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UCD expert: New federal, state laws can slow gun violence

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From page A1 | February 17, 2013 |

Garen Wintemute. Courtesy photo

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Who: Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program, and Amanda and Nick Wilcox of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence will speak at a free public forum. In 2001, the Wilcoxes’ daughter Laura, a college student, and two others were shot to death and two more injured by a gunman in Nevada City

When: 7-9 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Community Chambers, Davis City Hall, 23 Russell Blvd.

Sponsored by: Saving California Communities, which advocates for effective state and local governance, and the Yolo Local Mental Health Board

SACRAMENTO — Since the Dec. 14 shooting deaths of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, Garen Wintemute has penned opinion pieces, huddled with state lawmakers and fielded a stream of calls from reporters.

Speaking to The Enterprise in his office on Friday, three days after President Barack Obama closed the State of the Union address by urging Congress to vote on new gun measures, the director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program said he believes there has been a seismic shift in the debate.

“I don’t think the nation has been this mobilized about anything — anything — since Sept. 11,” said Wintemute, a professor of emergency medicine who also holds a master’s degree in public health.

Enterprise: You’ve written that it may be possible to rethink guns in the United States, but it would be the work of generations. What can be done now to reduce gun violence?

Wintemute: We have between 250 (million) and 300 million guns in this country. We don’t have to deal with all those guns; we can deal with the ones that are used in crime. There’s good evidence about that.

Not all guns are at equal risk. Hunting rifles don’t get used often, for example. Older guns are not at particular risk. It’s new guns that we’re interested in. So you can interfere in criminal commerce in new guns and accomplish something and leave all those old guns alone.

We also know that not all people are at risk for doing violence. That’s intuitively obvious, but it’s also been proven. And we also know that there are ways to focus on that high-risk group, and affect their risk of doing violence, and leave other people alone.

We also have the good luck to know that a number of those interventions not only are practical, but they’ve been shown to work at the state level.

We can deny firearm purchase and possession for people who are at high risk. Everybody agrees that that’s a good idea. We can absolutely expand the criteria for denial from what they are, proceeding on the basis of firm evidence not only that risk is high but the intervention is effective.

The assault weapons ban is problematic. (In 1994, when the law was passed), the thinking was, it’s likely that assault weapons will become much more prominent if nothing is done. We do know that the banned weapons decreased in their use in crime, but they decreased from a low point to begin with.

We got the approach wrong. We focused on the cosmetic features of the gun.

We were aware that one of the important features was magazine capacity, but we couldn’t do something about the magazine capacity of the weapons without also roping in lots of weapons that were not considered assault weapons. So we sort of left that alone.

We banned the manufacture of the magazines — I’m talking about federal law; we banned sales here (in California) — but we did nothing about the tens of millions of magazines that were already in the country or were on the way. So there’s this huge stockpile.

What happened with the federal ban is that banned firearms became less common, but their place was taken by non-banned firearms — the industry made a joke out of it — that could accept those same magazines.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see an assault weapons ban not be re-enacted but a ban on high-capacity magazines reimposed.

So banning the magazines looks like a more effective goal for those who seek stricter gun laws.

Without question. The hazard that those weapons present to the public, whether we’re talking about rifles or handguns, is related primarily to their ammunition capacity, to their rate of fire, to how many times you have to stop and reload.

(But priority) number one is requiring all transfers of firearms to go through licensed retailers. What it really does is require that all transfers of firearms involve a background check.

California’s not part of the discussion, because we’ve already got this, but nationwide, something like 40 percent of all transfers of firearms do not involve licensed retailers. They lie completely outside the safeguards that we’ve set up. That 40 percent doubles, at a minimum, to 80 percent for transactions made with criminal intent.

The new (proposed) policy would make it much harder to acquire firearms either for prohibited persons, who would fail the background check, or for other people who are acquiring guns with criminal intent. For them, they pass the background check but the record is a problem. It links the gun to them.

The other thing it would do is that we’d have a record for every transfer. When a gun is used in a crime, you can do a much better job of reconstructing the chain of ownership.

I’m not guessing about that — that’s what California does. If I’m a cop, I don’t just have the robber; I have the chain that brought that gun to that robber and maybe other guns to people like him. I’ve got two cases. And arguably the trafficking case is even more important.

You recommend denying ownership to those with a history of alcohol abuse, misdemeanor violence and some mental illness.

The literature associating alcohol abuse with committing crime or being a crime victim is too huge to go through. A third of people who commit suicide are drunk. A third of people who are killed in homicides are drunk. We also know that alcohol is a huge risk factor for committing violence.

The simple presence of severe mental illness by itself is associated with no increased risk for serious violence or with an increase that’s so small it’s not always detected.

But people who have serious mental illness and who have a history of alcohol abuse, or have a history of any other controlled substance abuse, or who have any history of violence to others or to themselves, or even making threats of violence to others or to themselves, are at greatly increased risk relative to the general population.

The problem is with the federal (gun ownership) prohibition, which has two tests: One is commitment to a mental institution. The other is that one is prohibited for life if one has “been adjudicated as a mental defective.” That language is offensive, it’s archaic and it turns out to be ambiguous. There’s real trouble knowing who’s prohibited and who’s not.

Twenty-two years ago, (California) expanded our denial criteria. Here, almost uniquely, a conviction for misdemeanor violence gets you prohibited.

The question is what happens with people who are arrested and who are diverted and go through treatment. I’m not sure whether that can be used as a criteria for prohibition. As a public health person, I think it ought to be. What that policy group at (Johns) Hopkins (University) I was part of recommended is two or more convictions or like events involving alcohol or any controlled substance in five years.

The National Rifle Association would like to see more guns in schools. Critics ask, “Where is the data on people successfully protecting themselves with a gun?” 

The data on mass shootings are all anecdotal because there are so few of them. The plural of anecdotes is not evidence. I have heard both “few” and “no” cases of a mass shooting being aborted by an armed intervention.

Arming the teachers: I defer that question to the school safety experts, but those experts are saying, “We don’t want guns in schools.”

From my own vantage point, I did some math. In 2012, there were four mass shootings in schools. There are about 130,000 schools in the United States.

Knowing the dynamics of a mass shooting, that gun has got to be immediately available to somebody who knows how to use it. What that means is that there are going to be guns distributed throughout the schools, all the time, because of this one in 32,500 chance.

Those guns are going to be available for all sorts of uses in the meantime. My concern is that armed violence could even go up as a result. I know that sounds paradoxical, but that’s what happens in homes.

Democrats in the California Senate are proposing several new gun laws. Which could be effective?

* Expanding (armed and prohibited persons system) enforcement (would) make a difference. Contacting all these newly prohibited people and saying, “You need to give up your firearms.”

* Expanding the denial criteria to include alcohol, I think, would have a major impact.

* We are contemplating setting up a regulatory structure for ammunition. Guns are the durable product. Ammunition is a recurring need. Why regulate one and not the other?

* (Banning) possession of high-capacity magazines. If mere possession is a prohibiting offense, people will either get rid of them or they will put them away deep somewhere. That reduces their potential for use, and that’s what I’m interested in.

— Reach Cory Golden at cgolden@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

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Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden
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