Vanderbilt professor worries about gun laws in a Trump presidency

Jonathan M. Metzl, professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, has written an article for The Huffington Post, titled, “Guns in Donald Trump’s America,” in which he suggests that a Trump administration would result in many fewer gun laws and by implication more gun deaths.

If Trump sticks with his current stance on guns, Metzl might be right, at least in the first half of his claim.  Just as with Hillary Clinton, however, Trump has taken a spectrum of positions with regard to guns and gun rights, and which party will lead both houses of Congress in 2017 is hard to predict.  We gun owners have been promised a panacea by supposedly pro-gun politicians, only to find the status quo maintained, so even a Republican president and Congress working together is no guarantee that the violations of gun rights currently in the law would be rolled back or eliminated.

But what about gun deaths?  If Trump becomes president and does exactly what advocates of gun control say he would do, would that mean a rise in loss of life?

Metzl cites the oft-quoted study by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research that found an increase in homicides in Missouri when that state removed a requirement for handgun buyers to have a permit to purchase in addition to passing a background check when the sale is done at a licensed dealer.   The problem with this study is that it appears to make the basic error in treating fluctuations from one year to the next as significant.  The repeal of the permit to purchase law happened in 2007 when the homicide rate was 6.5 per hundred thousand.  In 2008, the rate was 7.7.  On the surface, this looks like evidence that loosening gun laws results in more murder.  And yet, the rate in Missouri has varied over the eighteen years between 1996 and 2014 from a low of five per hundred thousand in 2003 and a high in 1996 of 8.1.  The average over the period is 6.9, and in the seven years—2008 to 2014—since repeal, five of those years have seen murders at a lower rate than that average.  I am not claiming causation here.  The rates were lower than average eight years out of twelve before repeal.  However, I would expect to see homicide rates higher after the change in the law if that change is supposed to have made more murders likely.

The other areas of concern for Metzl are the belief that Trump would be unlikely to support a new ban on “military-grade rifles” but would seek a national carry licensing system and other efforts to prevent states and cities from having stricter gun laws than the nation as a whole.  Again, Trump’s campaign platform points in those directions, and wouldn’t it be lovely if all candidates fulfilled such promises, but what Metzl doesn’t prove is that these changes would lead to more deaths.  He tells us that the U.S. has the highest rate of gun deaths in the cherry-picked developed nations, but leaves out the fact that most gun deaths are suicides, and the suicide rate of many of those gun-control paradises is higher than or similar to ours.

I often wonder why otherwise intelligent and competent researchers have a blind spot when it comes to guns.  It’s probably having expertise in one field, while lacking knowledge about the relevant subject here, and thus suffering from a variation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, feeling in this case that being skilled in one area implies other skills without verifying the belief.  Add to that a political bias against guns, and we have a promising hypothesis about support for gun control among people like Metzl.  Since sociology is an area of his expertise, perhaps he could look into this question.  And perhaps he could consider that the facts around guns and their regulation aren’t so obviously what he believes them to be.

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