Common Myths Too Many People Get Wrong About Gun Control

In the wake of the most recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, both advocates and critics of America’s gun laws have re-emerged. When Stephen Paddock opened fire on 22,000 people, killing 59 and wounding 597, he chose one of the most lenient states to do it. Police found at least 23 guns in his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. They found 19 other guns, explosive chemicals, and thousands of rounds of ammo in his car and home. As we continue to analyze this tragedy, let’s look at a few of the myths from both sides.

Myth: Guns are already well-regulated

guns in holsters

Gun regulations vary widely by state. | Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Many states do impose restrictions on gun ownership, but not all of them do. According to an article by VICE, one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history highlights the lax gun laws in Nevada. That state carries the 14th-highest gun death rate. It doesn’t require a permit to purchase firearms of any kind according to the National Rifle Association. Nevada also doesn’t require users to register them, allows open carry with a permit, and imposes no waiting period or magazine capacity limits.

Nevada also requires background checks only when purchasing from a licensed dealer. Gun sales between private citizens — including online — have no such rule. Not everyone follows these types of laws even when they exist. That brings us to the next myth. 

Myth: Criminals don’t follow the law

a buyer looks at a semi-automatic gun

A convention attendee looks at a Mossberg International 715P semi-auto .22 LR Pistol. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

By that logic, why have any laws at all? It’s also not universally true. One study found that over the past two decades, terrorists in the U.S. have basically stopped using bombs. In the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, federal legislation made it harder for consumers to obtain ingredients and and easier to monitor purchases. Instead, terrorists switched to guns. An investigation by the Trace revealed that firearms caused 95% of domestic terrorism deaths between January 2002 and August 2015.

Need more convincing? According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the higher the number of state firearm laws, the lower the number of homicides and suicides there. Many use this next related myth to keep the government out of it.

Myth: No law could prevent mass shootings

an activist holding a gun sign

A lone anti-gun activist protests as Second Amendment demonstrators rally. | Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, conservative writer David French denigrated stricter gun control. “The gun-control debate is nothing more than a destructive distraction,” he said. “Is there a single, viable gun-control proposal of the last decade that would keep a committed jihadist from arming himself?”

Actually, there is.

If gun-shop owners had to notify the FBI when somebody on one of the terror watch lists purchased a weapon, agents could investigate. Maybe they could even prevent the attack. Restrictions on magazine size, automatic or semi-automatic weapons or modifications would also mitigate the carnage. America’s gun homicide rate is almost six times more than the gun homicide rate in Canada. It’s more than seven times the rate of Sweden, and 16 times the rate of Germany, according to U.N. data.

In Australia, when lawmakers responded to a deadly mass shooting in 1996, gun-related homicide rates dropped by 42%. That country’s gun buyback program confiscated about 650,000 guns, resulting in lower homicide rates. According to IZA researchers, taking back 3,500 guns per 100,000 created a 50% drop in homicide rates. The next myth makes very little sense, when you think about it.

Myth: Guns don’t kill people. People kill people

gun range shooter practicing

A marksman sights in on a target during a class he took for an Illinois concealed carry permit. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Guns also don’t hold themselves, or pull their own triggers. According to a recent study by the Violence Policy Center, in 2012 only 259 justifiable homicides (when someone is killed without the attacker being subject to criminal charges) nationwide involved a citizen using a firearm. That same year, the FBI tallied 8,342 criminal gun homicides. In 2012, for every justifiable homicide in the United States involving a gun, 32 criminal homicides took place.

A Harvard study found that states with the highest number of firearms also saw a firearm homicide rate that was 114% higher than states with the lowest number of firearms. That same study found household firearms contributed significantly to the number of “guns used to kill people both on the street and in their homes.”

That brings us right to the next myth.

Myth: Users need guns for self-defense

Man sighting a rifle at a gun show

A man sights a gun at a Las Vegas gun show. | Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Gun advocates often claim that there exist millions of defensive gun uses annually. A study by Gary Kleck and Marc Getz, criminologists at Florida State University, authored that statistic. However, Private Guns, Public Health by Dr. David Hemenway, Professor of Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center debunks it. “This estimate … [is] the most outrageous number mentioned in a policy discussion by an elected official,” he said.

A study cited in the Injury Prevention Journal explains. “Criminal court judges who read the self-reported accounts of the purported self-defense gun use rated a majority as being illegal. [That’s] even assuming that the respondent had a permit to own and to carry a gun, and that the respondent had described the event honestly from his own perspective.”

The NRA often rolls out the next myth itself.

Myth: The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun

a pile of surrendered guns

A pile of guns at a Los Angeles gun burning event | David McNew/Getty Images

Most armed citizens fare worse than their police counterparts, largely due to a lack of training. In an independent study commissioned by the National Gun Victims Action Council, researchers placed 77 participants with varying levels of training through three realistic self-defense scenarios. In the first, seven of them shot an innocent bystander. Almost all of the participants in the first and second scenarios who engaged the “bad guy” got shot. In the final scenario, 23% of the participants fired at a suspect who actually posed no threat.

Of the 160 active shooting incidents identified by the FBI from 2000 to 2013, an armed civilian stopped only one. By comparison, off-duty police stopped two, armed guards four, and unarmed civilians foiled 21. The next myth makes a pretty broad assumption for its premise.

Myth: Shooters target gun-free zones

people at Las Vegas mass shooting

People run from the mass shooting in Las Vegas, a concert in an open carry state. | David Becker/Getty Images

Given that the most recent mass shooting took place in an open carry state, we can assume some of the 22,000 people there carried. No evidence exists that shooters target places because of a lack of guns. By contrast, most terrorists go after places with some emotional or psychological value. In addition,of the 33 mass public shootings in which four or more people were killed between January 2009 and June 2014, 18 occurred in areas where guns were not banned or had armed security present.

The next myth uses Hitler — yes, that Hitler — for its rationale.

Myth: They’re coming for our guns

cop clearing a surrendered gun

A police officer clears a surrendered Jennings Nine 9mm handgun at a gun buyback event. | David McNew/Getty Images

When some gun rights advocates say “they’re coming for our guns,” the cite a little-known law from a totally different country. The Nazi Weapon Law of 1938, is sometimes considered the beginning of Hitler’s rise to power. Some say it started by taking away the firepower of his citizens.

Think again. The 1938 law deregulated the purchase and transfer of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition. Hitler actually reduced the minimum age to buy a gun to 18 from 20, and extended gun permits to three years from one year. Although Hitler did ban Jewish citizens from purchasing guns, other people faced no restrictions at all. Overall, for the vast majority of Germans, Hitler made it easier to get guns. The next myth includes a basic misunderstanding of our Constitution.

Myth: The Second Amendment protects all gun rights

gun activists protest

Armed gun rights activists counter-protest during a gun-control rally outside the headquarters of National Rifle Association. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” The part about “well-regulated” is often ignored. As The New Yorker pointed out, “If the Founders hadn’t wanted guns to be regulated, and thoroughly, they would not have put the phrase “well regulated” in the amendment.”

Fox News reported that Michael Moore suggested a 28th amendment, imposing a few clarifications to those words. His suggestions included magazine limits, fingerprint-recognizing triggers, storing guns at a registered facility and licensing.

“Current restrictions placed on the Centers for Disease Control, due to successful lobbying by the NRA, have prohibited them from studying the gun violence epidemic in the U.S.,” he pointed out. “These rules need to be removed and the funding restored. Science will then be free to find out why we are alone among nations in killing each other at such a massive rate.” The final myth debunks a theory we use regularly.

Myth: The real issue is mental health

a button for background checks

An anti-gun violence activist attends a rally. | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

According to one 2015 study, “eliminating the effects of mental illness” would reduce gun violence by a mere 4%. Between 2001 and 2010, only 5% percent of gun homicides were committed by individuals diagnosed with some mental illness. That might speak more to under-diagnosing these illnesses than the shooters themselves. That said, gun violence and mental illness “intersect at the edges” but very little, said Jeffrey Swanson.

The professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University specializes in gun violence and mental illness. He told CNN, “Mental health stakeholders are loath to have this conversation about improving mental health care in a context driven by violence prevention, because that’s not why we need mental health reform per se,” Swanson said. “We need it because people are struggling with illnesses and they don’t have access to care.”

“The mental health community and stakeholders are very concerned about reinforcing the false association in the public’s mind between mental illness and violence, because that is a source of a great deal of discrimination,” Swanson said.

Swanson supports comprehensive background checks, but effective ones. To make background checks work, criteria for inclusion should be based on other indicators of risk, such as pending charges or convictions for violent assault, domestic violence restraining orders, or multiple DUIs. Swanson called these more reliable indicators of aggressive, impulsive, or risky behavior.

The more mass shootings America sees, the less we can disagree that gun control needs reform. We can get closer to that reform first by acknowledging and debunking many of the myths that perpetuate our current status quo.

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