The United States of Gun Violence

Posted on December 16, 2012

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© Josh Sager – December 2012

In a foreword to this article, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to the families of the December 14th school shooting. Such a tragedy is awful enough when the victims aren’t children and I cannot image what the parents must be going through. I hope that the families of the victims get as much support as they need, and would hope that everybody has them in their thoughts.

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Gun violence is reaching near-epidemic levels in the United States, yet our politicians are failing to act. Lax gun laws and a culture that is desensitized to gun violence have created a situation where thousands of Americans die each year due to guns, but our politicians are afraid to do anything.

In December 2012, there have been two mass shootings (one in an Oregon mall and another in a Connecticut school), leading many to say that now is not the time to talk gun control. These people argue that to bring up gun control in the aftermath of a mass-shooting is to “politicize a tragedy” and is insensitive to the victims. In a normal climate, this point might be valid, but, in our country’s current predicament, we simply don’t have enough time between shootings to waste. Every day, approximately 25 Americans are murdered with guns. How many days (and lives) can we spare, waiting for the time to be right for increased gun control?

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According to FBI statistics, 68,720 Americans were murdered domestically during the time period of 2007 to 2011. Of these victims, 46,313 were killed by firearms—to put this into perspective, this translates to an average of 9,263 murders per year or 25 murders per day. These death tolls don’t even begin to illustrate our country’s gun problem, as it fails to account for accidental deaths and injuries due to gun ownership.

Out of all western industrialized countries, the United States has the highest gun ownership rate, and the highest homicide rate. According to a study by UCLA professors, the United States’ per capita gun homicide rate is over 19X higher than any other country of comparable development levels (ex. England).

In addition to the random gun violence with the USA, there have been over 60 mass-shootings within the United States since 1982 (mass-shootings are classified as shootings where over 4 people are killed). To make this statistic even more worrying, eight of these shootings occurred this year alone. Such an increase leads many to believe that mass-shootings will simply continue to increase in frequency and severity until somebody does something to curb the ability of some to perpetrate violence on those around them.

Gun Laws

Regardless of ones’ personal opinion on the issue of gun ownership in the United States, it is settled law that the 2nd Amendment to the constitution prevents the government from enacting blanket bans on firearms. In Distract of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court affirmed this interpretation of gun rights and struck down a Washington DC law banning firearms. That said, the American government has broad powers to regulate gun ownership and to intercede in situations which pose a danger to the public The government can regulate many aspects of gun ownership, including:

  • What types of weapons can be sold (ex. assault weapons bans)
  • Who can legally own weapons (ex. felons can have their gun rights revoked)
  • Where weapons can be legally held  (ex. banning guns in government buildings)
  • How people buy guns (ex. mandating background checks/waiting periods)
  • Registration of weapons (mandating that all guns be registered with the state)

Unfortunately, gun laws in many states are absolutely inadequate and must be reformed if we are to stop gun violence. Many states, particularly in the south, have deregulated guns to the point where there are simply no real ways to prevent violent or disturbed people from obtaining weapons.

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Case in point for the inadequacy of current gun laws is found in the “gun show loophole.” At a gun show, “private sellers” are allowed to sell guns to anybody that they want, with no background checks, waiting periods or reporting to the government. If a mentally ill man with a history of violence and a spot on the terrorist watch list goes to a gun show, he can buy several assault rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles—no background checks will be done, nobody will know that he bought the weapons, and the only thing that would impede his purchase would be the difficulty of carrying the weapons home.

Over the last decade, our state and federal governments have done nothing but chip away at gun laws. Gun control laws which were previously taken for granted have been stripped away (ex. some gun advocates desire the ability to carry their guns into church for prayer and bars when they want to get drunk) and the limitations on gun ownership are now lower than they have been in modern history.

Numerous states have passed bills that would make it easier to obtain gun licenses and more difficult to restrict people who have mental problems from getting guns. For example, Florida uses an automatic approval process for gun permitting that bans police from making judgments as to who can get a gun permit—the entire process is based around fixed criteria rather than an assessment by experts. This deregulation is extremely dangerous because it allows violent or disturbed individuals to purchase legal guns; these legal guns are then used to commit crimes and sometimes massacres (approximately ¾ of the guns used in mass-shootings during the last thirty years were legally bought).

Laws which previously limited where individuals are allowed to carry their guns have been struck down and replaced with carry laws which allow people to bring guns into schools, churches and government buildings. In horrible symmetry with the December 14th Connecticut school shooting, the Michigan legislature passed a bill that would allow individuals to bring guns into schools just hours after the shots broke out in the CT elementary school.  Letting people bring guns into areas where they don’t belong (ex. places with children, alcohol, or high emotions), is simply a recipe for disaster and is beneficial to nobody.

President Bush’s legacy on gun rights was to let the federal Assault Weapons Ban run out and not be re-authorized. This refusal to reauthorize the ban has allowed Americans to legally purchase a host of dangerous weapons—including assault rifles and the high-capacity magazines that we have seen in recent shootings—that were previously illegal under federal law. Such weapons have no purpose but to be used to kill people and, oftentimes, many people. Put plainly, if you need an assault rifle to take down a deer, you shouldn’t be allowed near a gun.

In order to fix our country’s broken gun laws, we must reform them to make it much harder for violent people to obtain dangerous weapons. Through restricting the types of guns which can be sold, to whom they can be sold and the requirements for the sale to be valid, American lawmakers may be able to stem the tide of violence. There are already too many guns on the street, but steps must be taken to prevent this problem from getting even worse. Here is a short summery of my ideal gun-control regulatory regime:

  1. Nobody with a felony record, severe mental illness, pending criminal charges, or place on the terrorist watch list is allowed to buy or carry guns within the United States. In addition to these restrictions, nobody under the age of 18 should be allowed to own a gun and nobody under the age of 15 should be allowed to operate a gun (even with parental consent/supervision).
  2. No guns are to be allowed in the following locations: Religious institutions, schools, government buildings, national parks, places where alcohol is sold/consumed, sports stadiums, large public gatherings, political rallies/voting location, or any areas which have large numbers of children (zoos, amusement parks, playgrounds, etc.).
  3. Before buying a gun, an individual must pass a psychiatric evaluation (with federal standards), and be certified competent in the safe handling of a firearm (identical to a driving test for the right to drive a car). The results of these tests will be confidential and not used in any capacity other than determining whether an individual has the ability to safely handle a firearm.
  4. The only guns which are legal for civilians within the United States are bolt-action rifles, scatter-guns (shotguns/bird-rifles), and non-automatic pistols (revolver or semi-automatic). Any individual seeking another type of gun may attempt to buy one, but only after submitting a written statement to the federal government, describing the exact purpose and need for such a firearm (ex. private security personnel may require assault weapons for overseas government contracts).
  5. All legally sold guns must have their barrel striations and firing pin imprints logged and registered to the government; any intentional alterations to these components should be a felony and result in an immediate loss of the right to carry a firearm.
  6. Straw-purchasing and the personal sale of firearms without disclosure to the government should be a felony. If a gun is stolen, the legal owner has 72 hours from the discovery of the theft to report it to the police, or they will lose their right to own a firearm for a minimum of a year and be subject to a fine.
  7. All ammunition sales should require identification and should be immediately reported to the government. In addition to this reporting, there should be caps on ammunition sales, both on the number of bullets which can be bought in a single instance and on the number of bullets which can be bought per year; gun ranges and professional shooters are exempt to these limits, but only after receiving a federal waiver.
  8. No extended magazines or specialty ammunition are to be allowed for civilian use (tracer, explosive, sabot, etc.); a waiver can be obtained for this restriction, but only after a written application is submitted to the government, and the individual has been certified in the safe handling of the ammunition (ex. if a movie crew wants to use tracer rounds for a scene).
  9. Without receiving a federal waiver, no individual may own more than three of a single category of firearm (sidearm, rifle, or scatter-gun), putting a cap of nine guns for each individual. If an individual wishes to obtain more than three of a single category of gun (hunters, collectors, etc.), they must be evaluated and approved by the federal government.
  10. When storing a firearm, it must have a trigger-lock (fingerprint based, if possible) or be stored in a secure location (locking drawer, lockbox, safe, etc.). Any violation of this regulation which is discovered by authorities will result in a fine or loss of the right to own a gun for a period of time.

In order to ensure that there is no race to the bottom for gun control, these regulations should be based in the federal government. Any state which wished to further restrict gun rights should have the right to do so, but the above regulations should create the federal baseline for American gun laws.

I am under no delusion that my suggested gun-laws are politically feasible but would hope that our politicians can disregard the NRA for long enough to get some of them passed. We simply cannot stand idle while thousands of our citizens are killed every year.

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Counter-Arguments From Gun Activists

When discussing gun-control and the limits of gun rights, the supporters of lax gun laws use a combination of several arguments to make their case. These arguments sound reasonable on their face, but they often break down when attacked with logic or applied to real life situations. In the following section, I will quickly debunk all of the common anti-gun control arguments.

Gun-rights activists say: “The United States may be suffering from an epidemic of mass-shootings…

…but if more people were armed, we would be safer.”

This argument is simply untrue and has been disproven by real-life examples. Never mind the comparison between the United States’ murder rate and that of other developed nations (Remember: 19X more murder in the USA), we see that more guns equals more gun murders in state-level comparisons. According to the Violence Policy Center’s analysis, states with higher per capita gun ownerships have far higher levels of gun homicide—there are 3 to 5 gun deaths per 100,000 in the bottom five gun ownership states, while there are 17 to 20 gun deaths per 100,000 in the top five gun ownership states.

In addition to the statistical evidence supporting the fact that more guns don’t make us safer, we can simply look at the mechanics of a shooting. Shootings are chaotic and, if everybody has a gun, there is a very real potential for a crossfire—nobody would know who the original shooter was, thus everybody would shoot at everybody else. In this crossfire, bullets would likely hit civilians (imagine a room filled with a crowd and three people shooting at each other) and the casualty count would increase. Once the police arrive, it would be difficult to determine who the original shooter was, and it is also likely that the police may end up shooting the people who didn’t start the gunfight.

In response to the “everybody should be armed” argument, people should simply ask the gun activist whether or not they support Iran getting a nuclear weapon. By the logic that the gun activist applies, everybody is safer when everybody is armed, and this would translate to support for Iranian weapons; in reality, these people almost always say that Iran isn’t a rational actor and that giving them a nuke endangers everybody around them. When they say this, you should simply tell them that not every gun owner is rational and that unrestricted gun ownership is the micro-equivalent to letting every country have nukes.

…but guns don’t kill people—people kill people”

While it is true that guns are simply tools and have no ability to harm anybody on their own, the assertion that they have no part in the perpetration of violence is absurd. Guns give people an easy, cheap, and relatively detached (compared to stabbings/beatings) method of killing people—even large numbers of people. By making killing easy, guns directly contribute to the thought process that must go into a killing and facilitate even higher body counts. Without guns, people would still kill others, but it would be far more difficult to accrue high body counts (ex. mass stabbings happen, but they don’t kill as many people as mass shootings).

Perhaps a better way to state this quote would be: “guns don’t kill people; people kill people. However, people with guns can easily and quickly kill a lot of people, while those who don’t cannot.”

…but the 2nd Amendment guarantees us a right to bear arms.”

It is true that the right to bear arms is guaranteed by the constitution, but it has also been held that reasonable restrictions on guns are constitutionally allowable. The federal and state governments have long maintained restrictions on who can carry guns (ex. felon disarmament), where people can have guns (ex. no guns in airports), and what types of guns are allowed (ex. the now-expired Assault Weapons Ban). What gun reformers suggest is not to ban all guns—that would be unconstitutional—but rather to ensure that these regulations are increased to sane levels. Currently, our weapons technology outstrips our regulations and this has allowed violent people to obtain guns that weren’t even within the realm of imagination in the time when the 2nd Amendment was written.

Our current gun laws are inadequate for our weapons technology and most gun law reformers simply wish to correct this imbalance. Few people talk about totally banning guns—something that is impossible because of the 2nd Amendment—but it is entirely rational to want a tightening of gun regulations in the face of thousands of murders.

…but if we restrict guns, only the criminals will have them.”

Restricting guns may not immediately stop hardened criminals from obtaining weapons, but it would help stop insane and violent people from getting them easily. Many shooters that kill large numbers of random people are disturbed loners who would have a difficult time obtaining a gun if not for legal channels—this isn’t to say that they wouldn’t eventually find a way, but it would make it more difficult.

We see that gun restrictions do work in the rest of the world. In Europe and much of Asia the per capita murder rates are far lower than the United States and this is, in part, due to the fact that they have fewer guns. Crime still occurs, and murders still happen, but it is harder to massive harm to large numbers of people when guns are less common.

By restricting guns, forcing gun registration, and punishing illegal guns harshly, the total number of guns on our streets will eventually decrease. As it gets more risky to buy or sell guns, people will have a harder time getting their hands on them and overall gun-homicide deaths will decrease.

For as long as we keep flooding our streets with guns, the disturbed among us will always be able to find the weapons that they need to commit murder. By stemming this flow and making it more risky to illegally obtain guns, the authorities will be able to gradually decrease the terrible violence that faces our country today.

…but limiting guns will only lead to violent people simply using other methods of killing large numbers of people”

Guns are a very quick, compact and efficient way of killing people and it is unlikely that any other weapon will replace guns as the weapon of choice. If somebody wishes another person dead, it is likely that they can find a way to get it done, but this doesn’t mean that we make it easy. Restrictions on guns make it harder to kill large numbers of people, as psychopaths find it more difficult to obtain their weapons.

As to other weapons:

  • Knives can kill people, but are much more difficult to use and it is virtually impossible to kill the same number of people with a knife as with a gun (an assault rifle can kill dozens of people a minute, simply through the squeeze of a trigger).
  • Bombs can kill large numbers of people but are unstable and difficult to build—the most likely victim of a bomb is its creator.
  • Cars have been used to kill people but they are far too large an unwieldy to replace guns (you can’t exactly put one in your pocket)

If properly motivated, somebody can kill their enemy with a pair of nail-clippers, but this is irrelevant to the greater regulatory scheme. Just because there are other ways for people to kill one another, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t in the public interest to restrict the most common way people currently kill each other.

…but we need guns to protect ourselves from the danger of a tyrannical government.”

I hate to break it to supporters of this argument, but they are simply deluded if they believe that any amount of personal firepower would protect them from a tyrannical government—the government has weapons that simply render personal firearms nearly useless. No matter how many pistols and rifles the population has, the government has planes, tanks and missiles. As we saw with government/militia conflicts in the past, no matter how many guns an individual has, it never turns out well for them when they turn those guns on the government (case in point: Ruby Ridge). The proper tool to prevent a government from falling into tyranny is the voting booth, not a gun and bullets.

…but there are other countries which have a lot of guns that don’t have a high murder rate”

Several countries have very high gun ownership rates but comparably low gun homicide rates—Switzerland and Israel as the two most common gun-activist examples. This is very simply explained by the fact that both Israel and Switzerland have compulsory military service and everybody must learn how to use guns. Those who are incompetent for military service (ex. psychotic people) don’t get guns, while those who finish their military service often keep weapons into their civilian lives.

By using this argument, gun activists are actually giving an endorsement of gun registration and strong restrictions on who can own a gun. If we had a very strict evaluation process to determine who is stable enough to own a gun (as these countries do as a prerequisite for service) then high gun ownership rates would be less of a problem—a lot of people would have guns, but they wouldn’t be unstable or untrained in their use of said guns.