flag-at-halfIn the wake of the heart-wrenching tragedy at a Connecticut elementary school, many are calling for new laws restricting firearms, especially to the mentally ill. We have to step back and ask, “will any of the proposed legislation actually save any lives?”

Our hearts go out to the victims of the senseless school shooting in Newtown. Both my fiancée and I were moved to tears as the sadness and loss sunk in. All we can say to those affected is that we mourn with them.

Many, understandably wanting to prevent future losses, have proposed new laws. If 9/11 taught us anything, though, it’s that hasty legislation like the Patriot Act, passed while emotions were still high, can have devastating long-term consequences. Let’s look at their proposals, and what they might actually accomplish.

Proposal 1: Ban rifles and large magazines

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has made exactly this proposal, stating that she would propose a bill to “ban the sale, the transfer, the transportation and the possession” of assault weapons and any clip holding more than 10 rounds. Feinstein believes that such legislation will help save lives by making mass murder less efficient.

Will banning assault rifles save lives? The bill Feinstein will propose in January is a slightly modified version of a federal assault rifle ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. The bills are nearly identical with few exceptions for specific weapons. Looking back at those 10 years, the CDC compiled an in-depth report which evaluated over 50 studies on the issue to assess the efficacy of the ban. That report stated:

“In summary, the Task Force found insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence.”

In other words, we don’t know whether it works, but it certainly wasn’t a big win or a big loss in the “war on violence.” Some studies showed decreases, some showed increases in violence, and others found no effect.

It is at best irresponsible to pass a law on the basis of, “hopefully this will help, but it could make things worse or have no effect.” The concept of restricting freedom with no clear justification or evidence is decidedly anti-freedom. We must speak against the irresponsible notion of legislating guesswork or a senator’s hunch.

Proposal 2: A mental health evaluation should be required to buy a gun.

The man in Connecticut appears to have been mentally ill, as was the shooter in the recent Colorado theater shooting. Some have called for tracking those who have mental illness, others have gone so far as to suggest that anyone who wants to buy a gun should require certification from mental health professionals.

  • There is no foolproof evaluation to determine whether someone is mentally healthy, or whether they will be a month from now. Most people can act normal for at least a full hour.
  • Certification increases demand on current mental health professionals, limiting the time they can spend treating those who actually need help. There are fewer than 100,000 practicing psychologists in the U.S., and perhaps 109 million people living in households with guns. You do the math.
  • Mental health providers will become less effective if they are forced to be the mental health police. If they have to report and/or track patients who are mentally ill, many patients could be less trusting.
  • If a psychologist missed something obvious in the certification process, would they then be liable? Liability is always on the minds of healthcare and mental health providers and insurers.

Certification and mental health policing is neither possible nor effective. In the end, such requirements would do more harm to the mentally ill than good.

Proposal 3: Ban guns entirely

Looking at the news in America, nearly every European shouts, “this is why you don’t allow people to own guns.” Following the example of the U.K. and other European countries, one proposed solution is to simply prohibit citizens from owning guns.

Would this work in the United States, though? With hundreds of millions of guns already in circulation, totalitarian force would be necessary to remove them from circulation. As we have seen with the drug trade, prohibition breeds criminal control. If there’s one thing we don’t want, it’s for criminal organizations to be the sole supplier of deadly weaponry.

Let’s imagine that we somehow did manage to remove all firearms from the hands of citizens – cold, dead, or otherwise. What impact would this have on the reduction of violence?

Slate reported that murderers who use guns don’t necessarily kill more people. Those who use guns in their mass murders killed on average of 4.92 people, while those using knives, blunt objects, or hands killed on average 4.52. Again, aside from being impossible, controlling guns might not even be very effective.

The real solution

We need to remove the stigma of seeking mental health care. People need to know that seeking help from counselors and psychologists doesn’t make them weak – it makes them wise. Companies and individuals can also demand health plans that cover mental health.

The solution to violence in America is not more law – it’s more care and concern for those who need help.

Perspective check

Violence in the United States is actually declining. Despite what the doomsday pundits will tell you, things have been getting better for over 15 years! Below are the “intentional homicides” per 100,000 for the US since 1995:


Things are getting better!

If we’re really interested in saving lives, we should focus on preventing war. The violent death rate chart show the disproportional number of deaths caused by war. Notice the spikes and hills which correlate with wars:

United States Historical Violent Death Rate 1776-2008

If averages are any guide, 40 children and 260 adults have died in car crashes since the time of the shooting. Over 6500 have died from heart attacks and strokes. While less dramatic and less shocking, each one of these lives represents a parent, sibling, friend, or child taken unexpectedly from those who loved them.

Death is a terrible thing, irrespective of cause. Let’s maintain our perspective, and focus our attention on saving the most lives that we can. Let’s think about how we can make travel safer, prevent war, and cure/treat the diseases that take our loved ones quietly every day.