Helping Those in Crisis – and Gun Control, too

Gun Rights

The researchers behind The Violence Project mass shooting database launched the next phase of their work on Friday, May 14th. The Off-Ramp Project is a set of resources designed to help prevent mass shootings by getting people in crisis the help they need. Criminologist James Densley and psychologist Jill Peterson begin with an insightful model built on years of work but ultimately kiss the ring of gun control. 

Densley and Peterson built their database, in part with a grant from the Department of Justice, to understand the pathway to violence and to develop methods to reroute that pathway. The database strives to include more than 160 variables on the perpetrators of mass shootings, including life history and experience variables to help understand the root causes of mass shootings to prevent them. The off-ramp approach is focused on recognizing the signs of crisis and intervening properly, even beyond the moment of crisis.

They detail “gun violence” by type: suicides, homicides, domestic violence, and mass shootings. They note that the types of firearms commonly used in mass shootings are “mostly handguns, but a larger proportion of rifles than in other categories of shootings.” They also note that the most commonly used firearms in criminal homicides are “illegally possessed handguns.” Rifles are not commonly used in murders or suicides, so a “larger proportion” used in mass shootings is not necessarily an indicator of really anything.

The Off-Ramp Project website lists resources at the state and national levels for crisis-intervention, mental health, and advocacy. The “advocacy” links are resources for shelters and mental health advocates. The researchers’ gun control leanings were first exposed when the increase in gun sales last year was mentioned in a list of reasons for an increase in “gun violence” in the same period. The casual reference to a “policy” section on their website piqued our curiosity but ultimately soured us on their objectivity.

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The policy page presents a different sort of advocacy – unabashed gun control. Five of the first six listings on the Policy page are gun control organizations and the sixth is H.R. 8, a background check bill that is the beginning of a firearms registry.

Brady, Stop Handgun Violence, Moms Demand Action, Giffords, and Everytown are listed as “policy-relevant organizations,” revealing precisely the sort of policies the researchers believe are relevant.

The researchers promoted red flag laws, permits to purchase, universal background checks, and limiting magazine capacity – though Densley also said assault weapons bans should be discussed – as opportunities to prevent mass shootings. Densley claimed that there was a lot of research to support red flag laws, that permits to purchase are a mechanism to close loopholes, and that magazine capacity limits – and assault weapons bans – are driven by data.

The “Science of Gun Policy” review team at the Rand Corporation couldn’t find that data. They concluded that licensing and permitting requirements have an uncertain effect on suicide, on homicides, and on mass shootings; that private-seller background checks have an uncertain effect on firearms homicides and all background checks have an uncertain effect on mass shootings; and that assault weapons bans have uncertain effects on homicides and on mass shootings. Red flag laws are still quite new and the only available research has been observational, but it has shown that, in many cases, the subject of the red flag order is neither arrested nor transported for a mental health evaluation. The subject is required to turn over any firearms and then left to his or her own devices – in a home that may very well contain knives, automobiles, toxic chemicals, and/or many other potential implements of harm.

The prestigious heads of the gun control research centers at UC Davis and the Bloomberg School of Public Health found that comprehensive background checks have no effect on homicide rates. The Review Panel investigating the Virginia Tech mass shooting recognized that magazine capacity limits would not have made much difference in the incident.

The Off-Ramp Project has a lot of promise in terms of encouraging interventions that could prevent violence. It’s a shame they’ve let their brand and their work be co-opted by organizations that politicize mass shootings to promote a radical anti-gun agenda.

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