Dr. Michael Siegel: Dispelling Common Myths About Gun Ownership & Gun Culture
Safety in Numbers
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From an outsider’s perspective, gun violence prevention policy seems like a highly polarized issue. That’s what Dr. Michael Siegel thought when he first started studying firearm policy in 2012.
Over the course of his career, Dr. Siegel, a faculty member in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine, focused his research on tobacco, alcohol, and firearms. Through this, he worked to understand the way corporations influence health—especially in advertising and marketing—and develop strategies to counteract them.
In his recent work, Dr. Siegel attempts to dispel the myths of gun ownership and gun culture, which greatly contribute to the lack of effective policy enactment.
Learn more about Dr. Siegel in his own words:
When I first began conducting firearm policy research, I assumed that most gun owners did not support laws restricting the sale of firearms. But after an intensive study of gun owners through two national surveys funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we found that the overwhelming majority of gun owners support policies such as background checks, permit requirements, and extreme risk laws (also known as red flag laws), each of which aims to keep guns out of the hands of people who are at high risk for violence. Despite gun owners’ support for these laws, we found that very few gun owners were willing to express their support publicly. We began to study the reasons behind this disconnect.
Our research has proven that we must debunk myths about gun ownership and gun culture to break the perceived stalemate on the gun issue. Policies like background checks, permits, and extreme risk laws, are common-sense policies that will save lives. Stronger public awareness of these myths can help find proposals that gun owners support and de-alienate gun owners so that they are willing to publicly support gun laws.
Myths About Gun Ownership & Gun Culture
There is a seemingly intractable divide between gun owners and non-gun owners around gun violence prevention policy. With the exception of the recent passage of bipartisan Congressional legislation that included moderate changes to gun laws, this perceived divide has been a major roadblock to the enactment of effective legislation, both at the federal and state levels. However, the existence of this divide is actually a myth.
Myth #1: Gun violence prevention is a highly controversial issue.
Gun violence research is the least controversial area of public health I have ever worked on, including my years spent fighting the tobacco and alcohol industries. Our research has demonstrated that:
- 87 percent of gun owners support background checks for concealed carry permits;
- 81 percent support extreme risk laws;
- 79 percent support prohibiting firearm possession by people subject to domestic violence restraining orders; and
- 77 percent support requiring a permit to purchase a handgun.
These are unprecedentedly high levels of support for any piece of public health legislation. The major policies that aim to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are at high risk of violence are not controversial.
Myth #2: Gun owners are active users of guns.
Our survey found that only 25 percent of gun owners carry concealed weapons, only 16 percent regularly engage in sports or recreational shooting, and only 23 percent participate in any monthly gun-related activity. For many gun owners, the gun is simply owned for self-defense purposes and most of the time is not used or even thought about. This counteracts the public image of gun owners created by the gun lobby and spread through the media that depicts gun owners as people who openly carry their firearms on the streets and talk about gun ownership as the fundamental freedom of Americans. This misleading image has led many policymakers to assume that gun owners will not support any restrictions on the sale or possession of firearms.
Myth #3: To decrease firearm violence, gun culture needs to be eradicated.
Some public health advocates have talked about the dangers of gun culture and the need to eradicate it in order to fight gun violence. However, our survey revealed that there is no single gun culture, but instead there are many different gun cultures. And most of these are not harmful. There is no evidence that sports shooting, target shooting, gun collecting, or hunting are contributing to firearm violence.
Gun owners know the most about guns and the processes by which they are bought, sold, and used. We need the input of gun owners to craft legislation that will be effective. It is time to bring gun owners into the public coalition of supporters of effective gun policies. This means listening to what they have to say and taking their concerns into consideration in designing legislation.
The Public Health Implications of These Myths
These myths have two devastating implications for public health:
- They have confused the public and policymakers into believing that the gun issue is controversial and that there is an intractable divide that cannot be overcome.
- They have led gun owners to feel alienated and therefore not to speak out publicly in favor of gun legislation that they privately support. This deadly combination has led to inertia in Congress and many state legislatures around firearm prevention legislation, despite the frequency of mass shootings and the daily toll of gun violence. However, the recent passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act by Congress suggests that progress may now be possible.
It is by dispelling these myths that we can bring gun owners and non-gun owners together in a united effort to promote legislation that will be effective in reducing gun violence. Our work has demonstrated that there is plenty of common ground upon which to build a platform of effective policies.
The Next Steps
The next step in our research is to identify the common ground that unites gun owners and non-gun owners and to develop a platform of effective gun policies that stems from this common ground. Then, our goal is to actually convene a forum for gun owners and non-gun owners to craft a package of legislation that could be promoted widely with the public support of gun owners. We believe that gaining the support of gun owners for firearm legislation will be the game changer that gets us out of the current political divide.
About Dr. Siegel
Michael Siegel, M.D., M.P.H., is a faculty member in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Previously, he spent 26 years as a faculty member in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. His research has focused on alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. Tying this work together is the study of corporate influences on health—especially advertising and marketing—and strategies to counteract them. More recently, his research has focused on racial inequities in health and the role of structural racism in causing these inequities. His teaching expertise has primarily been in public health advocacy, social and behavioral sciences in public health, social marketing, and health communication.