Broadening background checks before gun purchases and limiting private-party sales are two ways to reduce shooting deaths, UC Davis emergency room doctor Garen Wintemute argues.
“We need to prevent individuals with a previous conviction for a misdemeanor violent crime, such as assault and battery, from purchasing or possessing a firearm,” writes Wintemute, the director of the UCD Violence Prevention Research Program, in an opinion piece posted online Wednesday by the New England Journal of Medicine.
“We also need to develop better data and criteria that allow us to distinguish between those with a treatable mental disorder who do not have a history of violence from those with a history of violence or substance abuse.”
Wintemute writes that while mass shootings like the one that occurred Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., leaving 28 people dead, remain relatively rare, 88 Americans died from gunshots on an average day in 2011 and another 202 were seriously injured.
Though the United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, it is home to 40 percent of all civilian-owned guns — 250 to 300 million of them.
“They are not going away anytime soon,” writes Wintemute, who argues there are immediate steps that could reduce the number of Americans killed by guns, beginning with background checks. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, passed in 1993, has not had the impact its proponents hoped because it only requires that licensed retailers make federal background checks, he argues.
“Perhaps 40 percent” of gun sales are made by private sellers who are not required to keep records or ask questions about a buyer’s history. Wintemute, referring to hidden camera research he has done at gun shows, adds, “I have observed hundreds of these anonymous, undocumented sales; they can be completed in less than a minute.”
The number of would-be buyers rejected also should be increased, he writes.
Those with a previous conviction for a misdemeanor violent crime, like assault, are about nine times more likely than those with no such record of later being arrested for a violent crime. Those who abuse alcohol also have been shown to be more likely to harm others or themselves with guns, he adds.
Under federal law, banned from gun ownership are those “adjudicated as a mental defective” — a definition too ambiguous to be effective, Wintemute writes.
That and the spotty nature of data available for checks have allowed future mass killers, like the Virginia Tech University student who in 2007 killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on campus, Seung-Hui Cho, to pass background checks despite a history of mental illness.
State-level regulation is insufficient, Wintemute writes, because guns flow easily over state lines. California has banned private-party sales at gun shows, for instance, yet it’s not unusual for one-third of the cars at a gun show in Nevada, which has no such law, to have California license plates.
Support for tightening regulations on purchasing guns enjoys broad support, he argues, citing polls that show 75 to 85 percent of gun owners support comprehensive background checks and 60 to 70 percent back denying those with a history of alcohol abuse the ability to buy a gun.
In response to the Sandy Hook shootings, however, the National Rifle Association, the nation’s largest gun lobby with 4.3 million members, has called not for gun restrictions but for more armed police in schools.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, at a news conference on Dec. 21.
Spurred by the outpouring of public outrage over the Newtown murders, President Barack Obama has named Vice President Joe Biden to head up a task force on gun violence, calling for proposals by January.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has promised to reintroduce an assault weapons ban in January. Among its supporters are Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who is heading up a House task force on gun violence, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, who will represent Davis in the 113th Congress. Both also support a ban on high-capacity magazines.
Wintemute’s opinion piece also will appear in the Jan. 31 print edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden