About half of our states have stand your ground laws, which permit individuals to use their own weapons to defend themselves when there is a reasonable belief of a threat without retreating first. Unfortunately, there is no stand your ground requirement for those who would propose any meaningful legislation for gun control. For a variety of reasons, they are in full retreat and either unwilling or unable to stand their ground.
As a result, in spite of the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colo., the best we can expect is vapid and virtually endless media coverage and comments about the victims and the perpetrator and no preventative action in response to America's particularly problematic gun situation. This is not a case of sound and fury signifying nothing. It is a case of the superficial and shallow substituting for substance.
America's gun problem is not a figment of some liberal's imagination. It is a sad and ugly fact. As James Fallows notes in his July 20 posting for The Atlantic, "The Certainty of More Shootings": "The Brady Campaign's list of mass shootings just since 2005 is 62 pages long."
Almost everyone can probably tick off the most memorable and well-covered tragedies: Aurora, Ft. Hood and Virginia Tech to name just a few. As the Brady Campaign's list attests, however, America's dirty little secret is that these are not just isolated instances they represent a pattern of mass violence that is almost epidemic in proportion. Our review of the Brady list indicates that there were a total of 393 incidents in the four-year period between 2011 and 2008, or almost 100 per year.
What this list says about the victims of these crimes is that they were expendable -- as were the almost 9,000 people who were killed by guns in 2010. We ignore the deaths of these individuals in the name of Second Amendment rights. In doing so, we elevate gun ownership and the right to bear arms above the "inalienable rights" of the individual stated so eloquently in our Declaration of Independence to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
When our rights come in conflict, we express who we are as a society by choosing which right to give precedence. We also express who we are when we make a right virtually absolute with only limited controls. What does our current stance on guns say about us?
Pew and Gallup polls show that gun rights are on the ascendancy and gun control advocates are losing ground. Prithi Yelaja, in a July 23 post for CBC News, notes,
"A 1991 Gallup poll found that 78 percent of American favored stricter laws. By 2011 the numbers had steadily shifted ... stricter gun control had fallen to 43 percent, 44 percent favored the status quo and 11 percent wanted less strict gun control."
In an April 25 press release, the Pew Research Center reported:
"On gun control, 49% of Americans say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns, while 45% say it is more important to control gun ownership. From 1993 through 2008, majorities had said it was more important to control gun ownership than to protect gun rights, but opinions became more divided since 2009 after the election of Barack Obama."
So, the times and the tenor are changing dramatically. Not so long ago, we had stricter attitudes regarding gun control and stricter gun control laws. Joe Klein explains some of reasons for this shift in his cover article for the August 6 issue of Time titled "How the Gun Won."
Mr. Klein points out that "Bill Clinton signed into law both the assault-weapons ban, which George Bush allowed to lapse in 2004, and the Brady Law which required background checks of those seeking to purchase handguns." After President Clinton signed those bills, the congressional democrats experienced significant losses in 1994 and Al Gore, running on a strong gun control platform, lost the presidency in 2000.
Klein observes that President Clinton placed much of the blame for those losses on the National Rifle Association (NRA). While he does not agree completely with Clinton's analysis, Klein concludes, "But after the 1994 and 2000 elections very few Democrats were going to take any chances on gun control."
He does concede that, "Indeed, a vote for gun control became more and more difficult as the NRA gained strength over the past 30 years -- from 2.4 million in 1982 to 4.3 million today..."
The actual impact of the NRA on election results can be debated. What is not debatable, however, is the fact that gun control is not a front-burner political issue today and lacks passionate supporters. Trip Gabriel explains it this way in his July 23 article for the New York Times:
"The reason gun control is seen as a political loser in both parties, said Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert at the University of California, Los Angeles Law School, is that while few advocates of restrictions are single issue voters, many opponents will vote and donate money based on the issue."
So, in this election cycle, gun control will not be front and center. Special interests will trump the public interest -- especially because, as the April 25 Pew Center report highlighted,
"Independents also have become more supportive of gun rights. Currently, 55% say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns; 40% say it is more important to control gun ownership."
The political polls indicate that the contests at all levels in the swing states will be close and that the independent voters will be decisive in the electoral races. That is another reason why gun control will not be a major part of our national dialogue during this election year.
We must reignite that discussion immediately thereafter, however. We must do so for the victims of gun violence and because we as Americans can do and be better -- much better.
Bill Wier reports in a July 21 post for ABC News:
"A study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery found that the gun murder rate in the U.S. is almost 20 times higher than the next 22 richest and most populous nations combined. Among the world's 23 wealthiest countries, 80 percent of all gun deaths and 87 percent of all kids killed by guns are American kids."
These are stunning and saddening statistics. They paint the true picture of our national condition and the dire need for change. Yet, because of the effectiveness of the NRA and the gun lobby message machine, many citizens have been blinded to the facts and inured to the violence. The machine tells us that:
- Guns don't kill people, people do. True. But it is also true that people with guns kill people. And, people with guns -- especially with assault weapons or large clips of ammo -- can kill a lot more people than they might otherwise.
- It's not a gun problem, it's a mental health problem. Crazy people do crazy things. True. But, think about it this way -- if these crazy people were foreign-born terrorists, would we and have we not done everything we can to try to take guns and all dangerous weapons out of their hands? Does it not make sense to do the same to these terrorists within?
- There was no significant reduction in mass shootings during the 10-year period when the assault weapons ban was in effect. True. But all that means is that people who wanted to engage in mass violence found other tools to use. Is that an argument to increase gun control to include those weapons of individual destruction or to reduce gun control by putting another lethal weapon back on the street?
- The national murder rate is at a 47-year low. True. But, is our current rate in this category acceptable for an advanced civilized society?
- The best way to stop future violence is to put guns in the hands of more people so they can "take out" a perpetrator of mass violence. Really? If that's the case, maybe we should issue everyone a gun upon birth or distribute guns to everyone attending a public event in order to equalize the shooting and killing fields.
The trends in the Pew and Gallup polls testify to the fact that the machine is winning and we as a society are losing. This will and can not be turned around in 2012.
We can, however, use the Dark Knight shooting in Aurora as a pivot point to shine a bright light on this area once again. We believe the best way to do this is by establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the issue of gun violence and the appropriate balance between gun rights and gun control.
We are painfully aware, given the results of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, that commissions do not always come to agreement and that even when they do their recommendations can be ignored. Nonetheless, we are in a situation that demands objective scrutiny and attention. This focus can provide the impartial information that our elected officials and we need to arm ourselves and to stand our ground to defend our "inalienable rights" as citizens not just the right to bear arms.