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NYU's James Jacobs on Gun Control


James Jacobs, a New York University School of Law professor, gave his first of four lectures about gun control at Hamilton on Feb. 24. These lectures, sponsored by the Levitt Center and the Dean of Faculty’s Office, serve to inaugurate the Levitt Center’s ongoing series of lectures on Justice and Security. This lecture focused on the question about what problems gun control can solve. 

First, Jacobs addressed the popular public perception that we’re in the middle of a firearm “epidemic.” He cited newspaper headlines such as “End the gun epidemic in America” (New York Times editorial ), and “With gun epidemic raging, Obama finally bypasses Congress” (LA Times editorial) to show that the media has popularized the categorization of our current political dilemmas relating to guns as an “epidemic,” and thus has misled the general public to believe that there’s more violent crime than there actually is. Part of what perpetuates this misconception is that some newspapers have started churning out articles with titles like “We’re now averaging more than one mass shooting per day” (Ingraham). However, as Jacobs pointed out, there is no universal definition in the media about what defines a “mass shooting,” consequently, the shock factor of the headline sometimes comes at the cost of the truth.  

Instead of attempting to discern the relative truth-value of those semantic issues, Jacobs proceeded to paint a picture with unambiguous statistics about our current situation. He noted that in the United States an average of 112.6 people per 100 residents, owns a gun. This means that a significant number of gun-owning Americans own more than one firearm. The country with the next highest ratio is Switzerland, at 45.7 people per 100 residents. 

We can also see that our rates of firearm ownership are skyrocketing through the increases in NICS background checks. Specifically, they increased from just over nine million in 1999 to just under 20 million in 2014 (FBI). Jacobs predicts that at this rate, we’ll be at 100 million checks in just five years.

So given the prominent, and ever increasing, presence of guns in the United States, Jacobs challenged the notion that gun violence causes the magnitude of harm that we typically assume. He claimed that in 2011 there were approximately 32,000 deaths caused by firearms. Of those, about 3% were accidents, 34% were homicides, and 60% were suicides. What these numbers tells us, Jacobs argued, is that the majority of firearm related deaths are self-inflicted, which automatically complicates any efforts to reduce the number of firearm-related deaths.

He then compared these statistics to other accidental causes of death. For instance, in 2011, cigarette smoking lead to about 480 thousand deaths, alcohol lead to over 25,000 deaths (excluding drunk driving accidents), and car accidents accounted for about 34,000. Jacobs challenged the notion that we ought to automatically assume that a crusade against guns is the best course of action, especially when they lead to less overall deaths than such common things as cigarettes, alcohol and cars.

However, Jacobs stated, some might argue that deaths resulting from violent crimes are inherently more disturbing than the others he mentioned, and may have broader societal implications. Even if this is the case, he argued, violent crimes with firearms have decreased 72% from 1993 to 2011 (Drake), and homicides committed with firearms have decreased 39% during that time (U.S.).  Jacobs posited that it’s possible that we’ve witnessed these “decreases in violent firearm-related crime because we increased the number of guns in private hands.”

Firearms clearly pose risks, as do most things, but Jacobs questioned whether those risks outweigh the benefits. In particular, he stated that a study by the Institute of Medicine suggests that guns are used almost as frequently in self-defense as they are by criminals. Aside from physical security, firearms also provide people with a sense of, what Jacobs called, “psychic security.” And even beyond security, Jacobs argued that the prevalence of shooting sports and hunting indicates that there are constructive uses for guns other than causing harm to others.

With this in mind, what should we do about the “epidemic” of guns? Jacobs agreed with popular sentiment that there are many aspects of our current situation that are problematic, and we ought to take the appropriate steps to ameliorate it. However, he also noted that “we’re not starting with a blank slate” so even if we believe, in theory, that a drastic change to our gun culture would be for the benefit of society, that might not be feasible given the prevalence of guns in the United States.

Jacobs will continue to lecture as a Levitt Center Scholar-in-Residence through March 1. Upcoming lectures will focus on the 2nd and 14th Amendments (Feb. 25), the type of people with whom we should be most concerned about possessing firearms (Feb. 29), and whether we ought to make a distinction in gun control laws between “good guns and bad guns” (March 1).

For more information about Jacobs’s professional history, accomplishments, and published works, his Curriculum Vitae is available on the Levitt Center’s website. For further insight into his views on gun control, transcripts of his interviews in Time Magazine and on WOSU radio are also available.

 

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