The United States suffers more gun deaths and mass shootings than any other major industrialized country. It’s not even close. And of the dozen most deadly mass killings in U.S. history, half have occurred within the past five years. In other words, if you believe that these things are happening more and more often, the numbers validate that belief.
The question is why.
The NRA and its supporters say the problem is not easy access to guns. To the contrary, they often argue that the problem is a shortage of guns. If only we had more guns in circulation, fewer would die. The day before the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Michigan Legislature embraced that theory in passing a law allowing those with concealed carry permits to possess weapons in schools, churches and other formerly gun-free areas. Michigan’s governor has yet to say whether he intends to sign such a bill.
However, there is no evidence to support the NRA’s contention. Those countries with much lower death rates do not achieve those rates by allowing free and easy access to guns by almost everybody, regardless of training. Quite the contrary. Those few countries in which guns are even more ubiquitous than the United States — countries such as Iraq — have much higher death rates.
In addition, gun laws are more lax here in the South and guns themselves are more numerous. Under the NRA theory, that ought to produce a more civil, less violent society. The data say otherwise:
On the other hand, those who turn reflexively to gun control as an answer must acknowledge the inadequacies of that approach as well. Yesterday’s school shooting took place in Connecticut, a state with strong gun-control laws. The pistols that were used — a Sig Sauer and a Glock of undetermined model — had been legally obtained and were registered to Nancy Lanza, the late mother of the 20-year-old shooter. It has been widely reported that a Bushmaster .223 assault weapon — a version of the AR-15 — was found in the trunk of the vehicle driven by Adam Lanza to the school. However, Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut state patrol said at a press conference this morning that all recovered weapons were found in close proximity to Lanza’s body.
The high kill rate in the shootings — only one person was wounded and survived — suggests Lanza was experienced with firearms. But based on what we know now, it is hard to explain in concrete, direct fashion how any reasonable set of changes to our gun laws would have prevented Friday’s tragedy.
For example, I have not been able to find any more specific information about the types of pistols used in the attack, or whether those pistols or the Bushmaster were equipped with high-capacity magazines. As a practical matter, outlawing pistols would not be feasible given how many are already in circulation. It would also be impossible politically. Outlawing high-capacity magazines might be another matter, but again, as of yet we have no indication they played a role in this attack.
Guns are inanimate objects. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. I accept all of that as fact. However, I would have no problem whatsoever with again outlawing military-style assault weapons. Neither would the U.S. Supreme Court, even based on its most recent pro-gun rulings.
As gun supporters point out, and accurately so, other semi-automatic weapons are capable of delivering the same high fire rate as those described as assault weapons. It is striking, however, that these “other” weapons do not typically show up in the hands of mass murderers such as Adam Lanza. The military-style design of assault weapons may be superficial, but it gives them a powerful mystique to weak-minded souls pursuing visions of vengeance and power.
Speaking in general, rather than in reaction to the Newtown strategy, it is reasonable to propose that the legal ability to purchase and possess deadly firearms be linked to training and testing on the responsible use of such weapons. That would be a regulation of people, not of guns. Such proposals would nonetheless be fought bitterly by the NRA because they would reduce gun sales, and the NRA is in many ways nothing more than a front for its gun-industry sponsors.
Such laws would in no way infringe on constitutional rights as outlined in the Second Amendment and Supreme Court opinions. The millions of law-abiding, responsible gun owners in this country would have nothing to fear from such a system. In fact, as the NRA often points out correctly, those gun owners who have gone through the steps required to obtain a concealed carry permit rarely use those guns in crime. That record suggests a possible path forward for those who recognize both the constitutional right to possess firearms and the necessity of mitigating the damage done when those guns fall into the wrong hands.
– Jay Bookman