Credit: WaPo, Tom Toles
Last New Year’s Eve, in Florida, a mother shot her daughter to death because she thought she was an intruder.
In California, a father killed his son’s bedridden mother, girlfriend and friend before the son wrestled the gun away and killed him.
And just Tuesday morning, an Ohio father shot his son when he returned home from school, believing him to be – you guessed it – an intruder.
The last two weeks has already given a bloody reminder of the stain gun violence has on America, particularly in 2015. Nine African-American parishioners murdered by a white supremacist in a South Carolina church. Two dead at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana. Nine dead at an Oregonian college campus. Five dead at a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado Springs. 14 dead at a San Bernardino office party.
Of course, mass shootings, while the most visible and publicized form of gun violence, are only a small part of the America’s unique problem with gun violence. To deal with the issue properly, you have to understand both the intentional and unintentional harm guns cause and collateral damage that remains stubbornly unaddressed.
It requires us to look beyond our hardline defense of the right to bear arms and instead remember we all first and foremost must protect the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” rights that were denied to each and every victim of gun violence, whether they were students at Virginia Tech, parishioners in South Carolina and children at Sandy Hook. Surely the lives of our fellow Americans, our friends and families, are worth that compromise.
Yet all these deaths seem to pass us by with nary a change. One could be mistaken for thinking politicians’ recitation of “now is not the time” would precede the aforementioned time but it never seems to, as Christopher Ingraham pointed out last July. Instead, another mass shooting occurs, the clock resets to 0 and it isn’t “the time” again. Others argue that the conversation is actually already over, determined by our government’s inaction in the face of the murder of 20 children and six adults.
In the wake of the San Bernardino mass shooting, The New York Times made the controversial decision, for the first time since 1920, to publish an editorial, titled “End the Gun Epidemic in America,” on the front page – traditionally thought the most sacred space in news (before, you know, the Internet happened)
Prominent conservative blogger and radio host Erick Erickson responded by shooting holes in the editorial.
And that, peerless readers, pretty much encapsulates where the American gun debate stands in this controversial and quintessentially American debate.
But, politics aside, if there’s one thing Erick Erickson and The New York Times‘ editorial board should agree on, it’s the desire and need to prevent the deaths of American citizens. Now the means they advocate may be vastly different. But unless the argument is publicly made and compromises reached by both sides – innocent people who could be saved will die and the odds of another unchecked mass shooting increase.
This essay is broken into four parts: 1) the preceding introduction you (hopefully) just read, 2) the Four Questions, 3) where the sides stand and finally 4) what can be done about it.
For both your sake and mine, I’ve broken down this debate to the four most essential questions. Our goal is to follow the evidence wherever it leads us.
- Does America have a gun violence problem?
- Does having a gun make you safer?
- Does having gun laws make you safer?
- Do armed civilians (a “good guy with a gun”) prevent gun violence?
- Q1: Does America have a gun violence problem?
- A: Yes, America has a gun violence problem
There were 33,636 deaths in total from gun violence in the U.S. in 2013 according to the limited Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research available. Let’s put that in perspective: that same year, two cardiologists used data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Small Arms Survey to calculate firearm injuries and guns per capita in 27 developed countries.
The U.S. overwhelmingly has the most guns (88.8 guns per 100 people) and most gun deaths (10.2 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people) of any of the closest comparable countries. In distant second is Switzerland with 45.7 guns per 100 people and 3.84 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Japan has the lowest of both rates, with the former at 0.6 and latter at 0.06.
Going deeper, more than 60 percent of gun deaths are suicides. Since guns are more lethal than most other methods the suicidal try, they result in successful suicides over 90 percent of the time, compared to 5-7 percent for the other assorted methods. Survivors rarely attempt again, making the permanence and ease with which those victims were able to commit suicide all the more tragic.
“Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair,” said David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and director of its Injury Control Research Center (ICRC). “Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.”
Gun deaths of black people are roughly 80 percent more likely to be homicides than suicides while the inverse is true for white people. This makes sense considering ongoing narratives of 2015-16 include both police brutality and gun violence in African-American communities and the heroin epidemic and rampant suicides ravaging Caucasians.
Despite being much more likely to be murdered by gun violence, blacks are only about half as likely as whites to have a firearm in their home (41 percent vs. 19 percent).
But how about mass shootings? How American is this gun violence phenomenon?
Active shooter events – defined by the FBI as a gunman actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area – have been on the rise. According to Mother Jones‘ comprehensive “A Guide to Mass Shootings in America” (seriously, check it out, they also keep a Google Doc with all the requisite info up to date), since 1982, there have been 73 public shootings with four or more victims killed. 36 of those mass shootings have occurred since 2006, and at least half of the deadliest mass shootings in American history have occurred in the past decade, including Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. On November 30 last year, The Washington Post – using a definition of mass shooting as any incident in which at least four people are wounded by gunfire – reported there were more mass shootings in 2015 than days at that point (351 mass shootings in 334 days).
Of the 143 firearms used in Mother Jones‘ documented mass shootings, more than three-quarters were obtained legally. Several passed federal background checks but because of ongoing loopholes, various psychiatric and criminal charges did not appear or were discounted.
Specifically in the case of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof, because of the government’s limited background check powers and the fact that, if a background check is not conducted within three days of a sale the gun seller is legally allowed to just sell the gun anyway, the FBI concluded he should never have been able to purchase the gun that killed nine innocent parishioners.
So America has a gun violence problem but, more broadly, does it have a violence problem?
Yes, America is an unusually violent country and evidence suggests it is connected to the amount of guns. By similar measure, the South is the most violent region.
These graphs by Kieran Healy, a sociologist at Duke University, illustrate both points by measuring assault deaths by country and by region. What’s striking is 1) how both show America and the South are by far outliers in violence among their comparisons and 2) how, nonetheless, crime has dropped steadily over the past 30 years.
That lesser-known fact, somewhat concealed by the public carnage, also belies another change: protection has replaced hunting, 48 percent to 32 percent, as the primary reason to own a gun, despite the violent crime rate dropping steadily over the past several decades.
- Q2: Does having a gun make you safer?
- A: No, having a gun does not make you safer
It is a common refrain among gun advocates that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that, since criminals by definition ignore the law, disarming law-abiding citizens is not only unfair but implicitly fatal.
This fear, combined with the ever-present notion that any gun control proposal, common sense or otherwise, is simply the first step to a confiscation conspiracy, keeps the debate alive and vibrant. Because its premise dictates we are constantly on the precipice of tyranny, gun advocates are more single-mindedly motivated on the issue than their opponents and much more likely to turn out to vote in elections.
Consequently, Americans, as Vox‘s chart title plainly says, own a ridiculous number of guns, accounting for almost half of the civilian-owned guns on the planet.
Nonetheless, there has been consistent research for decades that it is a lack of gun safety that is more likely to cause harm than an intruder or criminal, undermining the argument that the best way to be safe is to own and/or carry a gun for self-defense.
One study from the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that, “For every case of self-protection homicide involving a firearm kept in the home, there were 1.3 accidental deaths, 4.6 criminal homicides, and 37 suicides involving firearms. Hand-guns were used in 70.5 percent of these deaths. The advisability of keeping firearms in the home for protection must be questioned.”
A later one in the same publication also found that,”As a gun owner, you’re 2.7x more likely to kill yourself or a family member rather than an intruder in your home.”
David Hemenway, referenced earlier in this article and considered one of the top gun violence researchers in the country, said the there’s “no question” that the relationship between guns and gun deaths is real.
“It shouldn’t be really a surprise to people,” he said.
(Journal of Health and Social Behavior, “Risks and Benefits of a Gun in the Home“)
Here is an excerpt from an article by Susan Perry in the online newspaper MinnPost that further quotes Hemenway and makes me think we have similar taste in movies.
“There are real and imaginary situations when it might be beneficial to have a gun in the home,” [he] concludes. “For example, in the Australian film Mad Max, where survivors of the apocalypse seem to have been predominantly psychopathic male bikers, having a loaded gun would seem to be very helpful for survival, and public health experts would probably advise people in that world to obtain guns.”
“However, for most contemporary Americans, the scientific studies suggest that the health risk of a gun in the home is greater than the benefit,” he adds. “There are no credible studies that indicate otherwise.”
In addition, there is strong evidence for a simply equation that less guns equals less gun violence. The opposite has been true in states with the laxest gun laws like Missouri and Louisiana, both rank among the highest gun homicide rates in the country. Which leads us to our next question . . .
- Q3: Do gun laws keeep you safer?
- A: Yes, gun laws do keep you safer
Very simply, the states with the most gun laws are heavily correlated the ones with the least gun deaths.
Probably the biggest indicator of gun laws’ effectiveness is what happens when they’re gone, as Missouri found out. A 2014 study from the Johns-Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research found that, after the state repealed a law in 2007 requiring anyone purchasing a handgun to carry a permit verifying they had passed a background check, the murder rate in the state jumped 16 percent – meaning 49 to 63 additional murders per year. The study tracked large increases in the state of gun sales directly between dealers and criminals as well as in guns purchased in Missouri recovered by police in border states with stricter permit procedures.
(Everytown for Gun Safety, “Gun Background Checks Reduce Crime And Save Lives“)
Current federal background checks are required for any gun sold through a licensed seller. However, the infamous “gun show loophole,” originally for private sellers and hobbyists, has been exploited in the age of the Internet to bypass them completely. Approximately 40 percent of gun sales are made without background checks through unlicensed sellers. Because the gun industry largely regulates itself, several unlicensed dealers operate with impunity, selling guns to whomever they wish.
It is accurate that the overwhelming majority of Americans – as many as 90 percent – support federal background checks as a requirement for all gun transactions. Following the rejection of the Manchin-Toomey bill in April 2013 (notably, both senators had “A” ratings from the NRA), the Pew Research Center that the majority of voters among both Democrats and Republicans (81 percent) – favored expanding background checks and a slightly-smaller majority (73 percent) thought new gun laws should have passed.
However, it is also accurate is that there is skepticism ingrained about the laws’ chances in Congress and their effectiveness in action even while supporting them broadly. The same Pew data showed, despite the support explained above in theory, that Americans (specifically Republicans) have in practice been deeply suspect of attempts to make expanded background checks a reality. For example, 77 percent of conservative Republicans supported background checks but only 50 percent supported the Manchin-Toomey bill. Per Pew:
When those who support background checks in general but oppose the Senate legislation (10% of the public) are asked why they do not want to see the bill pass, 20% point to flaws in the legislation. Nearly as many cite worries about individual rights (17%) or say that it would expand government power too much (16%). Another 17% are critical of the legislation’s effectiveness, saying that it will not deter criminals or curb gun violence.
Conclusion: Gun laws are like broccoli. They’re good for your health and you should have them but those facts don’t matter when you hate broccoli*.
*Addendum: My personal theory is that, since gun violence isn’t a curable disease, Americans on both sides of the debate are desensitized not only to it (see: Question 1) but by extension to gun laws. Nobody claims gun laws outright stops gun violence. Why do anything if it won’t solve everything? As the insane troll logic of that statement shows, gun advocates’ arguments are generally based on the promise that violence will always exist therefore why do anything about it?
- Q4: Do armed civilians (a “good guy with a gun”) prevent gun violence?
- No, armed civilians (a “good guy with a gun”) do not widely prevent gun violence
Do armed citizens prevent mass shootings?
To find out, you could ask the FBI, which did a report on active shooter events from 2000-13 and found only 3 percent were stopped by an armed civilian. In fact, more active shooter situations were stopped by unarmed civilians – 13 percent – than not.
The report is a bit dry so, for maximum entertainment value, you could watch The Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper’s aptly-titled segment “Jordan Klepper: Good Guy with a Gun” (a summary is available from Vox by clicking the link).
The “good guy” theory goes that more people should be able to freely defend themselves by whatever means necessary and, in modernity, that means carrying a gun. But many take the theory even further and believe that arming oneself is more than a right, it’s a necessity. It doesn’t help that the primary academic advocate for this idea – John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime – is a well-known crackpot who cherrypicked data to make his false claims.
Research has consistently suggested that more guns mean more gun deaths. Vox notes that this holds true in homicides, suicides, domestic violence and violence against police. The more readily available guns are makes it more likely situations will escalate to lethal violence. In a well-researched column for Politico, University of Texas professor Matt Valentine cited the FBI report “Crime in the U.S., 2014” which found, after analyzing information from 48 states (For some reason, Florida and Alabama declined to share their data) that the most common cause of gun homicide is arguments. Valentine writes:
“The number of people shot to death last year in arguments not during the commission of a felony (1,759) dwarfs the number shot to death in gang violence (667) and the number shot to death in drug trafficking (298)—combined. These are arguments over things like radio-controlled-car races, candy, inheritance of a tractor and road rage. What do you suppose will happen when we add to that milieu armed confrontations over grades, hazing and college breakups?”
Analysis of further FBI data by The Washington Post found that for every justifiable gun homicide, guns are used to commit 34 murders and 78 suicides. In interviews with combat veterans and former law enforcement regarding the Hollywood gunslinger fantasy, The Nation writer Joshua Holland found the distinction they made was not between “good guys” and “bad guys,” but between the trained and the untrained. Shockingly, it turns out that making life-or-death decisions in the most stressful moments of life can be really difficult. Commands aren’t communicated, cover isn’t taken, shots miss wildly etc.
Of course, all of this does not mean an armed citizens have never once stopped shooters. There are certainly recorded cases of it happening, as Eugene Volokh in The Washington Post listed. But to say that it is proof of the aforementioned good guy theory is false. This topic is a nebulous one because some will argue that many “prevented” crimes or shootings aren’t reported, the real research and statistics just isn’t available. Even if the information and data existed on the topic, mass shootings account for only 1 percent of the annual homicide rate and are unusually impervious to lawful detection and prevention. After all, it’s hard to stop someone who is essentially on a suicide mission.
Four questions, done and dusted. The information is there. Now, where does the fight against gun violence stand? How does the terrain stack up? What obstacles remain?
The reign of the NRA
In few other advanced countries in the world is the gun worshipped as much as it is in the United States. Some of it is our history as “rugged individualists” in search of manifest destiny. But most of it is the extremely successful and effective propaganda campaign by the National Rifle Association (NRA).
The power of the NRA can be best summarized by the fact that, after the murder of 20 children and 6 adults at Newtown and the following bipartisan legislative failure, public opinion of the NRA did not change.
According to an in-depth Politico essay by president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the author of The Second Amendment: A Biography, Michael Waldman and contrary to the NRA’s narrative, the Founding Fathers never intended to create unregulated access to firearms by writing the 2nd Amendment.
“A fraud on the American people,” was how Chief Justice Warren Burger described it on PBS in 1990.
Prior to 1977, the NRA was focused on gamesmanship, competition and training. In fact, it was founded by Union soldiers post-Civil War primarily as a way to train others. Then, a rise of hardline ideologues took over leadership in 1977 and that was when the 2nd Amendment became the focal point of their efforts.
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
In conception by luminaries such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, it’s purpose was primarily appeasement to the Antifederalists, states-rights supporters who advocated state militias to oppose a tyrannical federal government. Ironically, the NRA inscription of the Amendment at its headquarters leaves off the first part (a.k.a. the subject of the Amendment) and instead uses an ellipses to get to their favorite part: “. . . the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Selective editing at it’s best.
From 1888 to 1959, it was “common law” that the 2nd Amendment did not give the unregulated right to a firearm. The first case that argued it was by a law student in 1960 using literature published by the NRA. In the 1970s, this leak became a flood and money began flowing to academics and others to verify the previously-unthinkable position – that the 2nd Amendment had been interpreted wrong for 200 years.
Reagan was the first person to advocate the position in the run-up to the 1976 election and as such, in 1980 received the NRA’s first presidential endorsement. Waldman elaborates:
As the revisionist perspective took hold, government agencies also began to shift. In 1981, Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in 24 years. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch became chair of a key Judiciary Committee panel, where he commissioned a study on “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms.” In a breathless tone it announced, “What the Subcommittee on the Constitution uncovered was clear—and long lost—proof that the second amendment to our Constitution was intended as an individual right of the American citizen to keep and carry arms in a peaceful manner, for protection of himself, his family, and his freedoms.” The cryptologist discovering invisible writing on the back of the Declaration of Independence in the Disney movie National Treasure could not have said it better.
It was only in 2008 that a group of libertarian lawyers to the right of even the NRA took a perfectly-packaged case – District of Columbia v. Heller – to the US Supreme Court. On June 26, 2008, they ruled 5-4 that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a right to own a weapon “in common use” to protect “hearth and home.”
Opponents have learned lessons from the NRA and, since Sandy Hook, liberal donors like Michael Bloomberg and gun control groups, such as Everytown For Gun Safety and Sandy Hook Promise, have risen politically active proponents. This also reflects the political realities. As opposed to the NRA, gun control advocates have moderated themselves, as Jason Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker.
What is true is that the N.R.A. at last has worthy opponents. The gun-control movement is far more pragmatic than it once was. When the N.R.A. took up the banner of gun rights, in the seventies, gun-control advocates were openly prohibitionist. (The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was originally called the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.) Today, they’re respectful of gun owners and focussed on screening and background checks. That’s a sensible strategy. It’s also an accommodation to the political reality that the N.R.A. created.
As part of the NRA’s efforts to undermine the opposition, they and the gun industry lobbied Congress in 1996 to eliminate the $2.6 million appropriation that underwrote the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) research on firearm injuries. President Obama ended the funding freeze in 2013, and Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Research Program at the University of California, Davis, told NBC that private funding for gun research has also spiked with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and other high-profile acts of violence.
Meanwhile, the NRA and the gun lobby argue that the CDC research will be biased and slanted. The New York Times called them out for the fear of facts in the aptly-titled Dec. 24 editorial “The Republican Fear of Facts on Guns.” Despite Obama’s actions, until Congress appropriates the funds, the research remains undone and the field has suffered for it.
For example, up until 2004, the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance survey asked people about whether they kept firearms at home and if they were locked up. They no longer do. Because of fear of public attacks or budget-cutting, anything that could be construed as “gun control” research will not go forward. As such, information and data on such things like firearm safety – arguably the best way to reduce injuries and deaths – are lost.
The then-director of the CDC, Mark Rosenberg, and the Republican Congressman from Arkansas who fought to defund it, Jay Dickey, collaborated on a WaPo editorial that detailed their personal history of opposition and eventual friendship. Overtime, they came to understand each other, both as NRA-members and defenders of the 2nd Amendment. Today, both advocate for restoring funding to CDC research. They write:
Our nation does not have to choose between reducing gun-violence injuries and safeguarding gun ownership. Indeed, scientific research helped reduce the motor vehicle death rate in the United States and save hundreds of thousands of lives — all without getting rid of cars. For example, research led to the development of simple four-foot barricades dividing oncoming traffic that are preventing injuries and saving many lives. We can do the same with respect to firearm-related deaths, reducing their numbers while preserving the rights of gun owners.
Last week, President Obama announced executive orders tightening gun regulations within his purview. It clarifies which gun-sellers must obtain federal licensing and perform background checks. It adds new standards on whether a gun-seller qualifies as “engaged in the business” of firearm sales, such as acceptance of credit cards and advertising revenue. It proposes more funding and agents to federal agencies to process background checks 24/7 . He also pushed for innovation in gun safety technology.
The same day, he wrote an editorial for The New York Times.
(The Washington Post: “President Obama’s amazingly emotional speech on gun control“)
He also participated in a CNN town hall focused on gun violence hosted by Anderson Cooper, hearing from diverse voices such as Taya Kyle, the widow of the “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Fr. Michael Pfleger, whose church is in one of the most violent areas of Chicago.
Notably, despite its headquarters being just down the road, the NRA declined to participate, instead choosing to bash Obama from a distance on Fox News. The Hill reported GOP party leaders faced “enormous pressure from the National Rifle Association and other gun-rights activists to take a stand against Obama.”
Despite typical rhetoric of trampled 2nd Amendment rights, gun experts said the move would have a limited impact, with one former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent telling WaPo the move is a “very, very, very small step.” Nevertheless, Harold Pollack, an expert on public health and gun violence at the University of Chicago, told the publication that the moves, while not “transformative,” would be helpful in reducing guns in the gray market.
In addition, the majority of Americans support the president’s actions while holding their typical levels of skepticism.
Pro-gun safety, anti-gun violence
Skepticism remains and by-and-large it is a healthy thing. If only that skepticism were turned on those who believe their assumptions about America, gun rights and the death toll the nation pays for this debate. Guns cannot be separated from the violence they enable.
Our country needs to step back from that arbitrary gun rights vs. gun control binary for a second. It’s become obvious that it is far too polarizing and narrow a prism through which to handle this issue. The conversation has become an either/or, all-or-nothing scenario to both sides. Instead, if progress is to be made, the conversation needs to change.
It’s about saving lives and that means finally curtailing gun violence in America. It’s about avoiding pro-gun, anti-gun nonsense. It is about pro-gun safety, anti-gun violence. This slight perspective shift can bring us together in the middle, where actual solutions occur. Doing nothing is not an option.
I’m a journalist and it’s a role I take seriously, just as seriously as I take my responsibility as an American citizen and a human being. People are dying. And I can’t sit on the sidelines or stay silent while relatively easy steps could be taken to save countless lives.
My personal perspective: I see one side advocating for solutions to the problem and my research into the available evidence points in their favor. I see another side hiding behind weapons, tools of death and in exchange for the carnage of 33,000 deaths the gun lobby facilitates, they offer . . . nothing; vague prayers and halfhearted attempts at mental health reform that never actually gets voted on, let alone enacted.
Meanwhile, when President Obama presented the barest of the bare minimum in regards to gun law reform last week, you would think he was authorizing a confiscation force. It makes a good scare tactic but it’s just not true.
In response to Obama’s executive actions on guns, Donald Trump honestly said “You’re not going to be able to get a gun.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, second in the GOP polls, said something similar.
It cannot be overstated the harm generated by the consistent retreat behind gun barrels and apocalyptic dialogue, as this fundraising pitch from Cruz does. He, Trump and their fellow Republican candidates often resort to same extremist rhetoric aimed at Americans’ gun pleasure centers to get them to look past their atrocious tax policies that radically redistribute wealth upward.
Trump’s and Cruz’s statements are objectively false. A liberal president getting rid of the Second Amendment is as likely as a conservative president adding a constitutional amendment, say, banning gay marriage or requiring a federal government have a balanced budget. It would require a constitutional convention convened by at least 2/3 of the states and the chances of that is nigh impossible.
Nonetheless, the lies pervade and the gun manufacturers profit. Make no mistake, the real “winners” here are the corporations who profit from fear (remember, the number one reason someone buys a gun is self-defense).
To be clear, no one is trying to take away guns. Nor is this week’s announcement a precursor to such a thing. It’s blatant manipulation. Gun sales have soared under Obama’s administration, particularly in last month.
CREDIT: NYT http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/12/10/us/gun-sales-terrorism-obama-restrictions.html?smid=tw-nytimes&smtyp=cur
Gunmakers produced 5.6 million guns in 2009, according to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agency. They produced 10.9 million in 2013. The New York Times reported (via the above link) that the number of sales transactions increased from seven million in 2002 to 15 million in 2013.
Nobody is taking away guns. Rights are not being infringed upon.
It’s a lie.
It’s not true.
The reason this lie is believed is because the NRA has owned this issue up until this point, even though every proposed gun law would, in all likelihood, grandfather all current firearms into the system (seeing as America has more guns than people, if more guns really were the answer, we’d already be the safest country on the planet).
One reason Republicans and pro-gun advocates win is because it is make-or-break emotional gut reaction hardwired by years of partisanship. If you even mention gun control (or elect a Democrat as president), they will turn out in droves and form militias because they believe government tyranny and the apocalypse is sure to follow, because of the NRA campaign fermenting radical beliefs about gun rights for decades. The emotional, reactive approach is seen in its policies at curbing gun violence, per The New York Times, include talk of mental health reform and about how more guns make us safer. You’d think if they were so adamant about good guys with guns stopping bad guys with guns, they’d have some kind of mainstream agenda or policy for requiring citizens be trained to handle firearms.
(The New York Times: “Presidential Candidates on Gun Violence“)
By contrast, Democrats, and liberals in general, approach and think mechanically to the point that their presidential candidate can help torpedo an election by not emoting about his wife’s hypothetical death. There’s less emotion than condescension. Beyond presidential elections, this is problematic. This also goes for gun control, where frustration is high but passion drained, in this case by Congressional gridlock. Stymied at the federal level on combating a recurring and unrelenting problem, recent years have seen successes for gun control advocates on a state and local level. Meanwhile, for the first time in its organizational history, the NBA, in collaboration with Michael Bloomberg is throwing its weight behind the issue of gun violence.
You can agree or disagree with President Obama’s use of executive orders on this issue and it will most likely depend on your ideology but it’s easy to understand the frustration of having to give eulogy after public eulogy for lives you believe could have been saved through policy and attitude adjustments. Right or wrong, the frustration, felt by the President and others, is real. The status quo is untenable.
When politicians sell fear, like the GOP candidates, and another calm resolve, like Obama, I instinctively trust the latter and distrust the former. I suspect those who would use fear, a base emotion, to manipulate me. Liberal psychology aside, the point is that making a decision based on fear puts our brains in a binary, flight-or-fight, reactive mindset that favors short-term rewards in lieu of long-term gains. I prefer rational decision-making that weighs all the options, that is willing to lose in the short term to make huge gains in the long run (the execution of this strategy, The Atlantic‘s James Fallows writes, is the reason the Obama presidency achieved so much/angered so many in the conservative base, particularly in 2015).
Much of the fear are, unsurprisingly, unfounded. The federal government has not passed gun legislation since 2008, despite all the brouhaha. In 2013, Pew Research Center found the homicide rate had fallen by half over 20 years.
What can be done?
With a paradigm shift to pro-gun safety, anti-gun violence, you open up innovation. One area is gun safety and lockup measures. Another is the adoption of a public health campaign to, systematically over years, get the information out on the reality of owning a gun and the consequences of using it in real life.
For some technology is the answer. Gun-owning NRA-member Omer Kiyani – who was also a victim of gun violence as a teenager – has developed a detachable fingerprint-lock compatible with any gun. This overcomes gun-owners concern that new technology will render current models obsolete or phased out. Kiyani told The Washington Post it was the Sandy Hook massacre that compelled him to act.
“Now is the time, no one else is doing it, so I have to do it myself,” he said. “I have to do it because I felt helpless.”
Smart regulation can save lives. For example, California recently enacted a law that enabled law enforcement to repossess guns who are reported by family or friends as a danger to themselves or others. In 28 states plus the District of Columbia have various laws on the books that hold gun owners criminally liable if children access their guns.
And, as Christopher Ingraham writes, “research suggests these laws work: A 2005 study found that child access prevention (CAP) laws in 10 states prevented 829 injuries in 2001, saving $37 million in medical costs. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2004 found that CAP laws prevented 333 teen suicides between 1989 and 2001.
“. . . In the end, it’s much more important that communities, parents, and gun owners just adopt a slightly different perspective around how they store firearms to make sure they’re safe,” Ted Alcorn, Everytown research director said.”
Probably most important to the effort combating gun violence is the growing public health campaign akin to the one fought against tobacco and cigarettes in the 1980s and 90s. Guns now kill as many people as cars in the U.S.
It’s been noted by Obama and gun control advocates that guns should be treated like that commodity, comparing gun safety to the government mandates certain features like seat belts. Additionally, never forget the role suicide plays in the gun violence debate. Mental health reform is a potential source of bipartisan legislation in the future and a worthy goal, even if it doesn’t address the core issue.
But, until the tide of public opinion changes, there are limits are what can be done.
Will anything I wrote reconcile differences? Change minds?
I don’t delude myself. By the same token, if I can inform and find the truth, maybe others will do the same. Maybe that information spreads, if enough people hear it. Maybe then, change will actually occur.
Until then? This quote from the Economist after the Charleston massacre occurred pretty much sums it up.
“Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.”
CREDIT: WaPo, Tom Toles
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