Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Oak Creek, Klakamas, and Shady Hook: The names of places where mass killings have taken place resonate with collective regret, but as many as 21 other mass killings have occurred just since 2006. One thing is for certain, more names will join the macabre echo chamber if something doesn’t change about violence, mental health, and substance abuse in America, most especially gun-control. People in other countries have a hard time understanding why it’s so easy to purchase guns in the U.S. We have a hard time understanding it ourselves.
Last week, President Obama called for sweeping changes in how Americans buy and sell guns including: Universal background checks for any gun purchase, reinstating a ban on assault rifles, restricting ammunition magazines to 10 rounds and banning armor-piercing bullets for civilian purchase.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on both sides of the gun-control war as armies of lobbyists for the NRA and arms manufacturers face off against reformers of every political persuasion and religious belief. Many reformers are victims or relatives of victims, themselves. Two famous couples come to mind: James Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, and his wife, Sarah, have advocated for gun control for the last 30 years while Gabby Giffords and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, likewise have made a commitment to control the sale and use of guns by creating a political action committee, Americans for Responsible Solutions. Mindful of Second Amendment rights and gun-owners themselves, Giffords and Kelly call for laws that "require responsible gun ownership and reduce gun violence."
Then there’s the “gun lady,” Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. In 1993, when a crazed gunman killed 6 passengers aboard a Long Island Rail Road commuter train, one of the victims was McCarthy’s husband, Dennis. As a result, she made a personal commitment to advocate for tougher gun-control laws. Three years later when Republican Congressman Dan Frisa from New York’s 4th District voted to repeal the Assault Weapon Ban, McCarthy, a lifelong Republican, changed parties and ran against him. She won.
While those in favor of protecting the constitutional right “to bear arms” claim stricter laws would simply punish law-abiding citizens, they overlook the fact that what constitutes a firearm in the 18th century is very different from even the sport weapon of today. When the Second Amendment was ratified 232 years ago there was time to run away from somebody armed with a muzzle-loaded musket that took 20 seconds to reload. In addition, hand-weapons in the revolutionary war were so wildly inaccurate that the term “couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn” comes from the same era. By contrast, a modern semi-automatic rifle can fire 45-60 rounds a minute with accuracy. Firearms in the revolutionary war hardly compare with the assault weapons of today. Why, an impartial observer might ask, would anyone need to have a weapon designed for mass killing?
As often as the constitution is brought up in defense of unlimited residential armories, the statistics of mayhem are just as often parsed to bolster gun-rights:
- Mass killings are on the decline. Even if it were true that mass killings are on the decline, as counter-intuitive as that might seem, and even if the odds of being hit by lighting are greater than being killed in a shooting spree, that doesn’t make it okay to sell assault rifles to anyone that wants one just as it wouldn’t make sense to climb a metal tower in a thunderstorm.
- America is less violent now than it was a generation ago. That’s true if measured by the homicide rate, which peaked in the early 1990s at around 10 per 100,000 people and is now around half of what it was. But what’s left out of this argument is that modern medicine now saves more victims of violent crime, skewing the numbers that support this theory.
- Gun ownership in the U.S. is declining. As a percentage of the population that’s true, too, but what’s not said is that the number of guns being purchased is increasing. Put the two facts together and there are a whole lot of gun owners out there stockpiling weapons.
- Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. An oversimplified, tidy expression but according to a recent study of the literature on guns and homicide by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center there’s substantial evidence indicating more guns mean more murders. In addition, this assessment holds true whether in consideration of different states or different countries.
What is needed is a simple, common-sense approach to controlling the sale of guns. Gun-owners have rights, yes, but governing those rights shouldn't allow others to be endangered. Ultimately, gun-control isn’t one but many issues, bundled together. Those suffering from substance-abuse or mental health problems deserve equal attention. First, we have to take the guns out of their hands.