This special edition of Policy Outsider was recorded live at a forum hosted by the Rockefeller Institute of Government and features distinguished scholar Robert J. Spitzer’s presentation on gun policy. Spitzer notes that gun ownership continues to decline, and that the gun safety movement is newly invigorated, motivated, and financed. He also points out that there is substantial public support for most of the more common gun policy proposals, even among gun owners. At the same time, federal courts are proving more conservative in their rulings and agitating for broad interpretation of gun rights under the Second Amendment.

Spitzer’s discussion included a PowerPoint that provides an overview of the history of guns in the United States, how the nation’s relationship with guns and gun policy has evolved, current gun laws and statistics, and projections for future trends concerning firearm ownership and policy.


Patricia Strach, Interim Executive Director, Rockefeller Institute of Government

Robert J. Spitzer, Chair, Department of Political Science, SUNY Cortland

Learn More:

PowerPoint: “Gun Policy 101”

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse 00:06

    Welcome to another special edition episode of Policy Outsider from the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. On this episode we will be listening to the live forum, “Gun Policy 101: What Policymakers and the Public Need to Know.” The Rockefeller Institute hosted the forum on October 1, 2019, and featured gun policy expert Robert Spitzer, distinguished service professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the State University of New York at Cortland. Spitzer is also a member of the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium, a multistate research coalition coordinated by the Rockefeller Institute. Spitzer is also the author of several books on gun policy, his most recent is Guns Across America. This is a live recording, so please bear with us with the occasional ups and downs in the audio and references to visual materials. If you want to follow along with the visuals, you can find the PowerPoint on our website at If you’d like to watch the presentation, you can visit our Facebook page, RockefellerInst, where you can find a video to the forum. Now let’s jump in and listen to how thoughtfully designed gun policies can effectively reduce gun violence.

    Patricia Strach 01:39

    Good afternoon everyone and welcome to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. My name is Patricia Strach. I’m the interim executive director here at the Institute. I want to welcome you all today to this very important topic about gun violence. Now I don’t need to tell people who walked here through the rain or through the bad weather how important the topic is. But it’s also important that we understand it so that we can make better policy solutions to deal with it. I want to thank you for coming. I also want to thank the staff at the Rockefeller Institute for putting the event together and making sure everything runs so smoothly. You’ll notice on your chair, there are cards, so we will take questions via cards. You should feel free to write out your question and look for somebody with the Rockefeller pin who will come around and collect them. It is my great pleasure today to introduce Robert Spitzer, who is a distinguished professor at SUNY Cortland, who is the chair of the Political Science Department at SUNY Cortland, who is the author of 15 books, and who is the recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship, today to talk to you a little bit more about gun violence and to give us a basic understanding about what the problem looks like, so that we can start to move in a positive direction in terms of solutions. So I would like to introduce to you today, Professor Spitzer.

    Robert Spitzer 03:14

    Well, good afternoon. It’s now after 12, so I can say that. Thanks for coming. I have a PowerPoint slide presentation. I want to hit on a variety of topics that are very much in the news these days about the gun issue and see where that leads us. I want to be sure we have time for discussion or questions. So let me just begin. My first point, when you think about the modern gun debate, which has been going on really in a heated forum for decades, one might typically summarize it as a zero sum debate. That is one side, gun rights. The other side, stronger gun laws. And that a gain for one is a loss for the other, that there’s a zero sum relationship between the two. But our own history says something very different. Gun ownership is as old as the country, from the very first European settlers who came here in the early 1600s. But so are gun laws, and as a matter of fact, in many respects, guns were more strictly regulated in America in its first 300 years than in the last 30 years. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on old gun laws. It’s really interesting to me but I want to make some effort to keep you all awake. I’m just going to summarize. There were thousands of early gun laws. There is an electronic database, a repository of these laws available through Duke University that is now accessible to anybody. It is, to me, a mind-boggling compendium of all of the gun laws that existed in America from the 1600s through the start of the 20th century. There were laws that restricted gun access. Some of those laws are no surprise, like restricting access of selling or giving guns to Native Americans, to slaves, to indentured servants, but also to vagrants. Some colonies had laws barring Protestants from owning guns because it’s well known you can’t trust a Catholic with a gun. I mean, you just can’t. I’m just kidding, but there were such laws, religious-based laws. Those who refused to swear an oath of loyalty to the first colonial government in the modern federal government. Restricting gun access to felons, to foreigners, to minors. There are numerous recreational restrictions. There were laws that regulated firearms use, storage, transportation. That barred dangerous or unusual weapons. That regulated the manufacture, inspection, and sale of firearms. That pertained to gun storage and discharge restrictions. That prohibited the firing of firearms in or near towns after dark, on Sundays, in public places, near roads. That punished firing that wasted gunpowder and shot. Or people who discharged firearms under the influence of alcohol. One of my favorite laws is from about 1655, I think it was Virginia that made it a crime to discharge a firearm while you were drunk. But there were two exceptions, weddings and funerals. So if you were drunk at a wedding or a funeral in 1655 in Virginia, okay to shoot off your gun. Otherwise, no. Just fascinating. But anyway, that’s kind of the context. I’ll jump right up to 1789. the construction of the composition of the Bill of Rights, what eventually becomes the Second Amendment. Of course, it’s considered the touchstone of gun laws, gun rights, and how we think about guns, and that is the Second Amendment and there is the simple text of it. The late Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger said once that the best way to understand the Second Amendment sentence is to begin with the word because, as in because “a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Much has been made, especially by many legal scholars saying how confusing and murky and ambiguous the sentence is. Well, no, it’s not. There’s an old lawyer’s trick to introduce confusion, if it doesn’t exist, if it helps you advance your case. Frankly, that’s part of the legal arguments that have been developed in recent years about the meaning of the amendment.

    Robert Spitzer 08:01

    Now, the Second Amendment right to bear arms was written and interpreted for over two centuries as applying to citizen gun ownership, but only in connection with a government organized and regulated militia. That’s what the first half of the sentence is talking about. This happened at a time, especially in the 17th and the 18th and early 19th century, where militia-eligible men had a legal obligation to obtain battlefield worthy firearms. Every colony and then every state and the federal government all had laws requiring militia-eligible men to obtain, at their own expense, an unfunded mandate, firearms, so they would be ready for militia service because the government didn’t have the resources to arm all of these men, neither the money nor the weapons themselves. That’s part of why there was concern about stripping weapons away from militia-eligible men. Well, in 2008, the Supreme Court essentially reinterprets the amendment to establish a personal right of the average civilian to own a handgun for self-protection in the home in the case of District of Columbia vs. Heller, a pretty famous, and also controversial decision. You can argue about its historical analysis, which is what the decision is based on, but they did change the interpretation. This is the laws the Supreme Court set it out in 2008. But the court in addition to establishing this right in its decision was also careful to establish and to say that essentially most existing gun laws are probably fine under this rubric. It was not an absolute right by any means. No right in the Bill of Rights is after all. Indeed, there had been over a thousand court challenges in the last 11 years to gun laws from the local to the national level. Nearly all of them have been upheld by the courts as acceptable under the rubric of the Second Amendment that the court laid out in the Heller decision. Now, there’s reason to believe that the Supreme Court might want to, or at least some justices might want to, significantly broaden this Second Amendment right. But that’s speculative at this point, although there is reason to believe that that is the direction that they may want to go in, but I’m not going to dwell on that particular issue. That’s where we stand with respect to the law. Guns in America, there’s a damn lot of them. The estimates vary widely. There’s a recent estimate of two or three years ago from an international organization that says Americans have about 380 million guns. There’s another estimate, which I think is more on target that says it’s actually about 265 million guns. There is no definitive count. Because unlike the 17th and 18th centuries, we don’t conduct gun censuses every year or ever. Another interesting historical point, early in our history, the government conducted regular gun censuses. Knock on the door. “Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. How many guns do you own? What types are they? How many of them are functional?” Because the government had an interest in knowing how many guns there were? Well imagine today, if anybody from the government knocked on your door, and the doors of millions of Americans and say, “How many guns do you own? What kind are they and how functional?” People would go berserk probably. But it was a common occurrence and they called them gun censuses. These days, we just have estimates, so I’m just using the ballpark number 300 million guns in America. It’s still a great many. Now, Europeans or people around the world often figure that every American owns a gun, that there’s a gun in every home. But that’s not the case. These days, about 30 percent of homes have at least one gun in them, about 25 percent of Americans report personally owning a gun. Another little known fact is that gun ownership has actually been gradually declining since about the early 1970s. Demographically speaking, guns tend to be owned disproportionately by older white males.

    Robert Spitzer 12:25

    The other interesting statistic that helps explain why you see so many gun sales every year is the fact that the average number of guns owned by the average gun owner has increased dramatically. In the 1960s, as it says here, the average gun owner owned about 2.5 guns. As a 2018, the average gun owner owned more than eight guns per person. Most of the gun purchases that you read about and that sometimes vary with the political cycles of elections and other things, most purchases are made by existing gun owners. For the most part, it’s not people going out and buying a gun for the first time when they’ve never owned a gun before. Not that nobody does that, but few people do. Well, what is the concern about guns? These numbers summarize the concern. In 2017, which I believe is the last year that data was available, there were 39,773 gun deaths in America, 23,800 gun suicides, 14,000 homicides. This makes a very important point, which is that one very consistent statistic is that each year there are roughly twice as many gun suicides as gun homicides. Now, both are a terrible problem. But the gun suicide problem, even now, doesn’t get quite the attention that it deserves. Then you have in the count 1,300 gun fatal accidents with guns. By way of comparison, in the same year, there were about 40,000 deaths from automobile accidents. Another important fact about the guns that cause harm is that they’re overwhelmingly hand guns. As it says, 80 percent of all gun deaths are from handguns. Even though in America there are twice as many long guns, rifles, and shotguns, as there are handguns. Long guns are easier to get generally speaking, which is a clear indication that when people are doing something nefarious with a gun or anticipating doing something nefarious with a gun, they prefer a handgun for reasons that are sort of obvious. Mass shootings have received a great deal of attention and properly so. But here again, the context is important to roll into this discussion, namely, that mass shootings amount to about 1 percent of all gun deaths in America each year. Again, mass shootings are unusually terrible just because of their nature. But it’s important to bear in mind that we’re not talking about thousands of people dying in mass shootings each year, even though mass shootings have been increasing in recent years. Even though guns are a durable commodity, I don’t know if any of you are gun owners, you buy a firearm and you can put it in your dresser drawer or in your closet, and it could be perfectly functional 20 years from now, 30 years from now. A firearm requires relatively little care and maintenance. Even so, guns involved in crimes tend to be new guns. They tend to be less than three years old. For reasons we can talk about.

    Robert Spitzer 16:05

    Now, there are benefits identified with guns as well. They are used for self-protection. There is a continuing dispute about how often or frequently guns are used for personal self-protection. Probably the best estimate, and it’s a pretty consistent estimate from a pretty reliable database or set of studies and surveys, is about 100,000 times a year. There is a survey, a study that was done over 25 years ago that came up with the number of 2.5 million self-defense uses by guns each year. That number is still often repeated, even though that number far exceeds the number of violent crimes that occurred nationwide anyway. I mean, there are numerous problems with that 2.5 million number, including how it was derived. I just mentioned it because it’s a number you continue to hear pretty often. The actual number of real self-defense uses with guns probably around 100,000 per year. Of course, gun ownership is now a protected right, so said the Supreme Court as of 2008, but subject to reasonable regulation. You also find enormous variation among the states regarding gun laws. I would use as a good example, concealed carry laws. As of 2019, this year, 25 states out of the 50 states plus DC have what are called shall-issue laws. Shall-issue law is a state that says if you want to apply for pistol permit for a concealed carry permit, you fill out the paperwork. As long as you’re not a convicted felon, or judged mentally incompetent, or dishonorably discharged from the military, or under an order of protection, or a few other things, you can get the permit and therefore carry the gun. The minimum standard for the background check is the Brady Background Check that was set in federal law back in 1993. Nine states, including New York State, our own state, are what are called may-issue states and that are states who exercise discretion in granting concealed carry licenses. You can be denied a license not just if you’re a felon, but if an investigation of your background concludes that there’s just something not quite right about the person applying. They can use discretion. The process, if any of you have gone through it here in New York State, is very extensive. I went through this process a few years ago. You are interviewed. You’re fingerprinted. You need a proper photo. You submit the names of four character references who fill out a 39 question, three-page questionnaire about you. To show my faith in my college administration, my four references were our college president, our college provost, our college dean, and a colleague in my political science department. It’s an extensive process. It takes a while. In terms of costs, it’s not a lot. It’s around $150 or something like that. But the point is, the investigation is much more extensive into your background. It can take several months depending on where you are and what the backlog of applications are. There are, today, 16 states that have done away with permitting entirely. That is to say as long as you can legally own a handgun, you can carry it around with you. Now, I would note if you go back to 1981, there was only one state of the union that had no permitting. Many states didn’t allow citizens to concealed carry at all. In fact, they tended to be Southern and Midwestern states. Many states fell into the category of New York State. So the laws have been loosened dramatically in the last 35 years. Studies of crime rates and gun violence rates across these states demonstrate that states with loose gun laws tend to have higher gun crime rates. It’s a correlation. It’s not a causal per se, but it suggests that the laws make a difference. There is no credible evidence today that citizen concealed carry statistically reduces crime.

    Robert Spitzer 20:55

    Now, mass shootings very specifically, there are a number of points to make about how such events are studied. The FBI sets the standard because it defines these things and researchers often follow the standard set by the FBI. But the FBI defines mass murder, which could involve firearms, but it could involve explosives or other things, deaths from intentional causes, as one where at least four persons are killed within a 24-hour period. Why the number four? The answer is that it’s a completely arbitrary number, the FBI plucked it out of the air. I’m not somebody who studies this subject in intensive detail. I have a colleague at Oswego, Jaclyn Schildkraut, she has some publications downstairs, who has done some very important work studying mass shootings. She’s one of these researchers who really burrows into this data and into these terrible events. Researchers have adopted different standards for how they define mass shootings and using different numbers—two, three, four. Even the intention of the shooter. If a shooter goes to a place and begins shooting, but thank heavens nobody’s killed, but maybe some people are wounded, the FBI standard would not count that as a mass shooting because of timely medical intervention. You can see, obviously, that suggests that a broader definition probably is more sensible. Anyway, there is this dispute. There are three types of mass shooting or mass killing events. Familial, that are those who are sparked by family rage. Felony related, a gang war, let’s say. Third, a public mass shooting, where somebody engaged in a purposeful shooting spree or killing spree in a public place like a shopping mall or a place of business or others. Naturally, the greatest focus tends to be on mass public shootings like school shootings, for reasons that aren’t hard to understand. What’s the motivation of these people? Well, half of them are motivated by revenge, employment problems, relationship problems. Fifteen percent are ideological-based to the extent that this can be identified. Thirty-seven percent of what’s called autogenic, self-generated where people are disconnected from the world and they have their own idiosyncratic reasons for doing what they do, but they don’t fall into these other categories. Shootings are not random in the way people often use that term. That is, there is a conscious purpose or goal of the mass shooter. What kinds of weapons are used? Now from a study that examined mass shootings from 1966 to 2017, a total of 319 cases, 75 percent involved handguns. Handguns, most common weapon. Twenty-four percent, rifles; 21 percent, shotguns; 10 percent, assault rifles; that number might seem low to you, but it’s important to remember that assault weapons did not become really all that common in circulation until after 2004 when the federal assault weapons ban lapsed. When you look in recent years, you find that assault weapons are increasingly being used in mass shootings and indeed in the most deadly mass shootings in the last 10 years. Significantly, they also account for 40 percent of deaths and 69 percent of injuries. Since 2017, 12 of 31 mass shootings involved assault weapons, and that would say 2017 to the middle of 2019. They’re becoming ever more used and appealing by mass shooters. Are there warning signals? Yes, there are. This is one of the reasons why research is so important. These people tend to have a fascination, even an obsession, with guns. They have a history of disturbing and abusive behavior. They have a history of domestic violence. Indeed, 86 percent of them have a history of domestic abuse. 86 percent. Talk about warning bells going off, right? They have a history of being bullied and persecuted by others. Shooters often warn others. Also, another perhaps counterintuitive fact, you might think that people would be very secretive until they’re ready to do these things. But it’s typically the opposite. They do tend to tip off on social media, tell relatives/friends, or say things to indicate that they’re going to do something terrible.

    Robert Spitzer 26:00

    What are the outcomes of these events? Thirty-eight percent commit suicide during or after the attack; 18 percent are killed by the police. What arguably is actually suicide by cop that is they assume or expect or hope that the police will kill them. We don’t know for sure, because, of course, they’re dead. Eighteen percent are subdued and arrested. Sixteen percent flee and are later arrested. Eleven percent surrender. Now, what about regulating assault weapons then? Well, this is what I would describe as the outer edge of the current gun debate about possible gun laws that states or the national government might adopt. What are these weapons? I mean, there’s a huge amount of discussion about them. They are militarily derived weapons. They were weapons that are adapted from weapons developed for the American military in the late 1950s and 1960s during the Vietnam era. The civilian versions fire in a semiautomatic fashion, meaning one round is discharged per pull of the trigger. Military weapons have other firing capabilities. The first assault weapons ban ever enacted was in California, in 1989, after an elementary schoolyard shooting in Stockton, California. From 1994 to 2004, there was a federal assault weapons ban, you may recall. It also included a provision that put a limit on ammunition magazine capacity, saying that you couldn’t own a magazine that held more than 10 rounds. There were studies of that law, which found that it did have modest positive effects on the use of such weapons in crime. It wasn’t a huge differential, but it was measurable and the researchers reported as much. Today, seven states plus the District of Columbia, including New York State, have assault weapons bans in place. Now, related to this is another historical legal fact, which is if you go back to the period from 1927 to 1934, at least seven and as many as 10 states had laws that severely restricted or, in some cases, even barred semiautomatic weapons, not assault weapons, which didn’t exist in the 1920s. Any semiautomatic weapon, at least seven states and as many as 10. The idea of restricting these weapons in some manner in law, also, it turns out is not new. I always think I was the first person ever to report this bit of data. Much attention has been focused recently on what are called red flag laws. I heard a segment about it on NPR on my car radio this morning. New York State has just adopted a red flag law signed by the governor within the last couple of months, also referred to as an extreme risk protection order. I’ve stipulated some things about New York’s new law. The idea is to try and identify people who may be on the verge of committing some terrible act with a firearm, who owns firearms and what can you do?

    Robert Spitzer 29:24

    In New York, and in most states, a family member, somebody who knows the individual, but also the police, local district attorney, and school administrators in New York State, that’s something other states don’t have, can go to a judge and say, “Look, this person owns guns and he’s threatening to kill himself,” or “He’s talking about shooting up his place of business or something.” Go to that judge and say, “Look, I’d like you to issue an extreme risk protection order in essence.” If the judge finds probable cause for the claim being made and the evidence offered, the judge can make a decision right away within a day to issue a temporary order to have the police go to the person’s home and remove the guns temporarily if there is a likelihood that serious harm could occur. A hearing is then held and right away within three to six days to decide whether to sustain that order or not. If the order is not sustained, the person gets the guns back. If it is, the guns are kept away from the home for a period of a year. But those bringing the charges must have clear and convincing evidence that harm is likely or imminent. The owner can appeal that ruling. It applies, as I said for one year. There are no other criminal charges or penalties. It’s simply the removal of the firearms. An extension for elimination of the firearms on the home can be extended beyond a year if the people involved file that paperwork. That in a nutshell is how the New York red flag law is designed to work. Seventeen states have these laws in place right now. New York is one of the 17. There have been some preliminary studies that have shown two benefits. The first and most important pertains to gun suicides. I’ll jump down here. Research in two states, Connecticut and Indiana, who have had these laws on the books for a few years have found that they resulted in one fewer suicide death for every 10 to 20 cases of gun removal. I’m not sure if that would really show up as statistically significant in statewide much less national data, but those are real lives being saved. A study in Maryland asked the question, how often are these orders carried out or what happens to them? That in roughly half of the circumstances, the guns were seized and the other half they were not. The study from the University of California found that in the case of 21 seizures in a two year period in California, those were individuals who were threatening mass shootings, so conceivably up to 21 mass shootings were prevented. Now, looking ahead. This is really a compilation of several sorts of different considerations. The first is that gun ownership in America in all likelihood will continue to decline for a variety of demographic reasons. The main reason people historically own guns in America was for hunting/sporting purposes, not self-protection. But there’s less and less hunting and sporting that’s going on with firearms, there’s less land available for hunting activities. People who live in rural areas now have more kinds of activities to engage in because of the internet and because of lots of other things. If you’re looking for a hobby or family activities, there are other things to do and often guns are not involved. Self-protection has become a greater concern. But here again, if you look at the gun ownership patterns, younger people are not adopting gun ownership and gun habits very much. It tends to be an activity and a habit that one either acquires fairly young or doesn’t acquire.

    Robert Spitzer 33:38

    The demography suggests that gun ownership will continue to decline. There is already, of course, substantial public support for most gun proposals that are being debated and discussed in America, like red flag laws, like uniform background checks, and other things. Most of these measures are also supported by a majority of gun owners, as well. Over 90 percent of Americans support uniform background checks because around 22, 23 percent of all gun sales or exchanges that occur in America every year have no background check. The reason why is because they occur between private individuals. Only a few states regulate gun sales between private individuals, New York State happens to be one. Most states do not. If a neighbor or relative or friend wants to sell a gun or buy a gun, you can do it privately but no background check occurs. That is a significant number. It is 22, 23, 24 percent. Over 90 percent of Americans support making that system uniform and over 80 percent of gun owners agree. In addition, we’ve seen in the political realm in recent years that the gun safety movement has become invigorated or reinvigorated, more highly motivated. We’ve seen new gun organizations like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Every Town for Gun Safety. Gabrielle Giffords’, Mark Kelly’s group Americans for Responsible Solutions. These are new groups focusing specifically on the gun issue. They also are raising and spending significant amounts of money. They’re trying to build grassroots support around the country. You have the student-led movement that came out of the Parkland High School shooting from February 2018. That’s had a remarkable political impact, even if they don’t feel they’ve done as much as they wanted to do. It certainly had an important impact on the 2018 elections. I wrote an article specifically about that subject. They are expanding and a more successful group to counterbalance the traditional dominance of the gun rights organizations like the National Rifle Association. Going in the other direction, we have seen, especially during the Trump presidency, the appointment of numerous very conservative judges to the federal courts. We have two very conservative members of the Supreme Court right now appointed by President Trump. There’s reason to believe that among the conservative judicial community, there’s a renewed push to broaden the definition of Second Amendment rights. For example, to extend it to possibly the carrying of concealed weapons out in society. As of today, as I mentioned earlier, the 2008 Heller decision focused specifically on gun ownership for self-protection in the home. It didn’t really address in terms of what it said about Second Amendment rights, the concealed carry of weapons in society, is that a Second Amendment right? If so, is it subject to regulation? I mean, these are questions that are not been resolved. There’s reason to believe that the court might or some justices might want to broaden that right to the streets. This could be an instance where the law is going in the opposite direction from the sentiments of the public and it wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve hit on quite a variety of topics, kind of brushed on each and perhaps there’s some that you would like to look more about. Finally, this is the commercial portion of my presentation. This is my book from 2015, which has quite a bit of information about historical gun laws. It’s called Guns Across America. I just thought it was a spiffy cover that the publisher came up. I certainly had nothing to do with it, because if I did, it wouldn’t look very nice. That’s the extent of my comments and I’d be very interested in hearing what any of you have to say on any of these subjects.

    Patricia Strach 38:18

    All right. We have some questions here. I’m going to ask them. If you have questions, just feel free to wave your card and we will come get them. The first question is, can suing gun manufacturers such as the Sandy Hook families, can that help change policy? Do you think that’s going to make a difference?

    Robert Spitzer 38:38

    I think the suing of gun manufacturers probably is not one that will have a significant part. Well, I take that back. No, it’s not when I think that would have significant policy effect. The background of that activity, the fact that in 2005, Congress passed a law that provided the gun industry—gun importers, gun sellers, gun manufacturers—with legal immunity from litigation. It’s the only industry that has this kind of legal wall built around it. It was the highest legislative goal of the NRA during the Bush administration. The Bush administration was behind that effort and Congress passed it in that year. It made it extraordinarily difficult to bring lawsuits against gun manufacturers. Even so, there has been some litigation and as the question correctly points out, the family members of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting have pursued litigation using a different legal strategy relying on Connecticut state law. Connecticut’s highest state court allowed the suit to proceed. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to win in the end. But if the suit proceeds and if they’re able to engage in discovery, that is to obtain internal information memos and emails and things from, I think, in particular, the Remington Company, which manufactured the weapon used by the shooter in Sandy Hook, that could be extremely embarrassing and perhaps politically explosive. There might be some ways the litigation could overcome the hurdles set out in this federal law. Part of the justification for passing that law was to protect the gun industry for fear that it would be entirely bankrupted from lawsuits. And that certainly is a concern. But in terms of public policy, it could have some long-term consequences, especially if we get to learn specific information about perhaps decisions made by some gun manufacturers that might have been irresponsible or inappropriate or even illegal. If such a thing occurred that could then have public policy consequences.

    Patricia Strach 40:58

    Okay, second question. You talked about the effect of red flag laws on suicide, where they reduce suicides, but have suicides gone up in jurisdictions where there are looser gun laws?

    Robert Spitzer 41:12

    The most significant correlation between gun possession and strict laws is suicide. There’s a very high correlation. Because when guns are generally available, I don’t mean guns used in crimes, I mean hunting weapons, sporting weapons, when guns are more available, the suicide rate goes up. It’s important to remember, people often say, “Well, look, if somebody is suicidal, if a gun isn’t around, well, they’ll take pills, or they’ll jump off a bridge, or they will cut themselves, or they’ll use some other method.” But that’s based on a misunderstanding of suicide. By and large, if you can intervene with a person who has suicidal tendencies, you can almost always save them. The one thing about guns is that they are the most efficient means of suicide. Method matters a great deal. The death rate from taking pills, overdosing, for example, is something like 25 or 30 percent. For guns, it’s around 90 percent. I mean, if you take a gun and point it at yourself and pull the trigger, you’re probably not going to make it. It’s also the easiest way. What could be simpler than wiggling your finger on a trigger? It is very amenable to an impulsive act and suicide sometimes is an impulsive act, especially among the young. There’s an even greater concern among that subcategory, because young people are still growing, they’re impressionable, they’re impulsive, and can easily be swayed by the particular mood of the moment. That is, without question, one of the most important and remedy-able, that’s not a word, but it’s an area where much more could be done to sever the link between guns and suicide simply by locking guns up, for example, in the home or wherever they’re being kept. That’s an extremely important correlation.

    Patricia Strach 43:16

    We have a number of questions on policy. But before I get to those, we have a question asking about what are some of the reliable sources of data on guns, gun ownership, gun fatalities? If we want to learn more, where do we go?

    Robert Spitzer 43:28

    There are many and an increasing number of organizations that are doing research, there are a number of universities, some attached to public health schools at Harvard, at Johns Hopkins, University of Pennsylvania. Duke University has a new center for gun violence studies. They do studies. They issue reports. The Giffords Center, Gabrielle Giffords and her husband, who helped form Americans for Responsible Solution, lent her name to, I forget what it was called before, it’s the Giffords Law Center. Even though, obviously, she supports stronger gun laws. They produce a lot of good, reliable data, specifically about gun laws, about Supreme Court cases, about the whole legal structure and legal questions. How many states have concealed carry laws and what types? What have federal courts ruled on the Second Amendment and other guns? They have a ton of information that’s reliable information. There’s a group in Washington, DC, called the Violence Policy Center. It also is a pro-gun control organization, but they do lots of studies. They make their data available so you can see for yourself what their analysis is based on. They do reputable studies. There are other similar organizations that do quite a bit of good work. Many of them again, are university affiliated and that’s one good way to judge if it’s a reliable source.

    Patricia Strach 45:04

    All right, so we have a series of questions on policy. The first one is what policy or set of policies would have a greater reduction in gun-related deaths?

    Robert Spitzer 45:14

    Policies related most specifically to suicide prevention and intervention that would be number one. If you’re looking at totality of gun deaths, again, remember, this statistic, twice as many gun suicides as gun homicides. For understandable reasons, the public focus tends to be much more on murder or attempted murder on gun crimes and understandably so. But that is where the greatest degree of help could be or improvement could be made in terms of severing the link between firearms and people with suicidal tendencies, whether young or middle aged or old. There are certainly other laws that, this also is something that’s being studied more and more, to see what kinds of laws actually would have what kind of degree of effectiveness. It turns out, there’s a new study that says, for example, that a more strict gun licensing system. Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey, who’s running for the presidency, has endorsed a gun licensing system like what we have in New York and like what they have in New Jersey simply on the notion that when there’s a more extensive background check into a person who wants to get a gun and wants to carry a gun, you can often identify people who are high risk even if they’re not actually felons. That can be very useful to reduce gun crime problems. Secondarily, I suppose gun suicide. So those would be a few.

    Patricia Strach 46:43

    If we drill down into some of those suggestions, so the question asks: the policy initiatives adopted in New York State focus on legal gun ownership and whether the shootings reported in Albany this month were actually carried out by legal gun owners. What policy initiatives can we pursue that will get illegal guns off the streets?

    Robert Spitzer 47:03

    I’m not acquainted with the Albany circumstances but many big cities face this problem of gun crime. Syracuse, near me, certainly does. There’s two issues at play. One is the general trafficking of guns across the interstate lines. Beginning of the 1980s and 1990s, the New York City Police Department became involved in its own efforts to try and interdict the illegal trafficking of guns across state lines, because you would tend to find that people would travel to a southern state, for example, where the gun laws are pretty lax, buy a whole bunch of guns, bring them back to New York City or back to Syracuse or other places, and they would be sold on the streets or passed around. Bloomberg, when he was mayor of New York City, intensified that effort and had some pretty good results. Being able to trace those guns from the initial point of manufacture to their use on the streets, being able to interdict that, what was referred to by the police as the iron pipeline, the funneling of guns from lax gun law states to places like New York. Those efforts can be successful. That is certainly one area. There are other specific strategies and policies that some cities have experimented with to try and get guns off the streets, to try and minimize gun thefts, because there are something like, depends on the year, but something like a half a million gun thefts every year. That also is a source of guns that wind up in the wrong hands, wind up being used in crimes. That’s a case where safe storage policies, for example, could be tremendously helpful. Just over half of Americans who own guns don’t lock their guns up. They keep them unlocked at home. Well, if you’re breaking into a place and you’re a thief, you want to steal that gun. It’s easy to take with you. It has street value, you can sell it, you could use it in a crime, great temptation there. There are a variety of practices of that sort and police activities that can help reduce that chain of events from the point of which a gun is manufactured to the point of which it’s used in a crime.

    Robert Spitzer 47:31

    If we can think about schools for a second, besides lockdown drills and architecture, how else are schools, in particular, responding to the threat of guns and gun crimes?

    Robert Spitzer 49:37

    Schools began to change profoundly after the Columbine shooting in 1999. That really was the beginning of the turning point for school activities, school safety, school preparedness. Not just public schools, but colleges and universities have enacted a wide array of programs, devices, activities to try and make their campuses more safe. To try and be more well prepared if something terrible does happen. It is important to remember school shootings are terrible. I don’t mean to minimize these things for a minute when I’m talking about these terrible events, but the fact is that public schools are very safe places. So are colleges and universities. A child in a public school is safer than that child is at home or on the streets. We have very precise statistics about rates of assault and other criminal activities that affect kids under 18. Also that applies to campuses across the country as well. Statistically, public schools are very safe. We need to begin by reminding ourselves that that’s the case. One important change we’ve seen has been the infusion of what are called resource officers. There’s been talk about that now. But that’s also a practice that goes back more than a decade. My wife taught at Dryden Public School for a number of years. They had a resource officer going back at least 15 years. A local police officer who would be at the school and chat with the students, and a presence there in case something bad happened and to try and ward off problems. That also was another useful reason for having somebody like a resource officer present. Door locking, having drills, there is something of a debate right now as to whether having shooter drills or live drills, especially among younger children is a good idea or not. I think there’s a fair argument to be made that, especially among younger children, it may not be wise to put them through a realistic simulation of a shooter coming into their elementary school and firing a weapon. Partly because they’re kids, what are they going to really take away from that aside from vague, unfocused fear? But I think for higher grades, certainly for college university students, I think there’s a good argument to be made that providing information about how to respond in an extreme situation is useful. One of the things I noticed in the building where I teach, which is a 90 year old building on our campus, is that one day about two years ago, locks suddenly appeared on all the classroom doors. You could lock a deadbolt lock from the inside. They got an appropriation for that and they just installed locks, so you could lock a classroom door from the inside. There was no big announcement made about that. I suddenly noticed it one day. In fact, I talked about it in my gun policy class, which I teach pretty often. There are a lot of measures that have been taken and that are being taken now that are effective, I think. That are sensible. But remember that schools really are safe places too.

    Patricia Strach 53:01

    There’s two questions that I’m going to combine. One is about a public health approach to gun violence. And one is about the relationship between mental health and gun violence. Can you talk a little bit about what might be positive or not as positive in taking a public health approach to gun violence and the relationship between mental health and gun violence?

    Robert Spitzer 53:21

    A public health approach, which I think is very valuable, because public health professionals can bring their theoretical and analytic expertise to a subject that in many ways is similar to, for example, the spread of a contagious disease, let’s say, where you can geographically map where things occur. Where do you have an outbreak of Ebola or something that public health officials might study? What strategies can you use to minimize something like that? I’m not a public health person, but they’ve produced already some excellent studies and new ways of thinking about how to approach the problems of gun violence. I think it’s been tremendously helpful. That really began almost 30 years ago. Now, more and more people in the public health community are doing this kind of research. I think it’s very valuable, very important contribution. In terms of mental health, there’s a lot to unravel. As mental health professionals will tell you, 95 percent of people with mental health problems are not violent. People with mental health problems are much more likely to be the subjects of violence, not the cause of violence. Most people who commit crimes and certainly even most mass shooters are not, strictly speaking, severely mentally ill. Now having said that, we also know that, especially with respect to mass shooters, many of them do exhibit severe behavioral problems. You recall some of the data I had in my presentation, spousal abuse and a lot of other things, which is clearly pathological. It’s clearly something fundamentally wrong there. It’s overwhelmingly men, by the way. Let’s be clear, it’s the men. I’m just saying, guys, it is. It is also true that if you think about some of the worst mass shootings—Sandy Hook, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, and number of others—these were people who had, Virginia Tech, severe mental health problems. Their family members knew it. The people around them knew it. Had anybody asked them, should this person be able to legally obtain a gun? They would have said, “Hell no. This is the last person to want to have a gun.” But nobody asked. Why? Because in those states, there were no such measures taken. Unlike New York State, by the way, where those questions are at least asked. There is a mental health dimension to the behavior of at least some mass shooters that is relevant. I think mental health professionals, to some degree, go too far in the other direction and saying, “We shouldn’t even be talking about this. This is a matter of privacy. It’ll discourage people with mental health problems from coming for help, if they think somebody might take their guns away.” Well, I think you have to deal with those problems. I think there is a mental health dimension. But it’s narrowly focused, it’s very specific. I think there are certain kinds of mental disorders. And final point, what we often find in the gun debate is that after a mass shooting, some people will say, “The real problem is mental health and we need to focus on that.” But typically, the reason that is said is to turn attention away from gun laws and gun related problems.

    Robert Spitzer 55:10

    Alright, so we have just a couple of minutes left. I want to ask one last question. What are your thoughts about the effectiveness of programs such as Cure Violence in reducing gun homicides?

    Robert Spitzer 56:51

    I don’t know about the Cure Violence Program. Is it a local problem program? I wonder? A national program?

    Unknown 56:59

    [Inaudible response.]

    Robert Spitzer 57:00

    Oh, okay. Yes, okay. I see. I’m not versed on that. But if it’s public health-based, that I think suggests that it has merit. Again, it’s a different way of thinking about an old problem. New ways of thinking about old problems are usually valuable. My guess is that new initiatives are welcomed, perhaps could be productive. Well, thank you all for coming. Thank you for your kind attention and have a good afternoon.

    Patricia Strach 57:34

    Give Professor Spitzer a round of applause. Thank you so much.

    Alexander Morse 57:43

    Thanks again to Robert Spitzer for taking the time to present his research and informing us what policies are most effective in reducing gun violence. I encourage you to check out some of his work and more with the Regional Gun Violence Research Consortium by visiting You can also check out other public policy research areas and interactive data visualizations by visiting our website at And lastly, follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at RockefellerInst for the updates in the latest in public policy research. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.

    Kyle Adams 58:50

    Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York State in the nation. Have a question, comment, or idea? Email us at [email protected].

Policy Outsider

Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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