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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: We need to track the impact of gun laws

Last Tuesday, a 2-year-old boy reached into his mother’s purse, unzipped the special gun pouch and triggered another debate about firearms.

The sheer horror of this event is difficult to comprehend. The family of Veronica Rutledge, who died when she was accidentally shot at a Wal-Mart in Hayden, will be dealing with the aftershocks for many years, and will need the support of everyone around them.

The 29-year-old chemical engineer – and former high school valedictorian – does not neatly fit into the category of a witless, careless parent.

Like many Idahoans, Rutledge grew up around guns and respected them. She and her husband cherished their Second Amendment rights. She followed Idaho’s rules by getting a concealed carry permit. One requirement is proof of firearms training. Washington state has no such requirement, but should.

In the 19th century, many states banned the carrying of concealed weapons, but all states now allow citizens to carry firearms, with varying levels of restrictions. Gun restrictions have been generally eased over the past couple of decades, but good data on the impact of this trend simply aren’t available. As a result, it’s become a frustrating battle of anecdotes, “what if” scenarios, and loose correlations between gun-toting and public safety.

For instance, how often does a child accidentally shoot someone? As Mark Graham of The Atlantic recently wrote, we simply don’t know with any certainty. Last year, when a 9-year-old girl gunned down a weapons instructor with an Uzi at an Arizona shooting range, the Washington Post tried to discover how often children unintentionally shoot others. Answer: Nobody knows for sure.

“We know how many times children die each year as a result of gun deaths,” Jon S. Vernick, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, told the Post. “We don’t know how many times children pull the trigger and someone dies.”

It appears that no state or local agency compiles data this way. Last summer, Congress considered giving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention $10 million to collect more comprehensive data on gun violence, but this sensible public health step fell victim to election-year politics. This is due, in part, to the fear that data collection would be a slippery slope to gun confiscation. But what if such data revealed that more guns make society safer? That’s certainly the claim of gun-rights groups, so let’s find out.

The Atlantic reports, “Research for more than a decade has found that accidental shooting deaths are consistently undercounted.”

We pass all manner of laws with follow-up studies and progress reports. Idaho recently liberalized the right to carry guns on college campuses. It should track the consequences.

The wise adage “We measure what we value” should apply to gun legislation, too. It’s a thoughtful, rational response to an emotional issue.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.
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