An Open Letter to Gun Owners:

Counter-demonstrator at March rally against gun violence in Annapolis, Md. (iStockphoto)

Counter-demonstrator at March rally against gun violence in Annapolis, Md. (iStockphoto)

I’m struggling to understand your perspective. I’m convinced most of you are good, reasonable people. I suspect that you and I have more in common than the gun lobby would have us believe.

Just as I’m trying to understand you, I ask you to consider the perspective of someone who does not own a gun. Three out of four Americans don’t, and two out of three homes don’t have guns, so there are a lot of us.

Here’s what might be hard for you to sympathize with: We non-owners believe we receive virtually no benefit from your guns. And yet we get shot by them. We don’t want to be intimidated by the guns that you bought, and we especially do not want to get shot by them. The Newtown tragedy illustrates the incredible social costs these guns can inflict.

Virtually every gun used in crime, every gun used to wound and kill, was originally purchased by a gun owner—and not just any gun owner, but, at least since 1994, someone able to pass a background check, an apparent “decent law-abiding citizen.” Every gun starts out a legal gun.

These guns are now used to shoot some 250 people per day—85 of whom die. Most of the deaths are to decent-law-abiding-citizen gun owners or their family members–who use the gun to commit suicide. But the people shot in crimes, and many killed, are gun owners and non-owners alike.

Every gun may start out a legal gun, but thousands leak over from the legitimate market to the black market. What I can’t understand is why you don’t seem very interested in figuring out how to prevent that leakage.

While individually, most of you secure your guns appropriately, a sizable minority does not—and more than a quarter of a million guns are stolen each year, many used to intimidate, maim and kill.

Worse, collectively some of you fight to prevent the creation of gun policies that could reduce the leakage that causes this mayhem. Such policies are in place in every one of the First World democracies and all have fewer gun problems than we do.

My state, Massachusetts, has stronger gun laws than most states; these laws are designed to reduce the leakage. Fewer criminals here use guns, and those that do, by and large, don’t get their guns from here. It’s too difficult. If our laws had no effect, our criminals would get their guns here. Instead, trace data indicate that most of our crime guns come from states with weak laws.

David Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

David Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Individually most of you report being in favor of many measures adopted by some states and the other First World countries that might reduce the crossover of guns from legitimate to illegitimate use. But you are represented by lobbying groups that prevent such measures from being adopted—and you give money and aid to these lobbies and you vote for politicians who vote in accordance with these lobbies.

Most other First World democracies have gun lobbies. But these focus more on hunting and shooting sports. Compared to you, gun owners in all the other First World democracies have acted more for the common good and the guns they purchase impose less of a cost on the rest of society.

Imagine that a minority of Americans are hand grenade enthusiasts, and you are not one. These grenade owners use their grenades for sport and hunting, and sometimes for self-defense. Also imagine that grenades are maiming and killing hundreds of American citizens each day—many of them non-grenade owners, like you and your family. Wouldn’t you want some reasonable laws to help ensure that you will not be blown up? What if many grenade enthusiasts sell their grenades to virtually anyone, with no background check, or they do not secure their grenades which are then stolen and used to blow people up? Or their lobbies fight against most measures that might reduce the grenade problem?

Individually most of these grenade enthusiasts are nice, decent, honorable people. You personally may not understand why they need their grenades—since most American adults and most adults in other countries don’t feel they need them. But they insist that since criminals have grenades, they need grenades to defend themselves. When you suggest ways to make it difficult for criminals to get grenades, they explain that criminals will always get grenades because criminals do not obey laws–so that any laws you propose, even laws in place in virtually every other country, can have no effect other than to burden them, the decent-law-abiding grenade owners.

Suppose these grenade owners claim not only that grenades made one’s home safer, but that more grenades made society safer, and that grenade owners are the ones that are keeping democracy safe? Are these grenade owners the people you would want to decide when a government must be brought down, or might you worry that some might be more like the Oklahoma City bombers? Further suppose their lobbies effectively shut down data dissemination and support for scientific studies–once those studies began showing that some of their claims might be incorrect?

Indeed, suppose their lobbies try to make it illegal for pediatricians to mention to patients that it may not be a good idea to have unsecured grenades in one’s home when kids are around. Instead, since grenades are being used to kill children in school, they want to arm teachers with grenades. Or at minimum, they want citizens with grenades to be patrolling your children’s school.

How would you feel about these grenade enthusiasts as a group?

That’s how many non-gun owners feel about you.

But that can change. If, as many of you say, you disagree with the gun lobby’s positions, please do something about it. Individually make your viewpoints known (e.g., on the Internet). Collectively, form groups that work side by side with non-owners to solve the problem. I’m convinced that together we can come up with thoughtful, sane laws and enforcement strategies that serve all our interests and keep us safer.

David Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He is the author of “While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention.”

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10 comments to “An Open Letter to Gun Owners:”

  1. Christiaan

    No amount of controls, laws, ordinances ad nauseum will do anything to stop ‘crazy’.
    The individuals, whether gun owners or not, that commit shooting crimes against people or property or wildlife are in effect ‘crazy’ at the time of the crime or it wouldn’t happen.
    Not discussing self-defense here.
    We simply have no way of stopping crazy from breaking out, at present. If all you owners and non-owners alike would instead put your efforts into making civilization civilized we could all live more peacefully.
    Legislation has never stopped murder, mayhem, gun violence or any of the other assorted manifestations of crazy.
    This would also obviate convoluted arguments that fail to address root causes of gun violence and misdirect legislative efforts from a sincere approach – stop making guns the world has enough for all of us.

  2. ds

    I am sorry to say, but the name of Harvard has been severely tarnished by the
    actions of many Harvard Business School graduates. The list of names of those
    involved with criminal dealings in the financial world should be pretty embarassing
    to anyone associated with the Harvard name.

    How about using your efforts to clean up your own house first? Then perhaps
    we could talk about gun issues ……

  3. ds

    How about lets look at the results of the Harvard Business School graduates have
    had on the economy of this country. If you want to be serious you need to clean
    up your own house (meaning the crooks that seem to come out of Harvard),
    before I will even listen to your diatribe …..

  4. Scott Hermann

    Jonathan, I’m just going to respond briefly to your long post.

    “Why on earth wouldn’t you use this piece of info to attack the anti-gun issues” 7% in the US, while according to the Home Office in the UK its above 50%. Just using the UK as one example for a widespread benefit of gun ownership.

    “P.S. I too am a gun owner; i just support regulation as I don’t trust most people to have a gun” – If gun ownership is a civil right akin to speech and/or voting then it must be available to everyone. Especially for those who are poor, uneducated, and the weak. The very people you seem to loath.

    “there is that 2.5 million crimes number….” Dr. Gary Kleck’s research has been peer reviewed at least 39 times with only 1 person disagreeing with those findings. Guns used for self-defense (2.5 million times) trumps even the 31,000 deaths or 500,000 times (NIJ) that guns are used for harm. A simple extrapolation of the expense you’ve suggested as “$31 Billion for easy figures….” is easily in the hundred’s of billions saved every year.

    “Think collateral damage,…” – I think in terms of civil rights. 2A is indeed a civil right.

    “I wish I knew more about what you mean.” – The limitations that were introduced soured the pot for dialogue. Magazine limitations? Banning the manufacture of certain semi-auto rifles? Those 2 ideas indeed are punitive. It is no more moral to punish an entire class for the behavior of one student, then it would be to punish all gun owners for the behavior of the few.

    “Are background checks punitive? Are they unreasonable? Why?” – They cost the consumer money, require taking time off from work to find a FFL and do paperwork, and are largely unenforceable. Its a level of Gov’t intrusion that is unwelcome with regards to the exchange of personal private property. Frankly, there’s a lack of ‘buy-in’ from the very people who have no incentive to comply. And make no mistake, massive non compliance would be the norm without an incentive (just as it already is within states that mandate the practice).

    “…You’re not an Alex Jones fan are you?” – Nope. You apparently aren’t as tuned in as many gun owners. Inevitably, any such information gathered can be misused. As has been done recently, and in the past with regards to guns. Confiscations in CA, and NY. Posting of information online (CT). And many other examples. Your ‘side’ so to speak constantly proves itself to be untrustworthy. And that’s not even mentioning the ongoing scandals both currently and with past administrations.

    “We need a dialogue about this as a nation.” – As far as I can tell, its been a national dialogue for decades. You may just not be listening to the answer being given.

    “If there were only data, there would be more gun regulation.” – Or less of it. Several studies including a recent Harvard study points to the conclusion that gun control has no effect on crime rates. In other words, at least in the US, there is no correlation. And the Harvard study began as an attempt to prove the opposite.

    “The question he is asking to gun owners is, why wouldn’t you be willing to fill out an extra form to save a person’s life?” – Short answer. No. However, if doing a background check was as simple as going online to the ATF, entering in one’s information, obtaining verification, and printing out a form for FREE that could be given to the seller, this would likely solve such an issue and encourage compliance. The seller would also keep the form as proof against criminal liability. If ‘verification’ is all that is desired, then there’s no reason to gather make, model, and serial number of the item being sold (or even if the transaction takes place. Then, buying a gun across state lines, at an estate sale, or at a garage sale, or at a gun show/flea market, or between friends/family and neighbors would be easy to do with verification.

  5. Jonathan

    Additionally, to your first question and probably the reason for the Doctors frustration is that there are mountains of studies to show gun control reduces deaths from guns including rspecially suicides. There is even one (done by Harvard) that talks about the substantial correlation between suicide rates and access to guns.

    Check out Harvard’s studies on Firearms. I got to it through a Forbes article but im sure its 30 seconds away on Google, a collection of cross section analyses and meta studies.

    Its not fair to say there is little data supporting non-regulation because it’s a case of what-ifs, but there also isn’t anything to counter already established trends understood by the rest of the civilized world pertaining to public health, vis a vis gun control. Thats why ppl like Dr. Hemenway get so frustrated. The public discourse is simply not on par with the academic one – like so many issues.

    The other side to his argument is either the intellectual equivalent of chirping crickets or, “well any action taken will inevitably lead to dictatorship.”

  6. Jonathan

    Well said Matthew but i do not and never have understood the paranoia of background checks equaling orwellian tyranical control that could only be stopped if more of us had revolvers. Why do so many of us say that the government is trying to take our guns? Where does this fear come from? If you can pass a background check, and if you purchased and used your guns legally, why do you refer to these “draconian” laws as an infringement on your individual right to bear arms? There is nothing in the law that comes close to taking yer guns away. One has to imagine that this is the goal and cite nazi germany or other ridiculous things. There is little to dispute the fact that the overwhelming majority of the country supports these laws and thought they were already in place. I just cannot fathom an equivalent reaction to a similar law, like where making sure hot dogs dont have rat feces means some conspiracy, the goal of which is to starve the populace to make us easier for the monilithic and hive-minded guvmint to leap out from behind the curtains and seize power. What is the source of this fear?

  7. Matthew Mabey

    The biggest question begged by this “open letter” is this: What leads the anti-gun people to conclude that any of the “control” measures that they have proposed will do anything to address the problem(s) that motivates them? Why should a rational person support a freedom-infringing law that will not accomplish its stated purpose?
    From that huge logical flaw in Dr. Hemenway’s “letter” let us move on. He doesn’t dare actually quote the percentage of those gun deaths that are suicides or what percentage of those that aren’t involve “innocent,” “non-gun-owning” citizens. By the time you take out the suicides (a mental health issue, not a law enforcement issue), the accidents (cars kill lots of people and even bathtubs kill people in accidents), and the crimes where criminal kills criminal, there are really aren’t many deaths. You could argue that one death is one too many. Personally, I think that one of the great ills and failings of our society is our blind quest for a zero risk life. It isn’t achievable.
    Those that oppose draconian gun control measures do so for a wide variety of reasons. Underlying it all, and the answer to Dr. Hemenway’s letter, is the fact that many (but not all) people in favor of gun control have as their ultimate goal the banning of firearms completely. Since gun control is a path that leads to that destination, many choose to not even take a single step down that path. The root of the problem is the extremists on both sides of this issue. To ignore the anti-gun extremists is to be truly blind to the real debate. Perhaps that is why Dr. Hemenway can’t understand those that disagree with him. Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to. Either way, his letter is disingenuous. Gun owners will tend to feel about him in a way that is similar to the way he feels about them. The key difference is that he wants to take away their rights and property through no fault of their and all they want is to be left alone with their constitutional rights intact. Isn’t freedom wonderful.
    I started out years ago in favor of gun control but opposed to bans. Over the years I have become more and more aware of how powerful and determined the gun ban people really are. That realization is pushing me to oppose more and more aspects of gun control. The reasonable goals have been corrupted by a pernicious ultimate goal.

  8. Jonathan

    Also, (I’m trying to help here) a good critique of this would have been: the way in which Dr. Hemenway presents his argument is… argumentative. It immediately accuses, separates groups, makes an “other” out of anyone who it is presumably trying to influence.

    How is anyone who identifies as the “you” in this article supposed to do anything other than blindly defend against the finger pointing and accusations?

    That said, the quintessential pro-regulation argument is put forth here. With the exception of some infinitesimally tiny fraction, all guns are manufactured legally in a factory somewhere (although that 3D printer thing will change this argument in the future) so let’s say all conventional firearms are manufactured legally. Yet there are crimes and suicides that involve guns. Something happens between A and C to go from a legal gun and the 2nd amendment to a dead person.

    Hemenway is trying to ask, why aren’t people interested in B, or (B1, B2, B3), etc? Loved ones die senselessly when we ignore B. Why doesn’t anyone want to figure out and stop B, even if it leads to an uncomfortable middle ground between absolutes?

    I empathize, but there is more to this than data. If there were only data, there would be more gun regulation. There is emotion, there is fear, there is self-righteousness, and lots of other intangibles in the gun debate. But what is lacking is an interest in the truth, only the dogmatic pursuit of what we perceive to be our salvation, the philosophical compass pointing to all guns or none and the zero sum tug of war that has come to exemplify this country’s political and public discourse.

    The question he is asking to gun owners is, why wouldn’t you be willing to fill out an extra form to save a person’s life? Compared to that, donating blood seems like herculean task undertaken by Mother Theresa. He asks this because many pro-regulation advocates suspect it is paranoia, and they see little espoused by gun owners to disprove their suspicions.

  9. Jonathan

    How does this only have 1 comment?

    “Home invasion is all but non-existent in this country while common elsewhere.”

    From the Bureau of Justice Statistics: ‘An estimated 3.7 million household burglaries occurred each year on average from 2003 to 2007. In about 28% of these burglaries, a household member was present during the burglary. In 7% of all household burglaries, a household member experienced some form of violent victimization (figure 1). ”


    Why on earth wouldn’t you use this piece of info to attack the anti-gun issues. Clearly there are two ways to go at this tidbit (more guns or less guns) but you chose neither. it took me less than 25 seconds to get this info. I suspect you are not concerned with things like this as it may complicate your world view. (P.S. I too am a gun owner; i just support regulation as I don’t trust most people to have a gun).

    “I would speculate this isn’t be accident. Dr. Hemenway also forgets the lives saved, property not damaged, hospital bill not incurred. That’s hundreds of billions/year saved on the taxpayer.”

    31,000 people die from firearm deaths each year (this was pulled together in <2.5 mins from the CDC). An actuary might tabulate that in dollars at around $31 Billion for easy figures. I could not find anything methodologically *credible* about damage prevented. There are corollaries that look at other countries and try to control for regional differences and there is that 2.5 million crimes number, but neither seems very applicable or academically motivated and each points in the opposite direction as the other.

    "Love the grenade strawman."

    Yes, its a strawman, but about as good as one can be. Not completely applicable but worth illuminating the different facets of the debate. Think collateral damage, think about who you trust to own a grenade: everyone, or just some people? Think about how a grenade encapsulates the issue of collateral damage and unintended, tragic outcomes.

    "Gun control advocates continue to argue for punitive laws instead of trying to be reasonable."

    I wish I knew more about what you mean. Are background checks punitive? Are they unreasonable? Why?

    "The govt time and time again proves it can’t be trusted with information."

    …You're not an Alex Jones fan are you?

    That’s about as simple as I can make it.

    Expound, please. We need a dialogue about this as a nation.

  10. Scott Hermann

    “We non-owners believe we receive virtually no benefit from your guns.” – Home invasion is all but non-existent in this country while common elsewhere. I would speculate this isn’t be accident. Dr. Hemenway also forgets the lives saved, property not damaged, hospital bill not incurred. That’s hundreds of billions/year saved on the taxpayer.

    Love the grenade strawman.

    A lot of it is about tone and trust. Gun control advocates continue to argue for punitive laws instead of trying to be reasonable. The govt time and time again proves it can’t be trusted with information. That’s about as simple as I can make it.

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