Sound policies come out of constructive debates

Danielle van Dalen

Auckland, October 16, 2017

The best way to reduce gun violence is through stricter gun control policies, right? Well, perhaps, but not necessarily. A recent article in Washington Post shows that achieving lasting, positive change through policy requires an intellectual honesty about what the evidence says, rather than a knee-jerk response to tragic situations.

Startling discovery

Whenever we are talking about drafting law we need to be clear about what we want that law to achieve. Statistician and journalist Leah Libresco began researching American gun violence, hoping to pinpoint gun control policies that would be most effective in preventing gun deaths.

In a media environment where there is a lot of focus on the tragic mass shootings that happen with chilling regularity, she was surprised to find that two thirds of gun deaths in the United States are the result of suicide.

Ineffective controls

As a result, Libresco now believes that gun control policies are not the most effective way to reduce gun-related deaths; as these only target the availability of guns.

She points out, “potential suicide victims, women menaced by their abusive partners and kids swept up in street vendettas are all in danger from guns, but they each require different protections.”

Rather than focusing on sweeping gun control policies, she believes that more targeted policies will actually have a much greater impact on reducing these fatalities, suggesting initiatives like: offering better access to mental health help for people most susceptible to gun suicides, prioritisation of domestic abuse cases by police, and identifying and mentoring those young people at risk of violence.

Counter argument

German Lopez of Vox News rebuts Libresco’s argument. Lopez’s research found a relationship between the number of guns and the number of deaths in a community. Recognising that many more guns are owned in the United States than anywhere else in the world, he concludes that greater gun control policies are necessary, and would help. While Lopez’s argument is based on thorough research, it is important to note that he fails to mention the large number of gun suicides that Libresco outlines.

In doing so, he reverts to surface level policy suggestions based on total figures, and fails to see the value of the more targeted policies Libresco recommends.

His recommendation of stronger gun control policies may indeed be necessary for reducing homicidal gun deaths and mass shootings, but it is likely that suicide prevention policies will be more effective for reducing the large number of suicides by firearm.

Well-considered Policies

Whether you agree with Libresco or Lopez, together they have begun an important step in the process toward good and well-considered policy. Their dialogue is part of the kind of conversation that delves below the surface in order to find effective, well-designed policy solutions.

As in the United States, there are many issues in New Zealand where we want to see change. While it is easy to respond in frustration, calling for policy change that seems right, we need to resist the urge to just do “something” and take time to work out how to accomplish real, meaningful change.

Danielle van Dalen is a Researcher at the Maxim Institute based in Auckland.

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