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January 24th, 2011
Freethought San Marcos: America’s gun problem

Freethought San Marcos: A column

When Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, a federal judge killed along with five others, and fifteen other people wounded in a shooting spree in Tucson just over two weeks ago, I attributed the matter in part to the easy availability of guns that can spew death and destruction faster than eyes can blink.

Various public personalities have suggested banning such high-speed weapons; others have suggested going back to a law we had seven years ago that prohibited magazines that will hold as many as 33 bullets, limiting magazines to a size that can hold no more than ten rounds. This was effective policy. The Washington Post just reported that “The number of guns with high-capacity magazines seized by Virginia police dropped during a decade-long federal prohibition on assault weapons, but the rate has rebounded sharply since the ban was lifted in late 2004.”  Rep. Peter King wants to protect certain elected officials by making it unlawful to possess a firearm within a thousand feet of such officials–a sort of “protect Peter King and other important Americans law,” to hell with the rest of us.

Though I am not in favor of banning guns, I have wondered for years why Americans are so fascinated with guns and weapons, and why we have so many gun deaths in the US. I’ve not been interested in hunting for at least forty years, but I have bought or inherited several hunting rifles, a couple of shotguns, and a World War II era Walther handgun brought back from Europe in 1945 by my father, complete with an authorization for the weapon signed by his commanding officer. If it was ever shot, the trigger was pulled by that German officer from whom it was taken nearly seven decades ago.

Over the years, I’ve hunted infrequently and done some target practice a couple of times with a shotgun. When I was about twelve years old, my uncle allowed me to shoot a double-barreled 12 ga. shotgun originally owned by my maternal grandfather. The recoil knocked me on my rear. My experiences help me understand the fascination with guns so prevalent in our culture, but those experiences do not help me understand the propensity to violence that permeates our lives and leads to the killing by guns of so many each year in the United States. A study reported in 1998 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that America accounted for 45% of the total gun-related deaths in the 36 countries studied. Between 1980 and 2006, the US has had on average more than 32,000 gun deaths per year.

Like the CDC, the Harvard School of Public Health provides some dispassionate data on gun deaths. Looking at the relationship between gun availability and homicides in 26 developed countries, research reported in the Journal of Trauma in 2000 found that “Across developed countries, where guns are more available, there are more homicides. These results often hold even when the United States is excluded.”  And guns are more available in the United States than anywhere else. Forty-two per cent of US households have guns. There are 90 guns per 100 persons in the US. The next closest country in guns per 100 persons is Yemen, with 61. Canada has 31 guns per 100 persons.

Another study in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002 that looked at gun deaths in the 50 states found that “After controlling for poverty and urbanization, for every age group, people in states with many guns have elevated rates of homicide, particularly firearm homicide.”

A study reported in the journal Social Science and Medicine in 2007 found that “States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide.”

Similar studies have found that the same sort of correlation between the availability of guns and the prevalence of homicide exists between the availability of guns and the prevalence of suicide. And a study reported in 2001 in Accident Analysis and Prevention found that “For every age group, where there are more guns there are more accidental deaths. The mortality rate was 7 times higher in the four states with the most guns compared to the four states with the fewest guns.”  Other studies have found that children and women in states with more guns are more susceptible to “elevated rates of unintentional gun deaths, suicides and homicide, particularly firearm suicides and firearm homicides.”

One of the most prevalent beliefs in American culture is that the Wild West was a dangerous and violent place dominated by gun violence and that America’s gun obsession is the legacy of that violent frontier. Certainly, there was danger for those unaccustomed to the undeveloped wilderness, devoid of resources with which they were familiar, but death by violence on the frontier has been exaggerated by movies and television dramas. According to historian Bruce Benson, while there was little government law and order (except near military posts), disagreements were usually resolved through both formal and informal agreements. Before embarking on the perilous journey westward, wagon trains usually negotiated their own system of social behavior, enforced within the wagon train community.

Mining camps followed similar plans for maintaining law and order and avoiding the anarchy which is the stuff of legend. Benson describes the use of hired “enforcement specialists,” which included justices of the peace and arbitrators to resolve disputes over property rights and criminal behavior in the mining camps. Other cooperative law-and-order arrangements were designed by cattlemen’s associations and land clubs, which adopted their own constitutions to regulate claims to land before the government started regulating land ownership, as described by historians Terry Anderson and P. J. Hill.

Whatever the historical cause of gun violence, the reality is that we are faced with excessive gun deaths in the United States, at least as compared with the rest of the world.

Those who study public policy have noticed that with regard to other social issues, such as reducing the harm from motor vehicles, tobacco use, and alcohol use, more positive results are obtained by modifying both the product and the environment, rather than focusing mainly on the user. Groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) focus almost exclusively on users, promoting classes on firearm safety and use, but opposing modifications to firearms, elimination of large weapon magazines, limitations on the kinds of weapons available for purchase, restrictions on the purchase of firearms, prohibitions on the kinds of ammunition that can be purchased (such as cop-killer bullets), changes in the formulation of bullets to aid law enforcement in apprehending wrong-doers, and increases of penalties for violating laws that prevent children’s access to guns.

By a 3-to-1 margin, Americans report that they do not feel safer when more people in their community acquire guns. And by a 5-to-1 margin, they do not feel safer when more people in their community begin to carry guns. In spite of the common belief that concealed-carry laws reduce violent crime, no data show that such laws have had an impact on crime. Yet public policy changes aimed at reducing gun violence seldom are enacted, largely because of the powerful lobbying of the NRA and the Gun Owners of America (GOA), along with several smaller groups, which collectively spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying each year.

Groups like the NRA and the GOA use fear, antipathy toward government, appeals to rugged individualism, notions of limitless personal choices, and similar propaganda to persuade Americans and their representatives that gun issues should not be dealt with objectively, based on rational public policy considerations, but should be decided based on emotion and the personal preferences of gun owners. They recognize no responsibility to the society as a whole to resolve social problems in ways that benefit society, rather than the narrow interests of gun owners.

I find criticisms of the NRA by groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) persuasive for their logic and lack of appeal to emotion.   The CSGV has reproached the NRA for its “warped conception of popular sovereignty…that citizens need to arm themselves to safeguard political liberties against threats by the government.” The CSGV finds the NRA and its members in opposition to constitutional democracy because they “believe in the right to take up arms to resist government policies they consider oppressive, even when these policies have been adopted by elected officials and subjected to review by an independent judiciary.”  In short, the gun lobby favors using guns to oppose any law and order with which it disagrees.

Other than perhaps better protecting some public officials, in the present political environment it seems unlikely that anything positive will come from the killings and shootings in Tucson, and America’s obsession with guns and their use to kill others probably will continue to grow unabated.

Gun regulation is another area where special interests control the Congress, preventing effective public policies from being adopted that would benefit the welfare and safety of all Americans. Whenever special interests control public policy, the system has become corrupted. Until public officials can escape that corruption, they will not act to benefit the society as a whole. This is why citizens must speak up to counteract the irrational, unscientific, self-serving, corrupting, and fear-inducing campaigns of the organized gun lobby. We need to hear the voices of more Americans, not fewer, so that we can work toward achieving less gun violence against all Americans.

© Lamar W. Hankins, Freethought San Marcos

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9 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: America’s gun problem

  1. Hankins wants us to all surrender our safety to the criminally minded who will visit violence upon us without regard to what is legal and can do so in any number of ways, with our without a firearm.

    Foolish, lazy thinking. Violence is a result of human action and not created or spurred by inanimate objects. The only “gun problem” we have is not enough law abiding folk being well trained and in possession of firearms at all times. An armed society is a polite society.

  2. Find me another Constitutional Amendment starting out with a qualifyer.

    And Robert, I own guns, shoot quite often, rifle, pistol, shotgun, centerfire, rimfire, everythign but black powder.

  3. When it’s gauranteed that the criminals no longer have guns because they are locked up, I’d be happy.
    The problem is that in reality budget cuts, and super saver behavior means they are locked up for a few months then back on the streets to see who they can victimize! They love jail…three square meals a day, TV, no bills , no stress at all. The only guns that need to be gotten rid of are the ones that are in the hands of convicted felons. Law abiding citizens with guns is the cornerstone of a safe society in these times of lax punisment for the ones who do society wrong.

  4. June, , Jared Loughner wasn’t a convicted felon. I believe even the NRA doesn’t want crazy people to be able to buy firearms.

  5. While I agree with a lot of Lamar’s sentiment, I’m not sure more gun laws would have prevented Loughner from acquiring a gun. He had no criminal record and not really much of a negative record besides being rejected from the military and kicked out of college. Bad behavior, yes, but not criminal. Despite this bad behavior, he obviously had the focus to do things when he put his mind to them. So while he probably wouldn’t have gotten a CHL, he could have gotten through basic background checks and certifications. Only the strictest gun laws could have prevented his possession of a weapon, and those aren’t really politically viable in most of the U.S., certainly not Arizona.

    Americans connect gun rights to broader conceptions of liberty, rightly or wrongly.

  6. My issue with Loughner is, why didn’t someone (the school) report his erratic behavior? Since he had no mental illness history, despite behavior that most would believe indicated some mental abnormality, he would have passed the ATF check. But why didn’t he have tha history? Why didn’t someone report him?

  7. “Groups like the NRA and the GOA use fear, antipathy toward government, appeals to rugged individualism, notions of limitless personal choices, and similar propaganda to persuade Americans and their representatives that gun issues should not be dealt with objectively, based on rational public policy considerations, but should be decided based on emotion and the personal preferences of gun owners. They recognize no responsibility to the society as a whole to resolve social problems in ways that benefit society, rather than the narrow interests of gun owners.”

    Wow! It’s hard for me not to want to start a new religion that includes worshipping Holy Hankins. I love that guy!

    As if on queue, the emotive gunslingers start shooting blanks. Robert – (sigh) you know Hankins didn’t say or even infer that nonsense.

    Aaron, you are nearly always the man, although I wonder if you are becoming more cynical than me.

    I vacillate between wanting to do things that support putting back some teeth in legislation like the Brady Bill (naiveté?) to complete gloomy defeatism. My Zen states left me at 30. I wish I had more answers with action in them but I only have more questions. I have more questions about how to decrease the firearm suicide and domestic homicide rates.

    “The higher risk of suicide in homes with firearms applies not only to the gun owner but also to the gun owner’s spouse and children. The presence of a gun in the home, no matter how the gun is stored, is a risk factor for completed suicide.” -New England Journal of Medicine 2008

    What about requiring yearly mental health checkups? I was fine last year but this year I am suicidal, etc.. What about limiting the size of existing and retrofitted extended cartridges? Assault weapons? These are all valid questions that usually begin the inquiry.

    I suggested every gun comes with a fingerprint gun handle that only shoots if the person who registered their fingerprints with it is holding it. I still like the idea even if the NRA doesn’t.

    We need everyone at the table and all guns and gun rhetoric checked at the entrance in order to have a constructive conversation about, for instance, what to do about the 10th or 11th (not sure what it is right now) cause of death in the United States, with firearms accounting for 50% (something like 17,000 people) of those suicides. Imagine the population of an entire Texas town dissappearing every year. Governor Perry would be upset if that were happening. Now, just expand it in your mind that although everyone of those 17,000 people were instead dispersed throughout the country – they are still dead just the same.

    So, just to keep it simple and on target for now and to reiterate what I interpreted was the point of Hankins OpEd:

    What can we do to reduce the amount of suicides and domestic homicides by gunshot in the United States?

  8. “Aaron, you are nearly always the man, although I wonder if you are becoming more cynical than me.”


    I really don’t see a way to stop the campus carry law from going through. Proportionally, TX democrats got pasted something like 50% worse than the U.S. congress, soooo… they’re basically impotent at this point. Even then, like I said on the other thread… this is TX. Texans see the right take weapons everywhere as equal to their right to breathe. Probably greater than that, given their lack of support for clean air regulations.

    What I hope is that individual campuses will still be able to set some guidelines. Most campus administrators I know are vehemently against it.

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