Southwestern Pennsylvania loves its guns. And for many Democrats outside Pittsburgh’s City limits, that part of the region’s culture has become a stumbling block to winning public office.
Throughout his campaign, Conor Lamb — the Democratic candidate for March’s special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th district — has maintained a trend of vagueness on gun policy. Lamb occupies a rare position in which he can help shift the national debate on gun violence in a positive direction, but he has so far seemed unwilling to do so.
In an interview with the New York Post after securing the Democrats’ nomination in December, Lamb said he’s “pro-Second Amendment,” but added that we “need to have the conversation” about gun regulation — a statement that’s essentially meaningless in signaling gun policies he might support. His first TV ad, released last month, showed him shooting an AR-15 at an outdoor range with the narrator saying Lamb, a military veteran, “still loves to shoot” — an equally empty statement.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Lamb claimed that new gun laws are not the answer to mass shootings. But he declined to provide specific solutions, scoring a hat trick in disappointing ambiguities.
“What I think it’s going to take is people in Congress who are willing to do more than just talk, who are willing to actually work together and stay late, if it requires that,” Lamb said at a campaign event in Carnegie last Friday. “Do some things that would really produce change.”
Conor Lamb is continuing a frustrating pattern of lawmakers reiterating the need to talk about guns but never actually initiating that conversation. His opposition to bans on high-capacity magazines or assault weapons doesn’t add anything to the debate if he doesn’t bring up evidence supporting his position or volunteer effective alternatives.
It wouldn’t be hard for Lamb to find that evidence. A 2004 evaluation from the Justice Department looking at the decade-long federal assault weapons ban concluded that “should it be renewed, the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” A 2016 Utah State University study on federal and state assault weapon bans found that these laws are not linked to reduced likelihood of the use of assault weapons in mass shootings. The best ballpark estimate on a sustained long-term high capacity magazine ban put the optimistic reduction on gun violence at just 1 percent — a disproportionately low return on the immense political cost required to pass such a regulation.
Lamb, a competitive Democratic candidate running with the nation’s eyes on him in a strongly red district, has an opportunity to break out of the tired script on gun control that establishment Democrats and Republicans have followed for nearly 30 years. He clearly understands the need to play a balancing act to avoid the ire of gun owners, but he can still champion policies that wouldn’t jeopardize his candidacy while delivering effective solutions to gun violence.
He could easily talk about suicide prevention initiatives that partner public health officials with gun rights advocates, working to reduce the stigma for at-risk gun owners to reach out for help. Suicides comprise two-thirds of the roughly 30,000 firearm deaths in America, and existing research already suggests that this approach is more receptive and effective than standard public health messages in encouraging suicidal gun owners to seek help.
Laws disarming individuals subject to domestic violence restraining orders are linked with 22 percent reductions in firearm intimate partner homicides. If Lamb wants to address domestic violence, he should follow the lead of lawmakers in South Carolina, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Oregon and Washington state who have worked with gun rights advocates to curtail the gun rights of domestic abusers.
Gun violence restraining orders can also be issued against individuals suspected of planning mass shootings by allowing law enforcement to temporarily disarm violent individuals after a court hearing, preserving due process while promoting public safety. The intense focus on mental health in the aftermath of shootings misses the point — existing research consistently notes that signs of diagnosable acute mental illnesses are absent across the majority of perpetrators. Instead, these are overwhelmingly angry and disturbed young men who desire fame and hint at their intentions beforehand.
Gun violence restraining orders can grant family and friends the tools they need to prevent a tragedy in the critical period when a potential shooter signals their plans. Most recently, conservatives and gun rights advocates, including veteran and National Review writer David French, have championed GVROs as a worthwhile policy to pursue.
Firearm homicides clustered in urban minority communities exponentially dwarf the death toll from mass shootings but rarely receive the kind of national attention they deserve, revealing a troubling racial disparity in reporting on gun violence. If Lamb wanted to tackle the bulk of firearm homicides, he could promote focused deterrence strategies — an approach that has earned the rare “effective” rating by the National Institute of Justice.
These data-driven strategies directly address the social contexts behind violent crime while implementing the latest in criminology research, which confirms that a small and predictable network of frequent repeat offenders commits the overwhelming majority of gun crime. By approaching these networks directly and giving them options outside of incarceration, American communities have a better shot at reducing the toll of gun violence.
Effective gun violence prevention strategies don’t always require controversial gun restrictions, and the gun laws aimed at domestic violence hold promise for Lamb to work with his Republican colleagues to reduce violence. If Lamb thinks the solution to gun violence can be reached by “people in Congress who are willing to do more than just talk,” he can start by talking about it himself.
Jeremy primarily writes on gun policy and violent crime for The Pitt News. Write to Jeremy at firstname.lastname@example.org.