Our Fatal American Obsession With Guns

11/27/2017 07:51 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2017

In the world of international affairs, a classic trade-off question is guns or butter. In domestic affairs in the United States of America today, there is no question: the answer is more guns and more butter.

In the period from 2003 to 2013, consumption of butter in the U.S. increased by 25 percent. That’s a significant growth rate until it is compared to the growth rate of guns. Between 1994 and 2015, the number of guns grew by more than 70 million to a total of approximately 265 million – an increase of nearly 36 percent.

This is a stunning rise in firepower. What is even more startling are some of the facts related to gun owners. Consider the following:

The recent mass killings by shooters in Las Vegas, Nevada and Sutherland Springs, Texas brought the issue of guns back into the headlines and the national debate. The problem is that those headlines and that debate conceal as much as they reveal about our fatal American obsession with guns.

The focus on mass killings concentrates on the tip of the iceberg. It ignores the much more substantial below the water line impact caused by the use and abuse of guns in America.

After the Las Vegas attack, James Alan Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, wrote, “Dozens of Americans are killed and hundreds are shot on every ‘normal’ day in America. The Las Vegas shooting is an aberration.”

The Oxford dictionaries define aberration as “a departure from what is normal, usual or expected, typically an unwelcome one.” If one accepts this definition, the “normal, usual and expected” and “welcome one” with reference to guns here in the United States would be the conditions that Professor Fox describes.

Unfortunately, those conditions are factual. That should not make them acceptable, however. They are abhorrent and in most civilized and evolved societies around the world would be an absolute aberration.

In our country with its guns-run-amuck mentality, they are the reality. It need not be an unchangeable and immutable reality though if we are willing to confront and fully understand that reality and its consequences.

It is easy to comprehend the need to take guns out of the hands of gangs and the “bad guys” who use them to commit violence on others in criminal acts. Unfortunately, taking those guns away would only be a partial solution.

This is so because many gun deaths are due to other factors such as access to, lack of training. or killing oneself. The fact that more than one-half of the gun deaths in the United States are suicides indicates the enormous impact of these “other factors.”

Some gun advocates have argued that those people who have committed suicide using a gun would have found other means if they did not have guns as an option. In 2015, Cathy Barber, director of the Means Matter campaign at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HIRC) disputed this claim asserting, “Some methods have a case fatality rate as low as 1 to 2 percent. With a gun, it’s closer to 85 to 90 percent.”

The HIRC is an authoritative source on the relation between public health and guns. Other findings from the HIRC include:

  • Few Americans understand that a gun in the home increases the risk of a completed suicide.

  • Among gun owners nationally, 61 percent have received formal firearms training.

  • Fewer than 20 percent of Americans nationally support carrying firearms in public places “where legal gun owners should be allowed to carry firearms.”

Many citizens take pride in America because of its exceptionalism. When it comes to our policies and practices on guns, our approach is exceptional in its lack of an informed perspective and congruence between public policy and public opinion. This is not an exceptionalism of which we as Americans should be proud.

As we noted in an earlier blog, in part, the U.S. is in this place because the citizenry at large is ambivalent regarding guns and gun control is not a wedge issue. It is also partially attributable to the fact that gun rights supporters are much more active in lobbying and advocating for their positions.

Finally, there is the second amendment trump card which provides the right to keep and bear arms. This is the card that is always played when there is some attempt to bring a degree of rationality and logic to the gun debate in order to turn it into a discussion and dialogue with a potential for a peaceful compromise rather than a winner takes all duel.

Playing this card is ironic because the original intent of the second amendment is not as straightforward as its proponents would have one believe. The second amendment reads as follows: “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 abridged.”

For scores of years, there has been a dispute as to how to interpret this amendment. By a split 5-4 2008 decision, in the landmark District of Columbia vs. Heller case, the Supreme Court majority ruled expansively that the amendment referred to the right of the individual with the minority judges taking the restrictive position that the amendment was the right of the individual only as related to service in the militia.

The Heller decision may have resolved the issue legally but it does not necessarily make it the final word on this issue. As we noted in a blog in early 2013 after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School,

We honor that right (the second amendment) as we do all those rights enumerated in the Constitution.

We also recognize, as is so eloquently stated in our country’s Declaration of Independence, that we are “endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our government was instituted to protect those rights.

Enhancing public safety by preventing gun violence respects the legitimate right to bear arms while protecting our “unalienable rights.” It moves this beyond the false choices posed by gun rights and gun control advocates into the arena for full consideration where open rather closed minds may prevail.

In 2017, we are again at a pivot point on guns. In our last blog we advocated development and passage of a two-part piece of legislation that addresses gun ownership and mental health and violence upon others and one’s self with guns.

Such legislation should not be an ending. It should be the first step to opening our minds and to beginning to address America’s fatal obsession with guns.

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