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Talking back

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Gun Control: Searching Down Under for Change to Believe In

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Barack Obama talked on Sunday night about how the children who died in Newtown could have been from Anytown America.

His words hit a resonant chord. Both of the given names of my two kids—Benjamin and Madeleine—were mentioned among the list of the dead children. "Madeleine," spelled the same way as my daughter's name, not Madeline or Madelyn. Sure, Benjamin and Madeleine probably grace the latest iteration of America's Favorite Names List, but their presence there also evokes a commonality of experience, whether in Newtown or New York. Just what Obama meant.

An address to those gathered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School auditorium might not have been the precise moment to detail the specifics of new policy. But everyone expects more and the administration has started intimating about what is to come.

A lot of the people looking for a way to somehow budge the eternal stalemate over restrictions on gun ownership in the U.S. have cast eyes Down Under. Australia's state and federal governments agreed to put in place strict gun control laws in 1996, just 12 days after 35 people were shot dead and 18 more were seriously wounded by a gunman in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

The legislation banned semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns, which were purchased back from civilian owners, removing more than 600,000 guns from Australia's adult population of 12 million. There were 13 gun massacres (the killing of four or more) in the 18 years before the 1996 National Firearms Agreement and none afterward. The law also reduced substantially homicides and suicides using firearms.

Just as would have happened in the U.S, gun advocacy groups jumped in to explain why removing guns from the populace doesn't help diminish crime. One tactic attempted to lend a scientific veneer to this line of argument. A study by members of the Australian gun lobby noted that, while firearm-related suicides had dropped from 1979 to 2004, the law largely made no difference for gun deaths and was only part of a declining trend that had begun more than 15 years earlier. David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard School of Public Health, and author of Private Guns, Public Health, wrote a 2009 article entitled "How to Find Nothing" for the Journal of Public Health Policy that documented why this analysis amounted to just so much statistical legerdemain.

The gun lobby authors in the British Journal of Criminology picked 1979 as the year to begin the time series—gun-related homicide and suicide rates were peaking in the late 1970s. They chose to ignore additional data going back to 1915, which would have shown that the law had achieved its policy goal of achieving a substantive decrease in gun-related deaths.

Hemenway and other critics also focused on another aspect of the analysis. The gun lobby authors compared what happened after the passage of the law with a hypothetical scenario of what would have occurred if the law hadn't passed—just as compilers of any time series would have done. But they made the faulty assumption that the falling trend line would continue indefinitely from 1979 and would actually turn negative by 2010. This "resurrection problem," as one critic termed it, would have meant a negative death rate—whimsically, those killed by gun violence would be coming back from the dead. Fine concept for a new cable series, not so good as social science.

Even if the actual death rate as tracked by the Australian government had dropped to zero following passage of the law, the counterfactual prediction (what would have occurred if the law did not exist) would have been lower, and the law could be deemed ineffective through this kind of specious analysis. Of course, statisticians try to avoid becoming theater of the absurd playwrights. One technique they use takes the logarithm of the death rate to keep things above the zero line and thereby eliminate any through-the-looking glass prospects. But the gun lobby authors chose not to apply this standard method. As Hemenway notes, "In statistics, as in life, it is always possible not to find what one is supposedly looking for, or in other words, to find nothing."

Why is all of this important in the wake of the Newtown shootings? Because the National Rifle Association undoubtedly operates the equivalent of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia's National Research and Policy Unit, where one of the authors of the study critiqued by Hemenway was employed.

The U.S. faces more imposing obstacles in coming to grips with its gun problem and so the statistical twisting and turning here is liable to become even more acute than it was in Australia. A 2011 letter published in the British Medical Journal by Simon Chapman, a professor of public health from the University of Sydney, observed that the U.S. had 14.4 times the population of Australia but 141 times as as many deaths from firearms in 2008 as Australia and 238 times the rate of firearms-related homicide. Buybacks have actually been tried in the U.S., Hemenway acknowledges, but have always been too small to make much difference. Moreover, guns were only surrendered voluntarily and replacement weapons were easily found.

An article in Slate on the Australian experience featured this disturbing quotation from an op-ed piece by former prime minister John Howard, the political conservative who was in office when the National Firearms Agreement was enacted. After the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting earlier this year, Howard wrote:

So deeply embedded is the gun culture of the U.S. that millions of law-abiding Americans truly believe that it is safer to own a gun, based on the chilling logic that because there are so many guns in circulation, one's own weapon is needed for self-protection. To put it another way, the situation is so far gone there can be no turning back.

A few rays of hope may be peeking through this "from-my-cold-dead-hands" intransigence. There were 18 "guns on campus" bills introduced in state legislatures in 2011, laws that, at worst, would allow a Glock tucked into a book bag alongside a Macbook Air and Introduction to Economics. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has emphasized that permissiveness for guns in academia would foster violence and put a damper on academic freedom (debate about climate change or intelligent design becomes difficult when a fellow student's packing). Campus guns could also undermine academic standards ("Sure, I'll up your grade if you'll just put that thing away."). The upside of all this relates to the decision of 16 of those states, including, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, not to pass guns-on-campus measures that went before state legislatures in 2011. (Five states—Utah, Mississippi, Wisconsin, Oregon and Colorado—now explicitly allow guns. In 23 other states, the decision to permit guns among the ivy is made by each academic institution. Other states have banned concealed weapons on campus.)

As the Obama administration and Congress forward legislative proposals in coming weeks, negotiations over what should and shouldn't be allowed for gun owners will be hard and long, and inevitably entangled with recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings broadening gun-owner rights.

In the wake of Newtown, Blacksburg and an extended list of other scenes of mass tragedy, anything that Obama and Congress can do to keep guns away from campuses and schoolyards would be a welcome addition to the essential requirement in any reform package to ban assault weapons, expand background checks and the like. All of this is a tall order because of this country's still-prevailing militia-head mentality. Whether John Howard can be proven wrong about the U.S.'s inability to end its love affair with a warm gun still remains a deep uncertainty.

Source: Mikael Ejdemyr

 

 

 

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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