Monthly Archives: August, 2015

Shooting Down Solutions


An Onion article dated May 27, 2014, a little over a year ago, was titled “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”
In that span of a year there have been over 400 more gun shooting massacres. Just this year alone we have had more massacres than days. The Onion piece is funny (and sad) because despite our unwillingness to recognize the obvious, we really are the ONLY developed country where this type of things happens on a regular basis. Yet, despite the Onion satirical jab, there are bountiful solutions. The gun manufacturers and their lobbyists just exert more energy shooting them down than our politicians do trying them out.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, after DC banned handguns, gun homicides fell by 25 percent and gun suicides fell by 23 percent. There’s a solution. Even more dramatically, after Australia banned automatic, semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns and initiated a buyback program to take 700,000 guns out of private hands after a horrific mass shooting nearly 20 years ago, they have not had a single mass shooting since. Gun homicides fell by 59 per cent and firearm-related suicides fell by 65 per cent with no consequential rise in homicides and suicides by other means. There’s another solution. (You can read a related write-up on the Australian gun program written shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, here.)

Thorough background checks, municipality bans on handguns. State wide bans, nationwide bans. Boom, boom, boom. These all work. It’s not magic; it’s a numbers game. Background checks limit the sale of handguns, or better. Bans will never eliminate all firearm violence, but the fact that they dramatically reduce firearm violence is indisputable. The fewer handguns available in circulation the fewer deaths by homicide or suicide and the numbers bear out what practical application of logic would tell us – if you take away a weapon whose only purpose is killing another human, you reduce the number of humans killed. So when we shrug our shoulders and say things like, ‘alas, it just can’t be done.’ What we are really saying is yes, a deeply selfish portion of our population is willing to concede some 33,000 American lives to violent deaths yearly (not to mention the hundreds of thousands injured or maimed every year) because they think as a society that’s the trade-off we should make. Apparently, that’s what we mean by American Exceptionalism. They make this devil’s bargain in order to house a weapon whose sole practical purpose is to put themselves and anyone near them at greater risk for murder or suicide.

The thinking among gun activists seems to fall into three camps. First, there is denial. Despite glaring evidence they refuse to acknowledge basic reality: according to multiple studies, the presence of a firearm in the home raises the risk of suicide or homicide. The American Journal of Epidemiology found that the risk of dying from a firearm-related homicide or suicide was greater in homes with guns. The health risks of owning a gun are so established and scientifically incontrovertible that the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement in 2000 recommending that pediatricians urge parents to remove all guns from their homes.

Notice that the recommendation doesn’t call for parents to simply lock up their guns. It stresses that the weapons need to be taken out of the house. Study after study has been conducted on the health risks associated with guns in the home. One of the latest was a meta-review published in 2011 by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Among many chilling statistics, Hemenway found that Children in the U.S. get murdered with guns at a rate that is 13 times higher than that of other developed nations. For our young people aged 15 to 24, the rate is 43 times higher. And although massacres make the headlines, the day-to-day death by readily available firearms is now a frighteningly banal affair.

“The presence of a gun makes quarrels, disputes, assaults, and robberies more deadly. Many murders are committed in a moment of rage,” writes Hemenway. “For example, a large percentage of homicides — and especially homicides in the home — occur during altercations over matters such as love, money, and domestic problems, involving acquaintances, neighbors, lovers, and family members; often the assailant or victim has been drinking. Only a small minority of homicides appear to be the carefully planned acts of individuals with a single-minded intention to kill. Most gun killings are indistinguishable from nonfatal gun shootings; it is just a question of the caliber of the gun, whether a vital organ is hit, and how much time passes before medical treatment arrives.”

The same holds true for suicides. Gun owners and their families are not more suicidal than non-gun-owners, research shows. Nor are they more likely to have a history of depression or other mental health problems. But they — and their families — are at significantly increased risk of successfully taking their lives with a gun. The reason: guns are more lethal than other methods.

According to Hemenway, one study found that “in states with more guns, there were more suicides (because there were more firearm suicides), even after controlling for the percentage of the state’s population with serious mental illness, alcohol dependence or abuse, illicit substance dependence or abuse, and the percentage unemployed, living below the poverty level, and in urban areas.” But “there was no association between gun prevalence and a state’s nonfirearm suicide rate,” he adds.

Other statistical evidence points to the same basic set of facts: States with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. A recent study looking at 30 years of homicide data in all 50 states found that for every one percent increase in a state’s gun ownership rate, there is a nearly one percent increase in its firearm homicide rate. So those who think themselves safer by carrying a firearm presumably are the same set of people debating the validity of evolution, man-made climate change and the effectiveness of vaccines. As a category we’ll loosely refer to them as the troglodyte contingent because despite ample evidence of sunlight, they still prefer to live in their own dark mental caves.

The next category is the defenders, they acknowledge the statistics, generally, but argue that their incredible skills, split second reflexes and years of training make them a splendid candidate to carry a firearm for self-defense. Unfortunately, their optimism remains unproven by even the most cursory view of the evidence. A report by the Violence Policy Center released in June of this year found that “American gun owners are far more likely to injure themselves or someone else with their firearm than to stop a criminal.” In an analysis of FBI and other federal government data in 2012, the center said, only 259 “justifiable homicides” involving a private citizen were reported, compared to 8,342 criminal homicides committed with a gun. Put another way, for every justifiable homicide involving a gun, 32 criminal homicides carried out with a firearm occurred. And that does not take into account “tens of thousands” of gun-related suicides and unintentional shootings. For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home. In 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime. Although, in one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument. A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if he carried a gun. His odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

Loosely grouped in this camp, too, are those who argue that self-defense is not just defense against criminals but against the police and the state, in general. The stupid here involves not just a failure to recognize facts on the ground, but a whole other set of delusional beliefs about the danger of the government, the state and an incredibly warped perception of one’s ability to take on, for example, the State Police, the National Guard, or the U.S. Military. In order to arrive at this camp, one must believe in the inherent malevolence of our system of government in addition to a wildly expanded (and dangerous) belief in raw violence as a method to effect change; a revolution brought to you by a hundred and one over overwrought action movies.
Should people so delusional even be allowed to own a butter knife, much less strut around with a 9mm?

Finally, there are the constitutional scholars of the right who like to play a game of whack-a-mole with the Bill of Rights and Judicial Activism. Some amendments are good and we must adhere to original intent; some amendments are bad and we just need to get rid of them. Some amendments are useful and some amendments are sad. Graciously, our conservative judiciary has taken upon itself to decide which is which. The bedrock amendment for the conservative movement in general is the Second Amendment, which they interpret without apparent knowledge of its historical context or its grammatical structure.

So let’s take a trip in the way back machine. Around the time that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution (i.e., the Bill of Rights) were being passed, the tension was between the states and a wannabe federal government. The fear of the founders was that a newly formed federal government would devolve into some form of despotism. They were looking to England and the recent abuses of the crown. There was also a quite conscious fear among slaveholding states that the right of their slave patrolling militias might be stripped under federal law. In the South, militias were regulated by the states, as Thom Hartman notes, writing in TruthOut, “It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?” If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.”

By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. After all, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias (this explains an awful lot about the South’s so-called ‘gun culture’ as well).
Furthermore, Patrick Henry was convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias—paranoia in the plantation ruling elite class is nothing new, after all—and perhaps not entirely unwarranted. He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they’d use the Constitution to free the South’s slaves. He argued that southerner’s “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be less than peaceful or tranquil:

“In this situation,” Henry said to James Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”

The first draft for the Second Amendment read as follows: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.” [emphasis mine]
But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So James Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:

“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.” [emphasis mine]

Thus, concern that a national standing army might pose a threat to the security and [slave] property of the separate states led to the adoption of the Second Amendment as we know it today.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote about this in an excellent essay last year for the Washington Post: “The Second Amendment expressly endorsed the substantive common-law rule that protected the citizen’s right (and duty) to keep and bear arms when serving in a state militia. In its decision in Heller (the recent Supreme Court decision that knocked down a municipal handgun ban in DC), however, the majority interpreted the amendment as though its draftsmen were primarily motivated by an interest in protecting the common-law right of self-defense. But that common-law right is a procedural right that has always been available to the defendant in criminal proceedings in every state. The notion that the states were concerned about possible infringement of that right by the federal government is really quite absurd.”

He suggests fixing the problem by adding five words to the Second Amendment to accurately reflect the original intent so that it would read as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.” [emphasis mine]

The odds of this happening in an environment in which the vast majority of so-called gun rights activists are in deep denial about basic scientific facts approaches nil; approximately the same odds that this time next year we won’t be faced with another 33,000+ senseless murders, a thousand or so more suicides, the same set of useless politicians, cynical lobbyists and greedy gun manufacturers all too happy to absorb the loss of life, so long as they can keep selling us their guns.