Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Yet again, the nation has been subjected to the horror of a mass shooting. The tragedy that occurred September 16 at the Washington Navy Yard left thirteen people dead (including the shooter) and three others injured. This latest incident of gun violence picks up the narrative we left last at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As brutal and senseless as this latest shooting is, we should not be surprised by it.
Rather, what should be surprising is the notable absence of concern and remedy from our elected officials. In the wake of Sandy Hook, the number of federal bills passed to bring some measure of control to the proliferation of guns is exactly zero. While a small number of states have passed gun control measures, these pale in comparison to the number of laws adopted by certain states to ease existing gun restrictions.
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and I have something in common. It seems we both have a strong aversion to guns and gun violence. Both of us believe there are way too many guns out there and not enough controls on who has them. We also think that it is the responsibility of our elected officials to reign in the proliferation of guns with substantive and enforceable controls.
According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE), there are 138,186 federally licensed firearm dealers in the United States (not including 2,972 dealers whose applications for license are pending). This figure is made up mostly of dealers and collectors, but it also includes pawnbrokers, manufacturers, and importers. By way of comparison, there are 14,157 McDonalds restaurants in the U.S., 13,279 Starbucks stores, and 8,098 Walgreens stores. Theoretically, that means it’s easier to get access to a gun on any given day then it is a Big Mac, Caramel Frappuccino, or bottle of Excedrin. Interestingly enough, that number of licensed dealers does not include sellers at gun shows or internet sites. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are upwards of 5,000 gun shows each year around the country where purchases are not subject to gun control restrictions.
So how many guns are there out there? The BATFE reports there are about 310 million firearms in private hands as of 2009. That’s more than enough for every man, woman, and child to have his or her own real-life weapon (handgun, rifle or semi-automatic). And the number of firearms is only increasing. The BATFE also notes that in 1986, there were 3,040,934 guns manufactured in the U.S. The number of pistols, revolvers, rifles, and shotguns manufactured annually has risen steadily since; in 2010, the number was 5,459,240. In that twenty-five year period, 99,268,206 firearms were added to the custody and safe-keeping of private arsenals. But these numbers do not include the weapons that have been imported. The BATFE also reports that in 2011 alone, there were 3,252,404 shotguns, rifles and handguns that found their way to these shores from abroad. From 1986 to 2011, the number of imported weapons was 45,259,276. We are awash in all kinds of firearms, making us the number 1 country in the world for privately-owned guns.
So what do we do with those guns? We hunt other living creatures and we shoot at inanimate objects to develop our ability to shoot at other living creatures and inanimate objects. I don’t know if anyone has kept track of the number of other living creatures killed by firearms, but we do know how many other human beings are killed by firearms in this country. Researchers at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence report that more than 100,000 people are the victims of gun violence each year; a third of these, roughly 31,000, die from this violence (almost ten percent of these deaths are children). This means that every day, every day, 86 people die from gun violence (murder, suicide, accident).
The Violence Policy Center has demonstrated that the states with the most guns and the weakest laws are the highest in death rates by guns. The top five states in gun death rates per 100,000 people are Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, Alabama, and Wyoming. In each of these states, the percent of household gun ownership ranges between 45% and 60%, and the death rates per 100,000 for these states range between 16.32 and 20.28. The national rate is 10.25.
A study undertaken by Boston University researchers and published in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health found that “states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.” It is increasingly difficult to deny that there is a correlation between the number of firearms and the number of injuries and deaths at the hand of individuals with firearms.
Who pays for all this gun violence? According to an Urban Institute report just released this month, you and I do. The report states: “The cost of the use of hospitals for victims of firearm assaults in the United States is high. These costs are concentrated among young males and residents of low-income areas. Since a majority of costs are for publicly insured or the uninsured, most costs are borne by US taxpayers.” The total cost to U.S. hospitals in 2010 for firearm related injuries was $628,928,222, and a full 52% of that was paid for by taxpayers in the form of Medicaid or other publicly-funded programs for low-income and non-insured persons. And this is just for those who were injured by gun violence! The Centers for Disease Control reports that the total costs of the 30,000+ gun deaths in 2005 was $37,009,191,000.
It is scandalous that we seem incapable of doing anything to obviate gun violence and impede the proliferation of guns in our society. Gun-rights advocates are quick to say that the right to own firearms is conferred by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But they are wrong! At least they were wrong until a few years ago. It is only since the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) that the court has ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to possess a firearm for lawful purposes, (a “right” further upheld and extended by the court’s 2010 decision in McDonald v. Chicago). Before 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court had never ruled that an individual had such rights. Quite the contrary, when the court decided on cases involving gun possession, it unvaryingly ruled that the Second Amendment does not grant individuals such a right apart from participation in a state militia. Rather than apply to individuals per se, the Second Amendment was interpreted by the court as applying to the states and their right to maintain a militia (see Library of Congress).
One might curiously ask what may have contributed to the Supreme Court’s shift in opinion on the Second Amendment and its applicability to an individual’s right to possess firearms. The answer would be: the National Rifle Association (NRA). As Adam Winkler, author of Gunfight, points out in an article in The Atlantic, the NRA was founded in 1871 to raise the level of shooting skill among American soldiers. Strangely enough, the NRA was instrumental in securing the passage of the Uniform Firearms Act, the first major piece of gun control legislation to become law. It provided for a required permit to carry a concealed weapon, and then only for legitimate reasons. It also required gun dealers to report each sale to law enforcement and mandated a two-day waiting period.
Beginning in the 1970s, with the emergence of Harlon Carter as the Executive Director and President, the NRA began a deliberate and sustained public relations effort to refocus the mission of the organization. The operative ideology became one of unmitigated opposition to any and all efforts to limit or constrain the right of an individual to own a firearm. To advance this ideology, the NRA leadership mobilized its personnel, policies and programs to embed the knowledge and affirmation of this unfettered right in a particular construal of the Second Amendment. They offered a reading and interpretation heretofore little advanced in public and political discourse, and certainly unacknowledged by the federal courts. Their operational theory was profound in its simplicity: The Second Amendment gives individuals the right to bear arms … period.
Tragically, the success of the NRA in persuading the public of the truth of its interpretation is seen now in the two Supreme Court decisions noted above. What was once a constitutional instrument to authorize the control of the distribution and ownership of firearms has now become the law of the land. And yet, many people, including both gun-rights advocates and gun-control advocates, are unaware that this shift has taken place. Politics and ideological persuasion have prevailed in altering how the public understands of Second Amendment: “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 infringed.” As Deedee Freedberg pointed out in a recent article, states have no “militia” nowadays, and the right acknowledged is “the people,” and not the individual. Clearly, as pointed out by David E. Vandercoy in a 1994 article in the Valparaiso University Law Review, and by Carl T. Bogus in a 1998 article in the University of California at Davis Law Review, the origin and history of the Second Amendment has been thoroughly ignored by both the gun-rights advocates of the NRA and the “originalists” on the side of the majority in the recent Supreme Court decisions.
We have a serious problem with guns in this country, and to date no person or policy has emerged to get us out of this situation. Yes, there are law-abiding citizens who own guns and use them responsibly for legitimate purposes. And yes, there are hoodlums who carry an unlawful firearm and use it for criminal purposes that injure and murder innocent people. Yes, there are corrupt gun dealers and greedy gun manufacturers who show minimal concern for the legality of the existing processes by which individuals can lawfully obtain a firearm. And most of all, yes, we have a seriously polarized and dysfunctional political system in a country where the Supreme Court has ruled in ways that assure the continuation of firearm proliferation, and thus the continuation of senseless violence. We have become a culture of violence, and it is difficult to imagine how or why we should break through to peaceability.
The NRA doesn’t speak for every gun owner, and no one is seriously calling for the complete elimination of firearms in private hands. Between these two extremes there is plenty of room for peaceful-minded people to reach agreement on how to dismantle the culture of violence. Persons who identify as religionists and adherents of one tradition or another can come together with non-religionists to appeal to the moral maxim of the sacredness of life. Reasonable people who are intelligent enough to recognize the magnitude of gun-related violence and its attendant human, social, and financial costs, can surely act to let their concerns and suggestions be known.
Until we focus as a society on the fundamental problems that give rise to our culture of violence and fascination with guns, we must expect mass shootings to continue unabated. Some perpetrators of mass shootings have legally obtained their guns, while others have not. Thus we need to find some way to make sense of the ease of access to weapons. It seems reasonable to require thorough background checks on every gun purchaser. Limiting the number of rounds in the magazine of a semi-automatic weapon is not onerous.
Indeed, there are probably any number of things that can be done to mitigate gun violence, but first there needs to be a willingness to do something other than capitulate to the status quo. In my view, anyone who is simply and completely unwilling to do anything about gun violence in this country has abandoned already the moral and social responsibilities of citizenship.
There’s one other thing that Mayor Bloomberg and I agree on: When politicians ignore the will of their constituents and refuse to support even the most minimal curbs on the proliferation of guns, those politicians should be voted out of office. At the very least, financial contributors to their campaigns ought to cease and desist. The New York Times reported recently that Mayor Bloomberg wants to put pressure on the deep-pocket New York contributors who shell out major money to congressional candidates around the country, asking them to stop their financial support, especially of Democratic senators who flipped off both party leadership and their constituents by voting against the recent background check legislation in April. The mayor is suggesting that “If money is the milk of politics, then politicians who won’t support gun control should go hungry.”I am inclined to agree. We have to do something … now!