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All-or-nothing approaches to firearm safety have gotten us nowhere

FILE – Assault weapons are seen for sale at Capitol City Arms Supply on Jan. 16, 2013 in Springfield, Ill. Legal challenges to Illinois’ semiautomatic weapons ban began Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, with a federal complaint that the eight-day-old law prohibits “commonly possessed” and constitutionally protected guns and a state court pleading questioning the law’s exemptions based on a person’s employment. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

Data scientists seek to glean insights from data that can place issues of public concern into the appropriate perspective.

That being said, my recent op-ed in The Hill,What the data actually say about assault weapons” fueled discussion that was more revealing about the state of semi-automatic rifles (or assault weapons, or tactical rifles or modern sporting rifles as they are known by some) than the data itself. 

One group of respondents were concerned that I was against such weapon bans. These people cited horrible incidences associated with these weapons, and that the only way to stop such egregious acts would be through banning them completely. Some argued that these weapons had no place in society, that they were military weapons. 

Another group expressed concern that these weapons were mislabeled and misrepresented by the media. They argued that such firearms are widely used by hunters and for self-defense. These also cited the right to own any firearms, based on their understanding of the Second Amendment

Then there was a third group of people who simply appreciated anyone reporting data that shed some light on firearm deaths in society in general. They also offered that some sectors of the media are highly selective in what they report about such weapons, to achieve a particular objective. 

The takeaway from all these responses is not whether these weapons should be banned, but rather, how contentious the issue is and how far apart the different stakeholders lie in their views.

Although there were a wide spectrum of perspectives, two diametrically opposed positions emerged: either ban or do not ban such weapons.

When comparing the issues cited within each position, it has become abundantly clear that the solution is not an on/off switch, but rather, a dial that moves between the two extremes. 

What does such a dial look like?

It permits access to such weapons, while providing restrictions that reduce risk in certain environments and under certain circumstances. Therefore, the focus is not on bans but on limitations. This is how universal background checks can play a role, which focus on the people rather than the weapons.

The challenge with such a nuanced policy is that both positions will be unhappy.

By metaphor, when a person drinks and drives, killing innocent people, is the seller of the alcohol held liable? No, although alcohol is a controlled substance with restrictions, like minimum age to purchase.

Is the automobile manufacturer held liable? No, although automobiles are designed with federally mandated safety features.

The person who drank and drove is held liable, and laws are designed to penalize and deter the perpetrators’ behavior. However, no laws exist that will end deaths due to drunk driving.

The schisms between the two positions means that little common ground exists.

A risk and benefit analysis for any activity or item is revealing. When benefits exceed risks, we tolerate the activity or item and place safeguards to reduce risk. When risks exceed benefits, we either ban the activity or item, or place significant restrictions to reduce risk. That is how automobile travel, air travel, prescription drugs and numerous other activities and items are evaluated and managed. 

With firearms of any type, both positions understand that there are risks. Where they most significantly differ is on the perceived benefits. The mismatch of what constitutes benefits with any firearms appears to be the stumbling block in the conflict.

Given this environment, the status quo with firearm deaths will continue, with suicides the single largest subset. Mass killings and mass shootings will continue to represent around 2 percent of all deaths, garnering the most attention, even though they account for a small fraction of firearm fatalities. Note that all such needless and avoidable deaths do not diminish their tragedy, particularly for those directly impacted. It just recognizes their relative number compared to all firearm deaths. 

No one supports inappropriate and unsafe use of firearms that lead to avoidable deaths. Everyone can agree on that point. What cannot be agreed upon is how to achieve that. 

If our society wishes to eliminate all automobile deaths, cars must be banned, an impractical solution given their benefit. Instead, we place restrictions on how automobiles are operated to reduce fatality risk down to levels commensurate with the benefits that they provide. 

Can we use the same approach to set sensible firearm policies that are commensurate with their risk and more importantly, on some compromised recognition of their benefits? Such a dialogue can be a first step forward in reducing avoidable firearm deaths, an objective that everyone can agree upon. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A data scientist, he applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.

Tags assault weapons ban Firearm safety Firearms gun violence Guns Mass killing Mass shooting Second Amendment Sheldon H. Jacobson

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