Friday, January 04, 2013

GUNS IN AMERICA: WE REALLY, REALLY NEED TO HAVE A TALK

The above graphic was very recently posted on Facebook by a Facebook friend of mine. I knew this person in high school, and I don't think I've seen her since (well, maybe at the 40th reunion?). From her Facebook posts, I know that she is a very proud grandmother. I also know that she has a handgun and has had some training on it's use. I assume that she is very careful with her handgun, and probably keeps it locked up. However, I am not one bit amused by the above sign; in fact, I find it very objectionable.

I said as much in a FB comment to her post. I had a debate with myself about commenting; should I ignore it, should I unfriend her, should I confront her? In the end, I decided to post my comment, based on my decision that what we really need in this country is a heart-to-heart conversation about guns, and not just between people of the same opinion.

Guns are a very major problem in this country (USA). We are by far Number One in gun ownership per capita with 90 guns per 100 people. "On a per-capita basis, Yemen had the second most heavily armed citizenry behind the United States, with 61 guns per 100 people, followed by Finland with 56, Switzerland with 46, Iraq with 39 and Serbia with 38. France, Canada, Sweden, Austria and Germany were next, each with about 30 guns per 100 people, while many poorer countries often associated with violence ranked much lower. Nigeria, for instance, had just one gun per 100 people." (1)

The USA is also Number One in deaths by guns compared to other affluent nations. Here is a graph (2) showing gun deaths for the 34 developed countries in the OECD:
The line above all the others is the United States; it is good to see that the trend is downward since about 1980 (although another source states that the trend is again upward since 2000). There are about 312,000,000 (312 million) people in the USA, so at 6 deaths per 100,000 people, the total is just under 19,000 gun deaths per year nationwide. However, different sources have different numbers, some in the 30,000 to 40,000 range (gun deaths per year). A Bloomberg article last month predicted that gun deaths nationwide will exceed traffic fatalities by the year 2015 (3).

 I have been posting on Facebook the tally of reported gun deaths in this country since the mass killings of children and staff at the school in Newtown. As I write this on January 4, there have been 427 gun deaths in the USA in the 19 days since the Newtown killings (4). 427 gun deaths in 19 days; an average of 22.5 deaths per day. Some of these were children. Many of these were teens. All of these were people who are no longer here.

I want to talk about two important topics here: 1) the need, or lack of need, for the Second Amendment, and 2) the politics of gun ownership.

Do we need the Second Amendment? In my opinion, we do not. 

One of the basic arguments of the gun lobby and many gun owners in this country is the Second Amendment, which gives us the right to bear arms. This amendment needs to be repealed.The original intent of the amendment has always been a topic for debate because of the way the text was structured by the authors of the Constitution. It is very common, however, for gun lobbyists and die-hard gun owners to cite the amendment and quickly proclaim that we have the right to bear arms in order to protect ourselves from our government. Seriously? When in our nation's history have citizens had to protect themselves from our government?

Guns are consumer goods. They are sold at a variety of retail stores. What other consumer good has it's own amendment to the Constitution, even dangerous consumer goods? We know that many deaths are related to automobile, tobacco, alcohol and kitchen stove use (to name but a few); however, none of these has a constitutional amendment giving citizens the right to have them (to be fair, an amendment was passed repealing an amendment that prohibited alcohol - but that's a different story). Every potentially dangerous consumer item is regulated by the government, as it should be. Regulations cover the manufacture, sale and often the use of potentially dangerous consumer items. Why are guns treated differently? If we repeal the Second Amendment, people will still have the "right to bear arms," just as we all have the right to "bear" automobiles, tobacco, alcohol, stoves and other potentially dangerous items - if we comply with the appropriate regulations (showing proof of age to buy tobacco, for example; not driving if our blood alcohol level is above a certain standard, and etc.). The only major difference I can think of between guns and other consumer goods is that certain types of guns sold in this country were specifically designed to kill people; they are military weapons, and in my opinion, these should be banned from public ownership.

Why is gun ownership so political? 

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun organizations have an inordinate amount of political power in this country. The NRA is feared by many elected representatives because the organization can, and has, organize it's members and sympathizers to not re-elect representatives who have crossed them. Gun control is a discussion typically avoided in the halls of Congress for this reason. Attention is paid to gun control only when there is a tragic event, like the murder of school children in Newtown, that results in a public cry for something to be done. Typically, this topic fades away at some point after a mass shooting, and it is again "business as usual," i.e. we don't talk about gun control.

It is way, way past time to confront this topic head-on. The anger and despair once again brought to the surface by the massacre in Newtown must not settle down. We need to keep in mind that the 26 deaths by gun at the school in Newtown is not an unusual daily tally for the United States - it is the fact that these were small children in a school that makes the crime so heart breaking. What about the 3-year old who died a few days later when he shot himself in the head with a gun he found in his uncle's house? What about the 4-year old who died a few days later from a bullet to the head from a drive-by shooting as the child sat in his car seat in a driveway? We need to be outraged by every one of these deaths by gun because they can be prevented.

No other affluent nation on this planet has the kind of gun violence we have in the United States on a per capita basis. Gun regulations in many other developed countries are very strict, and the results are obvious. Studies have shown that more firearms result in more homicides, and that strict regulation prevents such deaths (5). In Israel for example, a country where terrorism is a very real danger, gun ownership is severely limited and considered a privilege, not a right. "Gun owners in Israel are limited to owning one pistol, and must undergo extensive mental and physical tests before they can receive a weapon, and gun owners are limited to 50 rounds of ammunition per year." (6).

In conclusion, I hope that the Newtown killings have struck a chord in the United States, a chord that will continue to reverberate until our elected officials make much needed and very meaningful changes to the laws of the United States. These changes should be in the form of very strict controls of gun ownership. If we do this correctly, if we have an honest and open conversation between people with different opinions, surely we can get to a better, more rational place.

Do everyone a favor; read up on this stuff (I've provided some good links below as a starting place). Talk to people, especially those who have an opinion about guns that is different from yours. Stay calm, use facts, talk about our children and grandchildren. Call or write to your elected representatives. We can do this if we really try - but it will not be easy - guaranteed.

Links:
(1)http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/08/28/us-world-firearms-idUSL2834893820070828 
(2)http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/nine-facts-about-guns-and-mass-shootings-in-the-united-states/
(3)http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-19/american-gun-deaths-to-exceed-traffic-fatalities-by-2015.html
(4)http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/12/gun_death_tally_every_american_gun_death_since_newtown_sandy_hook_shooting.html
(5)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/opinion/the-gun-challenge-strict-laws-work.html?_r=0
(6)http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/07/24/3101546/despite-militarized-society-israels-strict-gun-laws-keep-civilian-violence-down

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