DIY gun control: The people taking matters into their own hands

Legislators have always struggled to address this problem. But in the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s administration, new gun legislation has only expanded, not restricted gun rights. In short order, lawmakers made it easier for certain people with mental illness to buy guns, and pushed to expand the locations where people can carry firearms.

Over the past few years, however, gun owners and sellers have started taking matters into their own hands and have come up with creative solutions to reduce the threat from guns.

From working with public health organisations so gun sellers can recognise the signs of depression in a prospective buyer to developing biometric gun locks, citizen scientists are cobbling together measures they hope will stave off the worst aspects of US gun culture.

The Federation of American Scientists estimates that 320 million firearms circulate in the US – about enough for every man, woman and child. According to the independent policy group Gun Violence Archive, there were 385 mass shootings in 2016, and it looks as if the numbers for 2017 will not differ wildly.

In the absence of regulations against guns, individual gun sellers and owners are trying to help”

Although the number of these incidents is alarming, it is dwarfed by the amount of suicides, which account for more than half of all firearms deaths (see graph, right). And last year, a report from the Associated Press and the USA Today Network showed that accidental shootings kill almost twice as many children as is shown in US government data.

In just one week in 2009, New Hampshire gun shop owner Ralph Demicco sold three guns that were ultimately used by their new owners to end their own lives. Demicco’s horror and dismay that he had inadvertently contributed to their deaths led him to start what has become known as the Gun Shop Project.

The project uses insights from the study of suicide to teach gun sellers to recognise signs of suicidal intent in buyers, and know when to avoid selling a gun. To do this, Demicco teamed up with Catherine Barber, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

Part of what the project does is challenge myths. With suicide, the biggest is that people plan suicides over a long period. But empirical evidence shows that people usually act in a moment of brief but extreme emotion. One study has found that nearly half of people who attempted suicide contemplated their attempt for less than 10 minutes. In the time it takes to find another method, a suicidal crisis often passes, so even a small delay in obtaining a gun could make a difference….Another myth that Demicco and Barber are seeking to dispel is that if you take away someone’s gun, they’ll just find another way to hurt themselves. While that’s sometimes true, Barber says, alternatives are less likely to be fatal. Gun attempts result in death more than 80 per cent of the time; only 2 per cent of pill-based suicide attempts are lethal.

Within a year of its launch in 2009, half of all gun sellers in New Hampshire had hung posters about the warning signs of suicide by the cash registers in their stores. The programme has expanded to 21 states, and Barber is now analysing data to see how well it is working.

Another grass-roots project is trying to prevent children from accidentally shooting themselves. Kai Kloepfer, an undergraduate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been working on a fingerprint lock to prevent anyone other than the owner using a gun. He has founded a start-up called Biofire Technologies to improve the lock’s reliability and bring it into production….

Grass-roots schemes like the Gun Shop Project have a better chance of being successful, because gun users are already buying in. But it may take years for the project to become big enough to have a significant effect on national statistics.

Regulatory changes might be needed to make any improvements stick in the long term. At the very least, new regulations shouldn’t block the gun community’s efforts at self-governance.

Change will not come quickly, regardless. Barber sees parallels between the Gun Shop Project and campaigns against drink driving in the 1980s and 90s.

“One commercial didn’t change rates of drunk driving. It was an ad on TV, a scene in a movie, repeated over and over, that ultimately had an impact,” she says….(More)