Gun policy discussions in the United States have been oversimplified into dichotomies such as an either-or choice between “good guys” and “bad guys.” Positions are taken, and decisions are made, on the pretense that the world can always be divided into two groups. There is a widespread us-versus-them mentality when it comes to gun policy: gun owners vs. non-owners, gun advocates vs. gun grabbers, law-abiding citizens vs. criminals. You are either pro-gun or anti-gun and there is little in between.

This dichotomous, or “black-and-white,” thinking is a common and often helpful way for people to organize difficult aspects of our reality. It makes complex issues simple and decision making easier. The problem, however, is that it often discards vital aspects of an issue in pursuit of simplicity. It also keeps us unaware of all the potential solutions to a problem. Put simply, it is a poor way to resolve any policy issue in a pluralistic society like the United States.

What You Need To Know

Many people involved in our gun policy debate keep this “good” vs. “bad” mindset alive. Lobbyists, pundits, researchers and politicians often reduce the discussion to an either-or choice.

Some research claims shootings and deaths are caused by “bad guys”—criminals or self-destructive individuals, not regular people. One statistical analysis of gun policy divides our population into two groups: potential criminals and potential victims. Another analysis proposes the sole benefit of owning a gun is reducing one’s chance of being assaulted, with the only risks being an increased likelihood of suicide or gun accident. In suicide, the dichotomous mindset claims there are two types of people who attempt suicide – those who really want to die, and those who don’t.

Politicians claim criminals don’t abide by any laws so any restriction on gun availability does nothing but keep good people from protecting their families.

What Line Divides “Good” from “Bad”?

Since there’s no certain, obvious way to distinguish “good” people from “bad” people, where should gun policy draw the line concerning who is legally able to obtain, carry, and use a firearm? We have not adequately discussed this question.

Should individuals with violent misdemeanor convictions be allowed to own and carry firearms? Should police chiefs whose officers have responded to multiple 911 calls to the home of an individual known to be violent have the discretion to deny him a concealed carry permit? A strong case can be made that the line we have drawn for who can legally have a guns is too close to the “bad guy.”

For example, a study found that although the vast majority of homicide perpetrators in Chicago have long arrest records, most do not have felony convictions, meaning they probably could have passed a Brady background check. Another study found that 60% of inmates in state prisons for gun offenses could have passed a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) review the moment before their most recent arrest. Yet most of the individuals in both studies were well known to the criminal justice system.

Although there are some extremely violent individuals in our society, most gun killings—especially if we include gun accidents and suicides—are done by people who are not obvious “bad guys.” Even for gun homicides alone, a NICS background check—the current cut-off for flagging people who pose the highest risk—fails to identify most eventual perpetrators.

Download PDF of Key Points

Expanding the Discussion

Of course, most of the real discussions should not focus on good and not-so-good individuals, but what various individuals and institutions can do to reduce the violence – what can gun manufacturers, gun dealers, gun trainers, gun owners, foundations, faith communities, hospitals, women’s groups, and many others do? Until we have that serious discussion, we may never come close to achieving our society’s potential for gun violence prevention.

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Phyllis Kisor

All debates and comments I see seem to focus on the immediate and we all seem to assume short term solutions for issues that are much larger. I think there is a great need to discuss the "what ifs", at all levels--individual, societal, group, law enforcement, government, etc. We have reached a mindset in this country I call 'my way or the highway' which rejects discussion and demands acceptance. My concerns with guns and gun control seem to have a different focus from what I generally hear from those holding the podium, for instance what happens when governments abuse their power and their citizens? Look at the Middle East. What happens when people are oppressed and they have no legal recourse except sticks and stones against tanks, etc. How as a society, we promote violence via the media without any counter balances of military service, time spent attending trama victims of violence, etc. Guns are tools. People use tools wisely or unwisely. People have or should be individually responsible for their decisions regarding the use of any tool. Are we making individuals safe but putting ourselves in an extremely vulnerable position with regard to terrorism, and other issues of dominance? Disarming the world was a great goal in the 60's. But is it realistic? What if ISIS and/or other terrorist groups decided to fight us on American soil? Do we believe that our government, the military, the police are enough to protect us? Or do we just deny the possibilities and move forward? Gun control changes a society, not always for the better. Removing guns leaves a void that will eventually be filled. History tells us a bit about power vacuums, if we only read.

Kimberly Cohens, MSW SP2 97'

I welcome and join the topic and discussion on gun policy debate. I guess I can say I honestly seat on either side of the debate and I have my own personal story: I was residing in Gainesville, Florida 1989, and a serial killer had been murdering female students in and around the neighborhood where me and my two children lived, scared for my safety I purchased a small 22 pistol, the gun was registrar in my name. I was not informed that the laws during this time where that you had to have the gun in a holster If kept in a vehicle, so when an ex-boyfriend came to my home and snacked a pair of earrings from my ear, it was me that called the police for assistance but I ended up charged with the crime of carrying an "unconcealed" gun and simple assault charges", now 30 years later the Department of Florida has refuse to expunge these records and this has affected my abilities to some how move forward in my career in helping others in the field of Social Policy. I welcome feedback from my SP2 classmates on this topic and how we can affect change in a culture that is equally divided.

Gerald Euster, DSW, Distinguished Professor Emeritus , Univ. South Carolina

Terrific discussion! Unfortunately, gun manufacturers, dealers,trainers, those who run gun shows, NRA, together make billions of dollars that support millions of people. They will not give up this financial gain. Indeed, the right to bear arms is a simple, convenient way to base the argument that all people need more and more deadly weapons to defend themselves. This is, perhaps, a rather simplistic perspective on the issue by a retired professor of social work.
About the author

Susan B. Sorenson, PhD

Dr. Susan B. Sorenson has a unique interdisciplinary background in epidemiology, sociology, and psychology. She moved to Penn in 2006 after more than 20 years at the UCLA School of Public Health. Since 1986, she has taught a graduate course in family and sexual violence – the first violence prevention course in a school of public health in the nation. She currently teaches three courses that she developed: Foundations of Public Health, Guns & Health, and Non-stranger Violence. With more than 100 publications to her credit, Professor Sorenson has published widely in the epidemiology and prevention of violence, including the areas of homicide, suicide, sexual assault, child abuse, battering, and firearms. A primary focus of her work is the social context in which violence occurs, specifically, the norms that shape whether and how violence is tolerated.