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?