In the aftermath of the Aurora mass shooting, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg demanded that President Obama and Mitt Romney tell us their plan to stop gun violence in the US. He’s right. Although it doesn’t touch the vast majority of US citizens, it’s a major problem. It’s time for a serious national conversation. Without the hyperventilated rhetoric from both sides, but especially from gun owners. I’m not really sure what I believe yet, but I think it’s an issue that deserves some serious thought and open conversation.
Some data, per year from 2000-2007:
- 52,447 deliberate non fatal gunshot victims
- 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot victims
- 12,632 gun murders
- 17,352 gun suicides
- 1,240 accidental gun killings
- 31,224 firearm-related deaths
- ~106,000 gun related injuries and deaths in the US each year
- About 35% of US households own guns
- 25% of family violence and robberies are committed with guns
- Robberies and family violence committed with guns are 3x more likely to result in deaths than other weapons
Gun violence in the US is mostly the problem of the poor. It only touches the middle and upper class when someone like the Aurora killer snaps and goes on a killing spree, or a middle class guy grabs a gun and slaughters his family. Or when someone commits suicide. These killing make big news and bring gun violence to those who normally don’t experience it.
All my life, I’ve had strong feelings that citizens need to have the right to bear arms. I liked the idea of being able to protect ourselves from crime and that guns are a check on government power. I always thought that bad people committed gun crimes and the rest of us should have the right to have a gun to combat bad people. If there were gun laws, only bad people would have guns and that wouldn’t be a good thing. But my opinions are starting to change.
Gun Violence is a serious problem
Even if it doesn’t directly affect middle and upper class people, it is. Foreigners always tell me “the US is so dangerous, I can’t imagine living there.” Or “are there really gun fights in the streets in the US?” My response has always been to use my home town of Milwaukee, a city with a metro area of about 1.7m people, as an example. From 2008-2011, 297 people were murdered in Milwaukee, with at least 204 shot to death. Add in thousands of shootings and its a big number.
My response is aways, “yes, but its actually really safe. All of the gun violence takes place in a four square mile area in one part of the city and a smaller area on the south side. If you don’t go there, you’ll never see violence. In my 26 years being in Milwaukee, I’ve never seen gun violence firsthand.” It’s the truth.
I was always been ok with this justification until Thursday. I watched the documentary The Interrupters (watch it), a heartbreaking chronicle of a year on Chicago’s South Side. It followed former gang leaders who are now working in the streets to “interrupt” and diffuse situations from leading to gun violence. As I watched interview after interview with children as young as 7 who have to live in gun infested neighborhoods, my opinion started to change.
We’re also seeing an increase in mass shootings, whether they’re at schools, movie theaters, malls, the office or at home. Someone can’t take it anymore, grabs a gun and starts shooting. Innocent people are slaughtered and lives change in an instant.
Guns Make Deadly Violence Too Easy
Guns make ending a life as simple as pulling a trigger. Whether its your own life, a murder or even an accident, simply pulling a trigger has huge, immediate and deadly consequences.
The vast majority of shootings and gun murders happen when either an argument or “another violent crime escalates and the offender goes into the crime without the intent to kill or be killed.” The US has a similar robbery rate to Australia and Finland, but those countries have much lower levels of gun ownership. The mass murderers can kill 12 people and injure 100s in 2 minutes.
I believe that in high crime areas, the vast majority of shootings are not gang related. They start out as petty arguments, a perceived lack of respect, scuffing someone’s shoes, not saying excuse me or insulting someone’s girl. The aruguement escalates someone grabs a gun and the next thing you know, someone’s dead or wounded. The the victims family or crew retaliates. Then the cycle continues and more are dead.
Without the guns, these arguments would escalate to fist fights, baseball bats, or even knives. But its much harder to kill someone with any of these weapons. If there were no guns, these robberies, arguments, killing sprees and suicide attempts would still occur, but would likely end without nearly as many deaths.
The Second Amendment
The Second amendment guarantees US citizens the right to bear arms. I’ve always thought it should be an inalienable right for law abiding, sane citizens. I always thought bad people are going to have guns, so why limit guns to otherwise law abiding citizens? Why punish law abiding citizens? I’ve also always been comforted by the fact that an armed citizenry is a check on government power. If the government knows that citizens own guns, they will be less likely to abuse their power.
Back in the 1700s, personal gun ownership made sense. Life was dangerous. There weren’t police forces or a large standing army. People lived with in nature and hunted for a decent amount of their food. Besides personal protection and hunting, the founding fathers wanted guns in the hands of people to check government power, and for the ability to raise an army if necessary.
Back then, a town militia equipped with muskets could defeat an army. An armed citizenry made sense and was a real check on government power. Gun ownership was a real check on tyranny. But even still, the newly formed US government used the army to violently put down the Whiskey Rebellion in 1781. Guns didn’t check government power, it just added to the body count.
A Check on Government Power in 2012?
As technology and policing has gotten more advanced, an armed citizenry is no longer the check on government power that the foundering fathers envisioned. Even local police in small towns have assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles, body armor and other previously military only weaponry. Police departments in big cities are basically para military equipped forces, with everything from full riot gear to advanced imagery, drones and intelligence devices. Look at Chicago during the NATO summit.
Armed citizens really have no chance against these forces. Plus if there ever were the need for the citizenry the rise up and defend itself against the government, the government would call out the real army and crush any form of dissent, just like the Whiskey Rebellion. Does an armed citizenry really check the government anymore? If not, can we really use it to justify gun ownership? I think the answer is likely no. But I still get a funny feeling in the back of my head when I try to envision a US without this check on government power.
What about personal protection? Studies have shown that gun ownership does not provide much self defense. Guns are used by private citizens in self defense against violent crime in 6 out of 1000 incidents, or about 52,000 times each year. Do these 52,000 instances of self defense justify over 100,000 shootings each year? It’s an incredibly difficult question.
In all of these mass shootings, there hasn’t been an armed citizen who’s taken out the killer. It almost always ends in suicide, arrest or the cops kill the guy. In the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, there were multiple people carrying guns and they didn’t do anything. In fact Joseph Zamudio, who eventually helped stop the shooting said he was “lucky” to not have shot anyone, because it would have been the wrong person. People who do not have police or military training don’t “drop the guy” when he starts shooting.
A significant amount of crimes escalate when the criminal gets scared. If the criminal has a gun and so does the victim, it can actually make the situation more dangerous for the victim. Criminologists believe that if guns were less available, criminals would still commit crimes, but with other, less deadly weapons. Philip J. Cook found that “the level of gun ownership in the 50 largest U.S. cities correlates with the rate of robberies committed with guns, but not overall robbery rates.“
I believe guns provide significant self defense for those with police and military training, but for the rest of us, not much. And they may even make life more dangerous when confronted by a criminal with a gun.
What do we do?
I don’t have a full plan yet. But I do know some things for sure:
- Hunting rifles should be legal
- Assault rifles should be illegal. There’s no need.
- Most or all automatic and semi automatic weapons should be illegal
- Any rifle that serves no purpose for normal hunting should be illegal
- You shouldn’t be able to buy guns, armor and ammo over the internet
I’m also leaning toward more draconian gun control laws. I’m beginning to think that an armed citizenry really doesn’t provide any check on government power. Self defense is a tricky one, but I’m starting to think that the ends do not justify the means and that neither argument holds water.
I want to hear what you think. What should we do about guns in the US? Why?
I have had this discussion with my wife on multiple occasions, usually after events like Aurora. I do own hunting rifles and I grew up in a house where ammunition and guns were locked in separate cases with different keys. I grew up in a very pro gun environment but I also respected them. That being said, I do believe reform for gun control does need to happen. There is absolutely no reason to allow assault rifles in the general public, same for any automatic weapons.
The point you make about protection and how very little having your own weapon helps protect and save the day is a great one. We see this many times in movies and tv so we are led to believe that it happens this way in real life. The reality is that most people would be inaccurate in their shooting in a situation like that and risk injuring more people if not killing them in the process. Also, when a policeman shoots someone they have to go through proper psychiatric evaluation to make sure they are ok. Would someone who pulls the trigger as a normal citizen be able to live with that afterwards?
There needs to be some reform, but I still believe in the 2nd amendment. I think it needs to be brought up to the current times as well.
Great post. Here is one opinion directly related to what happend….
I think that if other people in the theater had been carrying guns, more people would have died (excluding the original gunman). Lots of people, dark room, mass chaos, few exits. Trying to process that situation as well as fire accurately would be very difficult for anyone. Obviously I have no way of knowing how it would have unfolded, but in this case I don’t see how relaxed gun laws had any potential to improve the situation.
I also find this data really interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_firearm-related_death_rate
Steve, I agree. I don’t think there’s been an armed civilian whos taken out a shooter in a case like this before.
You’ve done something here that I would love to see WAY more often from political leaders, media talking heads, etc.. You’ve taken a deep breath, thought carefully about the issue, and given a rational response that gives perspective, while at the same time admits a certain level of uncertainty about where to go in the futre.
“I’m not really sure what I believe yet, but I think it’s an issue that deserves some serious thought and open conversation.” And “…But my opinions are starting to change.”
The willingness to say “I’m not sure yet, it’s complicated,” and then think critically before reaching a conclusion, all done with a healthy dose of skepticism even towards that conclusion, is almost non-existant among voices with the most influence to actually create positive change. Answers/talking points are expected the instant that a controversy/conflict emerges, and if those answers don’t fall neatly into the pre-arranged expectations of the confined dialogue that our “balanced” media creates, then those answers are either ignored or ridiculed within an equally short amount of time. The source of this problem is itself complicated – entrenched special interests? our increasingly short national attention span? poorly thought out slippery slope arguments that do nothing to advance rational policy decisions and instead stoke irrational fears? a fear of “trying something new”?
I recently came across a Noam Chomsky concept that, for now, offers the best answer I can think of: media concision. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concision#In_media
Thank you for giving a difficult issue the time and space it deserves.
Thanks Weber. I really appreciate it. Chomsky is onto it. I think its a combination of shorter time limits, plus the fact that news is almost purely entertainment these days. Networks bring on people who will create an argument which drives ratings.
Unless someone comes on one of these shows and calls bullshit on both of the extremes, they won’t get called back, or be given any airtime. Check out Mark Cuban calling bullshit on the ESPN guys, or Jon Stewart on crossfire etc.
Yup, I think very very few people would be able to accurately defend themselves in a stressful situation like this without causing more collateral damage. People believe that they can be like John Mcclain if they’re packing a gun. It’s just not likely to happen.
“By calling attention to ‘a well regulated militia’, the ‘security’ of the nation, and the right of each citizen ‘to keep and bear arms’, our founding fathers recognized the essentially civilian nature of our economy. Although it is extremely unlikely that the fears of governmental tyranny which gave rise to the Second Amendment will ever be a major danger to our nation, the Amendment still remains an important declaration of our basic civilian-military relationships, in which every citizen must be ready to participate in the defense of his country. For that reason, I believe the Second Amendment will always be important.”
— Senator John F. Kennedy, 1960
“Without either the first or second amendment, we would have no liberty; the first allows us to find out what’s happening, the second allows us to do something about it! The second will be taken away first, followed by the first and then the rest of our freedoms.”
— Andrew Ford
“When the government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
— Thomas Jefferson
“The tank, the B-52, the fighter-bomber, the state-controlled police and military are the weapons of dictatorship. The rifle is the weapon of democracy. If guns are outlawed, only the government will have guns. Only the police, the secret police, the military. The hired servants of our rulers. Only the government – and a few outlaws. I intend to be among the outlaws.”
— Edward Abbey, The Right to Arms, Abbey’s Road, 1979
I agree with not being able to purchase guns and ammo on the internet to have a better way of “tracking” purchases. The truth is though, if someone wants to do damage with a gun, you can pretty much accomplish the task with any type of firearm. As sad as it is, gun control is a lot like drug control, and we all know how that is going. The people get what the people want, and there are ALWAYS people willing to skim the appropriate margins off the top to make the black market thrive. That said, I think we can use history to determine that gun control will inevitably fall into the same infinite loop that drug control has if that is the path we go down. We absolutely have to put education over control in any sticky situation like this. You can’t let people live in ignorance or the bubble will burst bigger and badder down the road as history has taught us too many times over.
I agree, you’ll never stop everyone. And even with strict prohibition, which I don’t support, I don’t think you’ll ever stop all guns from getting into the country. But I do think you can put in smart rules that would decrease the chances of mass killings and keep people with mental illness from getting guns.