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While working toward a doctorate in health policy at Johns Hopkins University, Carrollton native Daniel W. Webster watched the homicide rate in the Baltimore, Md., where the school is located, skyrocket in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“During that time period, there was a real epidemic of gun violence in Baltimore,” Webster said in a phone interview last week. In 1993, the number of homicides rose to a staggering 353 cases in that city. “The issue seemed so important that it needed more research and analysis.”
That led to a lifelong career for Webster, who is a son of the late Charlie Webster – a former mayor of Carrollton, a candidate for Congress in 1970 and the long-time owner of Webster Drugs.
The 1978 graduate of Carroll County High School stayed on at Johns Hopkins, determined to work toward “understanding and preventing violence,” and he eventually became a deputy director for the school’s Center for Prevention of Youth Violence.
But it was the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that “forced us to wake up and re-examine the much broader problem of gun violence in America,” said Webster, who today is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
Spate of mass shootings prompted project
Two days after the shooting, Webster said he received a phone call at home from Ron Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University. In previous positions at other universities, Daniels had worked to bring together “the best researchers and scholars” for summits intended to help determine governmental policy recommendations in the aftermath of two major national tragedies – the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the massive storm that destroyed a large portion of New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf Coast.
Daniels had decided it was time to do something similar in the wake of the Newtown shootings, which left 20 first-graders and six school employees dead – along with the gunman, who killed himself as police arrived on the scene and, officials discovered later, had killed his mother before the rampage at Sandy Hook.
Daniels told Webster that he wanted Johns Hopkins to host a similar summit on gun violence, and that – in the wake of the Connecticut shooting along with several other deadly mass shootings during the previous months in Colorado, Washington State and New Mexico – the time to do it was now.
Webster and his staff sacrificed time with their families over the Christmas holidays to identify the top experts in the field and ask them to write papers to present at the national forum planned for Jan. 14 – exactly one month after Newtown.
“It was remarkable,” Webster recalled. “We started about Dec. 20 making the calls across the U.S., Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and Scotland. Even though it was the holidays ... we didn’t get a single ‘no.’ They, too, recognized that this was a unique moment in history.”
The two-day summit drew 450 people and untold others who joined the online simulcast; day one was broadcast on C-SPAN. On the second day, the experts worked using the data and research collected to draw up recommendations for legislators. These recommendations, as well as the research presented during the summit, culminated in a 273-page book that was published by the Johns Hopkins University Press “in record time,” Webster said.
Reliable, scientific research for policymakers
The book, “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis,” has been distributed to every congressman on Capitol Hill and others involved in shaping national policy, he said.
Webster and his colleague, Jon S. Vernick, were co-editors of the book; they and their staff completed the book in about two weeks and sent it to press.
In his preface to the book, Daniels gives his reasoning for placing Johns Hopkins into the fray of the polarizing, emotional debate on gun violence and gun control that has been waging in the United States for decades.
This kind of work, Daniels writes, is a “critical role of research universities ... We wanted to use the opportunity to cut through the din of the shrill and the incendiary, the rancorous and the baseless, and provide rigorous, research-based considerations of the most effective gun regulations and the appropriate balance between individual rights and civic obligation.”
Each of the 19 chapters of the book – which includes a forward by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the namesake of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School for Public Health because of the substantial financial support he has given to the university through his Bloomberg Philanthropic Foundation – include in-depth studies on the effectiveness of gun policies in the United States, in terms of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals and dealing with high-risk weapons such as assault rifles. Also included are studies of the effectiveness of gun-control policies in other countries – such as Brazil, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Other sections deal with the Second Amendment and public opinion on gun policy.
The reason for the haste: To get research-based information and recommendations to policymakers – i.e., U.S. congressmen – quickly to help so that effective policies can be made through federal legislation.
“I think many are frustrated that everything seems to go nowhere,” Webster said. The debate “is driven by emotion. We wanted to look at specifics, how we can strengthen laws in ways that help. People assume that it’s a hopeless cause, but that’s not consistent with the evidence. Nothing is 100-percent fool-proof, but [there are laws] that do help reduce the availability of guns and violence.”
Recommendations don’t focus
on law-abiding gun owners
The key to winning the battle, he said, is for both sides to focus “on what we agree upon, instead of what we disagree on.”
The fear that all guns will be banned is unrealistic and irrelevant, Webster said. “The Supreme Court has said you can’t ban guns” completely, so focusing on that aspect is “not productive.”
He said the National Rifle Association, which is well-funded by gun manufacturers, makes statements to scare people into thinking they will lose the right to own guns. The scare tactics work to increase donations to the NRA and boost gun sales, Webster said. “But it doesn’t solve the problem.”
For the most part, reasonable laws can curb gun violence without bans, and Webster said the goal of the book and the recommendations that were the result of the summit have nothing to do with “disarming law-abiding citizens.”
Webster has been working with Vice President Joe Biden’s task force on the gun control issue, and testified Feb. 12 before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Last week he attended a briefing with congressional staffers, and already he has appeared on CNN, PBS News Hour and briefly on NBC’s Today Show since the book went to print.
“Clearly, people wanted what we have done,” Webster said.
In the summary of his testimony, entitled “Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence: Protecting Our Communities While Respecting the Second Amendment,” Webster told lawmakers that “Congress could significantly reduce the availability of guns to dangerous individuals” by enacting recommendations such as “requiring background checks for all firearms sales, strengthening the laws against illegal straw purchasing [straw buyers are those who buy weapons for others who cannot pass background checks] and gun trafficking, and doing away with all laws that offer special protections that law-abiding gun dealers don’t need and scofflaw dealers don’t deserve.
“Evidence demonstrates that these reforms would translate into fewer lives lost, safer streets and homes, increased quality of life, and reduce government expenditures on health care, disability payments, criminal justice and corrections,” Webster continued. “Furthermore, the reforms would not involve unreasonable burdens on law-abiding gun owners and are supported by the vast majority of Americans including large majorities of gun owners.”
So far, it’s unclear whether Kentucky’s two senators – Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul – have read the book. No reply was received in response to an e-mail to Paul’s staff asking if he’s seen the book. A spokeswoman for the McConnell camp said the senator looks forward to reviewing it.”
Webster’s book is available in paperback, audio CD and as an e-book at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.
What the researchers found ...
•Firearm-related deaths and injuries in the United States resulted in medical and lost-productivity expenses of about $37 billion in 2005. With lost quality of life, psychological and emotional trauma, decline in property values and other legal and societal consequences factored in, that amount in 2010 was estimated at $174 billion, with the government absorbing $12 billion of those costs.
•A Harvard University study by Matthew Miller, Ph.D., indicates that the homicide rate in the United States is nearly seven times higher than the average homicide rate in other high-income countries. That’s because the rate of homicides with firearms is 20 times higher than the average rate in those same countries.
•Studies show that the U.S. rates of robbery, sexual assault, aggravated assault, burglary, car theft and adolescent fighting are not significantly different from the rates of those crimes in other high-income countries.
•A 2004 study of state prison inmates who were incarcerated for crimes committed with handguns showed that only 9.9 percent of those offenders reported having stolen the guns they used in the crimes. Eighty percent said they acquired their handguns from unlicensed private sellers, a category of sellers that federal law exempts from requiring background checks and record-keeping.
•Studies show that in states with gun-sales regulations, fewer guns are diverted from the legal market to the illegal market. Gaps in federal laws, however, undermine the success of the regulations by allowing trafficking of firearms from states with weaker gun-control laws to those with stronger ones.
•Brazil accounts for 13 percent of the world’s firearms homicides, though it only has 2.8 percent of the world’s population. In spite of opposition to gun-control laws similar to the opposition in the United States, the Brazil Ministry of Justice in 2003 began implementing a series of controls on firearms. Firearm homicides have dropped 15 percent, from 39,284 in 2003 to 34,300 in 2010.
Some policies recommended ...
•Establish a universal background check system, requiring background checks for all people purchasing a firearm. (Inheritance would be the exception.)
•Establish federal licensing for all gun dealers.
•Increase maximum time for FBI to complete background checks from three to 10 business days.
•Require all firearm owners to report the theft or loss of a firearm within 72 hours of becoming aware of loss.
•Require background checks for buyers, even those with a license to carry a firearm or permit to purchase.
•Prohibit those convicted of violent crimes from purchasing firearms for specific periods; those violating restraining orders issued for violence or threats of violence would be prohibited from buying firearms for life.
•Establish a minimum age of 21 for handgun purchase or possession.
•Fully fund federal incentives for states to provide information about disqualifying mental health conditions to the National Instant Check System for gun buyers.
•Make it easier to prosecute dealers who make unlawful sales.
•Grant ATF the authority to develop a range of sanctions for gun dealers who violate sales or other laws
•Repeal the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which provides gun dealers and manufacturers protection from liability.
•Repeal federal restrictions on access to firearms trace data, other than for ongoing criminal investigations
•Ban the sale of assault weapons, using a more carefully crafted definition; ban the sale and possession of large-capacity (greater than 10 rounds) magazines.