Gun Policy: The Continued Triumph of Angry Extremists

10/10/2011 03:59 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011
  • Steve Heilig Health care ethicist, epidemiologist, and environmentalist

Most Americans support a right to own guns. But most Americans also support significant regulations on that right -- more restrictions and regulation than we now have. Polls continually show both of these positions to be true, yet our nation and states have long been mired in a virtual free market of weaponry that results in shameful levels of shooting and killing. An important new book tells us much about why this is so.

I grew up shooting rifles and pistols at targets, and the occasional shotgun at clay pigeons, for my dad felt it important for me to know about shooting and gun safety. I got to be pretty good at it. Once I was certified as a "junior marksman" by the National Rifle Association, it was on to other things. in other words, not needing to hunt for food, I outgrew guns.

Once into training in public health, though, the perils of our nation's largely "free market" approach to guns began to become apparent to me, as it has to so many others. At hospital emergency rooms, I witnessed carnage. Mostly though, it was on the news -- not just the high-profile shootings and even massacres, but daily wounding and killing. The first book I read - and reviewed - on this topic was published way back in 1995; the author portrayed the gun issue as a "domestic arms race" wherein gun enthusiasts, criminals, and gun control advocates all upped the ante out of fear of what their perceived opponents were doing. It seemed a good, if sad, analogy.

Around that time I also served as a consultant to pediatricians who were developing guidelines to improve gun safety at home - especially, to keep kids safer where guns were present in homes. When these were published, I was surprised and dismayed to get phone calls from people saying this amounted to treason.

Earlier this year, after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and killing of others in Arizona, I wrote a blog post on another site saying that tragedy might be (yet another) wake- up call that we had to do better regarding guns in this country; at a minimum, we might not sell weapons to the insane. Again, the responses of many gun enthusiasts came in, many of them angry, indignant, accusatory.

Last week, I reviewed for the San Francisco Chroniclea landmark new book on the gun issue. As the author, Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor, successfully does in his book, I tried to portray his work as, well, "fair and balanced" on this issue - because he is. He shows the faults of various sides, exposes lapses in research on gun control pro and con, and seeks a middle way towards lessening the carnage without infringing on rights. Perhaps most important for future directions, he shows how gun control "failures" have too often been a foregone conclusion when gun lobbyists ensure that nothing effective will be approved and implemented - a self-fulfilling prophecy policy.

But once again, the first comments that arrived online called him, and/or me, a "liar," ranted about gun control's failures - again, something Winkler covers well - and so forth (it really seemed these comments came from people who hadn't bothered to really read the review, let along the book itself). The overall point of extremists taking over not only the NRA but the debate as a whole was inadvertently proven again. And the juvenile projection of some gun owners that everybody - well, every male - wants to be a some sort of "commando" like them, as quoted in the book review, shone through all too well.

Senator Mark Leno recently sent out this message: " One of the most important measures we can take to protect public safety is to keep firearms out of the hands of people who are prohibited from owning them due to criminal activity or mental illness. Unfortunately, there are more than 18,000 convicted felons and mentally ill persons in California who illegally possess their firearms, and this list grows by about 15 to 20 people each day. In the Bay Area alone, more than 2,500 people who once made legal purchases of guns now own them illegally due to subsequent issues that disqualify them from possessing weapons."

Does that sound like a good situation? Not to any reasonable person. But the "gun rights" extremists have fought efforts to get more control of even illegal guns. Leno has a bill to help rectify the situation, but it will be a political fight. And there are other proposals, proffered seriously, to put guns into schools, and "open carry" advocates show up on beaches and in eateries just to prove some sort of point considered nutty by more reasonable people. Spurred by gun lobbyists, Florida legislators have passed a law prohibiting doctors from talking about guns in the home with their patients or parents of young patients. That may be overturned, bu it's hard to see any progress with such extremist positions being taken seriously, and even codified into law. Violent crime has been decreasing in most places for some time, but paranoia strikes deep, and even fact-based moderates become the enemy in the minds of those afflicted. But I keep trying to believe we can do better - and as Winkler shows, most Americans think so too. It's time the true silent majority, who favor more effective gun control, speak up and counter the sway of the NRA (which was not such a crazed group until taken over by the extremists - sound familiar?)

Gun people: A plea - don't shoot words at those who are trying to reduce gun harms until you read Winkler's book, please, with an open mind. He doesn't want to take your guns (unless you are mentally ill, a criminal, etc), infringe your "rights," or any of that. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Anyway, here is the review as it appeared in the paper.