Pro-gun doctor debunks American Psychological Association’s anti-gun report

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Lee’s Note: Robert B. Young, MD, is a member of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership — a project of the Second Amendment Foundation. His take on the American Psychological Association’s latest anti-gun report is insightful and should be mandatory reading. I debunks many anti-gun myths and talking points.

 Psychologists on Guns

by Robert B.Young, MD

“People with guns kill people” is an apparently sensible heading for a report on “gun violence” by a professional organization that regards firearms as dangers for which availability and access should be restricted.  Gun Violence: Prediction, Prevention, and Policy was presented in August by the American Psychological Association (APA) at its annual meeting.  It rightly calls attention to the need to understand factors in development, community, culture and gender that are associated with more or less likelihood of people resorting to lethal violence.  Yet it also veers far away from the APA’s expertise in psychology, and the focus on violence-by-gun invites broader questions about the role of gun use within violence overall.  The authors and references are largely drawn from gun control proponents without regard to research that shows how more guns in the right hands can minimize violence.

It’s good to read that “exposure to violent media, in movies and television, is associated with increased aggressive behaviors, aggressive thoughts and feelings, increased physiological arousal, and decreased prosocial behaviors”.  This is a topic the mainstream media religiously avoids, but that all parents know matters.

The crying need for better access to quality care for the mentally ill is rightly drgoemphasized. This is a cornerstone of violence prevention among those at risk due to severe psychiatric illness.  But the authors offer a much trickier recommendation when they call for expanding the class of persons prohibited from purchasing guns to include “domestic violence offenders, persons convicted of violent misdemeanor crimes” as well as “individuals with mental illness who have been adjudicated as being a threat to themselves or to others.”  This sounds desirable, yet demands much more specificity to avoid abuse by false accusations and to distinguish truly threatening criminals from too broadly classified “violent” misdemeanants.

The question of prohibiting people who have been adjudicated as threats to themselves or others is also complicated, although in these cases there has been at least some due process.  Most people who are dangerous have never been treated psychiatrically (and would avoid it), and very few of those get formally adjudicated (determined by a court) to be threats due to mental illness.  The expectable outcome of treatment is resolution of symptoms and risk—but how to become un-adjudicated in order to resume full citizenship and exercise of one’s fundamental rights?

Campaigning to promote safe, appropriate storage of firearms is correctly urged but the APA also wants criminal penalties for gun owners who perpetrate “unsafe storage” of their firearms.  This would open the door for more legal intrusion into family lives when continuing education within the firearms community is lowering accident rates year after year.  The rules about how to use and keep firearms safely are inviolable among responsible gun owners.

Calling for more research to sort out the best answers to “gun violence”, as usual, ignores extensive criminology data that demonstrates the value of gun ownership.  More research can add to our understanding if it is truly unprejudiced and apolitical.  Unfortunately, much work is funded by organizations with biased agendas, and study design can be manipulated to favor certain results. In fact, there has been no lack of continuing research. There have been increasing numbers of articles addressing all aspects of firearm-related risks (and sometimes benefits) published over the past 17 years.

The APA advocates the popular nostrums of “licensing of handgun purchasers, background check requirements for all gun sales, and close oversight of retail gun sellers [to]reduce the diversion of guns to criminals”.  This ignores the fact that about 80% of all gun sales in the United States already require a check of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database.  The problem is that a great deal of presently required information is still not submitted to the NICS.  Expanding this to private sales and transfers would create hardships for law-abiding gun owners and dealers while changing nothing about the opportunities for law-breakers to avoid these checks.  Past experience has shown that gun purchase records very rarely contribute to crime-solving. No retail industry deals with oversight as burdensome as gun sales already must.  And establishing universal background checks in the way that has been proposed would produce a database of all gun purchases, at risk of being misused someday by an unfriendly government for confiscations.

As gun control promoters do, the APA uses statistics that superficially tar the United States with extraordinary gun homicide rates compared to other countries. These are chosen so as to avoid conveying that the U.S. actually lies about mid-point in both gun homicides and homicides from all causes.  We have much lower rates of overall violent crime compared to many countries with less accurate crime reporting and much more restrictive gun laws.  This is also interesting given the U.S.’s highest by far rates of gun ownership, while overall violence and gun crimes here have decreased as gun ownership has increased.

The report documents that individual shootings are vastly more common that shootings of more than one person.  Mass killings (of 4 or more victim) are extraordinarily rare compared to individually targeted shootings.   It also mentions the FBI’s finding that “school shootings were statistically too rare to predict with accuracy.”  These are definitive statements that such high profile, media-enthralling episodes of “gun violence” are not the most essential issues.

More relevant from a psychological perspective is the discussion of suicide.  It’s true that about half of firearms deaths are suicide and that almost two thirds of suicides in the United States occur by gunshot.  Some of those attempting suicide don’t think about it until just beforehand and then act impulsively, which makes guns at hand very dangerous.  Yet in nearly all cases, there are warning signs.  At least 90% of attempters have some untreated or inadequately treated psychiatric illness, which makes identifying them and taking action so important—and difficult.

Using a gun makes suicide attempts more lethal than most other methods, and limiting access to guns by potentially suicidal or violent people can help.  Signs of risk include a history of psychiatric hospitalizations, adjudication as mentally ill, suicidal or violent behavior, certain criminally violent convictions and drug abuse. Yet knowledge of these factors will never eliminate most threats.  Greater freedom to commit patients to treatment could improve safe outcomes for individuals and communities. Removing weapons from those at risk can be crucial. Making it possible for families and acquaintances to initiate firearms confiscation might save some lives, but raises potentials for abuse of the option, indefinite suspension of rights, and inadequate due process both in losing and seeking restoration of one’s property. And any of these interventions could diminish people’s willingness to seek needed psychiatric care, causing increased risks then.

The APA authors are fans of “Gun-Free Schools” and “Zero-Tolerance” institutional policies for anything suggestive of guns or shooting.  Certainly, realistic institutional threat assessment is important. But don’t we all understand by now that “gun free” zones aren’t, unless they’re behind a law enforcement checkpoint?  “Zero Tolerance” schools have punished students for the most innocuous, sometimes inadvertent references to firearms, often in violation of First Amendment free speech.  At least there is recognition that discipline such as “school suspension had negative effects on students”.  The APA, along with many physicians, also mistakenly believes that quizzing patients about gun ownership is relevant to health care.

Of course “assault weapon” bans are recommended, supposedly to diminish casualties from mass shootings (even though they are used in less than 2% of all shootings and “mass shootings” are a rounding error in “gun violence”). But there is, contrarily, recognition that the “effect of the [1994 10-year] ban could not be detected on total gun-related homicides.”  Similarly, “gun buyback programs … have not been shown to reduce mortality.”  Gun prohibitionists do seem to have increasing difficulty finding data to support their restrictive aspirations.

At least the APA doesn’t explicitly vilify gun owners.  It acknowledges that “Guns are not a necessary or sufficient cause of violence and can be used legally for a variety of sanctioned activities.”  Although one wonders who they think ought to “sanction” our activities, this is more respectful than is often seen in public health discussions of gun issues. Despite plenty of mistakes and predictable bias in the APA’s assumptions and interpretations, there are some signs of rationality.  Could reality be starting to infiltrate the ivory tower belief that the only good gun is a dead one?

Robert B. Young, MD is a psychiatrist in private practice in Pittsford, NY and is a member of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership. 

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About Author

Lee Williams can’t remember a time in his life when he wasn’t shooting. Before becoming a journalist, Lee served in the Army and worked as a police officer. He’s earned more than a dozen journalism awards as a reporter, and three medals of valor as a cop. He is an NRA-certified law enforcement firearms instructor, an avid tactical shooter and a training junkie. When he’s not busy as a senior investigative reporter, he is usually shooting his AKs, XDs and CZs. If you don’t run into him at a local gun range, you can reach him at 941.284.8553, by email, or by regular mail to 1741 Main St., Sarasota, FL 34236. You can follow him on Twitter: @HT_GunWriter and on Facebook @The Gun Writer.

9 Comments

  1. Although I admire Dr. Young’s hope that the APA is inching toward rationality, I won’t subscribe to that hopefulness so long as they continue to creatively frame statistical data in an intentionally deceptive way. For example, the APA regularly includes the 18 and 19 year old age groups in gun violence reports, but refers to them as “children” or “children and teens”. The annual number of gun firearms-related deaths in the 0 – 17 year old age group more than doubles when 18 and 19 year olds are added, despite that 18 and 19 year olds are legal adults who, largely no longer under their parents’ supervision, are free to be involved in drug and gang activity. Unwary readers don’t recognize the logical disconnect in a pediatrician treating legal adults, and come away with the impression that the problem is much smaller than the APA would have them believe.

    Example – According to the CDC WISQARS database, a total of 1,311 children nationwide ages 0 – 17 died from firearm-related incidents in 2011. Adding just the 18 and 19 year old age groups increases that total to 2,703. Given that an estimated 90 million households contain firearms, this represents 0.0014% or fewer than 2 deaths in 100,000 households for the 0 – 17 age group.

    This is what the APA and other health organizations sensationalize as a “health care epidemic”.

  2. Correction to previous comment – “Unwary readers don’t recognize the logical disconnect in a pediatrician treating legal adults, and come away with the impression that the problem is much LARGER than it actually is.”

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  4. The “extensive criminology data that demonstrates the value of gun ownership” consists of an article published by Garry Kleck in 1994, which has been judged “inadequate” both in terms of data and method by the National Academy of Sciences. Of course since the National Academy is a government agency and also brought us global warming, we can assume that they are guilty of the same biases that Dr. Young believes infects all gun research that does not validate the idea that more guns are good, instead of bad. The statement that 80% of all gun transfers are done through background checks is no more true than the President’ statement that it’s 40%. Even Dr. Young’s own source admits this. Finally, the so-called research by John Lott on gun homicide rates in various countries is so far away from having any basis in reality that’s almost laughable that a physician who should believe in the scientific method, would quote it and believe in it. But why shouldn’t he? After all, what he wants is to promote the idea that gun ownership is a good thing. Which is fine. He’s entitled to his opinion. But what I don’t understand is why he continues to publish his opinions as if they derive from a higher degree of knowledge that he possesses by dint of his training and practice as a physician. In fact he has never contributed anything to the gun debate which could in any way reflect his alleged expertise or experience as a physician. Opinions are one thing; facts are another. Dr Young is long on the former and very short on the latter, MD or no MD.

  5. Robert B. Young, MD on

    Rich7553: Totally agree about how deceptively statistics about “children” get used by anti-gun people. I address that pretty thoroughly in “Doctors Can Be Wrong” at National Review Online, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/387206/doctors-can-be-wrong-robert-b-young.

    New York City Guns: I appreciate your wanting to repost this at your site!

    Mike: The NAS report was a watershed in that a blue ribbon set of scientists looked at many aspects of “gun violence” and realized that the evidence for the value of gun control is actually very shaky.
    Re: Kleck, you’re probably referring to his survey about self-protection with guns. If you’re familiar with that, then you know that other surveys have led to similar conclusions. My comment about research validating gun ownership was intended to embrace much more than fending off criminal attacks, though that’s more common than people realize.
    Re: “about 80% of gun sales” require a NICS check now. You’re right, this data is very imprecise. The popular comment about 40% escaping background checks comes from 1994 data, even before the general use of the NICS, so that’s irrelevant to today. My source was the Wash. Post (follow the URL) which estimated in 2 different ways the likelihood of about 20% of transactions not going through background checks presently.
    Re: homicide & violent crime rates in different countries, Lott analyzed data from other official sources, he didn’t collect it. Whatever one thinks about him, Lott drills down through figures to what they represent. That’s attention to detail that these subjects need rather than throwing around numbers uncritically. We should all be careful to document and question anyone’s data.
    Re: “should believe in the scientific method”, “alleged expertise or experience as a physician”. I don’t argue ad hominem. That and blind adherence to politicized positions has really damaged our civic “conversation” about gun dangers vs. benefits & rights. Yes, I am a physician, a psychiatrist, which means much of my professional work is attending to people who are at risk of harming themselves or others, which is one reason I became interested in the gun debate.

    Rich: Thanks for linking to “Who’s Mentally Ill?” Absolutely. Mental illnesses are conditions that can be treated and often completely relieved, just like physical maladies. They should not be excuses to treat people differently just because of the illnesses. We need to find ways to prevent violence, sometimes by respectfully separating weapons from someone at risk of using them, but doing so should be an acute measure, not the creation of a new disability of “cannot be trusted with guns” or anything else.

    I don’t usually get involved in comments on my articles, but these were few enough that I could (I get hundreds at NRO) and perceptive enough that I want to thank you each for helping me think further!

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  7. The APA has been immersed in multicultural and diversity research and promotions for the better part of 2 decades – rightly so, they are working to advance mental health for all. However, I find it quite a glaring contradiction that those involved in research about gun violence consistently refer to the “gun culture” in a very dismissive and even derogatory manner most of the time. It is interesting to me that such a double standard exists, and why (as far as I know) no one has talked about, or perhaps even realized this, within the field.

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