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Researchers Explore How To Reduce U.S. Gun Violence Deaths


The mass shooting in Roseburg, Ore., set off a familiar ritual of mourning and recrimination. On Friday, while President Obama consoled the families, two more fatal shootings were reported on college campuses in Texas and Arizona. The debate about gun control is revived every time a mass shooting occurs. Every side agrees that no one wants to see more gun deaths. We decided to call some of the most prominent social scientists who study guns in the United States to see if there was any consensus on the subject of how to reduce gun violence.

PHILIP COOK: I'm Philip Cook. I'm a professor of public policy at Duke University.

MATTHEW MILLER: My name is Matthew Miller. I am a professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northeastern University.

DAVID HEMENWAY: My name is David Hemenway. I'm professor of public health at Harvard School of Public Health.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We started by asking is gun violence a problem in the United States? There was instant agreement. Here's Matthew Miller and David Hemenway.

MILLER: Yes, by any measure, anyway you cut it, the United States is exceptional in terms of our lethal firearm violence.

HEMENWAY: An average American is not, like, 20 percent more likely to be killed with a gun or 50 percent more likely. They are 10 times more likely to be killed with a gun than in France or Australia, Canada.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One possible solution to curbing the gun deaths is an assault weapons ban. We've had one in this country before. It ended in 2004.

HEMENWAY: We had this 10-year ban, but it wasn't a very effective ban because all the guns were grandfathered so could never have been intended to make an enormous difference in our gun problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But, Matthew Miller says, there's evidence that it can work if implemented correctly. Take the case of Australia.

MILLER: After a brutal massacre there in the 1990s, legislation was passed that banned assault weapons and a non-voluntary buyback of handguns and other assault weapons. And since that law was passed, there have been no mass shootings in Australia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Assault weapons are mainly used in mass shootings, but the most common gun deaths in this country aren't the high-profile massacres that get wall-to-wall coverage. They're deaths by handguns. And that brings us to the strong consensus on another issue.

Gun rights advocates talk about this idea a lot. The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. So we asked our experts, what do we know about the correlation between gun ownership and crime? They all told us, if you add a gun into any situation, the likelihood of it escalating goes way up. Here's Philip Cook.

COOK: Well, what happens in jurisdictions where there's lots of guns is that the criminals are much more likely to use guns in their robberies or in their assaults. And the result from that is an increase in the murder rate.

MILLER: Where there are more guns, there are more suicides and there are more homicides.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Matthew Miller.

MILLER: It's not like the scientific community isn't strongly backing these findings. In some ways, it's like climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2012, the death of 20 young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School galvanized gun control advocates. One of their ideas was universal background checks, and let me explain what that means. Currently, you do have to have a background check if you buy a gun from a gun store. But there are many ways to get a gun in this country. A lot of them are sold privately, at smaller outlets or at gun shows. Philip Cook.

COOK: The most recent survey of state prisoners asked how did they get their gun, only 10 percent of them said that they had obtained it by buying it from a gun store.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A universal background check would require checks for all of those legal sales, and, he says, there's some direct evidence of its effectiveness.

COOK: 2007, when Missouri repealed their requirement of a universal background check on handguns, what we saw was an increase in homicide and that the repeal had the effect of costing lives in Missouri.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We wanted to give each of our researchers the opportunity to tell us the one thing they would do based on their combined decades of study to help reduce gun deaths. Philip Cook answered first.

Is there one proposal - one practical proposal - you would implement to reduce gun violence?

COOK: Yeah, one practical issue that we should be pursuing is to develop and introduce smart guns or personalized guns.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain what that is.

COOK: Well, it is a gun that will only fire if it's in the hands of the owner.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: David Hemenway focused on the accidental deaths of kids who find a loaded gun in their home and take out the magazine, thinking it's safe now.

HEMENWAY: And there is a bullet left in the chamber, and for most of these semiautomatics, when you pull the trigger, the bullet shoots out. And you could blame, blame, blame or you could really solve the problem, as we do in lots of areas, which is by changing the product, which is make it so when you take out the magazine, the gun won't fire.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Matthew Miller's practical proposal doesn't require legislation or changing the product. It's just a simple message to gun owners - lock up your guns.

MILLER: Right now, there are people who have guns in their homes stored loaded and unlocked with the best of intentions to protect themselves and their families. But the reality is - and we know this from several good studies - that they're actually imperiling themselves and their families. The actuarial risk associated with a gun in a home means everyone in that home is at increased risk of dying by that gun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Matthew Miller of Northeastern University. Before that, David Hemenway of Harvard and Philip Cook of Duke University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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