Lifes Worth Knowing

We Need to Talk. About Guns.

In Current events, Gun Control, Guns, Politics on December 19, 2012 at 10:16 pm

When news broke of the Sandy Hook tragedy, it felt like a punch to my ribs. As a parent, events like these mean more than they used to. The thought of a gunman terrorizing school children was enough to make me break down in emotion while listening to the reports on the radio. It left me numb, it left me angry, and it left me feeling powerless.

After Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tuscon, and Aurora…we were told that now is not the time to discuss guns. We were told that out of respect for the victims, we should not politicize the tragedy. The hypocrisy of that viewpoint is that in saying that we should not have a discussion about guns is a political statement itself. Politics are defined not simply as what we discuss, but more often than not, politics are what we choose to ignore. Our acceptance of the status quo is as political as a statement can be. Whether the issue is drone strikes, the Patriot Act, GMO’s, guns or Social Security, silencing those that want to have a meaningful discussion about a policy is at it’s very core a political statement.

In fact, the argument can very quickly be turned on it’s head. There are those that would argue that pro-gun advocates are hiding behind an imagined “respect for the victims” in order to prevent a meaningful conversation, because no matter what happens, it never seems to be the right time to discuss America’s gun problem. By telling others that they aren’t allowed to discuss guns, they not only use the memories of the victims as a political ploy, but they use intimidation to drive the point home.

Personally, I wouldn’t dare to accuse someone of feigned respect for the innocent, but in light of the argument, it needs to be said that trying to understand the Sandy Hook tragedy and looking towards gun control to help prevent a similar occurrence is not a matter of disrespect or naked political ambition, but part of a conversation about how to rid our country of the scourge of mass shootings.

But before we jump onto directly onto the third rail of conservative politics, let’s diffuse the political charge that “gun control” carries in our country. First off, no one is taking away guns. There will never be a debate in this country about whether or not a citizen is allowed to own a firearm.

Let’s eliminate the knee jerk reaction to the term “gun control” and see it for what it is. What is being proposed (right or not) is a series of reforms that would make it more difficult for unqualified buyers to obtain a gun, and possibly eliminate the sale of certain assault type weapons.

Before jumping to irrational conclusions about the government taking away your cherished guns…realize that there already was a federal assault weapons ban in place from 1994-2004, and that is not typically remembered as a hellish dystopia of freedom destroying government intrusion. Granted, the legislation was mostly toothless, and the loopholes were large enough to drive an Abrams tank through, but the bottom line is that this discussion is not unprecedented.

Once the inflammatory accusations about politicizing a tragedy and the knee-jerk reactions to the topic can be set aside, we are left with the most essential question in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy, how can we stop the madness? How can we make it harder for people to murder innocents in our schools, malls, and theaters? It bears mentioning that there is no way to eliminate violent crime in America. Even in societies where guns are rare and people are peaceful, violence happens. So it is illogical to attempt to paint gun control as the be all, end all. What it can be though, is part of the solution.

The fact is, America has a gun problem. There is one gun in America for every man, woman and child. The highest ratio in the world for any country not run by warlords. There are more mass shootings in America, resulting in more lives lost than any other industrialized nation in the world. We have an epidemic of slaughter. Just the past six months, we’ve seen multiple mass shootings, which claimed dozens of lives. If there is a more pressing issue than finding out how we can staunch the flow of innocent blood in our towns and cities I am not sure what it is.

In the face of the epidemic, gun advocates trot out the familiar line that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” As if it is just an inevitability that our most primal instincts can never be overcome. This is not a reasonable attitude towards the problem. Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in his New York Times editorial that “As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don’t shrug and say, “Cars don’t kill people, drunks do.”

“Instead, we have required seat belts, air bags, child seats and crash safety standards. We have introduced limited licenses for young drivers and tried to curb the use of mobile phones while driving. All this has reduced America’s traffic fatality rate per mile driven by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.”

When traffic accidents were claiming a disproportionate amount of lives, we treated that as a serious issue and worked with government agencies and car manufacturers to craft a solution that would make the highways safer for us all. The same principle needs to apply to guns. It is not enough to simply state that people are going to kill people no matter what. If guns were more scarce, there would be less crime. Period.

It is not a difficult argument to make because all of the data backs it up. A household with a gun is seventeen times more likely to suffer a suicide, and twice as likely to suffer a homicide. It makes perfect sense, if an individual is distraught and wishes to end their life or others, the easiest solution is to just pull a trigger. Study after study has routinely shown that the safest household is the household without a gun. Half of all homicides and suicides occur inside a home…the vast majority of those being households where a firearm was already present. There is simply no debating the actual facts, and that is simply that owning a gun significantly increases your risk of being killed by a gun.

But once that argument breaks down, gun advocates invariably scroll down to the next talking point, which is that owning a gun is the best form of self-defense. This is also untrue. The 1998 study by Arthur Kellerman, published in the Journal of Trauma, found that overall, guns in a home were 22 times more likely to be used in unintentional shootings, murders, assaults, or suicides than for self defense. For every instance that a gun was used in self defense, there were four accidental shootings, seven criminal assaults, and eleven attempted suicides.

If that isn’t enough to convince, a gun advocate needs only to point to the two favorite countries in the world for the promotion of guns, Israel and Switzerland. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, misinformed people (even as far up as the Rep. Gohmert of Texas) trotted out the misleading idea that if only there were more armed people in America, then crime would be reduced. The idea being somewhat similar to “mutually assured destruction” that kept the US and the Soviets from firing their nukes at each other during the Cold War. To back up their argument, they point to Israel and Switzerland as two places where guns proliferate, and crime is low.

At first, it seems like a simple argument to be made, but it is also not true. The reality is that Switzerland and Israel both have a much lower ratio of guns to citizens than the US. Whereas there is one gun per person in the US, there is only a half a gun per person in Switzerland and .007 guns per person in Israel. Even more so, gun ownership is not a right in either country. In order to own a gun in either country, a prospective gun owner needs to prove that their need for a firearm. In Israel, that means you are either a security worker, someone who transports valuables or explosives, a resident of the West Bank, or a hunter. Otherwise, you are legally not allowed to own a gun. In fact, Israel rejects 40 percent of the gun permit applications that they receive (the highest rate in the West), and whats more, those licenses have to be renewed annually.

Switzerland is even harsher on guns. They are one of the only countries in the world that requires all the details of a transaction involving a gun to be reported to the government regardless of whether it was a public or private sale, and a purchaser must obtain two different type of permits before legally owning a gun. Most able bodied males are part of the Army reserves and must have a gun, but ironically, most men keep them locked up in town depots, out of the home. The result is that only about three percent of Swiss households actually harbor a firearm, compared to 15 percent in the US.

In Israel, after the mandatory service in the armed forces, unless you were able to obtain the rank of lieutenant colonel, you have to give up your firearm when you leave the service.

Despite their notoriety as havens for gun lovers, Israel and Switzerland actually have enacted very strict gun control laws, laws that make buying and owning a gun in the United States seem easy by comparison. In light of this, it becomes clear that America stands alone in the world as a nation where people revere their unfettered access to guns.

Other countries have been through this as well. In 1996, a gunman shot and killed 35 people in Tasmania. The response by the Australian government was an outright ban on automatic and semi-automatic rifles and shot guns, coupled with a strategic buyback program to get those types of guns out of the country. The results were astonishing. Between 1995 and 2006, homicides in Australia dropped by 59 percent and suicides by 64 percent, and not a single mass shooting occurred in the entire country. Whats more, despite the fears that home invasions would increase, they didn’t. Studies repeatedly showed that in the absence of those assault weapons, people committed fewer crimes.

It cements further proof that a proliferation of guns results in higher crime rates. It is not to say that guns cause crime, but guns make heinous crimes much easier to do, and the more guns there are, the easier it is to commit those acts. If any further proof is needed, look only back at Israel. Facing an epidemic of military suicides, the Israeli Army began preventing their soldiers from taking their guns with them when they went on leave. Having the guns locked up at the barracks while soldiers were not on active duty slashed military suicides by 60 percent. Again, people are the one who commit crimes, but access to guns is what enables the violence. Limit access to certain type of weapons, and you limit the ability for mass killing sprees to be committed.

America is home to an estimated 43 million hunters, a group of people that, according to former NRA spokesman Charlton Hesston, will only give up their guns if you pry it “from [their] cold, dead fingers.” That’s fine. Really. You want to use your Remington Model Seven to try to bag a buck? I have no problem with that. It’s your right, and your choice to pursue hunting as your pastime. Carry on. But when that Winchester is replaced by a AR-15 capable of ripping off dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds, then there is a problem. Hunters don’t take AR-15s into the woods. It’s a military weapon designed to kill people. Outside of law enforcement, there is no need for that weapon to exist in civilian life.

At this point, we reach a moment where the second amendment becomes perverse. Invoking one’s right to carry a military style weapon with an extended magazine is ludicrous. There is no plausible reason that a civilian needs to have the capability to mow down thirty people with a single pull of the trigger. Essentially, the Bill of Rights was designed to save us from ourselves, and when hiding behind that right enables killers to use weaponry the founders never dreamed of to inflict the maximum amount of damage possible on the innocents of our country, there is a misinterpretation of that right.

As a nation, we often take on limits to our freedoms in the interest of others. Think of the War on Terror, where we ceded some of personal privacy (in libraries and airports) so that the federal government could more effectively track terrorists. In fact, simply by living within civil society, we have ceded many of our personal liberties so that we can live in harmony with others…we don’t drive our vehicles wherever we please or build our houses however we want, we accept the rules of the road and abide by property laws in the interest of protecting each other.

It is time that we collectively decide that weapons of murder have no place in our society. It is time that we agreed that it should be harder to kill people. It is time that the perverse gun culture acknowledge that firearm proliferation is a problem, and that there exists a healthy balance between where we are today, and an outright ban on civilian guns.

Let’s not pretend that Obama is coming to take your guns. That is a fallacy. But what should happen, is that we should make gun ownership more difficult. We need to eliminate the gun show loophole (which allows anyone to buy a gun without a background check.) We need to get rid of assault weapons in civilian life, and we need to acknowledge that government has no more sacred duty than protecting its own, even if that duty impinges upon other rights.

The bottom line is that the more guns there are in our country, the more deaths we must suffer. If we make it harder to own guns, we make it more difficult to commit crimes, and even if we only reduce homicides by 10 percent or 20 percent by enacting these reforms…isn’t that worth it? If it is harder to obtain an assault weapon to commit a mass murder, isn’t that a win for nation as a whole? Isn’t the protection of human life worth a longer waiting period to buy a gun?

Whatever your answer to those questions, remember that America is plagued by mass shootings, and the status quo is not acceptable anymore. Too many lives have been lost, and too little has been done. Perhaps this is the time where we can actually have a conversation about guns, maybe we can change, and maybe it will leave us feeling a little less powerless. Maybe.

Hat tip to Janet Rosenbaum at Foreign Policy magazine for her excellent work, which I drew upon heavily for some of these statistics.

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  1. We should just ban everything that has ever killed a person in a home: Knives, lawn mowers, ladders, hammers, …..

  2. Thanks for a thoughtful look at the problem. The answer can no longer be to do nothing. The stats from other countries are eye-opening. I’m not sure how to go about making changes, but let’s have some honest, serious dialogue about what guns and ammo are really necessary for hunting and protection.

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