December 1st, 2013

Expert on gun violence describes new APA policy draft

We may be focusing on the wrong areas when it comes to the public discourse on gun violence. But coming to a consensus on what are the key points can be difficult in a political climate where any discussion becomes heated and polarizing.

Adding to the dilemma, says Robert Kinscherff, Ph.D., J.D., senior associate at the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, is the difficulty in finding funding for new research to identify ways to combat the problem.

Kinscherff, who is the associate vice president for Community Engagement at the Massachusetts School for Professional Psychology, was selected to head the American Psychological Association’s Policy Review Task Force on the Prediction and Prevention of Gun Violence. A noted expert on delinquency and serious crime by young adults, he was instrumental in working with a writing group to pull together the known research on gun violence for the APA. That information was used by the task force to draft a new policy for the organization to adopt.

Kinscherff spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about some of the findings that the writing group discovered and some recommendations the task force is putting forth.

Q: What are the results of the work by the task force and writing group?

A: It is a very complicated issue but we rapidly came to a consensus that a broad public health approach that focused on both prevention and intervention would be most helpful.

It was useful to pull together the research on the relationship between mental illness and gun violence and to be thinking about where gun violence is most or least likely to occur. A lot of that is counter intuitive given the media coverage.

When you think of gun violence, one’s mind quickly goes to the mass shootings that are covered intensively in the media but which account for less than one-half of one percent of gun deaths in the United States. The largest number of gun deaths arises from suicides.

Q: Most gun deaths are by suicide? So that means we’ve focused on the wrong areas when talking about gun violence?

A: Right, suicides and then homicides. One relatively recent study looked at daily averages of deaths from firearms and it is 53 suicides and 30 homicides and just under two officially recorded accidental deaths, although we suspect the actual number of accidental deaths may be under-recorded.

Q: You say it is important to look at where gun violence is most likely to occur. Do you mean geographically?

A: There are disproportionate impacts of gun violence for different age groups, socioeconomic status and so forth. There is a disproportionate amount amongst persons who are poor, disenfranchised and often of color. In suicides, we have a spike amongst adolescent boys and then again in males about 55 or 60 years of age.

Q: What did the task force recommend?

A: Well, probably the largest recommendation is to begin considering and implementing how to best use a public health approach that would include prevention and selective intervention strategies. There was a recommendation to more vigorously educate the public about the relative risks of different kinds of violence – and by that I mean homicide, suicide and accidental injuries.

Q: This would help to turn the discussion away from banning weapons and more towards making them safer?

A: One strategy that people have spoken about are product safety strategies that make guns less likely to be used, for example, by people who are not their owners. There are already existing technologies that would require that an owner essentially identify him or herself with the weapon before the weapon can be fired. In the same way laptop computers now have fingerprint identifiers so that even if someone steals your laptop, they can’t use it.

Q: They have fingerprint identifiers for guns?

A: The technology exists.

For gun owners, that may be something they would want so that, for instance, a gun could not be turned against them.

It would also keep somebody they might not want using it, for example a family member who is depressed and suicidal. Children, upon discovery of a firearm, would not be able to turn it into a functional lethal weapon.

This is the same kind of approach that has consistently driven down traffic accidents and childhood poisonings in the home.

Q: What about the conversation on increasing background checks and mental health care?

A: While you certainly would want to pay attention to people with major mental illness, especially if they are untreated, doing background checks which focus on persons with severe and persistent mental illness is unlikely to result in a substantial reduction in the actual rates of violence. Studies show that persons with severe and persistent major mental illness are not major contributors to gun violence.

There was more evidence for the proposition to improve a system to respond to people who are in emotional distress to have a greater impact on the reduction of suicides. When people are desperate and they have access to a weapon, they often behave in ways they might not if they had been able to access some support in times of distress.

Plus, prevention strategies to drive down the times in which guns are used in criminal enterprises – those are the strategies that are most likely to reduce gun violence.

For the foreseeable future, the United States is going to be a country that has literally millions of guns in it and so one of the things that we do call for in the policy revision is for the removal of blocks on federal funding to more precisely look at strategies for the prevention of gun violence and management of the risks.

Q: You have been working in the Boston area since youth violence was extremely high in the mid-80s. Do you think the world is a safer, or less safe, place than it was 25-30 years ago?

A: The rates of serious crimes committed by juveniles has dropped significantly starting in the early to mid 1990s and is about the same as it was in the early 1970s. The number of mass shootings a year has stayed roughly the same over the past 10-15 years. Many of the strategies to try and address the most serious forms of youth violence have been successful.

Many people in the U.S. overestimate the level of risk that they are dealing with because they perceive these incidents on media, which are genuinely tragic and horrifying, but then they attribute a greater degree of risk in their own lives than is actually the case.

Overall, the general crime rate has been coming down, including the gun violence crime rate. In fact, the number of American households in which someone possesses a gun has been dropping over the past 15 years. The phenomenon appears to be that there are fewer gun owners purchasing more and more guns while many households do not acquire a gun at all and that varies widely by region.

Q: What happens next with the revised policy?

A: The document itself has been up on the APA Web site for public comment. That process now moves to a comments period by each division. It will be presented to the board and if there is a version that wins board approval, it will go to the council of representatives at its winter meeting.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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