Editorial: Strengthen data used to make gun rules
With the right to carry concealed weapons in Illinois just a couple of weeks away, two points of concern stand out from our series, Guns in the Suburbs. One is the simple lack of reliable information about the presence of guns in society, and the second, related to that, is the severe uncertainty of data available regarding gun use and crime.
Examination of the available data does offer some interesting conclusions. Licensed firearm owners are more prevalent, for example, in rural and exurban areas, where gun crimes may be more rare. Licensing gives us some idea of the number of gun owners in our midst, but almost no idea of the number of guns. And licensing enables the state to maintain some very useful information about who owns guns in Illinois, but constitutional issues -- and they are reasonable ones -- limit the availability of the information to the local agencies where it could be most valuable.
These are all important observations. But they all also suffer from a common shortcoming -- the lack of, or difficulty producing detailed statistics about the gun profile in Illinois.
Interestingly, the issue of withheld information about specific FOID card holders may be the easiest to understand. The privacy concerns that legal, properly licensed gun owners have about the government keeping a specific database on them are legitimate and reasonable in a society that values freedom from government intrusion in its citizens' private lives. But some other protections could be built into our management of guns that would, first, help law enforcement authorities better protect their communities and second, help us all better understand the specific role, and degree of threat, of guns in society.
Most disconcerting is the lack of record keeping required about the use of guns in crime. The only statistics currently mandated are those tracking gun deaths -- useful data, to be sure, but hardly representative of the degree to which guns are involved in crime and injury. Some local police departments do maintain records -- and it's worth noting those involved in our research were cooperative in providing what they have -- but there is no requirement for that nor any consistency among departments about what information should be tracked.
Add to that the fact that much of the information we do have about gun ownership is years out of date, and it's clear that the documentary foundation for the decisions we make about guns is woefully inadequate. That foundation may be just as likely to speak for the liberalization of gun control measures as for the tightening of them. But without it, the debate regarding guns in the suburbs -- or anyplace else in America -- is significantly hampered and largely reduced to speculation and personal prejudice.
As legislators and policymakers look to evaluate the effects of relaxed gun regulations in Illinois, one of the first places they need to focus attention is on strengthening the depth and reliability of the data used in the evaluation.