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COMMUNITY VOICE

Brady's legacy: a spirted debate on gun rights and safety

Friday, August 8, 2014 - 12:01 am

James Brady, former press secretary for President Ronald Reagan who died Monday, was one of several individuals, including President Reagan, shot and wounded in the attempted 1981 assassination outside the Washington Hilton.

He later recovered and became an advocate for stronger national gun-control laws, including the famous 1993 Brady law, which, among other restrictions, required a five-day waiting period for purchase of a handgun.

Brady’s death, but more importantly his Herculean effort over the last 30 years to seek and enact tighter gun-control laws, is all the more significant after a series of public shootings, including the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn.

In 2013 the Brady Campaign issued its annual state scorecard, ranking all 50 states for their efforts, or lack thereof, in combating gun violence. Indiana earned a “D.” The Brady Campaign awarded grades based on several factors, including more than two dozen policy approaches toward enhancing gun regulation, including background checks, reporting lost or stolen firearms and prohibiting dangerous people from buying weapons.

As in most cases, awarding grades is a semi-subjective process. States with stronger gun laws naturally received the highest grades, and states with weaker gun laws obviously received the lower grades.

The question becomes, though, do stronger state and national gun laws mean lower incidents of gun violence? Well, again, as in most policy instances, it depends on several factors, including definition of gun violence, the method of reporting and whether or not a causal versus correlative link between guns and gun violence is found.

The U.S. has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. It also has the highest rate of homicides (by all methods) among industrialized nations. Over the last 20 years or so, gun crime has been declining. In fact, firearm murders are down, as well as total gun violence — all the while gun ownership and gun manufacturing is on the increase.

FactCheck.org reports that nearly 89 per 100 people in 2007 own at least one gun; this is up from 84 per 100 people in 2001. Yet, gun murders, gun aggravated assault and gun robbery are all at their lowest levels in years, while nonfatal gun injuries and assault and gun suicides are at the highest rates. Which statistic is correct?

In Indiana, the Center for American Progress reports that 709 people were killed in gun-related violence in 2010, with Indiana’s rate of gun deaths in 2010 at 10.9, which was above the national average. Indiana has the 18th highest rate of gun deaths among children, with 60 children killed by guns in 2010. Further, CAP reports that in 2011 Indiana was the leading out-of-state source of guns used in crimes in Illinois. In addition, CAP criticizes Indiana for its low rate of submission of mental health records to the federal government. And according to CAP, 89 percent of Indiana residents support universalized background checks.

Is there a direct causal link, between the enactment of strong gun laws and the reduction of gun violence? The answer: We may never know for certain — at least not scientifically certain.

On the one hand, it makes common sense to suggest that fewer guns means lower rates of gun violence — but we just ascertained that the reverse seems to be the case. On the other hand, gun-rights advocates say states that have conceal-carry gun laws are states where criminals will think twice before trying to perpetrate a gun-related violent act.

But how do we objectively affirm this claim? It appears that we cannot.

Several recent court cases, such as McDonald vs. Chicago (2010) and District of Columbia vs. Heller (2008), support the constitutional freedom to “keep and bear arms.” Even so, the tragic events of Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Columbine are fresh in the minds of Americans, and the images of dead children and teachers will not somehow vanish amidst the swirl of gun statistics.

Stephen M. King, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, holds the R. Philip Loy Endowed Chair of Political Science at Taylor University.