culture. And it's difficult to, you know, define what a gun culture is. You have to be very careful about how you define this because it's a really multifaceted thing.
SOMERSETBut one of the things that's really unique in the United States is the attitude towards government, which has caused people to latch on to the Second Amendment -- and this really has grown since the 1960s and the transformation of the NRA through the '60s and '70s -- this paranoia towards government, people who are convinced that the aim of gun control is complete disarmament rather than the public safety aim. It's complete disarmament with the goal of being able to then take away other fundamental freedoms.
KEITHHmm. And, Peter Squires, is it different other places? Is America's Second Amendment some sort of fundamental, founding principle that makes us approach guns in a different way?
SQUIRESWell, I think it's become that. And I think it's become a matter of the time, as the last speaker said. There has been a profound shift around what the Second Amendment is meant to represent. Careful reading of that one critical sentence talks, firstly, about a militia and the whole war of independence and, secondly, talks about the right to bear arms being unimpeded.
SQUIRESAnd people have, lately, and certainly since the '60s, come to focus more upon the second half of that right to bear arms in the context of revolutionary war. And I think the Supreme Court has laterally endorsed that interpretation. It's become a much more fundamental, individual right in a way that I don't think it was ever intended. The interpretation has changed over time.
BARRETTWell, right. And I think he's exactly right and I think what you see in the dynamic in this debate is whether you define guns as an issue of rights or an issue of public health and public safety. And if you define it as rights, as people understand them and as the Constitution says, you come down on one side of this. And if you define -- and, frankly, the public health part of this, which is such a big part of what Liza is saying, is really not much in the public debate. It's not much in the political discourse. Because in our country -- in my lifetime anyway -- the times when there have been passages of gun control bills, they have largely stemmed around concerns about crime and public safety.
BARRETTWe haven't -- I would argue that as a political entity, a social outfit, we haven't even gotten to the point where we're having like a grownup discussion about public health. And, you know, look, not all deaths are created equal, right? We worry more about some deaths than other deaths. We do not intrinsically fear, you know, a car accident death -- although, frankly, that is the most likely risk we have on a day to day.
KEITHWell, that's the thing. We're all deathly afraid of dying in a plane crash, for instance. And yet we're not deathly afraid of driving to the airport without putting our seat belts on. Doctor?
GOLDWell, one of the really interesting things is -- to use the model of automobiles or cars, motor vehicle accidents -- in 2009, there were nine states where gun deaths exceeded motor vehicle deaths. In 2010, there were ten states. In 2011, I believe, there are not 14 states and the District of Columbia that now have more deaths by firearms than they do motor vehicles. So are there less motor vehicles around now than there were, you know, 50 years ago? No.
GOLDWhat we've done as a country is we have decided that too many people were dying from car accidents and we have initiated multiple interventions on multiple levels to decrease the number of motor vehicle deaths -- from seat belts in cars, to speed limits, to rumble strips -- I mean, the list goes on -- safety airbags -- the list goes on and on. And I would argue that the same approach could be taken with less political heat to gun violence, that there need to be multiple approaches. You know, it is a right in this country, as defined. The Supreme Court has said it.
GOLDI would like to do away with the words gun control altogether, if I could, out of the debate, and talk about just decreasing morbidity and mortality. Gun safety, I think, is something that both people on the right side and people on the public health side can agree on. 30,000 people a year is too many people to die. I think we can all start there and agree on that.
BARRETTAnd I think the challenge is that math is not often a winning argument in American politics.
KEITHI want to read an email here from Barbara. She says, while I support gun control laws, there are already thousands and thousands of guns out there. How do we deal with that? If laws should tighten up, how are people prevented from grabbing up many, many more guns before the law would take effect? It seems a hopeless situation. Peter, there are examples in other parts of the world, including in the UK.
SQUIRESYeah. There are many examples. I mean, we moved quite quickly after the Dunblane shooting, which was very similar to the Sandy Hook incident. A guy went into a school and shot a number of five- and six-year-old children. And very quickly after that, the government moved to ban high-caliber handguns, pistols and revolvers. The incoming Tony Blair government then began to ban all other, including .22 caliber pistols. So that was very quick. In Australia, there was a major gun buy-back program and that's been something that's been pursued in other parts of the world, including Brazil. And that's -- they've had an impact on pulling down the gun homicide and suicide rates.
SQUIRESIt's very clear that the U.S. is -- and this is where American exceptionalism comes in -- the U.S. is the only country that confronts these incidents and then repeatedly fails to do anything about them.
KEITHDo you agree with the listener who says that it seems like a hopeless situation?
SQUIRESI don't think it's hopeless. I think there are longer-running trends. One of my -- one of the -- my interests is the way, in terms of understanding the culture of gun ownership. It is much more centered in rural areas. It's much more white. It's much more middle-age, middle-class, for people with military backgrounds. And I think that is a diminishing portion of the overall U.S. population. So in terms of long-term trend, maybe time is running against the gun. Now people have said that before, I realize. And it's one of the reasons that the gun industry is looking more to market guns to women, because that's a largely untapped market.
SQUIRESSo this is a critical issue. And like, with all the normal rump social movements, the more you get to the core of the movement, the more it's a strident minority, I think the more radical and extreme the rhetoric of those groups become. And I think the NRA, if you like, is the extreme core of a right-wing republicanism, maybe, that is diminishing proportionally.
KEITHDevlin, I mean, I think if you look at the polling out there, the polling would say people overwhelmingly support some kind of background checks, other controls. But that is not reflected in the politics.
BARRETTNot at all. And there's a couple reasons for that. One, in America, we have a great tradition of public polling support for certain things that are never going to get passed, which is fine. And, number two, is I think, you know, as he said and I said earlier, is that there is a real urban-rural split on this issue. And I think one of the things that you see is that NRA voters vote very consistently and very enthusiastically for what they consider to be their interests, and that those votes, particularly in a lot of -- for lack of a better term -- red states, rural states, really matter.
BARRETTAnd, you know, I've always been a little skeptical of the whole, it's the NRA's money argument. I actually think it's the NRA's voters that has the most sway over this. Not that the money's not important. I think it is. But I really feel like, in a lot of these states, you know, if you are a candidate who's perceived as -- for lack of a better term -- soft on guns, there will be a lot of people mobilized to vote you out of office. And I think that's true. And I think in some ways it's more true now than it's been in a long time.
KEITHDr. Liza Gold.
GOLDYeah. A couple of points. I mean, certainly, relative to the caller, you know, there is no silver bullet that's going to get rid of the problem of gun violence in this country. It's going to have to be multiple areas of intervention. And just the model, I think, in terms -- that's given me quite a bit of hope, is thinking about the gay marriage movement, which 15 years ago there was no gay marriage anywhere and now the Supreme Court has said, you know, it's a Constitutional right, so to speak.
GOLDI think that rather than trying to move the federal government, efforts are better place in moving local governments. And an example of that is in California, after the...
GOLD...Isla Vista shooting, where this young man's parents knew something was going wrong and were actually on the way to try to stop him. They passed something called the Gun Violence Restraining Order that's going to go into effect in January of 2016, which is on a very one-to-one, person-to-person level, if you think that a family member or somebody -- or a loved one, significant other, may be getting into trouble with a gun, whether it's suicide, homicide or whatever, you can initiate a temporary restraining order that separates them from their weapons temporarily and through due process and all that kind of thing.
GOLDSo, you know, it'll be interesting to see what the statistics and the research show about the California program once it goes into effect. But it does demonstrate that where people have a will to do this, it can happen. And we have to be thinking about it in those kinds of smaller, local ways, I think, in order to make progress.
KEITHHmm. Another email from out in the cybersphere, a question from Martha. How many of these shootings were done with registered guns? She says, I would guess most were done with unregistered firearms. Changing gun laws won't change these occurrences. I see some head shakes here.
BARRETTNo. It's -- and it varies. Part of the challenge of answering that question is it varies state to state. But certainly in the state of Virginia, he doesn't have to register the weapon to buy it. He has to get a background check, and he did that, and he passed the background check according to law enforcement officials. So in most -- and it's tricky to say most -- but I think you can basically say, in most cases that people hear about and get worried about, these gun purchases, when they're legal, there is no formal registration process.
BARRETTNow, I grew up in New York and I live in Virginia. So in New York City, certainly, you do have to register a weapon. In the state of Virginia, there are gun shops right around my house. You can go there and as long as you pass the check, you get a gun. And there's no formal registration process.
GOLDYes, I would agree. I mean, part of what happens every time there is one of these mass shootings is it reinforces the idea that somehow mental illness is the strongest connection between mass shooting, serious mental illness and gun homicide, which is absolutely not necessarily the case. Again, these are so rare that you cannot profile, so to speak. Clearly people are angry and clearly they have access to a weapon. And beyond that, there's really a tremendous difficulty finding a profile that fits all of the people who do this.
BARRETTWell, I think there is -- sorry -- I think there is a profile that law enforcement works very hard on. I think you can make a very good argument that that is, you know, a very difficult, big task to try to tackle. But, you know, law enforcement officials will say there are incredible similarities for all these folks. But the question is, can you spot them and stop them?
KEITHI'm Tamara Keith of NPR and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to email@example.com. Find us on Facebook or send us a tweet @drshow. And I want to go to the phones now. And, Nora, in Houston, Texas, thanks for joining us.
NORAHi, Tamara. Thank you so much for taking my call.
KEITHThanks for calling. What's your question?
NORAMy question is kind of -- I want to take this a little more internationally. And I was hoping that your panelists might be able to answer this. I hear that Switzerland has a gun culture and, you know, they have their own, you know, they have militias, they have like a strong gun culture there. But obviously they're nowhere in the league of America in terms of gun deaths. And I was hoping somebody would know the difference between the two and how they have a successful gun culture, and maybe something that America can learn from them.
KEITHPeter Squires at University of Brighton, is that one you can take?
SQUIRESYeah, sure. I think that the work I've done, again, looking at global gun cultures from country to country, I came up with a typology that there were civilized gun cultures and there were very uncivilized gun cultures. And the most uncivilized gun cultures are often failing states in conflict zones and they all have astronomically high levels of gun violence, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, even Mexico, Brazil, and often lots of organized criminal violence.
SQUIRESAnd you compare those to gun cultures, often Europeans, such as Switzerland, where gun ownership and gun training for many is associated with their militia service. So it's not that someone will go to a local pawn shop and buy a gun without any proper certification, without any training. But they are schooled in gun safety from the moment they have the gun. Places like Norway, where there is a vibrant hunting culture, but again it's a very disciplined and very civilized kind of culture. And I think America, in a sense, sits somewhere between those. It has a fairly lax control over gun distribution and I think that's reflected in its relatively high violence -- gun violence problem.
KEITHAre you saying we're uncivilized?
SQUIRESI think you have to kind of itemize what civilized means. I mean, civilized means a respect for human rights and welfare. Civilized means a careful marshalling of public force to prevent public problems. So if you look at the gun violence problem, America has a third-world gun violence problem in a developed country. And that's the anomaly. And I continue to fail to get it, in a way that more is not done about this.
KEITHA.J. Somerset, we just have a few seconds. Do you have anything to add to this?
SOMERSETWell, the thing about the European versus the United States, culture wise, the thing that's unique in the United States really is that sort of anti-government attitude that is so prevalent and has become prevalent, again, since the 1960s. That's what really, I think, has transformed the culture there.
KEITHComing up, your calls and questions for our panel. Please stay tuned.
KEITHWelcome back. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we are talking about gun violence in America and how that differs from gun violence in the rest of the world. And we're joined by Devlin Barrett, a reporter on security and law enforcement at The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Liza Gold, clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, Peter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton, and A.J. Somerset, who is the author of "Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun."
KEITHAnd I want to go to another one of our callers, Mike in Boca Raton, Florida. Thanks for joining us.
MIKEWell, I'm happy to do that. I don't think that the discussion that's going on right now is really useful. I think that there is a path. It's a hard path. And let me give you a couple of ideas. The first path -- first along the path, there have to be millions and billions of money in the hands of people who want to do away with the guns, just like -- just like polio and so forth. Then we have to have lawyering people who can do, you know, an amendment to the Constitution that would wipe out this problem.
MIKEThen we need a bunch of young liberals who want to be in the Congress and who will take advantage of this money. That's a path that -- look, I'm almost 74 years old and probably would not -- it would take longer than me to do it that way, but there is a path. There is a path. We have some very bright liberals who are some of the lawyers, like I am, who are somewhat -- not practicing anymore. I can give you names of a couple of them that could do the -- that could do the -- that could do an amendment to the Constitution because they're so bright.
KEITHThank you so much for your call, Mike. Dr. Liza Gold, you obviously want changes. How practical are these ideas? I mean, is there a path?
GOLDWell, I think there is a path. I think it is based on the public health model. Motor vehicles are safer. Look at what's happened to tobacco, smoking, et cetera. There are many public health successes that have resulted in reduced morbidity and mortality. You're not going to prevent every single firearm death by any means, but I think that starting the decision from a place where we all, again, basically agree that 30,000 people a year is too many, everyone who's killed by a gun dies too young, regardless of what age they die at. I did want to make one clarification.
GOLDWhich was simply that when I was talking about profiles, I was talking about psychological profiles. There absolutely is a law enforcement profile, which groups that I'm involved with, like the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm -- Risk-Based Evidence Firearm Policy, believes in, which is that we should use profiles of people that identify dangerous people with or without mental illness, that looking at mental illness as part of the profile is not helpful, and it's not going to help reduce the gun violence. But there are ways to identify dangerous people.
GOLDI would also say, by the way, that this gentleman, although I think his ideas are great, Florida is the place where they've passed the physician gag laws in this country, and the circuit -- federal circuit court has deemed them constitutional, where doctors as a matter of routine are barred from asking or recording whether people own guns simply to offer safety advice like do your kids wear helmets when they ride bicycles.
GOLDSo I think that going for those big gains is going to be -- pretty much it's -- I don't think that there's any hope in that direction. But I do feel very hopeful in other directions.
KEITHSort of incremental changes.
GOLDYes, I think that's the way we're going to have to go.
KEITHBack to the emails here, Manuel writes, thank you to the guest stating the culture between urban and rural views of guns. As a rural owner of significant number of guns, I am baffled by the view -- views urban gun owners have toward guns. Can your guest discuss more about the difference and how it impacts the issue? Devlin, I'll come to you first, and then I want to go to A.J. Somerset.
BARRETTSure, yeah, so I think -- I think the most glaring thing about the differences of opinion on this are strictly an urban-rural split. And in rural communities, you see people who grew up with guns, people who grew up hunting, and some of those people have pistols, as well, but a lot of them don't. I mean, there are certainly, you know, lots of families who have three or four or sometimes 20 hunting rifles of various kinds, and they don't think of themselves as particularly, you know, gun obsessive or anything like that. They just like guns because they like to be out using guns when they're hunting.
BARRETTAnd there's also a personal protection in the rural areas that I don't think urban people necessarily get a lot of the time, that the nearest cop may be a half hour or more away. And that may be irrelevant to your personal safety, if it's a half hour. So I think that is a relevant part that, frankly, urban folks, city folks often don't register. And I think in urban situations, I think it's so easy to say, and I know I've certainly felt this as someone living in a city, that, you know, well, why does anyone need, you know, a nine-mil in their apartment on the Upper West Side?
BARRETTLike, I -- you know, I can't tell you how many times I've had that conversation with people, where they say I don't get it, I don't know what the point of that is other than to do harm that doesn't need to be done. And I think that's the view of a lot of folks in an urban setting, and I think that's why you see so much stricter gun laws in cities, because there's far less rational reason to have a weapon in those cities.
BARRETTI mean, you know, there was a time when I was a child when people had weapons in cities as for self-protection because people were getting mugged all the time, and one of the interesting facets of this debate is that as crime has decreased as a political issue, you've seen the gun issue sort of fade a little bit. And so instead of talking about gun as a crime problem, we now talk mostly about gun as a horrible, you know, mass shooting problem. And I think, I think that changes the debate, and I think frankly that weakens the debate for the folks who want to see more controls on it.
BARRETTWhen the U.S. banned machine guns, it was during Prohibition, to fight gangsters because that was viewed as a crime problem. I think it's harder to make this argument now on the issue of mass shootings.
KEITHA.J. Somerset, is that part of the -- is that sort of divide between urban and rural part of the difficulty of the debate, in that people have deep suspicion in both directions, probably?
SOMERSETWell, yeah, I think so. The typical profile of a gun owner is that they are a rural white male, and, you know, they're over 45 or whatever. But we have to be pretty cautious with this, as well, because those are stereotypes, and the gun culture is not monolithic. You know, the email makes -- the question is great. The gun culture is not monolithic. It's not one thing. It's really a multifaceted thing.
SOMERSETAnd the rural gun owner, sort of traditional gun owner, the hunter, is quite different in his attitudes or has been quite different in his attitudes from the new sort of, you might say the paranoid -- that's a bit of unfair characterization, but the sort of paranoid modern gun owner who's, you know, afraid the government's coming to take away his guns. They're kind of different people.
SOMERSETSo fear of crime plays into it and fear of government and all these different attitudes, and they're all different facets. I think that for -- the fact is that for most gun owners in America, these are not gun nuts, they're quite reasonable people. Most gun owners in America are simply people who like to go shooting. They may hunt, they may target-shoot or whatever, but they're people who like to go shooting. You know, they may also view a gun as a way of protecting themselves, but they're not crazy in the way that they're often portrayed in popular media.
SOMERSETAnd when we talk about the rural-urban divide, I think a lot of those typical, so-called typical rural gun owners look at what's being said about gun owners and really feel persecuted because they see themselves as being attacked as a bunch of crazies, which they're not. And, you know, to the email, I have my own perspective on this because I'm a hunter and gun owner. So when I hear people attacking gun owners as crazy, I have to quell my knee-jerk reaction, which is to be offended, of course, and start, you know, get past that in order to hear what's being said. And I think that people don't hear what's being said because they're busy being made angry by what is being said about them.
KEITHLet's go back to the phones, and Tom in Lake Norrell, Arkansas.
TOMYes, that's Lake Norrell.
KEITHNorrell, sorry for the pronouncer there.
TOMOh, that's not a problem. I appreciate your letting me on the air.
KEITHAbsolutely. Well, thanks for calling.
TOMI am a rural white male over 45.
TOMWell - and I have survived the guns, but I don't know if that's necessarily due to luck or what have you. However, in Arkansas right now there is a -- they're trying to reinterpret the Constitution, it's up in front of the attorney general, to make open carry, something that's been illegal, that is legal for the last number of years. And I'm wondering if I have any recourse, if I can possibly get them for creating a hostile living environment if they happen to see that law and reinterpret it in such a way that open carry is legal.
BARRETTI wish you luck in finding a lawyer who would take that case, but look, one of the fascinating things that's happening out in the country is that as the debate over guns sort of calcified in Washington, it has really spread to the state legislatures in a very intense way. And I think overall, I think you'd have to say that the tactical advantage for the last few years has been with the NRA and the other gun rights groups.
BARRETTBut the real action on this issue is going on in state capitals, and it's fascinating to watch how many states are expanding gun rights in terms of the carry principle, whether it's concealed or open. You know, there was a time when the notion, when laws said you either -- well, if you were going to carry, you had to conceal it so you weren't intimidating people. And there are other laws that say, well, if you're going to carry, well, you have to have it open because then people know you have a gun, so they won't pick a fight with you.
BARRETTIt's fascinating to watch some of these debates in state capitals, but that's where the action is in terms of policy and public opinion. Washington is mostly out of the game right now.
KEITHZach in Dallas, Texas, what's your question?
ZACHYeah, I just had a comment. If we look at murder rates and as they've fallen since the early '90s, and I assume they track relatively well with gun homicides, they've gone from about 24,000 murders in 1991 to about 14,000 last year despite the fact that we've added about 60 million people to the country. And so really someone is about half as likely to die of a murder today as they were about 25 years ago. And my guess is that most Americans would intuitively believe the opposite.
ZACHAnd I think one reason why that is is these sorts of mass shooting events often get sensationalized and sometimes not even mass shooting events but just certain murder cases or gun violence acts get sensationalized. And I think that in a way, that may feed into people's suspicions that they are in somewhat - some way likely to die by a gun that's owned by a stranger, which as a previous guest just said, that's very, very unlikely.
ZACHAnd I would like to see the media maybe shift their reporting to a little bit more of this macro view of things.
KEITHZach, thanks so much for your call.
BARRETTWell, I'll say this. I was a crime reporter in New York City in the early '90s, and you're absolutely right that the murder rate was phenomenally higher than it is now. I think one of the things that's going on when people argue about crime right now is you're seeing some upticks in the murder rate in major cities, and people are starting to question, so have we bottomed out now, have we found sort of the absolute floor of the murder rate, and now we're ticking back up.
BARRETTYou know, it is a function of the media, but it is also a function of politics, and it is also a function, frankly, of human beings that they will pay more attention to some murders than others. And I certainly own my part in that, but I think that's something that we all do in varying degrees.
KEITHI'm Tamara Keith, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I have an email here. It says, the UK's ban on handguns resulted in no noticeable decline in handgun violence, and averages stayed what they were at the time of the ban. Peter Squires, does that -- is that accurate?
SQUIRESNo, it's completely wrong.
SQUIRESWhat happened -- I mean, I did a paper in Denver at the American Association of Criminology conference in 2004. What we had was an emerging gang problem in the late '90s, and there was a brief uptick in gun crime, which is not the same as homicide. But what people were using were a whole range of things that you wouldn't even recognize as guns in the States, which were air pistols, imitation guns, ball bearing guns.
SQUIRESThat lasted for about four years, and then since 2004, there has been a year-on-year decline. We are at about 50 percent of the gun crime problem that we were in 2004. It's really down, it's consistently down and both as a result of new laws and I think better intelligence-led policing on the streets. So that information is -- it was right for a short period after 1998, but since then, gun crime has fallen pretty consistently.
KEITHDr. Liza Gold?
GOLDWell, I was just going to add that the same thing has been found in the United States also. If you look at the organizations that track gun laws, regulating guns, and the number of firearm deaths in those states, that guns -- that states that have stricter regulation of firearms have fewer gun deaths. And I -- it's a very clear, one-to-one correspondence. I will also add that internationally speaking, and when -- again, I feel compelled to bring up the topic of suicides since that's 20,000, two-thirds of all the gun deaths in the United States are suicide, that the means make a huge difference and that in countries where there were common forms of suicide, when that was addressed, for example carbon monoxide and gas in the UK, pesticides in parts of Asia, when those highly lethal and widely available means are no longer available, suicide rates go down, and there is not a lot of evidence for means substitution. In other words, people don't just go on and kill themselves some other way. The rate of suicide decreases. And so regardless of which way you look at it, putting more regulation on a highly lethal product makes that product safer, and it's been demonstrated multiple times nationally in the United States, as well as internationally.
KEITHPeter Squires, were you chiming in there?
SQUIRESYes, I completely agree with that. I was also reflecting on something Liza said earlier, about the law in Florida prohibiting doctors from getting involved in commenting on gun safety. I'm part of a working party of the UK police, which has been looking at firearm licensing in England and Wales. And one of the new regulations that will be part of the assessment of people's fitness to have a gun license will be some kind of authentication from a doctor so that the doctor can assert that someone has no record of mental illness and also requiring doctors to alert people they know to have a gun license if they start drinking heavily or other life events start affecting their personality and mental health, so two nations moving in completely different directions there.
KEITHPeter Squires, professor of criminology and public policy at the University of Brighton. We are running out of time here, so thank you very much. A.J. Somerset, the author of "Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun," Dr. Liza Gold, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, and Devlin Barrett, reporter on security and law enforcement for The Wall Street Journal. I'm Tamara Keith of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you all so much for listening.
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