Humanist EDge: More Education, Less Gun Violence

“Thoughts and prayers” can seem lovely if one is looking for emotional or spiritual support after a shooting. But to actually end gun violence—which should be every humanist’s goal—we need the knowledge to make informed decisions and take real action. We are too distracted by the argument of “give more people more guns” versus “take all guns away from everyone.” We should be putting more knowledge and resources into gun research, gun laws, understanding guns and gun owners, safety training, and mental health services.

Gun violence refers to injuries and deaths not only in mass shootings—which we’ve experienced in schools, theaters, concerts, offices, etc.—but also police shootings, homicides, and suicides. According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, in one year “more than 100,000 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, accidents, or by police intervention.” At a March 23 Reuters Newsmakers event (“Confronting American Gun Violence”) held at the National Press Club on the eve of the March for Our Lives rally, Brady Campaign co-President Kris Brown said that on average ninety-six people a day die of gun violence. Panelists at the event applauded the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students from Parkland, Florida, for raising awareness of the intersectionality of the issue, emphasizing that because guns and bullets don’t discriminate, gun violence is everyone’s problem.

Research Gun Violence

First—as with any threat to our safety—we need to understand the problem by identifying the variables and examining the data. Fragmented studies developed with incomplete information make it difficult for professionals to make strong recommendations that will convince politicians and citizens of needed action. Since 1996—due to the Dickey Amendment—gun research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health, and National Institute of Justice has been heavily defunded for fear of promoting gun control. Considering that the United States has the highest rate of gun-related deaths among industrialized countries, it’s unacceptable that gun violence is the least-researched cause of death and the second-least funded cause of death after falls. Although the Parkland shooting in February 2018 has encouraged Congress and President Trump to direct more funding to gun violence research, many are skeptical of how much progress can truly be made as politicians and the National Rifle Association (NRA) threaten restrictions and the Tiahrt Amendments prohibit the release of data to researchers on firearm tracing, gun sales, and gun inventories.

Study Gun Laws

Research is not only required to evaluate dangerous situations and violent acts, it’s also essential for measuring the success of previous and current gun laws in order to propose better solutions. A report on The Science of Gun Policy shows that more data is needed to understand the real effects of gun policies. We shouldn’t simply reject a law for not reducing firearm deaths enough without understanding what factors may have contributed to its ineffectiveness. For example, background checks are useful in keeping guns out of dangerous hands unless the FBI fails to complete the background check before the three-day deadline. The “Charleston loophole”—referring to Dylann Roof’s ability to purchase a gun without a background check which he then used to kill nine people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church in 2015—must be closed in order for the law to succeed. Background checks should also be expanded to all gun purchases, no matter if sold by a dealer, at a gun show, or online.

Following the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that state enacted “red flag statutes” that banned assault weapons, prevented people from having weapons of war, and strengthened background checks by empowering people to request “gun violence restraining orders.” Along with Connecticut, California, Indiana, Washington State and Oregon have also developed “red flag” laws, and other states—including Maryland—are introducing similar legislation. It’s important to evaluate how these standards are articulated, interpreted, and enforced in order to determine how they can be spread nationally.

Understand Guns and Gun Owners

Research on gun owners can help us separate reality from stereotype. Many gun enthusiasts are interested in the mechanics of guns and the skill of target practice, are responsible for proper gun handling and storing, and never use them to kill or injure any living thing. Despite what the NRA would lead us to believe, the majority of gun owners do not object to laws that limit shooting capacity, restrict guns in public, increase background checks, fund gun research, remove guns from dangerous people, or require training.

Furthermore, gun owners should educate themselves on separating the consumerist goals of gun lobbyists with the safety concerns of the nation. According to “A Brief History of the NRA,” included on the group’s website, the NRA was founded in 1871 as an educational organization that focused on marksmanship and competitions (“the primary goal of the association would be to ‘promote and encourage rifle shooting on a scientific basis’”) before becoming politically active in 1934 “in response to repeated attacks on the Second Amendment rights.” As the organization expanded, they added education for hunting communities, youth programs, law enforcement training, and civilian training. The NRA’s homepage, spokespeople’s rhetoric, and deep financial influence over politicians makes it hard to see them as the educational organization they were meant to be.

Increase gun safety training

Gun safety training should be mandatory not only for anyone considering touching a gun but for anyone writing gun legislation. Too many people think that all they need to know is point and shoot, like they see in movies. We need more emphasis on handling, storing, and keeping firearms away from children. Project ChildSafe is the largest, most comprehensive firearm safety education program in the US. Gun safety training—especially for law enforcement—should include how to avoid using guns. There is also a growing interest in smart guns that use fingerprint recognition and other technology so that only their owners can fire them, which could be incorporated into laws regulating safe storage.

Support Mental Health Services

People often blame mental illness for mass shootings—especially when a shooter is white—but according to, “people with severe mental illnesses are over ten times more likely to be victims of violent crime” such as police shootings. We need more education about mental health and available services for all to ensure proper diagnosis and treatment, destigmatize mental health, identify warning signs, and prevent violence. We all should learn how to better manage communication, coping skills, anger, stress, depression, and other issues so we can de-escalate situations before guns are used. Social and emotional intelligence training must be supported and mandated at the federal and private levels, especially for teachers.

Although mass shootings and police shootings get a lot of media attention, suicide by gun actually takes more lives. In 2016, of the 38,000 gun deaths recorded, almost 23,000 of them were suicide. Suicide is not inevitable for a person with depression but it is final. In a 2017 NPR interview, the Brady Campaign’s Kris Brown explained,

An extreme risk protection order is a legislative and legal vehicle that allows family members and police if they see someone in crisis, someone who’s exhibiting behaviors that indicate they’re a danger to themselves or others, to get a court order and remove guns temporarily from that person’s home.

Educate Voters

One of the strongest ways to end gun violence is to educate ourselves on where politicians and companies stand on the issue and educate them on needed solutions. We must not only make this clear at the voting booth but also with our feet and wallets in order to bring real change.