Gun violence in America is a wicked, complex problem, and trying to curb it requires an inward look at the culture and policies surrounding firearms, while avoiding alienating law-abiding, nonviolent gun owners.
Simply put — “guns are normal and normal people use guns,” said David Yamane, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University.
Yamane was one of five Deseret Elevate panelists who spoke before a diverse group of politicians, academics, public safety officials, community leaders and education experts who convened at the University of Utah’s Thomas S. Monson Center in Salt Lake City Tuesday to talk about gun violence.
Hosted by the Deseret News, the theme of the event was “moving beyond partisanship.”
“Oftentimes with this debate and other topics, things are so polarized when conversations happen on Twitter. But when we sit down with people and talk face to face, even if we have differences, there’s a level of civility,” said Jesse Hyde, editor of Deseret Magazine and the panel’s moderator.
Top of mind was identifying the different types, and root causes, of gun violence; breaking down the stigma of gun ownership; the importance of mental health; and exploring different policy solutions at the local and federal level.
And above all else, panelists stressed the importance of reaching across the political aisle and having conversations. “We’re on the same team in wanting to prevent this,” said Amy Swearer, a legal fellow with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and one of the event’s panelists.
“We’re really bad at having conversations on how to address this. And part of that is general polarization, and part of that is we have very different ideas across the board that we’re talking about,” said Swearer.
In the audience were politicians like Utah Republican Rep. Blake Moore and state lawmakers including Reps. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara; Gay Lynn Bennion, D-Sandy; and Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also joined, sitting next to Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown and a representative from Sen. Mitt Romney’s office. Academics from the University of Utah, current and past political candidates, lawyers, and stakeholders from around the West were in attendance as well.
Looking at the ‘gun violence’ umbrella
The public becomes most aware of gun violence in America following mass shootings, says Ari Davis, a panelist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Gun Violence.
“But they make up a really small portion of gun violence,” he said on Tuesday.
In 2020, over 45,000 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center — over half, or 54%, were suicides.
“You’re going to need different levers and policy solutions for that, and different levers to address domestic violence and guns as well,” said Davis.
Meanwhile, gun homicides have increased by 45% from 2019 to 2021, while non-gun homicides have only increased by 6%, Davis said.
Using mass shootings as a lens to address gun violence in general is ineffective, the panelists agreed.
“The more we just focus on mass shootings, the more we’re going to get stalled out,” said Yamane, “but if we think about why we’re concerned about mass shootings and we leverage that to address broader concerns, and then within that, recognizing that there are legitimate cultural differences in the way people understand guns.”
Taking a measured approach and examining each subset of gun violence allows advocates and legislators to pass targeted policy, rather than trying to enact blanket laws that risk alienating law-abiding gun owners and could be ultimately ineffective, the panelists said.
“It’s just so important to break those down and understand those levers, each subset of gun violence, and then how to essentially say, ‘We’re looking at legislation, and what role does the lawful gun owner play in this?’” said Swearer.
Isolating the ‘bad guys’
Most mentally ill people are not violent — and most violence is not due to mental illness. But when combined, it’s a volatile situation that experts say can lead to deadly domestic violence situations or mass shootings.
That’s the argument panelist Gary Kleck with the Florida State University College of Criminology and Criminal Justice made on Tuesday.
“You focus narrowly on people who have some indication of being a violent person — a criminal conviction, a history of mental illness related to violence,” he said.
Taking a broad brush approach to background checks and other laws that restrict gun ownership, Kleck said, is “wasted effort.”
But in order to take a more granular, and according to Kleck, ultimately more successful approach, governments need to expand the scope of background checks to include private transfers, and bolster the current system of background checks.
“There is no national database that compiles all of this. We don’t have a database that says who is mentally ill and dangerous and should not have a gun,” he said.
According to Abigail Vegter, an expert on guns and religion at Berry College and a panelist at Tuesday’s event, these policies could actually find support among law-abiding gun owners.
“A lot of gun owners are not saying, ‘My Second Amendment rights are absolute.’ There are a lot of gun owners who say, ‘There are some reasonable restrictions that I’m willing to come to the table and talk about.’ And including them in these discussions can be really key,” she said.
The government’s role
In times of crisis, people often turn to two places — their faith, or the government.
“Leaders of both of those institutions are going to be key in working towards solutions that everyone can get on board for,” said Vegter.
For government to pass effective gun policy, most experts agree that the responsibility cannot fall to a single entity, a sentiment best summarized by Moore at the end of Tuesday’s event — “We are not going to figure this out at the federal level.”
Moore did not sign on to the bipartisan Safer Communities Act that was passed in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting. The legislation, among other things, sought to support state efforts to enforce red flag laws, bolster background checks, disarm domestic abusers and more.
Moore took issue with the red flag provisions and what he says are due process issues associated with them, and the fact that the legislation was crafted with little input from the U.S. House.
But if state or local governments want to make their own policy, using similar provisions that he opposed at the federal level, the Utah Republican said he would support that.
“I think it’s going to be most effective if we allow the state of Utah to address it, and share it,” he said. “That’s the part where I think we don’t do a good enough job. There’s a lot of good measures that Utah is doing in this that aren’t an infringement on people’s Second Amendment rights.”
Moore is currently a sponsor of the Fix NICS Act, an effort to improve background checks by directing agencies at the state and federal level to produce National Instant Criminal Background Checks, or NICS, and holding them accountable if they fail to upload relevant records or information.
Correction: A previous version misspelled the last name of Abigail Vegter in two instances as Begter. A previous version also stated gun homicides increased 45% in the last 10 years. That increase actually happened from 2019 to 2021.