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J. Travis Smith Headshot

Seeing Beyond Assault Rifles

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COLORADO GUN BACKGROUND CHECK
AP

There were 32,163 firearm deaths in the United States during 2011, according to a report published by the Division of Vital Statistics. The majority were suicides totaling 19,766, leaving 11,015 homicides, 323 of which were murders at the hands of rifles. The Sandy Hook massacre consumes political attention, but represents the smallest slice of the problem.

As an 11-year-old living in Maryland during the Beltway sniper attacks, and a high school sophomore considering college during the Virginia Tech massacre, regarding my memory of firearm murders, the rarest form consumes the majority. While personal experiences motivate my discussion, empathy shouldn't require tragedy and be confined to a specific social demographic. None are immune to random acts of violence, and this violence, while recently concentrated in time and location, is nothing new to America's culture. However, while the spotlight is on gun policy, we must recognize the uniqueness of American society, and thus the necessarily unique solutions to our problems.

For us, gun control is futile. American murder by firearms from a two-day period in 2010 rivaled Britain's corresponding toll for the entire year of 2011. So few die in Britain at the hands of firearms, not due to gun laws of the current year, but because there has always been gun control. The American discussion of gun control has missed the boat, as we already swim in a sea of gunmetal; 270 million privately owned guns reside within our borders. The tide of gun ownership is rising, as indications from Obama pointing toward a ban on assault rifle sales have led to a nationwide shopping spree for guns and ammunition.

Unlike handgun legislation, these indications may be more than just idle talk, as a national tragedy caused by assault rifles is not a rarity, but an annual occurrence. Recent events have cast a spotlight on laughably loose gun regulation propped up on outdated constitutional language. Viewed from the perspective of its time, as any historical document must, the second amendment was written as insurance against an unforeseeable future in which tyranny may return to America. The basis for democracy -- the people by which it rules -- is the last check against oppression.

However, these words were intended for a 1790s militia, which, forget assault rifles, rarely carried muzzle-loading rifles, almost always clubs. Thus, in order to affect change, like-minded people had to convene, agree, and mobilize together. Today, with high capacity magazines, a single person can enjoy the ability to take on the masses, as enabled by a constitutional statement intended for militia. Need for militia protection from tyranny is a ridiculous assertion ignorantly cited in any pro gun argument. A single person is not a militia, but a terrorist, and entertaining the notion of a tyranny in America is an offensive argument, especially to those actually living under the boot of tyranny.

Expected proposals from Obama will be neither effective nor comprehensive in reducing gun murders. While walking around my campus, the possibility of a gunman carrying an assault rifle invokes the most fear, although I realize this is analogous to irrationally fearing flying over driving. Assault rifles are not America's biggest problem. Elimination of assault rifles is only the tip of the iceberg, contributing to 2.5 percent of all murders in 2011 -- this proportion increased to 3.8 percent when only looking at firearm murders -- according to the FBI. This 2.5 percent is overemphasized, and leaves the other 97.5 percent "acceptable" by comparison.

The lives lost of the students and teachers of Sandy Hook were no more precious or tragic than the victims of murders occurring daily. The sheer rate of death caused by a single assault rifle pushed this event into the spotlight, although assault rifle death tolls are dwarfed by handguns in aggregate. As an example, the death toll of all mass shootings nation-wide in the 13 years since Columbine totals 273, while drive-by shootings in LA during a single year total 277.

Although mass killers, handguns have never been seriously restricted, and won't be in the foreseeable future. Conversely, a ban on assault rifles was enacted for 10 years under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and a review conducted by a National Research Council panel noted that the ban "did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence." As evident, a solution to gun violence is doubtlessly complex, and would be relatively unaffected by feasible gun restrictions. While the current discussion is hot and nationwide, we need to think rationally and without bias, ignoring those voices hampered by conflicts of interest.

The NRA is currently being bashed for their proposal to solve our gun problem with more guns. Although this ludicrous suggestion is obviously motivated by profit from a group funded by gun manufacturers, at the heart is the right idea: the acceptance of current gun use remaining constant. This means other methods must be explored adjacent to gun laws. Bullet-proof glass and auto-lock doors in schools mirror the NRA's method of stopping violence at the point of attack, and may be coming soon from some glass or lock lobbyist. However, we don't call on drug dealers to solve our drug problem; let's not call on profiteers for regulations.

Gunmen in schools, bulletproof glass, homeschooling, etc., constrict freedom and suggest a military state. These preventative measures indicate we have accepted that evil walks with arms to bear, and we must protect ourselves. Practicing lock down drills during elementary and middle school did not make me feel safe or that the school was prepared, quite the opposite in fact. I propose we nip the problem in the bud. Mental health has still not been explored sufficiently. Besides direct mental health services, removing glory from murder in the news, enhancing state records of the mentally ill, and ending loopholes to bypass NICS background checks when buying from a private dealers, would all reduce violence among the mentally ill. The NRA thinks only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun. I argue that a good guy who cares to listen can have the same effect.

My worry is that we see a complicated problem and point at obvious solutions that chip away at the corners but not the heart of the problem. Assault rifles and mental illness are not the biggest killers in America, even in combination. The deaths making up the majority of firearm homicides are the kind we view as "typical" and have been plaguing our society for decades, with no realistic solution.

Seen repeatedly after national tragedies, aside from the family and friends of murder victims, the rest of society will move on. The status quo will prevail, maybe masked by alterations in the availability of assault rifles or increased attention to the mentally ill, but our trigger-happy culture will remain. If acute murder rates seen in these types of tragedies cease, by some combination of policy measures, will our more chronic gun problem continue without discussion? We are at a critical point: do we treat the most salient symptoms or the disease? We shouldn't be satisfied fixing the loudest and most discussed 2.5 percent of the problem, leaving the other 97.5 percent to remain. I don't support blindly politicizing tragedy, but we cannot waste the discussion it spurs, and this discussion needs to extend beyond assault rifles, to the benefit of those victims and their families drowned out in the massive body count piling up from business as usual in America.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to NCIS background checks. It's been corrected to read NICS background checks.