Gun violence has not been far from our collective minds since the nation was shocked Dec. 14 by the shooting of 20 first-graders in Newtown, Conn. Now a New Year's Eve shootout in Old Sacramento has left two people dead and three wounded in our own community, bringing the issue of public violence closer to home.
Perhaps no one in the Sacramento region is better known for his research on gun violence than Dr. Garen Wintemute, who as director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program has spent 30 years on the job. Here, Wintemute talks about what he sees as three realistic expectations in gun policy changes that may drive the public policy conversation in the coming year.
>What's it like to be in your field at this point in time, when so many are so concerned about random public gun violence?
Since the Newtown school shooting, these last few weeks feel important in so many ways like this is why we've spent the last 30 years researching violence prevention. Think Pearl Harbor. There aren't many of us directly affected, now as then. But still, I have not seen so many people moved to do something. It hasn't been this way since 9/11. Columbine didn't do it; Aurora didn't do it. I think if our leaders are smart, they will see that people want something done and our leaders will do it.
>What sort of action do you think the public discussion will come to?
It's too early to tell, but I think all of the following three solutions will be possibilities, in order of importance:
First, we could see a nationwide policy that expands background checks to all sales, not just those made by licensed retailers. Here in California, we've had that for 20 years. But if you go to a gun show in Reno, you see all the cars from California and you realize it's still a problem.
In the rest of the country, 40 percent of all gun sales are not by licensed retailers. There's no background check, there's no record, there's no waiting period. The vast majority of people who commit gun crimes get those guns through transactions that are completely undocumented, anonymous and legal.
>What's next in your view?
Second on the list of things that could happen would be to extend the criteria for denial of firearms to people convicted of misdemeanor violence. Again, in California, we have that law but almost no other states do. Under federal law you are prohibited for life from possessing a gun only if you are convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor. But any other kind of assault? Nothing happens.
The other one denial criteria that could be extended is prohibiting people with a history of alcohol abuse from buying guns. Federal and state law are completely silent about alcohol use and gun purchases. Alcohol use is such a huge risk factor for violence. And California just doesn't address it.
>And No. 3?
Third on this list is the one that's going to get the most attention in the near term, and that's an assault weapons ban. Of those three, I think this one has a good chance of being adopted, and of those three, I think it's the least likely to have an effect. I am driven in this belief by the evidence, and the evidence here is as follows:
No. 1, large-capacity firearms, whether they are assault weapons or something else, are overrepresented in mass shootings. We know that ammunition capacity matters for mass shootings. But mass shootings are not common, and eliminating mass shootings would cause an almost undetectable drop of 1 or 2 percent in our overall rates of violent crime for firearms.
>So if Congress enacts an assault weapons ban, it may not have much impact?
The problem is the existing stock, not only of the weapons but of the magazines. There are millions and millions of magazines in circulation. If we ban new production or sales, we have to be realistic about what the effect will be.
But the alternative is something that would have a much lower chance of being adopted: That is, we don't just ban new production but we make the product illegal. We make it illegal to possess a magazine with a capacity of more than 10 rounds. Now if we do that, we have to have a buyback. That, frankly, is only fair. But it's also the only way such a proposal would even have a ghost of a chance.
That's what Australia did. They had a mass shooting of the order that we are talking about with the Newtown tragedy they had about 30 people killed in a country that has 10 percent of our population. And they decided to buy all those weapons back. They took somewhere around 700,000 weapons off the street in the 1990s and they have not had a mass shooting since.
>Do you feel like you would get tremendous pushback from the NRA and Gun Owners of America?
Nobody quite knows what role the Gun Owners of America are going to play. They are a small organization.
But we need to talk about the NRA in two respects. One is this: The NRA's positions as an organization don't reflect the priorities of their own members, let alone the general public. The majority of the NRA's members in public opinion polls are 65 percent in favor of restrictions in the case of alcohol abuse and gun ownership, and 75 to 80 percent for background checks.
It's going to take a while, but people will begin to recognize that the NRA is now more of a paper tiger. We could look back at this time as the beginning of a long term of decline of the NRA specifically and the gun lobby more generally as a political force. The organization has completely lost sight of its role as a steward of firearms in sports, in hunting and so forth.
>What do you think people should do?
There are a lot of people out there who are angry about Newtown who want to make a difference. An individual person needs to talk to friends. There is great strength in numbers. Write letters to elected representatives. People are deeply cynical about the power of a letter from a constituent but they shouldn't be. Those letters matter. Those letters change votes. Magnify that by all of us and something will get done.