Earlier this week, The Commonwealth Club held a town hall meeting on the shootings in Tucson, and the lessons to be learned for public policy. To a person, participants thought the issues that emerge from Tucson have to do with mental illness and guns, not with the tone of U. S. public discourse. Many thought the partisan bickering in US politics was responsible for other ills in our society, like difficulties in effectively addressing the state of our economy, education and other major challenges. But everyone agreed that political snarling has always been a phenomenon in the American system, going all the way back to fisticuffs in the US Congress in early years, and that it had minimal effect on the actions of Jared Loughner, the mentally disturbed assassin in Tucson.
I agree with this assessment. And since we have had many episodes lately -- not just the Tucson killings but the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 people were killed, and other tragedies like the 1999 Columbine killings -- where mental illness and guns were involved, it is important to focus on how our society is handling both access to guns and mental illness.
To begin with some statistics, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health:
An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older -- about one in four adults -- suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, this figure translates to 57.7 million people... the main burden of illness is concentrated in... about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 -- who suffer from a serious mental illness.
These include major depression, bipolar disorder, suicide, anxiety disorders, anti-social and other personality disorders, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other severe and non-curable mental disorders. Most of these individuals are not violent, but some of them are or have the potential to be violent.
Americans are estimated to privately own over 300 million guns -- handguns, rifles, shotguns and automatic weapons. This is more than one gun for every adult American, although of course not every American owns a gun and some people own many of them. After a progressive tightening of gun laws from 1989-2000, following the shooting of President Reagan and other national episodes of violence, access to guns, including automatic weapons, has become gradually quite relaxed again in the US.
From these statistics we can draw the conclusion that guns and mental illness have a pretty high chance of colliding in our society to predictably produce the killing sprees and assassinations we are experiencing.
The laxity of our gun laws in the US -- including the legal purchase of semi-automatic weapons with magazines holding 33 rounds like the Glock 19 used by Jared Loughner and the obviously ineffective methods of checking the backgrounds of handgun purchasers as a way of filtering who has access to guns -- is based on a number of premises. Let's examine one of those principles, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, protecting the rights of US citizens to keep and bear arms as part of a "well-regulated militia." How relevant is this ostensibly sacrosanct right in today's world?
The Second Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and passed by Congress in 1791, during a time when one of the worries of the citizens of our new republic was that democracy could be crushed by a tyrannical government oppressing an unarmed citizenry. Their recent experience had been with the British government of King George III, which imposed on the American colonies taxation without representation, denial of jury trials and other iniquities, and which armed citizen militias had overthrown in the Revolutionary War. The Second Amendment was based on conclusions drawn from this war, where the expeditionary forces of the English King were defeated by the colonists on their own soil using flintlock muskets, rifles and single-shot pistols.
Our founding fathers wanted to ensure that our citizens would continue to have the capability to fight off tyrants, foreign or domestic. So they drafted language for the Bill of Rights that "a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
Fast forward 220 years. Those who advocate minimally regulated freedom to own guns in the US continue to cite the Second Amendment as a basis of their argument. The Second Amendment Foundation, an organization that files lawsuits around the US to promote and protect gun ownership and use, cites the constitutional right to keep and bear arms as its main rationale.
Let's leave aside the question of whether private gun ownership constitutes a "well-regulated militia." By dwelling on the necessity of guns "to the security of a free state," these interpreters of the Second Amendment imply that gun ownership continues to allow Americans to protect themselves against a tyrannical government that could come to power in the US, or perhaps from foreign invasion and oppression.
This is only one of the arguments cited for broad access to guns in the United State -- others include personal defense in one's own home -- but let's examine it. This proposition is completely absurd in the 21st century. Let us say that an oppressive government came to power in the US. With 2.3 million well-trained soldiers and reservists, equipped with armored personnel carriers, laser-guided munitions, GPS, body armor and thousands of nuclear weapons, do we really think that the citizenry would be likely to be able resist oppression using handguns, shotguns and hunting rifles? Or even semi-automatic weapons? Citizens might as well try to fight modern weapons with pitchforks. It is an inherently absurd idea that does not recognize the advances in technology of the past two centuries, nor the differences between the modern US state and the period of British colonialism.
Alternatively, let's say that we fear invasion and domination from another country. Let's ignore the obvious fact that most of our threats today come from groups without countries or standing armies, but are fluid and stateless like al Qaeda. Their terrorist methods include blowing themselves up with suicide bombs, and they cannot realistically be combated by citizens with guns.
Absurd as it sounds, let us say for the purpose of argument that the Mexican government were to try to take over the United States, and for some reason, the US government and its large standing military with nuclear weapons was unable to fight this off. Would citizens with handguns be a match for the military forces of another country? No. Because most sitting governments have overwhelming military force at their disposal, the methods citizens have to protect the "security of a free state" today have nothing to do with guns in the hands of civilians.
The most important thing American citizens can do to prevent tyranny at home is to keep our democratic system strong and healthy. The most important thing we can do to protect against foreign threats is to keep our military strong and take appropriate measures at home and abroad to protect ourselves against terrorism.
Beyond these obvious steps, today citizens have other means at their disposal that are much more relevant than guns to fighting off tyranny either foreign or domestic. One of the most interesting examples of the kind of measures available to defeat tyranny today was the recent successful Israeli effort to interfere with the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli hackers introduced the "Stuxnet" worm into the computer systems at the Bushehr Iranian nuclear plant, which then hobbled the centrifuges used to enrich uranium for a period of months. This has set back a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program and thus diminished the possible threat to Israel and other countries.
This is the 21st century. The use of technology and other methods that have nothing to do with privately-owned guns are what would help a country or its citizens to resist oppression. These modern methods are the equivalent of the guns of the late 18th century referenced in the US Constitution.
The only way guns in private hands have affected our "security of a free state" is in the hands of unbalanced individuals who have terrorized and murdered our democratically-elected representatives and other leaders, and thus weakened our democratic state. President Abraham Lincoln, shot and killed in 1865. President James Garfield, shot and killed in 1881. President William McKinley, shot and killed in 1901. Former President Teddy Roosevelt, shot in 1912. Anton Cernak, Mayor of Chicago, shot and killed in 1933. President John F. Kennedy, shot and killed in 1963. Martin Luther King, shot and killed in 1968. U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, shot and killed in 1968. San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Councilman Harvey Milk, shot and killed in 1978. Congressman Leon Ryan, shot and killed in 1978. President Ronald Reagan, shot in 1981. New York City Councilman James Davis, shot and killed in 2003. Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and Federal Judge John Roll, respectively shot and killed in Tucson in 2011.
And this is of course does not include the thousands of ordinary citizens who die from gun violence each year in the United States. About 9,000 people are murdered with guns every year in the US, almost 70% of all those killed by homicide. Another 75,000 Americans are wounded annually and about 17,000 commit suicide annually with guns. This is a total of more than 100,000 people wounded and killed with guns every year.
There is a direct relationship between the incidence of homicides using guns and gun ownership. Of any country in the world, the United States has the highest number of guns owned per capita for its population, and it has the highest number of gun homicides per capita. Mexico has the second highest incidence of gun ownership and also of homicides with guns. The drug-related gun violence in Northern Mexico has drawn recent attention. Most of the guns used in violence in Mexico come from the United States, so Mexico's gun violence is partially a spill-over from lax US gun laws.
The logic is absolutely clear -- the more guns in private hands, the more people will be shot and killed each year in the US. The more guns in private hands, the greater the number will be of mentally unstable individuals with guns.
Why do we continue to tolerate this situation in the US, and what can be done about it? How can we ensure that hunters, for example, have access to the guns needed for their sport, but establish effective restraints to prevent those who should not have guns - like the mentally ill - from getting them? I will return to this topic, as well as the issues about how we deal with mental illness in our society, in future columns.