Some people, according to the federal government, are more dangerous than others. Among those so designated are convicted felons, fugitives, drug addicts and people prone to domestic violence. All are prohibited, under federal law, from owning a gun.
The government’s power to restrict gun ownership has limits. At the same time, authorities have an obligation to protect society from the scourge of gun violence. And as it turns out, the list of "People Who Should Not Be Allowed to Possess a Gun" may be inadequate.
That’s one conclusion from a new study that identifies specific criteria that increase a person’s risk of committing gun violence. Being convicted of a violent misdemeanor is one, for instance. As are two or more convictions in five years for drunk driving or drug possession. And so is being subject to a temporary restraining order for domestic violence (the federal standard is a permanent restraining order).
What to do with such data? The researchers, a collection of gun violence scholars at major universities who call themselves the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy, recommend temporary prohibitions on gun possession of up to 10 years for anyone who matches one of the risk profiles. (Similarly, they call for a temporary prohibition on gun possession by anyone who has recently been hospitalized involuntarily -- another sizable risk factor.)
By restricting access to firearms for everyone in the designated groups, the consortium contends, lives will be saved. Yet it’s also true that such restrictions would inhibit the constitutional rights of many people who would never commit gun violence.
So is the loss of individual rights worth the increase in public safety?
Possibly. More important, at this juncture, is to debate the question. For too long, research into gun violence has been starved of funds by legislators beholden to the gun lobby. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, co-founded by Bloomberg LP founder Michael Bloomberg, has estimated that public research funding for gun violence prevention is about $2 million annually. In 2011, for comparison’s sake, the National Institutes of Health spent $21 million studying headaches.
More research can help connect the dots on gun violence, identifying risk patterns. As evidence accumulates, Americans can weigh specific choices: whether to restrict gun rights for repeat drunk drivers, for instance, or to accept the increase in the risk of gun violence that such drivers represent.
Guns are a prime artifact and symbol of a fierce culture war. But perhaps not every issue concerning guns must be so contentious. As researchers -- and voters -- gain more knowledge about the ways and means of gun violence, there is reason to hope that more choices can be illuminated by facts and more decisions made by consensus.