Understanding causes, searching for cures to gun violence | St. Louis Public Radio

Understanding causes, searching for cures to gun violence

Apr 5, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Dear Beaconites --

In the long-running debate over gun rights and gun control, both sides use statistics as -- well -- ammunition. The latest volley came this week from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that evaluated states on several measures, including the rate of gun deaths and the strength of gun control laws. As Beacon Washington correspondent Rob Koenig reported, the study ranks Missouri 8th worst overall; Illinois came in 36th.

Critics called the study biased. They said the authors had cherry picked data and had failed to explore how guns deter crimes. Given this controversy, many readers may be inclined dismiss the study as yet another set of disputed statistics.

But the report contained one statistic -- apparently undisputed -- that I can't seem to forget. In the decade between 2001 and 2010, 7,525 people were killed by firearms in Missouri. As Rob reported, "That is almost 50 percent more than the number of U.S. combat deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, the study said."

Those who chronically disagree on the causes and cures of gun violence should be able to agree on three points.

First, that number of firearm deaths is appalling.

Second, we should aspire to be a more peaceful society -- one that can look back on that number in disbelief.

Third, we must understand the realities behind that number to make progress.

Missouri's 7,525 firearm deaths offer some interesting insights into reality -- and not just the lessons the Center for American Progress intended to highlight. One is that homicides account for less than 40 percent of those firearm deaths. More than 55 per cent were suicides, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.

That surprised me, and it might also prompt others to rethink their assumptions about gun deaths. Homicide and suicide reflect quite different motivations, and preventing them might require different tactics. Yet both numbers stem in part from the widespread availability of guns. That's an important factor to consider while searching for solutions.

A second lesson from statistics comes from analyzing the types of guns used in crimes. Assault weapons and high-capacity magazines often play a role in mass murders such as the Newtown shootings. But lowly handguns are much more likely to be the culprit in most gun deaths.

In recent weeks, congressional debate has focused primarily on preventing another Newtown -- a worthy goal, of course. But measures such as banning high-capacity magazines -- even if they do regain enough momentum to pass -- would not solve the handgun problem.

In coming weeks, the Beacon will be reporting in depth on gun violence in the St. Louis area. In our region, there's no shortage of news coverage of violent crime. Paradoxically, the more we hear, the more numb we become.

But there's a dearth of coverage that puts crime into context in ways that foster clear thinking about causes and cures. That's the kind of reporting the Beacon intends to provide. Rob's story was a small but significant start.

As Congress seems headed once again toward stalemate over how to address gun violence, there's little common ground among the public on cures and little common understanding of causes. The Beacon aims to explore both, giving you perspectives on reality that might pave the way for progress.