Background Checks Alone Won’t Stop Gun Violence: Experts

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Rally to Prevent Gun Violence at Annapolis, MD in 2013. Photo by Jay Baker, courtesy of MarylandGovPics via Flickr

Although tougher background checks dominate today’s gun control conversation, they may not be enough to meaningfully reduce gun violence.

Three violence prevention experts say intervention, community-based public health programs, and decreasing the number of firearms are all required in order to yield safer cities.

“What we are seeing is that when you couple the background check requirement with a permitting or licensing system for people who want to purchase firearms, specifically handguns, we actually are seeing consistent findings of beneficial effects,” said Daniel Webster of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

Webster, speaking at John Jay College, said the combined efforts helped to reduce suicide and homicide rates.

But he told attendees at the 14th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America that he does not see compelling evidence that extending background check requirements to private sales alone measurably impacts homicide and suicide rates.

Webster, one of the nation’s leading experts on firearms policy, was joined on the panel by Stephanie Ueberall, director of Violence Prevention programs at the Citizens Crime Commission of New York; and Igor Volsky, founder of Guns Down America, a lobbying group.

Ueberall stressed the importance of responding to the community’s need to prevent youth violence and affect policy, by deploying what she called “credible messengers.”

The Public Health Model

Working closely with community-based organizations, the New York group helps local organizations implement public health models to stop shootings and killings. She described the credible messengers program as using people who have influence over those involved in violence to mediate, de-escalate and avoid retaliation through different measures.

Stephanie Ueberall

Stephanie Ueberall. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

“Social media has had a tremendous impact on young people involved in violence,” Ueberall said. “It’s a place to amplify and accelerate violence,”.”

Both Ueberall and Webster discussed violence prevention through public-health based initiatives. Though working in different spheres, both individuals stressed the importance of using data to understand trends, respond to need and dictate policy around what drives violence.

But Volsky argued that without clear goals, enthusiasm for the gun violence prevention movement would dampen.

“The research around the effectiveness of background checks is questionable,” said Volsky.

“Once Democrats have power, (do we) turn the page is by introducing a piece of legislation where the evidence is questionable?” Volsky asked.

Instead of working for a solution with questionable results, Volsky argued, it was better to set achievable goals.

Igor Volsky

Igor Volsky. Photo by John Ramsey/TCR

According to Volsky, U.S. popular opinion was strongly in favor of greater restrictions on guns.

“On this issue, all of the polling shows that fewer guns is incredibly popular, that gun licensing is incredibly popular,” he said.

“For us, that long term goal that the movement was fighting […] or was to build a future with fewer guns and make guns significantly harder to get. If you follow the research, where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths,” he said.

Additional reading: Americans and Guns: Are the Politics Changing?

Lauren Sonnenberg is a TCR News Intern.

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