Opinion | SGB picks empty talk over data-driven solutions


Sarah Cutshall | Visual Editor

SGB released a letter addressed to lawmakers last December calling for stricter regulations on assault weapon sales.

By Jeremy Wang, Assistant Opinions Editor

The University of Pittsburgh Student Government Board released a letter this past December in response to the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in October, calling for “stricter regulation on the sale of assault weapons, including but not limited to” a background-check expansion, the closure of the gun show loophole and a bump-stock ban.

But an apparent failure to properly research the subject led SGB to neglect more effective policies while advocating for ones which experts have little confidence in and SGB itself lacks the understanding to defend. Even the wording of the letter suggests a misunderstanding of the policies supposedly meant to regulate “the sale of assault weapons.”

“None of the proposals deal with assault weapons,” Adam Winkler, professor of law at UCLA and nationally recognized expert on gun policy, wrote in an email after reading the letter. “Bump stocks are related to assault weapons, but it isn’t clear why the letter focuses on bump stocks. They are rarely used and the Trump Administration has already decided to ban them.”

Assault weapons are a politically defined category of guns based on aesthetics and ergonomic features like bayonet mounts or adjustable shoulder stocks, which don’t change a gun’s function. A gun could be considered an assault weapon — or not — simply due to its appearance rather than function. A 2004 Justice Department-funded study on the nationwide assault weapons ban from 1994 to 2004 found no clear evidence it saved lives.

“Should it be renewed,” the report concluded, “the ban’s effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

Leading gun control groups have moved away from supporting an assault weapons ban to focus on policies that will save more lives.

Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, emphasized a move away from assault weapon control in a statement to ProPublica. Instead, background checks were a more valuable strategy to the Brady Campaign.

“We’ve very much changed our strategy to focus on public safety measures that will save the most lives,” Shannon Watts, head of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, said to ProPublica, adding that an assault weapons ban is a “non-starter.”

SGB attempted to address background checks but didn’t elaborate on a call for them to be “comprehensive, stringent and intrusive.” Where SGB did get specific, it focused exclusively on the “gun show loophole.”

The term “gun show loophole” is a misnomer. Nothing about gun shows suspends background check requirements. The term refers to unregulated private sales with no background checks that can occur anywhere, not just at gun shows. Despite that, SGB threw its support behind H.R. 1612, a bill that would require background checks for private sales — but only at gun shows and their “curtilage,” legal jargon for the land around a structure such as the parking lot.

In effect, H.R. 1612 would allow ill-intentioned individuals who met at a gun show to conduct a perfectly legal private sale with no background check just a block away.

Even if SGB wanted to focus on gun shows, it’s unclear why they warrant special attention over the broader issue of private sales. A 2011 study found no evidence that gun shows had an effect on gun violence “in both Texas and California, despite the fact that California arguably has the strictest gun show regulations while Texas’s regulations are among the least stringent.”

Jon Shaiken, operations director of SGB, defended the letter by mentioning the bipartisan support for background checks from Republicans like Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. When asked about assault weapon regulation at a SGB meeting Dec. 4, 2018, Shaiken also claimed it enjoyed bipartisan support.

“Well, as I said before, the bipartisan support comes from people like Pat Toomey,” he said.

Toomey has never voted for regulations on assault weapons.

“[Pat Toomey] is skeptical of legislation that limits the ability law abiding citizens have to purchase popular firearms,” Steven Kelly, press secretary for Toomey, wrote in an email.

The missteps by SGB to fact-check raise eyebrows. Yet the most disappointing failure is the apparent lack of emphasis on the most important part of gun violence prevention: evidence for lives saved.

When SGB was asked at the same meeting to cite any research study on any of the listed proposals, not a single one could be named.

“Not specifically,” Maggie Kennedy, president of SGB, said. “I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was that we were looking at.”

Shaiken claimed SGB had “sought advice from the experts,” but instead of dedicated academic researchers, these “experts” turned out to be Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania’s 14th District, gun control lobbying group Ceasefire PA and student organization Students Demand Action at Pitt.

There are many bipartisan proposals that are more effective at saving lives. At least three high-profile mass shootings have occured when perpetrators should have failed their background checks but missing records in the system let them slip through. The bipartisan Fix NICS Act of 2017 was introduced to add accountability measures to improve the background check database but when it was packaged with other gun legislation, it stalled. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has called for Fix NICS to be passed on its own.

Domestic violence is a major source of gun violence, but there aren’t enough federal measures that target abusers. Disarming individuals subject to restraining orders is linked to a 22-percent reduction in intimate partner firearm homicides. Even the National Rifle Association helped write state laws to address this.

Suicides make up the majority of gun deaths in America and research shows that public health messages about reducing firearm suicides are more successful if they acknowledge the values of gun owners like gun rights and responsible gun ownership. States like Vermont and New Hampshire have partnered gun owners and public health experts to identify suicide risk while destigmatizing mental health treatment.

The questionable research done by SGB missed these promising solutions and demonstrates an apparent failure to fundamentally understand the issue at hand. But that doesn’t seem to be something SGB is willing to admit.

“We don’t pretend to know or say that we have all of the solutions or that this is the extent or that this will solve all of the problems, or that even putting these in place would have necessarily prevented all of these different acts of gun violence,” Kennedy said.

This was more than a waste of letterhead. This was a wasted opportunity to promote promising and badly needed solutions to gun violence. The result is a list of proposals that leading experts are reluctant to place any confidence in. This lack of confidence is something SGB seems to share.

Jeremy primarily writes on law enforcement and violent crime (and tacos) for The Pitt News. Write to Jeremy at [email protected]