Trials by firearm
More specific studies should be conducted to determine the best course of action regarding lessening gun violence
I REMEMBER, in elementary school, learning how to do a “lockdown drill.” I was told, along with my classmates, that when the principal’s voice came over the loudspeaker we would have to sit in the corner, away from the windows and the door. We were told to huddle as close as we could, but not to push or shove. We were told to be quiet — no talking, or you’ll have to stay inside for recess.
But we were never told the reason for the drill — the imaginary gunman walking through the halls with the assault rifle, jiggling doorknobs, peering in windows, looking for victims. Most children will never understand until they’re older why they are sitting uncomfortably in that corner in the dark. But they still have to learn and practice the procedure, without knowing the reality behind it.
Perhaps it is better that they do not know this reality. The shooting in Newtown, Conn. has prompted a discussion on how to protect not only our children’s safety but also their innocence. They are too small, too fragile, we think, to have to face the trauma of violence and intimidation, of death and grief.
But in order to spare them from tragedies like Newtown, the rest of us have to face them head-on. We have to muster the courage to ask the question: Why does this happen? Why have we come to live in a world where mass shootings occur, and where we have to teach our children to sit in corners in the dark?
A prominent question in the post-Newtown debate has been “what?”: What do we do to solve this problem? The National Rifle Association has proposed armed guards in schools; U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed a renewal of the assault weapons ban and more extensive background checks. But in the process of debating the proposals, everyone is losing sight of the more important question. It’s not “what?” but “why?”
Little knowledge exists about the effect of guns on human psychology. Since the mid-1990s, the amount of studies conducted by government organizations to investigate gun violence has dropped 96 percent because the NRA used its power to block funding for such research. Therefore, this debate suffers from insufficient information. Obama has called for more extensive inquiry into gun violence as part of his plan of action, and this is the most important part. Currently, gun control lobbyists and gun rights lobbyists are hurtling statistics back and forth at each other, resulting in a deadlocked conflict in which both sides believe they have the numbers to back up their claims.
In 1967, social psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage conducted an experiment that tested people’s aggression under two conditions — the presence of a gun and the presence of a neutral object. The conclusions were clear. The people who were provoked in the presence of a gun subsequently acted more violently. Such a study would seem to support a widespread ban on weapons in order to decrease violence. But in contrast, economist John Lott compiled statistics on crime rates and concealed-carry laws and concluded that when a county allowed citizens to carry concealed weapons, rates of murder, rape and aggravated assault declined. Lott’s findings would seem to indicate that guns should be readily available to common people to use for protection. So why do we have two scientific investigations yielding two different recommendations?
The answer lies in the methodologies. Berkowitz and LePage conducted a laboratory experiment in which variables were strictly controlled. But as a consequence, the situation’s realism was reduced; the experimenters could not say for sure that people in an everyday scenario would act the same way. Lott’s study involved comparing real-life statistics, but because he used no active experiment to control variables, he could not be certain the concealed-carry laws were the only cause of the drop in crime rates. If we only look at these two examples, we lack sufficient information to draw a conclusion about gun policy — not because these are examples of bad research, but because there is not enough research altogether.
That is why the gun-policy debate is incomplete. Scientific study requires repetition — multiple studies to support a conclusion consistently to guide us in the right direction. Some may think this process of experimentation will take too much time — that we need to take action now to preserve the safety of the American people. And indeed, that is a valid concern. But we must know how to keep people safe before we make our decision. The first answer you come up with — the “what” — is not necessarily the right one. Our time is better spent trying to figure out the “why” — exploring the answer by scientific means. And we can be sure that when we have the facts, they will lead us to the truth.
Katherine Ripley is an Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org