Guns, Violence, and Evidenced-Based Public Policy

by Christian Ohnimus                                                                         Wednesday, March 12

There’s a lot of drama in politics. Big decisions on important issues are on the line, things get emotional, oh, and there’s a lot of power at stake. One stage where this drama plays out over and over again is guns. From agenda-driven, non-investigative articles to church fliers quoting the bible to promote gun giveaways there is a lot of noise out there . . . and not much else.

I find the controversy over guns to be concerning: not because I fear countless hooligans wielding guns in the streets, nor because I fear that the government will come and take my guns away but because it represents a distinct divergence away from reality-based public policy, both in practice and in debate.

My interest in evidence-based public policy began when I was in nursing school. There, we were taught the importance of “evidence-based practice” in the nursing profession. Evidence-based practice is important because it objectively demonstrates whether a particular nursing intervention improves patient outcomes or not. Naturally, if a nursing intervention was evidence-based, contributing to improved patient outcomes, then it was worthy of consideration as a tool to be used by the nurse in the care of his patients. If a long-time nursing intervention failed under scrutiny to improve the patients’ condition in any way then researchers recommended that the intervention be abandoned, no matter how ubiquitous its practice may be, and alternatives considered.

Such evidence-based practice is valuable in improving patient outcomes. So, how much more valuable should an evidence-based public policy be in improving outcomes for our nation? And, conversely, how much greater should we expect the possible detriment to be for policies with no evidence to support them?

My initial reaction: why the heck did we ban Little Red Riding Hood from schools for having wine in her basket and how does that “protect” children?

In a criminological study published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy entitled “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” the authors, Kates and Mauser, provide a wealth of information on the subject of guns and violent crime invaluable to the pursuit of an evidence-based public policy. I encourage anyone interested in knowing the facts to read the study in its entirety. Most notably, the study demonstrates that, while less guns correlates with less gun-related crime, a negative correlation exists between gun-ownership and overall violent crime, meaning that the higher the rate of gun-ownership, the lower the rate of all violence and, conversely, the lower the rate of gun-ownership, the higher the rate of violence in a given society. If this seems to defy all logic then it is because such facts challenge our preconceptions, which have no guaranteed foundation in reality. Such is the value of familiarizing ourselves with the evidence.

The authors elaborate and provide additional evidence until they finally conclude, “the determinants of murder and suicide are basic social, economic, and cultural factors, not the prevalence of some form of deadly mechanism.” This conclusion defies both ideological extremes in the gun control debate.

Looking at the evidence provided by Kates and Mauser one may surmise that both pro- and anti-gun-control camps are superficially correct but, ultimately, wrong.

If you support background checks you are Hitler.

More gun-control does correlate with less gun violence. Likewise, more widespread gun ownership correlates with less violence, including less murder, overall. A more thorough analysis shows, however, that while both sides can appear correct on the surface, both are in fact wrong because both arguments are simplistic.

That gun-control reduces gun-related violence seems only relevant if you are particularly terrified of dying by gun versus dying by any other deadly mechanism. This is because, while gun-control generally means less gun-violence, restricting access to guns results in either no change in the overall rate of violent crimes or actually correlates with an increase in violent crime. While evidence around the world backs this claim, Russia provides a striking example in which its populace has been almost entirely disarmed but their murder rate has steadily risen to the point that it is four times higher than ours. Needless to say, most Russian crimes do not involve a gun. However, stranglings and stabbings are common.

Additionally, while gun-ownership shares a negative correlation with overall violent crime the evidence does not exist to support that purposely increasing gun-ownership will cause violent crime to further decrease. Instead, the evidence strongly supports that the determinants of murder and suicide are basic social, economic, and cultural factors, not the number of guns in circulation.

In other words, widespread violence results, not from the introduction of an object of violent force into an otherwise peaceful society, but from a culture of violence in which people are intent on doing evil regardless of the prevalence of any particular deadly mechanism.

All these strawmen are wreaking havoc on my allergies.

Because the evidence backs the claim that murder and suicide rates are determined by basic social, economic and cultural factors and not by the prevalence of any particularly deadly mechanism far better than it does the typical claims of either the gun-control or the gun-rights advocates I would endorse an evidence-based public policy that does not seek to either a) reduce guns in an attempt to reduce crime or b) increase guns in an attempt to reduce crime but c) seeks to address the underlying social, economic and cultural factors that lead to a more violent society, most prominent I propose being the Culture of Death that Blessed Pope John Paul II so frequently warned us about.

Christian Ohnimus is a husband and registered nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Nursing from Franciscan University. He hopes to raise a holy family with the help of his better and more beautiful other half.

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