Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Is the debate over guns pointless?

The matter of guns, gun violence and the endless gun regulation debate flares up after each mass murder. The body count this time is nine innocents. This debate is now routine. A massacre occurs, both sides reiterate their arguments, the press moves on, emotions cool and nothing changes very much. Meanwhile, about 31,000 Americans die each year from gun violence (11,000 homicides and 21,000 suicides) and another 71,000 are injured. Like it or not, empty debate followed by little or no change has been society's response over the last decade or two.[1]

Given that, it is fair to argue that the current debate over the slaughter in Charleston, SC is mostly pointless. To the extent any societal response occurs, changes are at the state level and new state laws tend to expands guns rights more than restrict. Despite the NRA and gun advocates belief to the contrary, federal law under President Obama has expanded gun rights. Meaningful new regulation, e.g., universal background checks to try to prevent insane people from getting guns, is nowhere on the horizon. That appears to be a consequence of deep public distrust in the federal government coupled with a polarized, corrupt congress.

Since congress is hopelessly gridlocked on this and most other issues, it is unrealistic to expect reasonable new federal legislation that might have some impact, assuming there is anything that can be affected for the better. With hundreds of millions of guns in American society, criminals, haters and most insane people can usually get guns if they want them. Maybe it is too late to do anything in service to the public interest. If that is true, calls for any additional gun regulation are pointless.

Gun advocates, the NRA and gun manufacturers use every mass killing incident as a rationale to reduce gun restrictions so that good guys with guns can shoot bad guys (with guns) who are doing bad things. That logic will probably never be dislodged, especially by the endless arguments the two sides ineffectively throw at each other. On this issue, as most others in politics, the two sides are simply talking past each other with little or no policy impacts.

Where's the data?
There is a discouraging aspect of this issue. Federal funds for research on the public health impact of gun violence cannot be obtained in practice. Researchers fear career damage from venturing into the political morass. Research is at a standstill and has been halted since 1996 due mostly to conservative opposition. The American public cannot truly know or assess the overall impact of guns on public health. This situation reflects the profoundly corrupt nature of politics[2] under the two-party system. Special interests including the NRA and gun manufacturers have effectively blocked federal funding for gun violence research since 1996, presumably because they fear the data may show guns and gun use to carry costs that are far higher than the benefits. Some of limited data that is available suggests that at least in domestic settings guns are a harmful influence: "Rather than confer protection, guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance."[3]

Under the circumstances, the current debate over gun violence is pointless on three grounds: First, both sides in the gun debate point to the same data and draw opposite conclusions about what policy choices make sense - neither side budges. Second, even if most Americans were to prefer an arguably reasonable new law, e.g., universal background checks, special interest money effectively blocks that. Finally, since rigorous, unbiased research is not available to the American public and policy makers, the debate is based on assumptions about public health impacts that are simply not known.

1. Dissident Politics (DP) is not arguing here for any additional new gun law or restriction. DP is arguing (1) that the current debate is empty and pointless and (2) for an honest debate that is based on transparent research, unspun facts and unbiased logic to fairly assess the good and bad public health impacts of guns in American society. It is possible that even without the corrupting influence of gun money on the two-party system, most Americans would want to keep the laws more or less the same despite the knowledge that the costs, about 31 thousand deaths and about 71 thousand injuries plus associated medical and law enforcement costs, are acceptable. That could be true even if unbiased research shows the costs are high and the benefits amount to very few or no lives saved, very little or no crime prevented and much personal satisfaction or feelings of security with gun ownership. That is a possible outcome. Americans more or less now accept about 88,000 alcohol-related deaths and about 480,000 cigarette-related deaths each year, so logically, Americans might be willing to accept a high-cost, low-benefit gun situation.
2. Dissident Politics defines political corruption to include serving special interest demands at the expense of the public interest. That definition accords with U.S. laws that were passed over 100 years ago. Corruption of governments by special interest money is a millennia-old phenomenon. Under the current two-party system, special interest money has sufficiently more influence than service to the public interest that the system is fundamentally corrupt, in DP opinion. Research supports the opinion that special interest money in politics has far more influence on policy than what the American people want or the public interest would reasonably require: “Our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts.”
3. Calls to restart federal funding on this issue are likely to fail. That too, reflects the domination of the public interest by special interest money. Given the power of the NRA and gun manufacturers, it is very unlikely that federally funded research can be restarted any time soon. Maybe the best that can be done is to identify public interest funding for rigorous, unbiased research on the true costs (murders, injuries, suicides, etc.) and benefits (personal security, psychological well-being, bad guys shot dead or incapacitated, etc.) of gun ownership and use in American society. Only that kind of analysis will reveal the scope of the public health impacts, good and bad, of gun violence. If the costs are shown to be very high relative to the benefits, which is probably the case, that just might foster an informed, but commensurate, societal response.

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