Toward a more focused approach to gun safety

Guns seized by Fresno County Sheriff in 2011.
Guns seized by Fresno County Sheriff in 2011. The Associated Press

Not long after learning that his initiative to restrict guns and bullets had qualified for the November ballot, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom put out a heartfelt statement: “Enough massacres, death, tears, and hate – it’s time to take action and save lives.”

True words, to be sure. Gun violence, here and nationally, is a lethal and horrifying epidemic, underscored again by the slaying of five police officers at a demonstration in Dallas Thursday night.

But like most of our national gun conversation, and through no fault of Newsom’s, such statements have come to feel frustratingly generic. Exactly whose lives are we trying to save? Which action would be most productive?

And perhaps most important, which shooters exactly are we trying to stop? Self-radicalized American terrorists, like Omar Mateen, who shot more than 100 people at a gay nightclub in Florida? Foreign-born terrorists, like Tashfeen Malik, who, along with her husband, killed 14 people in San Bernardino?

Severely mentally ill people, like Jared Loughner, who shot former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords? Sick souls like the 25-year-old who lashed out by shooting Dallas officers? Rogue police like the ones caught on tape in the ever-growing archive of lethal force abuses against civilians?

Or estranged spouses, or drunken louts, or despondent people who turn guns on themselves to end their pain, or drug dealers and thieves who seek financial gain, or gangbangers, who kill rivals and innocent bystanders on the streets of Sacramento and other cities with frightening frequency?

Americans talk about gun control as if it’s a one-size-fits-all solution to a one-size-fits-all gun violence problem. But that tack has largely gotten the country nowhere on public policy.

Gun abuse has so many permutations, and such entrenched enablers, that it defies simple solutions. Even in the face of tragedies like the Newtown school slaughter or the mass shooting in Florida, Congress is paralyzed.

A bill that would have prevented people on the no-fly list from buying guns fell apart, as expected, last week, a casualty of House infighting. Republicans couldn’t agree among themselves about what should be in the legislation. Democrats, with their proposal pretty much dead, read the names of gun violence victims on the House floor.

Universal background checks are vitally important. Criminals and people with a history of mental illness should not be able to buy guns. Nor should the relatively small number of people identified by the FBI as being suspected terrorists. That’s basic.

But this nation also needs a more productive and nuanced conversation about gun violence and gun control, one that moves beyond silver bullets to acknowledge multiple problems with multiple solutions.

California, with its years of leadership on gun laws and data collection, is in a unique position to lead that discussion – and to have it be based on facts, not rhetoric.

As early as this fall, some campus within the University of California system will open a new research center on gun violence. The center, funded modestly by $5 million tucked into the new state budget, will fill a desperate need that has existed since 1996 when Congress, at the behest of the gun lobby, all but prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from issuing grants to study gun violence.

Today, we have some ideas about which gun control laws work. But we need more than educated guesses. California, for instance, has the toughest gun control laws in the nation, and has seen gun violence drop by more than 20 percent in the past 15 years. Meanwhile, the national rate is unchanged. We aren’t sure why.

“Violence is a complex health problem, like heart disease or diabetes,” says Garen J. Wintemute, a UC Davis expert on the public health implications of the gun epidemic. “It’s all in the specifics.”

A UC research center, preferably at UC Davis where Wintemute and his team already are doing important work, will drill down into those specifics. It will be able to examine the effectiveness of existing laws, such as the state’s new ban on high-capacity magazines. Then researchers will be able to make evidence-based recommendations to the Legislature and to other states and communities.

These are the tools we need to take the gun violence debate to the next level. No gun control law will stop all shootings everywhere. But a deeper, more informed, more targeted conversation might at least give us the opening – or openings – to try.