- The number of firearm-related deaths is increasing almost exponentially.
- There are policies which will reduce the firearm-related death rate.
- The American public wants fewer gun deaths.
- If the Blue states are willing to threaten to deprecate the Supreme Court’s judicial-political authority in America, we can reduce the number of firearm-related deaths.
Yet another mass shooting. Undoubtedly this horrific event will rapidly recede into the background of our consciousness in one or two days as it will be superseded by yet another mass shooting. And yet again, nothing will be done to end this recurrent and avoidable tragedy.
During the first 24 days of January 2023, Wikipedia reports that there were 45 mass shootings which had at least 4 victims.
The FBI tracks the number of gun incidents and classifies an event as a “mass murder” if there are at least four deaths. The event is classified as an “active shooter” if one or more individuals are actively attempting to kill people. Unfortunately there are no universal definitions and this leads to some variability in the published data.
The FBI’s 2000-2022 “active shooter” data is shown below and the near exponential nature of the curve gives us no reason to be optimistic about our future and every reason to believe that America’s nightmare of firearm-induced carnage will only get worse.
More guns means = gun deaths AND Few Guns = Fewer Gun Deaths
Both international and US epidemiologic data show that firearm-induce morbidity and mortality rates are proportional to the prevalence of gun ownership.
The United States is an anomaly when compared to other democracies as our prevalence of gun ownership is 6 fold above average and our per capita firearm death rate is 8 times the average. In fact, the United States’ firearm-related per capita death rate is 4 times as high as the democracy with the next worst mortality rate, Austria.
If we graph the “percent of adults owning guns” vs “per capita gun death rate” for each state, it is obvious that the firearm-related death rate is directly proportional to the prevalence of gun ownership.
Using a different dataset demonstrates that the states with the strictest gun control laws (CA, NY, HI, NJ, CT, MA, red dots with blue outlines) have a both a lower prevalence of gun ownership and a lower incidence of gun deaths.
In response to a horrific mass shooting in 1996, Australian politicians “enact(ed) a comprehensive suite of firearm law reforms” that included:
- a ban on civilian ownership of semiautomatic long guns and pump-action shotguns
- a market-price gun buyback program
- proof of genuine reason for firearm possession
- the formal repudiation of self-defense as a legally acknowledged reason to own a gun
- prohibition of mail or Internet gun sales
- required registration of all firearm
In an article published in a peer-reviewed, major medical journal, the author wrote “The ban on semiautomatic weapons led not only to a 16-year absence of gun massacres…(but also) to reduction in firearm homicides… (and to) … a ~60% decrease in firearm related suicides.”
A 2021 Rand report also assessed the effect of Australia’s 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) and concluded that “The strongest evidence is consistent with the claim that the NFA caused reductions in firearm suicides, mass shootings, and female homicide victimization.”
Both South Africa (2004) and Great Britain (1996) saw a ~50% and ~25% reduction of gun deaths after they implemented more restrictive gun control laws.
In 2023, Rand published a report entitled “What Science Tells Us About the Effects of Gun Policies.” It concluded that there was at least one or more studies which demonstrated a societal benefit from:
- Establishment of minimum age requirements
- Prohibitions of gun ownership associated with domestic violence (Red flag laws)
- Prohibitions of gun ownership associated with mental illness
- Mandated surrender of firearms by prohibited possessor
- Mandated background checks
- Ban on the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines
- The institution of gun licensing and permitting requirements
- Mandated gun purchase waiting periods
- Promotion of child-access prevention laws
- Prohibition against “shall-issue conceal-carry” permits
- Establishment of gun-free zones
- Elimination of stand-your-ground laws
Nicholas Kristof published an excellent and comprehensive, lay article in which he discusses the societal policies America could employ to mitigate the number of American firearm deaths.
Most Americans Want To Restrict Gun Access as a Means to Reduce Firearm Mortality
A 2022 NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll shows that a majority of Americans support:
- requiring background checks for gun purchases at gun shows or other private sales
- allowing police or family members to request that a judge temporarily remove guns from a person who may be a danger to others or themselves (Red Flag laws)
- stricter gun control laws
- banning the sale of semi-automatic assault-style weapons
This polling data demonstrates that the majority of Americans believe that the number of American firearm-induced deaths can be mitigated by reducing the number of guns in America and stricter gun control laws. Thus, our politicians and judges should prioritize the public’s safety over an expansive interpretation of our Second amendment “right of the people to keep and bear Arms”.
Our Options for a Safer America
Unfortunately, there are only three available paths which might ultimately lead to the societal changes that are needed to reduce gun violence in America:
- Federal legislation
- US Supreme Court rulings
- State legislation
The Federal Legislative Option
In response to every mass-shooting, many Democrats immediately proffer solutions to prevent the next mass shooting. The knee-jerk response from many Republicans is to criticize the Democrats for “playing politics” with the issue and then offering up their “thoughts and prayers” to the victim(s). The Republicans then attribute America’s egregious firearm mortality rate to mental health issues, a crisis of masculinity, video games, and/or violent movies, despite objective evidence that these problems do not explain why America’s firearm mortality rate is so much worse than comparable societies. The Republicans then plead to their donors that they need more money so they can overcome the “gun control” lobby. Soon thereafter, the urgency of the moment is subsumed by the next major news event and the Republicans revel in their successful PR campaign, well aware that their actions will ensure that more Americans will needlessly die in the next firearm incident, when the cycle will be repeated.
Clearly, our gun-violence problem will not be solved using Federal legislative option.
The US Supreme Court Option
Recent Supreme Court rulings, extra-judicial comments/writings by the Justices, and irregular appointments to the Court has delegitimized the Court in the opinion of most Americans. In Our Irrational and Activist Supreme Court I provide the supporting data for this conclusion.
Unfortunately, recent gun-related Court rulings (detailed here) have made it clear, the Court will prioritize “gun rights” over the health and safety of Americans and it will not help America reduce our off-the-charts firearm-related death rate.
As the Supreme Court has chosen to follow a dark path, I believe it is time for Americans and our political institutions to reassess our relationship with the US Supreme Court and its privileged position our society.
The State Legislative Option
As Congressional Republicans and the current SCOTUS have made it clear that they will do everything in their power to promote unrestricted gun sales, regardless of the mortality those weapons inflict on our society, we, the rational segment of America, have only two paths which might succeed in mitigating America’s gun-violence problem:
- The State Legislative option with an expanded Supreme Court
- The State Legislative option with a deprecated Supreme Court
The State Legislative Option with an Expanded Supreme Court
As the Republicans have long-ago done away with the historic norms of political behavior, the Democrats should play politics by the rules which now govern politics, not the rules that existed a generation ago.
We should consider expanding the number of Justices on the Supreme Court by 3 or 4 seats. As the Federal Court system is divided into 12 districts, expanding the Court to 12 Justices seems reasonable and would force all the Justices to moderate their decisions.
President Biden could, tomorrow, propose three nominations to the Senate, assuming the vote counters could guarantee that there are either 50 supportive votes or 49 supportive votes and 2 abstentions.
Laurence Tribe discussed the benefits and risk of expanding the number of Justices on the Supreme Court in an interview published in the New Yorker and opined that there were down-sides for both the status-quo and for expanding the Court. In the end, he did not proffer his preference.
Given today’s composition of Senate Democrats, I think it is unlikely there are the votes to expand the Court.
The State Legislative Option with a Deprecated Supreme Court
I believe that the most important priority for every government is to ensure the health and welfare of its residents. As neither our Federal politicians nor the Supreme Court will prioritize our safety over “more guns,” this primary responsibility of government must fall to our state politicians and, specifically, on the shoulders of our Governors.
Unfortunately, it is to be expected that if the Blue state Governors simply sign additional gun control measures, it is likely the Supreme Court will rule some/all of them are “unconstitutional,” as they did recently.
Thus, the quandary is to accept the status quo, which will certainly result in an ever increasing number of American firearm deaths, or choose an alternate path.
I believe the solution is for a confederation of Blue state Governors to proactively announce that their states will jointly enact “pro-life/anti-gun death” legislation explicitly designed to prioritize “a reduction in gun deaths” over all else and modeled on the Australian experience. The legislation will be written without regard to prior Supreme Court gun precedents.
If the Supreme Court chooses to void any component of this legislative package, the states will prevent the enforcement of the Supreme Court’s edict arguing that the Court’s decision is irrational and threatens the health of our residents. This will engender a Constitutional crisis that has the potential to forever diminish the Court’s place in America jurisprudence.
Given this scenario, I think it is extraordinarily unlikely the Supreme Court will allow itself to be put in the position of having to overrule the States’ gun-control legislation and the number of firearm-related deaths and mass shootings in America will decrease.
Hayward Zwerling, M.D.
26 January 2023
1/27/2023 Synopsis and conclusion revised for brevity and clarity
1/28/2023 Abbreviated the section on the Supreme Court and moved the argument to here.