The latest mass shooting revives the debate over gun control once more. Gun control advocates reiterate what they have said many times before, that gun sales need to be limited, that guns need to be kept out of the hands of criminals, of mentally unstable persons, that all gun sales need to be subject to stricter rules. Gun advocates repeat that guns protect their owners. Both sides cite scientific studies and facts that their opponents reject as unreliable.
When it comes to gun sales, gun ownership and gun control our political processes have broken down. There is no conversation. No one exchanges ideas, no one learns from others. No one is going to change their mind. Everyone just repeats the same positions over and over. As time goes on each side speaks louder. Opponents are shrill and more disrespectful. Nothing is accomplished.
In actual cases, the evidence is very confusing. When David Patrick Kelly started shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, TX a neighbor, hearing the shots, hauled out his own assault rifle and started shooting back. Kelly fled. Did the neighbor's attack on Kelly save lives? Gun advocates say "Yes." But that answer depends on hypotheticals: had the neighbor not started shooting, Kelly would have killed more people in the church. Can we be sure of that? No, of course not.
The example illustrates how uncertain facts are in many cases. The apparently indubitable conclusions both pro- and anti- gun advocates draw are often unjustified. Exaggerating conclusions merely serves to make a real conversation from which all could learn into a useless repetition of unsupported dogmas.
The question about gun safety has many different aspects. Who will be safer if they own guns? Against whom will guns protect us? Guns may protect us against robbers who invade our house But they also open possibilities of errors as when a father, hearing someone outside his house shoots his own son coming home, thinking it might be a robber. (Last year 1300 accidental shootings killed innocent victims) Will guns play a significant role in domestic violence? Women are regularly killed by the guns of husbands, boy friends, former lovers. (1250 women killed by intimate partners in 2000. Half of them shot by guns.) Guns are often used in suicides. (More than 21000 in 2013--two thirds of all gun deaths in the US) Questions whether gun owners attempt suicide more often, and succeed in their attempts more frequently are inescapable. Guns are often involved in gun accidents, especially, among children who find a parents' gun and playing with them kill a relative, not infrequently the parent who owned the gun.
These issues are being studied but the results are difficult to interpret. Different studies show correlations between gun ownership and domestic violence, suicides and accidents. But few causal connection have been established convincingly.
The efforts to get a better understanding of the role of guns is seriously inhibited by a 1996 federal law that prohibits federal funding of research into gun violence. The law makes it impossible for the two government agencies that keep track of the health and well-being of citizens--the CDC and the National Institutes of Health--to do any research having to do with guns, for instance, how to prevent gun violence, what, if any, are the signs that someone will attack a crowd of people.
Kelly bought his gun legally although, being a guilty of domestic violence, he should not have been able to get a gun from a legitimate gun dealer. The case is interesting: passing gun control legislation will not be effective if it is not enforced. After Kelly served his time for domestic violence, the Air Force should have reported this to the National Criminal Information database but failed to do so. It appears the military neglected to report most domestic violence convictions in the military. Passing gun control legislation may well remain ineffective.
Many people have very firm opinions whether every citizen should be armed or whether laws should be passed to radically reduce the number of guns owned by civilians in the country. Once we look at the different issues we see clearly that the certainty with which people hold their positions is unjustified. The matter of gun ownership does not only have to do with the question of security from home invasions or random attacks, it has to do with the role guns play in domestic violence and in suicides. It has to do with the number of preventable gun accidents that happen every year.
The correlations between gun legislation and security of gun owners, frequency of gun use in domestic conflicts and in suicides are often uncertain. Causal connections have not been established scientifically. There is a great deal we do not know about the advantages and disadvantages of private gun ownership. No one should claim to know that guns are good or bad for us.
The debate over guns is just one example of the deplorable state of our political system. Supposedly we govern ourselves. But in a world of complex issues on which citizens disagree, self-government requires that citizens talk to each other in order to discover the best policies in a given setting. Talking to each other means that we do not claim to know what we do not, but to recognize the difficulties of the problems we confront. Talking to each other requires modesty, a willingness to admit ignorance, to ask others for their insights and willingness to cooperate.
Let us begin by admitting that we are in no position to make strong statements about guns. Let us no longer claim knowledge where we are ignorant.