Would harsher penalties decrease gun violence? Would less access to guns lead to less gun violence? Paul Heroux is a graduate student at Harvard University’s JFK School of Government and he addresses these questions and more.

Pundits have been filling the airwaves and national cable news about what our society should do about gun violence in the aftermath of the atrocities in Tucson on Jan. 8. Let’s look at the three prominent arguments.

Would harsher penalties decrease gun violence?

Most crime is committed because the criminal either doesn’t think he is going to get caught or because he is impulsive — I say ‘he’ because most crime is committed by males. With this in mind, harsher, stricter and more punitive laws don’t deter criminals; it doesn’t matter how harsh the punishment is for the criminal who doesn’t expect to get caught. However, certainty of punishment is more important than the severity of punishment.

So, certainty of punishment would be effective in many cases, but not when someone is impulsive or deranged.

Would less access to guns lead to less gun violence?

It makes sense: no guns, no gun violence. Anyone from Europe will likely tell you that the problems with gun violence in America is that we have too many guns. And if you read “The Crime Drop in America” by renowned criminologist Albert Blumstein, you might find a very compelling case for “less guns.”

However, if states banded together and repealed the Second Amendment, I’m not sure that would solve our gun problem. When the U.S. banned alcohol in the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), it did nothing to curb the desire for alcohol. It may have made the taboo even more desirable.

Prohibition was so unsuccessful that it was eventually overturned with the 21st Amendment. We could expect to see the same thing with guns. Additionally, when thinking about tighter restrictions, it is easier to restrict guns from law-abiding citizens than it is from criminals.

Would more access to guns lead to less gun violence?

The argument goes that if a woman is carrying a gun, she can stop a would-be assailant. This assumes, however, that she won’t be approached by surprise, that she is able to draw her gun in time to use it and that she will be able to use it accurately in the heat of the moment.

Such a scenario could result in a gun in the hands of a criminal if any one of those steps doesn’t go as planned.

What if a spectator at the rally in Tucson had a firearm?

Perhaps that spectator could have brought the chaos to a faster end. But maybe not — if a law-abiding spectator opens fire on a criminal shooter, there is no guarantee that the criminal is going to be stopped since the spectator might miss, or the spectator could become another casualty in a shootout, or the spectator could fire and hit another innocent bystander.

Anything can go wrong. Reality is complicated by nuances.

There is a convincing argument that “more guns means less crime.”
However, packed with correlations and statistics about the relationship between more guns and less crime, this economic-based argument makes many incorrect assumptions about human behavior and, as such, conclusions are flawed.

Arizona has some of the most liberal “right to carry firearms” laws in the country; yet, CQ Press ranks Arizona the 9th most dangerous state.

So, if we can’t get tougher on penalties, and there are flawed arguments for more guns, and flawed arguments for less guns, what can be done?

Let’s consider that there are many causes of illness and many solutions. The doctor’s objective is to pair the illness with the appropriate treatment –– it’s the same challenge with crime.

There are different types of criminals who carry or use guns for different reasons, and there are solutions appropriate to the diversity of such situations.

The problem is that public-policy reforms are too often made in broad sweeps and are not specific enough to target the different types of gun crime –– no pun intended.

Another problem is political: what is an acceptable solution to one party often isn’t acceptable to another. The reality is that public safety often isn’t independent of partisan politics.

There are effective ways to reduce gun crimes, but implementation and political hurdles are thorny; the specifics are beyond the scope of this opinion. The point here is that if there were a simple solution, it would probably have been done by now.

Paul Heroux is a graduate student at Harvard University’s JFK School of Government. He can be reached at paul_heroux@hks11.harvard.edu.

-- The Herald News (Mass.)