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Guns of August 2019


It’s August, a ripe, lush month when, more often than not, the stifling heat of July has passed and the inevitable cooling of fall is in the future. The last thing in the world that I want to write about at this perfect time of the year are guns and death.

But the events in El Paso and Dayton preclude a focus on the harmony of earth and air, of sunshine and starlight. The beauty of the season has been darkened by stark statistics: By August 5th, the 217th day of the year, there have been 255 mass shootings in the United States according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.

In the past two weeks, more than 100 people have been wounded or killed in five mass shootings: 36 in Dayton, 46 at the El Paso Walmart, 18 at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California, one killed and 11 injured at a Brooklyn block party and two killed and two injured in a Mississippi Walmart.

Is it any wonder that foreign governments are urging caution for residents planning to travel to the United States? How embarrassing that our beautiful country should be viewed by other nations as being a violent society too dangerous for their people to visit.

This week there has been endless debate about why America has become so violent. It could be argued that we were always violent and history would bear that out but in the 21st century we prefer to overlook our predilection for aggression. We have trotted out all the usual suspects: violent video games, mental illness, bullying—even a President who demeans and villainizes segments of the population while making it acceptable to be rude, to be racist, to discriminate.

Words can wound but guns kill. Mercifully, this week I have not heard anyone use that hoary old chestnut, “Guns don’t kill people, only people kill people.” That is, in fact, true but not necessarily accurate. The person who pulls the trigger does, indeed, cause the inanimate gun to discharge but the presence of the gun increases lethality.

The availability of guns in the US., which has some of the weakest gun laws in the world, leaves us with an unenviable record. Data has repeatedly shown that the presence of a gun increases the chance of death. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process, according to one study. America’s 2009 gun homicide rate was 33 per million people, far exceeding the average among other developed countries.

Americans are in love with guns. We make up only about 4.4 percent of the global population, but own 42 percent of the world’s guns—120.5 guns for each 100 persons. Adjusted for population, only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings among countries with more than 10 million people and, not coincidentally, Yemen also has the world’s second-highest rate of gun ownership after the United States.

All agree that the issue of gun violence is complex, resulting from a variety of factors. Mental illness is often blamed and undoubtedly plays its part in mass shootings but it is unlikely that the United States’ high incidence of mass shootings correlates to that. There is no data to suggest that the US has a higher percentage of mentally ill people than other countries with fewer mass shootings. Indeed, a 2015 study estimated only 4 percent of American gun deaths are attributable to mental health issues.

Video games, while filled with mindless violence, are also not unique to the US. You would expect their impact to be felt equally by other wealthy nations where people have access to this computerized “entertainment.”

And, while the El Paso perpetrator wrote a racist manifesto, leading some to blame President Trump for the attack, historically racial diversity has not proved to be motivating factor for gunmen. Among European countries, there is little association between immigration and the rates of gun murders or mass shootings.

However this does not exempt Trump from responsibility for spreading messages of hate and intolerance nor does it mean he did not have culpability in the response of the El Paso gunman. The event is eerily similar to when Sarah Palin’s campaign issued a map featuring 20 House Democrats that should be “targeted” and Palin’s later Tweet that advising, “Don't Retreat, Instead—RELOAD!”

As all will remember, Giffords was grievously wounded and six were killed in a mass shooting in an Arizona parking lot. It has been argued that there was no link between Palin’s words and the shooting but perhaps words can kill.

At the heart of the issue in the United States are the incendiary words “gun control.” The Second Amendment provision for gun ownership sends gun lovers into paroxysms of self-righteousness. These self-styled Constitutional experts project their 21st-century ideas on an 18th-century society and assert that nothing can be changed or modified, even though the United States is one of only three countries—along with Mexico and Guatemala—that begins with the assumption that people have an inherent right to own guns.

What did the Founding Fathers intend with their provision for gun ownership? It certainly wasn’t because people were being denied guns in the 1700s. Indeed, back then, guns were legitimate tools. In frontier regions guns put food on the table and were used for protection in primitive conditions.

No, the Founding Fathers were not afraid of a bureaucracy taking their arms away—they were afraid of a standing army that could stage a coup and bring down the government they so carefully crafted. They wanted to ensure “a well-regulated militia, composed of the Yeomanry of the country, (which has) ever been considered as the bulwark of a free people.”

No worry about individual gun ownership there—only that the people be able to respond to military challenges. Please note the words “well-regulated militia”—not fringe element whackos.

Indeed, before the 2008 Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, courts had ruled that the right of individual citizens to bear arms existed only within the context of participation in the militia. But with Heller, the Supreme Court overturned that precedent, delivering gun rights advocates their biggest legal victory.

The Heller decision reads a little like a grammar lesson, with the Justices writing that “The prefatory clause comports with the Court’s interpretation of the operative clause.”

The Court agreed that, “The ‘militia’ comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense” but noted that, “The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.”

The Court reasoned further that previous drafts and analogous state determinations support individual gun rights. The decision moved gun rights into new territory.

The Court may have spoken but increasingly the people are having their say. Ninety-two percent of Americans now support background checks. And, despite the National Rifle Association pumping a record $5 million into lobbying efforts over each of the past two years, former NRA president Charlton Heston’s knee-jerk “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands” attitude seems to be losing traction among younger people.

More concerned with graduating alive from high school or college than with the right to bear arms, an ever-larger number of young voters are seeking to change the status quo. Support for gun control is highest among 18 to 29-year-olds, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre.

Now for the personal disclosure. I have always liked guns. Since I was seven, two antique firearms that had come down in my family since the early 1800s hung on my wall, much admired and later restored to shooting condition. My husband has guns and used to hunt. I used to shoot recreationally. We like guns but are not wild-eyed zealots.

The secret of every successful society is compromise and in the current environment compromise and common sense are badly needed. We must impose regulations—meaningful regulations on gun ownership—to ensure the safety of the people. A 2016 review of 10 countries, published in Epidemiologic Reviews, found that legal restrictions on owning and purchasing guns is followed by a drop in gun violence—as was experienced in Connecticut when tighter laws were enacted after Sandy Hook.

We must make it harder to own guns so we can have a reasonable expectation that they will be used appropriately. Even one human life is too much to carelessly throw away over words written 228 years ago. As L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: They do things differently there.”