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EP01 Xin Sheng Time | Are Gun Control Laws Useless to Bad Guys?

Host and Producer: Yi Ding

Guests: Charlene, Jeff, and JiJi Wong

Chinese editor: Jiangnan

English translator: JiJi Wong

Translator’s note: This piece was originally written as a Mandarin podcast script, published by our WeChat publishing partner New York Time on 7/6/22. The following is an English translation of the script.

Hello everyone, welcome to the first issue of Xin Sheng Time. I'm Ding Yi, a college librarian. I am the outreach director of Xin Sheng Time in my spare time. Xin Sheng Project is a political education and disinformation campaign platform. Friends of New York Time may have an awareness of Xin Sheng and me. Last year, Xin Sheng published an article of my journey with Xin Sheng when competing for the award set up by the first Gold Futures Challenge for influential Asian-American organizations. Thanks to your support, we were finally able to win this influential award that strengthened us. Today, I'm back with new content and a team, and am looking forward to connecting with more New York Time readers through voice.

Xin Sheng Project was born in 2020 when the epidemic broke out. Today, I would like to talk with you about the deadliest public health crisis in the United States in the past two years — that is, gun violence.

We’re talking about gun violence at this point in time because of a historic bill that Congress signed into law last week: The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. It is the most significant federal gun safety legislation since the 1994 expiration of the decade-old assault weapons ban, marking a major bipartisan breakthrough on the most contentious policy issue. The bill will include millions of dollars for mental health, school safety, crisis intervention programs, and incentives for states to include juvenile records in the national instant criminal background check system.

Why is this act important to us? Many Chinese friends around me who are concerned about politics do not pay much attention to nor discuss gun control. But I think understanding and discussing gun issues has a particular urgency for Chinese Americans. With Asians becoming the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, the gun lobbyers are turning to peddling to us Asians for support. In addition, we all know that anti-Asian violence has increased in the United States in the past two years. From 2019 to 2020, anti-Asian violence has increased by 145%. Within this, data shows an increased shooting homicide rate of Asians, so we all have a vital interest in gun safety.

Faced with the threat of gun violence, many people's first instinct is to arm themselves. For example, my husband - I have guns in my own house and many friends around me are discussing buying guns and even arming. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Asian Americans gun purchases increased by 49% in 2020 compared to 2019. However, although security is a topic that we are all concerned about and should have a say in, will the opinions and actions formed by intuition and online information be completely accurate and effective? With this question in mind, I chatted with a few friends around me and checked the facts.

In order to have a more diverse exchange of views, I specially chose one male friend and one female friend who both have different political views from my own - Jeff is a professor colleague at my university, and Charlene has just graduated with a JD and is about to become a lawyer.

Ding: You sent me a discussion with friends about gun control before. You said, "After regulation, good people don't have guns, but bad people still have guns." Can you elaborate more on this point of view?

Charlene: Because now our starting point is that gun rights are protected, so if we want to control it, it means that the US government must have a certain regulatory capacity to carry out strict screening, but I don't think the US government has this ability. Whether from the state or the federal level, including legislation, implementation, and fiscal point of view, I don't think this is a capability built into the US government.

Jeff: Gun control controls law-abiding citizens, so those criminals are out of gun control measures. I think it is basically ineffective for criminals, especially criminal gangs. Gangs have more access to guns than we law-abiding citizens.

So, Charlene and Jeff share the view that gun laws and gun control are almost useless to bad guys; to what extent is this judgment and concern warranted?

A pie chart illustrating gun deaths by intent with gun suicides at 59%, gun homicides 38%, shootings by police (1%), unintentional gun deaths (1%) and undetermined gun deaths (1%).
Pie Chart of Gun Deaths by Intent

After some fact-checking, I found this: Strong gun laws have been shown to reduce gun violence. States with stricter gun control laws do have an overall trend toward less gun violence. In fact, the 13 states that failed to implement basic protections had nearly three times as many gun deaths than the eight states with strict gun safety. I had another chat with Jeff with this data in hand, and he asked a good question about the difference between suicide and homicide.

Jeff: It is easier to use a gun to kill yourself, but to be honest, though it is unfortunate to use a gun to kill yourself, if a person wants to commit suicide, he will think of other ways to kill himself without a gun. So I feel that as an ordinary citizen, what is more directly threatening and painful for me is homicide, homicide in shooting.

How do we see the difference in these gun deaths? I took a closer look, and found that out of every 10 gun deaths in the U.S., 4 were homicides and 6 were suicides. Access to guns doubles the risk of death from homicide. So what about suicide rates? In fact, the gun suicide rate in the U.S. is nearly 12 times higher than in other high-income countries. Some people might say, like Jeff, that suicidal people will kill themselves and succeed with or without a gun. In fact, there are many facts that counter this: The American Journal of Pathology and many other studies have shown that most suicides are impulsive rather than thoughtful, and that 90% of people who fail on their first suicide attempt never commit suicide again, and access to firearms triples the risk of suicide. Gun suicides are indeed concentrated in states with high rates of gun ownership. That said, both homicide and suicide rates are strongly linked to gun control policies.

Earlier, we heard what seemed like a reasonable perspective: that gun control is useless against gun violence and gun deaths, because gun control is useless against bad people, and people who want to commit suicide will succeed regardless of whether they have a gun or not. This is an untenable point of view.

So, while gun control is useful for bad guys and suicidal people, does it greatly reduce the chances of good guys being able to protect themselves? Is this other layer of concern about Charlene and Jeff's view justified? For example, you may remember the Uvalde shooting that shocked the nation on May 24 this year. Salvador Ramos, 18, shot dead 19 students and two teachers and wounded 17 others at Rob Elementary School in Texas. Would this tragedy be prevented if the teacher had a gun? Allowing teachers to carry guns often seems like the most intuitive response; in fact, Texas enacted legislation in 2019 to allow more teachers to carry guns to "strengthen school security.". However, this was opposed by school safety experts, law enforcement officers, teachers, and parents. When teachers bring firearms into school, children are actually more likely to be exposed to those firearms, increasing risk of danger. There have been numerous incidents in schools where students found a staff member’s misplaced firearm and fired it, not to mention several incidents where school staff fired firearms on campus, intentionally or unintentionally.

JiJi, a member of Xin Sheng Project, recalls their own school gun violence experience after the Uvalde shooting:

“One day after dismissal, as we boarded the school bus, we heard a gunshot, which wasn't abnormal, but never at dismissal when we were outside in the open. We had gun control at school, but never protocols for being outside. The administrators, teachers, security guards, and our school police officers, they all just shoved us into the buses underneath the seats, not really caring if anybody was on the right bus, just yelling at us to wait it out.

We waited, I don't know, it must have been around like five minutes, though it felt like forever. And as soon as it was over, with no gunshots having been aimed at the school, though it felt like it at the time, we just continued dismissal as usual. I am not sure if the shooting was ever investigated, because we never heard news about it and my parents didn't hear about it until I told them. We never talked about this in class. We just had to accept that, this was normal, and this was okay.”

These true stories always remind us that gun violence affects not only the victims and their relatives and friends, but also the witnesses, many of whom are minors.

In fact, guns are the leading cause of death among children and teens in the United States. More than 2,100 children and teens are killed by guns every year. However, for children under the age of 13, these shootings occurred most often at home and were often associated with domestic violence.

A bar graph showing the leading cause of death for American children and teens, with firearms leading the graph.
Graph titled "Firearms are the leading cause of death for American children and teens."

Yes, the role of guns in domestic violence is another topic that is rarely discussed, but it has important implications for how we think about gun control. You may remember a shooting tragedy that was just published in New York Time. A 20-year-old mother was shot in the head while pushing her three-month-old daughter in her stroller in a very affluent and safe Manhattan neighborhood. Although the police are still investigating the suspect, the victim's mother said it was likely the victim's husband, who abused the victim and threatened to take her and her daughter's lives.

In fact, having a gun in the home makes women five times more likely to be killed in situations of domestic violence. American women are 28 times more likely to be killed by guns than other high-income countries. Every month, an average of 70 women in the U.S. are shot dead by an intimate partner and 20 women are shot and wounded. Nearly one million women have been shot by an intimate partner, and about 3.7 million have been threatened by an intimate partner.

It is for this reason that filling the so-called "boyfriend loophole" in the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act has enormous significance, that is, extending the restrictions on the purchase of guns with a history of domestic violence from legal marriages or de facto marriages to partners in other intimate relationships.

So, what kind of interventions have proven useful in stopping school shootings? This brings us back to the specifics of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. You may notice that this bill has a large investment in psychological services, which also sounds in line with the views of my two friends. So in what sense is this an effective intervention?

The first thing to clear up is a misconception about the role of mentally ill people in shootings.

Charlene: I haven't read any scientific reports, but it's a kind of general impression from the media. Every time this kind of thing [referring to a shooting case] comes out in the media, either the murderer kills himself and then commits suicide, or the murderer has serious anger management problems.

Indeed, media coverage of mass shootings reinforces the stereotype that mental illness often leads to violence. But studies show that most people with severe mental illness are by no means violent. In fact, mental illness accounts for only 4 percent of all violence, and even lower for gun violence. Therefore, most perpetrators of shootings are not mentally ill. We can also see this from the much lower levels of gun violence in other countries with similar levels of mental illness.

So is the bill's investment in mental health useless? Not really. First of all, mental illness is closely related to an increased risk of suicide, which means that people with mental health problems are more likely to be the victims of gun violence rather than the perpetrators. This has two extended conclusions. One is that the investment in psychological services will be important in reducing suicide in gun killings. Another is that the background screening for mental illness in the process of acquiring guns that everyone imagines is often unable to prevent most perpetrators of gun violence.

That's not to say, however, that addressing gun homicide in addition to suicide shouldn't focus on psychological issues. In fact, mental health professionals employed by schools may be the first to know when a student is having a problem or is at risk of turning to violence. Several studies have found that only 0.5% to 3.5% of students in schools that use threat assessment programs make or attempt to make threats of violence. Since 58% of school shooters have school ties — such current or former students, faculty, and staff — it’s important to increase early intervention training and investment at the school level. National Association of School Psychologists data shows a student-to-psychologist ratio of 1,381 students to 1 school psychologist: two to three times higher than the recommended 500-700 students, Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. It is of great significance to increase relevant psychological experts and resource early warning for schools.

Based on this, I think there are two more things we can do as ordinary people:

  1. Supporting safe storage of firearms starts at home, school

    1. In up to 80 percent of shootings, minors get their firearms from their own home or the home of a relative or friend, so it's important to practice safe firearm storage and encourage more school and parental attention. New York Time readers interested in learning more about and volunteering for nonprofits that help schools, families, and communities about gun safety, my personal focus is Moms Demand Action.

  2. Follow up and report any concerns in a timely manner

    1. Research shows that all targeted school violence has warning signs that others are concerned about, and even in 77 percent of the incidents, others knew of the shooter's plans ahead of time. In addition, the huge role of guns in suicide and domestic violence deaths mentioned above cannot be ignored. As ordinary people, we can actually prevent the possibility of gun deaths by being alert to the violence around us (whether it is against ourselves or others).

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is just a good start, and while there are already stricter screening requirements for teen gun purchases, if there is one thing I would most like to see next, it is a general increase in gun purchase age. The data shows that teens aged 18 to 20 are three times as likely to kill with a gun as adults aged 21 and older. The shooter at a high school in Parkland, Florida was 19, and the shooter at the Uvalde shooting was 18. Under federal law, they can't buy a handgun at a gun store, but they can buy the AR-15 assault-style rifle they used in the shooting because their state law doesn't prohibit residents between the ages of 18 and 21 from buying long guns. Currently, only six states require at least 21 years of age to purchase rifles and shotguns.

In addition, half of all gun homicides in the United States occur in just 127 cities, accounting for nearly a quarter of the U.S. population. Gun homicides are most common in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods. Therefore, addressing racial and economic inequality must be the most fundamental way to address gun violence in the long run.



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