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Webster report pushes for gun policy reforms

By ELLE PFEFFER | November 8, 2012

Prompted by the mass shootings in Aurora, Colo. and Oak Creek, Wis. this summer and by concern over how the media represented the events, researchers at the Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research have published a report discussing public opinion of gun control and policies that could be pursued to decrease gun violence.

Daniel Webster, director of the Center and a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, expressed his distress over the party line given by the media that gun control is not favored by the public. “We believe that there’s a lot of research that says otherwise,” Webster said. The report states that in reality most Americans would agree that they don’t want guns in the hands of those that will use them dangerously.

Webster has been working in this field for the past 21 years, originally propelled by the high crime rate in Baltimore during the early 1990s. “It was really at epidemic levels,” he said, citing 400 homicides per year at the time. More recently in 2010, over 30 thousand people in the U.S. were killed due to gun violence, according to the report.

Generic questions about gun control and ignorance among the public about existing gun laws are at the basis of resistance to reforms, Webster suggested. When people are asked whether laws should be made stricter, less strict or stay the same, not addressing any policy in particular, many people are bound to think that reforms would strip away the rights of law abiding citizens. That is incorrect.

Typically, the gun control debate arises in the media after the occurrence of mass shootings, and not otherwise. The issue was discussed only briefly during the second presidential debate. Webster says that the violence has become an “unacceptable norm” in our country in part because the greatest burden of the issue falls on poorer populations.

Mass shootings, however, catch people off guard. “In some ways, I think it’s the worst time to talk about it because the incidents themselves are a little too unique.”

The report discusses specific high-risk groups that should be targeted to be banned from legal gun ownership, and that the current restrictions are not sufficient. Gun possession is illegal for those under the age of 18, but Webster and his team recommend expanding this age requirement to include youth up to the age of 20. They also suggest that people convicted of misdemeanor crimes (in addition to restrictions for felons) as well as alcoholics should be stopped from possession.

Other grave issues are the loopholes that allow private sellers to go unregulated, selling guns to people without background checks and exporting them to other states.

Moving forward with President Obama’s second term, Webster has set realistic hopes for the evolution of gun policy. “I’m not overly optimistic. He might take baby steps in some direction… In terms of new legislation, I don’t expect much,” he said. Webster hopes that the language of the debate will veer away from the “pro-gun” and “anti-gun” terms and that the President will take leadership in starting a new dialogue.

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