Last Friday’s shooting deaths of 26 children and adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut is the latest in a long series of mass shootings of random innocents by deranged persons. Like many Americans, Diogenes is deeply troubled by these recurring tragedies, and thinks this is an appropriate time to consider the role of guns in American society.
The Right To Bear Arms
The 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution, as ratified by the states in 1791 states
“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.”
Why was this right considered so important that it was enshrined in the Bill of Rights? Here is a partial list of the key reasons:
- The United States had only recently won its independence after a revolutionary war that had lasted eight years. There was an uneasy peace with England that would again devolve into war in the next 20 years.
- There was no standing national army, and most (white) male American adults were members of armed militias that could be called out in the event of war.
- Many of the states had western borders which had Indians (potentially) threatening American settlers on the frontier.
- Hunting was a significant means of putting food on the table in all of the states.
Guns in the US Compared to the Rest of the World
Gun regulations in America are lax compared to the rest of the world. Nearly half of all households (47%) have a gun, although many homes contain multiple guns. About 1/3 of Americans own guns, although the percentage of the population owning guns has been declining in the last 50 years. About 2/3 of gun owners state that they own firearms for personal protection, 2/3 for hunting and over 1/3 for target practice. The reasons overlap quite a bit and so add to more than 100%. According to the Washington Post, guns per capita are sharply higher in America than anywhere else in the world, and as the chart below shows, about double that of the rest of the developed world.
Data source: Small Arms Survey (Max Fisher/Washington Post 2012)
The National Rifle Association (NRA) will tell you that “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Guns are only tools.” This may all be true, but gun violence in the US is higher than anywhere else in the western world, perhaps because we have more tools readily available? A bit more than 100,000 Americans will likely be killed or injured in gun violence next year. To be “fair”, about 20,000 of them will be suicides, but guns are involved in about 2/3 of violent crimes in America, almost all of these are handguns. Hunting rifles are rarely used in violent crimes.
Current Gun Regulation and Proposed Changes
Policies at all levels of government have attempted to address gun violence through a variety of methods, including restricting firearms purchasing by youths and other “at-risk” populations, setting waiting periods for firearm purchases, establishing gun “buy-back” programs, targeted law enforcement and policing strategies, stiff sentencing of gun law violators, education programs for parents and children, and community-outreach programs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she will introduce legislation next year to ban new assault weapons, as well as big clips, drums and strips of more than 10 bullets.
Perhaps of even greater significance is the call for more scrutiny of the ways government can keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Methods for doing so will require much discussion.
Guns & Self Defense
The 2nd amendment’s protection canards are at best disingenuous, as technology is wildly different today than in 1791. Guns then were almost all single shot muskets with limited effective range. No one had the capability to kill 10 or 50 people.
Today’s total of 290 million guns in almost 50% of households is ridiculous. The shooter in Connecticut took his mother’s guns to kill her and 26 others. Purchasing verification would not have stopped him.
Self defense, the stated primary reason for owning a handgun, is a non sequitor. A study from the University of Philadelphia suggests that victims in possession of firearms are 4.5 times more likely to be shot and 4.2 times more likely to be killed than those unarmed.
“gun possession by urban adults was associated with a significantly increased risk of being shot in an assault. On average, guns did not seem to protect those who possessed them from being shot in an assault. Although successful defensive gun uses can and do occur…such successes are (not) likely…
A gun may falsely empower its possessor to overreact, instigating and losing otherwise tractable conflicts with similarly armed persons. …individuals who are in possession of a gun may increase their risk of gun assault by entering dangerous environments that they would have normally avoided. Alternatively, an individual may bring a gun to an otherwise gun-free conflict only to have that gun wrested away and turned on them…
when victims had little to no chance to resist, they were almost always confronted with events that happened very suddenly, involved substantial distances, had no face-to-face contact, and had physical barriers between them and the shooter (e.g., bystander or drive-by shootings). These victims likely had no meaningful opportunity to use a gun even if they had one in their possession.”
“Investigating the Link Between Gun Possession and Gun Assault”, Branas, et al, American Journal of Public Health, November. 2009
What More Needs To Be Done?
Diogenes believes that current proposals do not go nearly far enough to safeguard the public from gun violence. The following steps should be taken to stop the continuing massacre of innocents.
- Sale and possession of handguns should be severely restricted to law enforcement and those few occupations where armed force might be necessary, such as jewelers and armored truck drivers and guards.
- Biometric “trigger locks” should be mandatory to prevent illicit sales and use of stolen firearms.
- Possession and display of unlicensed firearms should be grounds for mandatory prison terms.
- Federal funding should be made available for the buy back of semi-automatic weapons and handguns from the public using a carrot and stick approach. Time limits should be imposed for the purchase and surrender of such weapons, after which private ownership should simply be made illegal.
- For those citizens who insist on personal protection, non lethal means of defense at close range should be used. Pepper spray and personal stun weapons such as Tasers are the solution. (The Taser fires two small dart-like electrodes, which stay connected to the main unit by conductive wire as they are propelled by small compressed nitrogen charges. The air cartridge contains a pair of electrodes and propellant is replaced after each use. There are a number of cartridges designated by range, with the maximum at 35 feet for law enforcement and 15 feet for consumer use. Tasers primarily function by creating neuromuscular incapacitation; the devices interrupt the ability of the brain to control the muscles in the body. This creates an immediate and unavoidable incapacitation that is not based on pain and cannot be overcome. Once the electricity stops flowing the subject immediately regains control of his or her body.) Taser devices are not considered firearms by the United States government. They can be legally carried (concealed or open) without a permit in 43 states. Tasers typically fire one cartridge, although a new model has three shots in case of a miss.
Armed criminals will always be a challenge as long as handguns are made anywhere in the world. Nevertheless, these proposals would allow for legitimate hunting and sporting uses by citizens while adding protections for the general public. Knives and other deadly weapons will still be available, but mass killings would be made far more unlikely. It is time to break the “cowboy culture” of violence in America.