Mass shootings, such as the one in Las Vegas recently, are unspeakable tragedies for all affected directly, of course, and for society as a whole, which is left to attempt to devise preventative measures where possible. It also a financial risk factor for business and government, particularly around public events. In this op-ed piece, David N. Lawrence and his co-authors consider what they call common-sense measures around gun safety, which could reduce the number of such incidents and win support from all sides of this contentious issue. Lawrence is the founder and chief collaborative officer of the Risk Assistance Network+Exchange (RANE), and former associate general counsel and managing director at Goldman Sachs. Previously, he served in various senior positions with the United States Attorney’s Office.
On October 2, most Americans awoke to the news that the “deadliest mass shooting in modern history” had taken place — again. Overnight, a Las Vegas link was added to a chain of attacks that continues to stretch, but shows no signs of breaking. A shock, yes. A surprise, not so much. It was hardly a case of first (or will it be of last) impression. It can, however, be a lasting one — disruptive and transformative in how we can begin to mitigate this recurring threat, together.
The search for the right words to describe acts of “mass violence” has always been difficult. We default to “unthinkable, unspeakable, unimaginable,” as if these attacks were “non-recurring” items on our nation’s balance sheet. Time magazine even reported that following the Las Vegas attack, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary saw a spike in online searches for the word “surreal.” Its definition: marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.
What were the chances of a mass attack at a country music concert on the Las Vegas Strip — guns, cars, knives, pressure cookers or otherwise? More relevantly, ask the Vegas book-makers if they ever offered odds against this possibility.
In the words of Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man.” (And I still have plenty of places to go.)
As we reel from yet another act of mass violence, and the required calls for reflection and action, we remain the United States, Divided — locked and loaded in a partisan debate about gun ownership and the need to contain the darkest sides of human behavior. A binary line separates us into two camps, sealing (stealing) our identities as either in favor of gun rights or gun control, keeping us from the higher ground of our common good.
“The question is what can we do in the face of the recurring tragedies that have left citizens and officials alike feeling helpless and rightfully demanding answers?”
What We Can Do
The question is what can we do in the face of the recurring tragedies that have left citizens and officials alike feeling helpless and rightfully demanding answers? What can we do to break the zero-sum political contests that have driven only divisiveness, rancor and stalemate?
In the aftermath of the attacks in Las Vegas, one thing is clear. We still have no plan beyond offering “thoughts and prayers” and speaking out against “evil.” During the very week that the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded for proving Einstein’s hypotheses about black holes and the most violent events in our universe, we were reminded (once again) that we have no unifying theories for mitigating mass killings and the sinkholes that swallow a killer’s soul. As law enforcement officials explained about the Las Vegas shooter, all we may ever know is that someone spent decades acquiring guns and leading a secret life with secret thoughts that we may never understand.
Within this ongoing debate about foregone conclusions, our people have been positioned as competitors, not fellow citizens — and the Constitution as a source of conflict, not the embodiment of the values that hold us together. Growing suspicion from all sides — towards all sides — and a lack of empathy in addressing our shared concerns have thus far been our only lasting responses to these mass attacks. This need not be.
After 50 years of lessons and loss endured the hard way, there is a way forward to bridge our partisan divides and mitigate this threat and its impact. We, in fact, have the common ground and common-sense models to protect both our Constitutional rights and public safety. Change is possible. Best of all, no new laws required.
Here are two starting points for mitigating this threat. First, by all reports, a clear majority of Americans — including gun owners — just want common-sense policies to reduce gun violence, while not infringing upon (or demonizing) the constitutional rights of responsible owners. Second, our failure to protect our people and their rights has existed alongside the divides in our knowledge about guns in America. We presently have no centralized source for data that all sides can trust to inform effective approaches to mitigate the threat of mass violence. It is this scarcity of reliable information that has held us back, allowing the debate over gun policies to take place in realms where fact can be dismissed as fiction, fiction accepted as fact and inconvenient truths ignored by all sides.
Even though mass violence has reached epidemic proportions, we have failed to treat this threat, as we do other epidemics and issues of public safety, with scientific rigor, evidence-based approaches, collaboration and transparent impartiality. When it comes to risks such as disease and transportation safety, we have no problem acknowledging that we are all stakeholders. With confidence, we rely on the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) for prevention, response and recovery. When it comes to guns and mass violence, however, there is still no trusted resource for the data and expertise needed for mitigation and resiliency.
An Information Clearinghouse
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan had a basic rule when debating issues of national importance: “People are entitled to their own opinions. They are not, however, entitled to their own set of facts.”
This ongoing threat requires the creation of a Center for the Mutual Protection of Gun Rights and Public Safety that all sides can turn to — law enforcement, first responders, doctors, psychologists, researchers, policy makers, hunters, hobbyists, activists and the public.
The private sector can and must play an essential role in leading an apolitical “corporate responsibility” effort to protect people and communities. Social and commercial alignment already exists in the form of “impact” investment models that are addressing such pressing issues as climate change, human and civil rights, education, job creation, inner-city renewal and disaster response. As confidence wanes in governmental institutions, the public understandably has turned to business for leadership and solutions. For CEOs and celebrities alike, advocacy, action and social responsibility are now part of the job and the brand.
Fortunately, we have a proven leader and private sector model to guide this effort.
In 1731, Benjamin Franklin recognized that there was a growing need for Americans to resolve their differences around the most pressing issues of the day — from economics to social ills to politics to science. Unfortunately, people had little access to leading authors, philosophers and scholars. Books were too rare and expensive to be widely available.
“Even though mass violence has reached epidemic proportions, we have failed to treat this threat, as we do other epidemics and issues of public safety, with scientific rigor….”
To address this urgent problem, Franklin drew up Articles of Agreement for a collective library that would acquire and share the essential books of the time. Fifty founding members donated 40 shillings each to begin the collection, and pledged an additional 10 shillings annually to allow the library to grow. They hired “the best judge of books in these parts” to guide their selections. They chose a Latin motto for their library, to reflect their mission: “Commuter bona profundere deum est,” which translates to “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.”
Over a short period, the idea gained popularity. Libraries opened in numerous cities. Reading became fashionable. There was a trusted means to narrow disputes and make informed judgements. To this day, it is an essential resource for democracy.
Time for Facts
So where is our Franklin library for information about guns and mass violence?
It’s been our politics — not our research capabilities — that has kept us from the resource we need.
In the mid-1990s, Congress feared that funding at the CDC would be used to politically advocate for gun control. It adopted an amendment, authored by then Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, which effectively blocked federal funding for the study of gun violence. To this day, firearms owners still fear that research ostensibly carried out to study gun violence will be used only to advance agendas that want to restrict lawful gun ownership. “There is no shortage of biased, privately funded research that contorts the data to support gun control,” NRA lobbyist Chris Cox wrote in a Politico article titled, “Why We Can’t Trust the CDC with Gun Research.” Clare Foran of The Atlantic has reported how partisan suspicion has made it difficult to undertake independent and unbiased gun research — thus hurting all sides.
In the years prior to his death, Dickey publicly expressed regret for the unintended consequences of his own amendment. He explained that it was never meant to cut off research to reduce violence, only to ensure that CDC funding was not used for the political purposes of gun control advocacy. He further noted that the NRA was also unhappy with the status quo. He believed that they would partner in truly independent efforts to collect the data we need to inform our policies.
The need and opportunity for trusted information and expertise is now as clear and present as the danger of mass violence itself. The shared views of The New York Times columnists Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks (respectively, leading progressive and conservative commentators) reflect what is required to come together. We just need to get smarter and make our gun battles “less about ideology and more about the evidence that works.” We need to drop our sanctimony and intractability, and stop “wrestling with each other” and instead “grapple with the evidence.” We need a “grand synthesis” that can move us beyond our current political and cultural divides, “a synthesis that is neither redneck nor hipster but draws from both worlds.”
“It’s been our politics — not our research capabilities — that has kept us from the resource we need.”
To prove the point about our “missing evidence,” they and others have highlighted some surprising facts that contradict many of our operating assumptions and policies about guns and gun safety. (See List 1 below)
A Center for the Mutual Protection of Gun Rights and Public Safety could be our “grand synthesis” for mitigation and resiliency — bridging our divide about guns. It would serve as a collaborative clearinghouse — operated by “honest and trusted stewards” (Franklin librarians) chosen from all sides that all could turn to for reliable data, impartial analytics, trusted expertise, informed discourse and evidence-based policies. It would remain proactive and accessible in identifying emerging questions, sources of information, expertise, and potential solutions to advance responsible gun ownership and public safety. Experts already have a “wish list” of shareable topics in search of honest data. (See List 2 below)
We have the views that have divided us. It’s time for a resource that we can all live with. The private sector must speak out — and act out — to protect the greater good. Innovation is what we do best. In a world awash in data, technology and willing expertise — but also political stalemate and soundbites — our people deserve at least a Ben Franklin-worthy effort.
Because what happened in Vegas, never started — and will never stay –in Vegas.
- Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than in wars going back to the American Revolution. Two-thirds of these deaths, however, are due to suicides.
- The number of guns in America has increased by more than 50% since 1993, yet, in that same period, gun homicide rates have dropped by half.
- There is no clear indication that the assault weapons ban reduced shooting deaths for the 10 years it was in effect. (Even before the ban, assault weapons accounted for only 2% of guns used in crimes.)
- The issuance of approximately 13 million permits to carry concealed weapons has caused neither a drop in crime (as conservatives had predicted) nor a spike in killings (as liberals had expected).
- New York passed a law banning gun magazines holding more than seven bullets — without realizing that for most guns there is no such thing as a magazine for seven bullets or less.
- Forty percent of firearms in the United States are acquired without a background check.
- A Harvard study found that an increase in state gun legislation follows mass-shootings In almost all cases, however, these laws made it easier to buy or carry guns.
- Most proposed gun controls would not infringe on our freedoms; on the other hand, there’s not much evidence that they would prevent many attacks.
- The NRA spends a relatively small amount on campaign contributions, compared with the vast amounts washing through our politics.
- Our conflict about gun rights may be about something larger — a proxy contest between two sides that see their values under assault in a broader culture war.
- Guns are only one of the technologies with a correlation to — but not the cause of — mass violence. We’ve already seen what planes, cars, explosives, poisons and pressure cookers can do.
Understanding Violence, Suicide and Firearms
- What types of weapons are used illegally, where and for what crimes?
- How do U.S. firearm death rates compare to other high-income countries and what are the contributory factors? (See “U.S. firearm death rate ten times higher than other high-income countries.”
- What are the psychological factors that motivate gun violence?
- How can we better identify people developing the intent and capability to engage in significant acts of violence with any weapons, including firearms?
- What are the relationships between perpetrators and victims?
- What is the connection between mental illness and gun violence?
- What is the connection between addiction (drugs/alcohol) and armed criminal activity/violence?
- What is the nexus between guns and domestic violence?
- Would domestic violence be reduced by prohibiting those subject to restraining orders from possessing a weapon?
- What are the most effective ways to limit mass shootings?
- What is the linkage between gang activity and gun violence?
- What resources are needed to further objective understanding of violence and the intersection with firearms?
Understanding Firearms and Suicide or Accidental Injury
- What are the leading causes of accidental firearm deaths and injuries?
- How can we limit the crisis in gun-related suicides?
- What safety measures have proven most effective in preventing accidental gun accidents?
- What are the leading centers for gun and public safety research?
- Which laws and regulations have proven effective in reducing armed criminal activity?
- Which approaches have failed, and why?
- What does the data say about where, when and for what purpose armed criminal activity occurs?
- What has been the impact of harsher sentencing laws for illegal gun possession?
- Do open-carry laws make gun violence worse, or do they cut down on firearm injuries and deaths?
- How do gun laws impact black market firearm sales?
- What paths do guns take to fall into the hands of criminals? (Online dealership, gun shows).
- Do differences in gun laws across the United States, in fact, foster an illegal firearms market from states with fewer gun laws to states with tighter restrictions? If so, how has this impacted armed criminal activity? What can be done?
- What are the most popular weapons involved in black market sales — and in the commission of armed crimes?
Gun Ownership, Access and Lawful Carry
- What types of people actually own firearms and what type(s) of guns do they own? (The answers might be surprising to both the left and right)
- What factors motivate gun ownership — as well as the decisions not to own a weapon?
- Are there particular events that increase or decrease gun sales?
- To what degree do proposed governmental restrictions actually drive an increase in the sale of weapons and ammunition — including, amongst first-time owners? For example, see this Wall Street Journal article: “Gun Silencers Sell Briskly Before New Regulation”
- Have gun purchase waiting periods worked to reduce spontaneous firearms use for crime, violence or suicide?
- Have background checks been effective in keeping guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill and minors? What has been missed and what improvements need to be made?
- To what extent has gun ownership proven effective in protecting homeowners and discouraging intruders?
- Does the right to possess weapons on college campuses result in increased violence — or greater security? (Note: “In the eight states that have already enacted such a law, none of the predicted nightmares have thus far taken place.”)
- What does the data tell us about illegal gun possession by minors?
- Are there incentives that would encourage gun safety training and gun registrations?
- Is there a financial and social model for encouraging citizens to turn in illegal and unwanted weapons?
Enforcement and Policing Tactics
- Are existing gun laws effectively enforced, across all jurisdictions and in an equitable manner (or are particular populations disproportionately enforced/impacted)?
- What existing laws could we better enforce to reduce gun violence?
- Which policing strategies have worked the best and why?
- Which smart gun technologies work and for what purposes? At what costs?
- Can new forms of technology be developed to enhance gun safety?
- What technologies and methods are available to detect illegal gun distribution and possession — while respecting constitutional rights?
- What new technologies can help in the early detection of gun violence?
- What social structures or programs are related to decreased violence?
- Which community strategies and intervention programs have proven most helpful in reducing violence without additional regulations or enforcement?
- Can better public messaging and the use of social media prove effective in reducing violence?
- Would it help the political and practical discourse to understand the problem in terms of “gun safety,” rather than “gun control”?
Mitigation of Harm
- What resources and approaches have helped victims of violent crime to physically and psychologically heal?
- What resources and approaches have helped communities impacted by significant violent crime to physically and psychologically heal?
- What medical and psychological support resources and approaches have been most effective in assisting victims, witnesses and law enforcement/emergency services personnel impacted by violent crime?
Frances Townsend is executive vice president of MacAndrews & Forbes, national security analyst for CNN, and was formerly homeland security advisor to President George W. Bush.
Tim Murphy is president of Thomson Reuters Special Services. He formerly was deputy director of the FBI, and remains active in various public-private sector initiatives to address cyber and homeland security.
Gene Deisinger is the managing partner at Sigma Threat Management Associates. He has been a leading advisor to various universities, law enforcement agencies and corporations on the issues of security, mental health and mass violence.
Michael Lesser is the executive director, medical and mental health at RANE, and formerly served New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in directing mental health services and initiatives for public safety.
John Squires is a senior partner at the law firm of Dilworth Paxson, specializing in intellectual property and technology law, and he formerly served as chief IP counsel for Goldman Sachs.
Matthew Lawrence is a student at Fordham University Law School, and has been involved in researching and writing on a wide range of legal, national security and social impact issues.
The authors acknowledge the contributions of former RANE intern Elizabeth Squires.