When I was 11 years old, I learned to shoot a rifle at camp.
I remember the experience like it was yesterday. That's because I found learning to shoot a gun peaceful and even serene.
It wasn't a cathartic serenity. It wasn't like firing the gun was an explosive discharge of pent up and unfulfilled aggression. I took no violent pleasure when I pulled the trigger. What I remember most was the breathing, the careful intake of air before I squeezed the trigger, the fact that my belly stopped moving for a second or two, and the release of air from my gut as the chemical reaction in the barrel propelled the .22 caliber bullet towards its target.
Breath in, hold your breath, fire.
It was meditative, a solitary act of discipline and mastery, and though my friend Greg was to my right and my buddy Willy was to my left, I could have been a million miles away. That's how peaceful it felt to fire that gun. That's how much I loved the rifle range.
Breath in, hold your breath, focus, release.
The pop of the gun at the rifle range...
I'm beginning this plea for curtailing our national obsession with firearms by first enjoying this memory. I am saying all this because, despite this plea, I am not "anti-gun." I have nothing but fond memories of the rifle range. That much I hope I have made clear.
But those fond feelings are a far cry from Robocop. Those feelings are a far cry from the sarcastic, maniacal moment when Clarence Boddicker basks in the ecstasy of his firearms.
"Guns, Guns, Guns!" That's what he shouts. And then he goes and watches the baseball game.
As a parent, and as a physician, and as a professional advocate for children and adolescents, may I gently offer this response to Mr. Boddicker?
Enough is enough.
Enough with all the guns.
The recent shooting at the University of North Carolina is of course complicated, but I can't help but to think that had a gun not been available, those students would still be alive. Angry people and loaded triggers don't work well in a civilized setting. We're not going to stop people from getting angry, but we can do something about all the guns. The shootings in North Carolina are yet another chapter in the long and complicated wrangling that this nation engages in with regard to firearms.
My European and Canadian friends, friends who hunt and who themselves own guns, are intensely bothered by this aspect of American culture. They are confused by our interpretation of the Constitution's guarantee with regard to our right to bear arms. Importantly, they're not confused by the Constitution itself. They admire (as do I) the Constitution a great deal. They're confused by our inability to reconcile the language of our Constitution with the abundance of data showing that the availability of firearms in the United States separates our nation from every other Western country. With regard to guns, we are dangerous and we are alone.
The American Journal of Public Health noted that the stringency of laws in a given U.S. state is a powerful predictor of how careful parents of pre-school-aged kids are in securing firearms. I have plenty of friends with little kids and who also own guns. They always reliably lock their guns tight. Still, according to this study, less restrictive laws equal easier access for kids to firearms. Pediatrics, the flagship journal of the American Association of Pediatrics, reported that in 2009, 20 children per day in the United States are hospitalized because of firearm injuries. The vast majority of these hospitalizations were secondary to assaults, and about 6% of the injuries were fatal. The American Journal of Medicine looked at the rate of firearm related deaths in both Europe and the United States. The more lax the firearm regulations, the more deaths there were from firearms. This same study found negligible connections between mental illnesses and firearm deaths.
In other words, all of these studies, and literally hundreds more like them, suggest that the main predictive factor of whether someone outside of a war zone is likely to be injured or die by a bullet is the availability of the bullets themselves. It is rarely related to bad parenting. It is rarely related to mental illness. Yes, the stories involving guns and poor parenting or mental illness grab headlines, but that's the way the news works. We're smart enough to know that the headlines don't reflect the whole story.
Last month, eight American medical associations and the American Bar Association issued a joint statement about the proliferation of firearms. They didn't mince words.
What'd they say?
The real problem is that in the United States there are too many guns. It's just that simple.
Please don't think I'm not aware of the polarizing effects of this statement. I don't want our nation to be polarized, and it is bad for our kids to live in a nation so constantly and angrily at odds with itself. But among the issues of the day, I feel strongly, again in particular as an advocate for children, that what matters more is that we take substantial steps towards reducing our firearm burden.
I'm pretty sure I'm going back to the rifle range. It would be fun to revisit that experience. Remember, though, that there are rifle ranges throughout the world, and that these ranges exist in nations with very stringent controls for firearms. Enjoying the art of target shooting, or enjoying the outdoors through hunting...the sense of mastery and even camaraderie that comes with firearm ownership and use...that's all present in nations around the world and in states in this nation with strict firearm controls. We don't have to give those things up. We just have to be honest with ourselves.
We can't continue like this. More people will die. They're dying right now.
Steve Schlozman is the associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.