How to reduce the toll from US gun violence
16:30 20 December 2012 by Peter Aldhous
New Scientist, opinion, visit http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23026
…[T]here is now a body of evidence pointing to what works, and what doesn’t, in reducing gun violence (Crime & Delinquency, doi.org/d66b69).
While political rhetoric focuses on gun control, the strongest evidence comes from community-based law enforcement. Best studied are the “focused deterrence” strategies promoted by the National Network for Safe Communities. These involve police and community leaders meeting with the criminal groups – not necessarily formal gangs – that in many cities are responsible for more than half of all gun violence. These encounters deliver a clear message: “We know who you are; we’re not going to tolerate what you’re doing, and here’s what will happen if you don’t clean up your act.” Help is also offered to street criminals who want to change their ways. In Boston, where the approach was pioneered in the 1990s, “Operation Ceasefire” was credited with a 63 per cent reduction in youth homicides. Similar efforts have spread to several dozen other US cities. Of 10 rigorous studies of their effectiveness, nine show statistically significant reductions in crime (Campbell Systematic Reviews, doi.org/j3d).
President Barack Obama now says that Congress will be sent a package of gun control measures by January. These seem likely to include a ban on assault weapons like the rifle used at Newtown, controls on the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, and eliminating loopholes that allow private sales of guns – thought to comprise 40 per cent of the trade – without any background checks on the purchaser.
Evidence for the effectiveness of such gun laws is less clear, and hard to assess – these are not controlled experiments and typically several measures are introduced at once, making it hard to tease apart their effects. Nevertheless, experience in California, which prohibited private gun sales without background checks in 1991, suggests that this may be a useful step. A new study of guns recovered by law enforcement conducted for the National Institute of Justice indicates that they move into criminal hands more slowly in California than in states with unfettered private sales. “Our ‘time-to-crime’ is longer,” says Garen Wintemute of the University of California, Davis, one of the report’s authors.
As for mass shootings, it stands to reason that removing assault rifles and high-capacity clips from sale should limit the death toll from individual incidents. Australia’s experience is encouraging: after 13 mass shootings in 18 years, a ban on semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns was introduced in 1996. It was associated with a reduction in overall gun homicide deaths – and there has not been a shooting involving five or more deaths since (Injury Prevention, doi.org/ff7gm4).
In the US, knee-jerk positions for or against gun control have until now won out over careful consideration of the evidence. In memory of the children who died at Newtown, it is time to put these divisions aside and begin a sensible, meaningful discussion about how to solve a terrible and complex problem.