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Bob Herbst

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No Sanity Yet in the American Response to Gun Carnage

Posted: 01/31/2013 12:08 pm

Forgive me for thinking that, after Newtown, the tide would shift on guns -- that a cry would go up throughout the land; that the verbal descriptions of 20 little bodies lying lifeless on their school house floor, rent through with three to 11 high-powered bullets each, would be sickening enough to bring even sportsmen and gun owners around to the notion that the right of little kids to life and security deserves to be weighed against the right to unrestricted gun ownership.

Forgive me for thinking that our newly-(re)elected president and Congress might follow the lead of Australia, another country of rugged individualists. There, in 1996, in response to the Port Arthur massacre of 35 by a man using two assault rifles (and the killing of 16 primary school children in Dunblane, Scotland, six weeks earlier), a newly-elected conservative prime minister quickly led the country to a complete ban on all semi-automatic rifles and all semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, and a tightly restrictive system of licensing and ownership controls of all other firearms. In the 17 years since, there have been no mass shootings. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of firearm-related deaths in Australia declined 47 percent. According to a 2011 Australian government report, the number of victims of homicide has been in decline since 1996. Firearm suicides fell from 22 percent of all suicides in 1992 to 7 percent in 2005. The number of guns stolen fell dramatically, too.

But no, six weeks after Newtown, it is not the cry of anguish from parents and children that are primarily being heard; rather, it is the cry of gun owners asserting that their right to the unrestricted possession and use of guns -- assault rifles and otherwise -- must reign supreme. To hell with the kids. Banning assault rifles, good only for killing people in large numbers very quickly? Off the table. Too much fun shooting, can't do without 'em. Restricting large-capacity magazines? Forget about it. Restrictive licensing system? Can't even talk about it. Nationwide system of background checks? Maybe, but that's all.

I know our utterly-dysfunctional political system has cottoned to the National Rifle Association like almost no one else. But now, even with these massacres culminating in Newtown? Yes, apparently. Even the prospect of Mike Bloomberg's millions coming in on the side of rational gun control supporters in Congress does not appear to be having much salutary effect.

Meanwhile, the every-day carnage continues across the country, as noted yesterday in Joe Nocera's column in The New York Times. A teenager shooting at people at random, some hoping to be killed while exchanging gunfire with police. Another, humiliated because a school bus driver would not let him on the bus, started shooting at the bus. Another playing with his gun accidentally shot his little brother. An 11-year-old was shot by her father when he was refused permission to visit her. A man shot dead his estranged wife and then himself. We know that some if not most of these victims would still be alive if the guns used were not readily available when the impulse to do harm arose (as it sometimes does momentarily before abating, even in those human beings not diagnostically mentally ill).

A 30-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department was on NPR yesterday explaining that experience has shown that it takes rigorous training and recurrent practice to respond properly with a gun to urgent situations. Without it, accidents happen, the wrong people get shot, the gun never gets used in time, or the response goes otherwise awry.

I fly a small plane, and have for more than 35 years. While the analogy is imperfect, in the wrong hands, in the wrong circumstances, a small plane is a lethal weapon -- which is why, since 9/11, security restrictions on its use have increased significantly. But even before 2001, small private planes had to be registered, and private pilots extensively trained and licensed to minimize the dangers that using the planes present to the pilots themselves and others in the air and on the ground. Recurrent flight review and certification by a qualified flight instructor is required to maintain that license to fly. I love the freedom to roam the skies as much as gun owners love the freedom to shoot, but opposing necessary registration, licensing and training requirements to do so is, frankly, ridiculous.

Guns kill people, people! By the tens of thousands every year. On the day Adam Lanza attacked children between the ages of 5 and 10 in Newtown, killing 20, Min Yingjun attacked 22 children between the ages of 6 and 11 going into an elementary school in Chengping, China, killing none before being subdued. The American kids died while the Chinese kids survived because while Lanza blazed away with guns, Min only had a knife available.

It is unfortunate that the crime-scene photos in Newtown will probably never be seen. The only people likely to be traumatized by the sight of those dead kids are the first responders who were required to endure it. That is too bad. The politicians who do not yet have the courage to stand up for meaningful gun control, like all of us not sufficiently speaking out, should have to look upon what we have wrought and see what it is like in real life when innocents get slaughtered. Maybe that might spur us to do something meaningful about the carnage.

 
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