UChicago engages in national gun policy discussion

Leading policymakers and scholars gathered at a University of Chicago Institute of Politics event on Tuesday, Jan. 15 to discuss the complex issues around gun violence, as part of the wide-ranging engagement by UChicago scholars in the national conversation about gun policy.

At the Institute’s panel discussion, “The Politics of Guns in America,” leaders representing different views in the gun control debate examined ways to reduce gun violence and prevent future tragedies. Panelists included NBC journalist Tom Brokaw, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, University of Chicago Crime Lab Director Jens Ludwig, and former U.S. Rep. Steven LaTourette.

“The horrific tragedy at Newtown has rekindled the national debate on guns that has been going on for half a century,” Institute Director David Axelrod said in his introduction. “All Americans grieve these losses, yet we can’t seem to agree on what to do about them.”


Scholars from the UChicago Crime Lab are especially active in the search for insights and solutions for issues of gun violence. On Sept. 10, Crime Lab Directors Ludwig and Harold Pollack took part in a Chicago meeting with regional law enforcement officials and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin to discuss ways of reducing firearm-related injuries. Ludwig and Pollack also organized a letter from more than 100 scholars to Vice President Joe Biden and the national Gun Violence Commission, calling for an end to restrictions on federal research into firearm-related injuries, and more investment in data collection that could shed light on the problem of gun violence. That letter can be found on the Crime Lab website.

The timeliness of the Jan. 15 Institute of Politics event was underscored as moderator Tom Brokaw conveyed breaking news on the issue from his phone, including reports on new legislative and regulatory proposals from the Obama administration. Brokaw began the discussion with a simple question: “Have we reached a tipping point?”

With diverse views about the usefulness of gun restrictions, the panelists sparked an engaging discussion about how policymakers should focus their energies. Emanuel noted the importance of closing loopholes in the federal requirement for background checks, while Chapman and LaTourette worried about the effect of proposed restrictions on law-abiding gun owners. Chapman said stopping illegal gun sales should be a top priority, and LaTourette stressed the need for more mental health resources.

Ludwig said the porousness of state borders for the movement of guns means that federal action could have a significant impact. “Aside from Hawaii, no state is an island,” Ludwig said.

In the end, the panelists agreed that getting policymakers to find a united path forward would be difficult.

“I am not worried that the United States Congress is going to do too much,” said Mayor Emanuel. “The real worry is that this moment could get lost.”

The Obama administration has indicated that expanding research into the causes and prevention of gun violence will be one of its priorities. Ludwig, Pollack and their fellow scholars argued for more such research in their Jan. 10 letter. The scholars who signed the document represent the fields of crime, medicine, public health, economics and public policy.

"The tragedy of gun violence is compounded by the fact that the usual methods for addressing a public health and safety threat of this magnitude—collection of basic data, scientific inquiry, policy formation, policy analysis and rigorous evaluation—are, because of politically motivated constraints, extremely difficult in the area of firearm research," the researchers wrote in their letter to Biden.