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Facing the Real Gun Problem

The Gun Report

a blog by Joe Nocera at nocera.blogs.nytimes.com
cole_1-062013.jpg
Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images
The National Rifle Association’s annual convention, Houston, April 2005

1.

On April 17, 2013, as parents of children gunned down in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School looked on, the Senate rejected a bill to close loopholes in the federal law that requires background checks of gun purchasers. Background checks, most of which take only minutes to complete, are designed to bar sales to several categories of persons, such as felons, fugitives, drug addicts, people adjudicated as mentally incompetent, and perpetrators of domestic violence. Current law requires federally licensed gun dealers to conduct such checks, but does not apply to so-called private sales, many of which take place at gun shows and via the Internet. This loophole accounts for about 40 percent of gun sales, and therefore radically undermines the effectiveness of the background check regime.

Polls report that 85 percent of Americans, and 81 percent of gun owners, favor universal background checks. One might think that in a working democracy, 51 percent support would be sufficient. But not in this democracy, and not on this issue. The provision fell six votes short of the sixty needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.

The measure that the Senate rejected was exceedingly modest. It was a watered-down compromise drafted by two senators with “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association—Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, and Pat Toomey, Republican of Pennsylvania. It included several provisions sought by gun rights advocates, including background check exemptions for private transactions between family and friends, and a prohibition on a national gun registry. The two other central features of President Barack Obama’s initial post–Sandy Hook gun control proposal had already been jettisoned—bans on sales of assault weapons and magazines holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.

Yet even the modest compromise forged by two NRA-approved senators could not survive. Some have blamed President Obama for not twisting enough arms, but as Elizabeth Drew has incisively explained, that charge greatly overstates a president’s ability to change a senator’s vote.1 And even if the five Democrats who voted against the proposal had fallen in line, the bill would still have failed.

As a result, more than four months after Adam Lanza killed twenty first-graders, six adults, and himself with a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle in Newtown, Connecticut, the national politics of gun control remains where it was—at a stalemate. A handful of states, most notably Connecticut, Colorado, New York, and Maryland, have enacted strict new gun regulations. (Another handful, however, have loosened their gun laws since Newtown, though in less significant ways.) But Congress has done exactly nothing.

Meanwhile, gun violence in the United States continues to far outpace that in other developed nations. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died from firearms, either in suicides, homicides, or accidents. By this grim metric, we are unquestionably a world leader. The US firearms homicide rate is twenty times higher than the combined rate of the next twenty-two high-income developed nations. Between 2000 and 2008, there were more than 30,000 gun deaths a year in the US, for an average of more than eighty every single day. And in 2010 alone, emergency rooms treated more than 73,000 people for nonfatal gunshot injuries.2

We read with horror of terrorist attacks around the world, mostly in far-flung places that regularly endure suicide bombings, improvised explosive devices, and the like. We breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have to live with such violence, while we spend billions of dollars annually to prevent such attacks occurring here. But every year, about twice as many people are killed in the United States by guns than die of terrorist attacks worldwide. Americans face a one in 3.5 million chance of being killed in a terrorist attack, but a one in 22,000 chance of being murdered.

These numbers are staggering, but they are also, of course, much more than just numbers. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera has sought to put human faces to these statistics in a daily blog, The Gun Report, that collects and reproduces, largely without comment, excerpts from the nation’s local media reporting on the gun deaths and injuries of the previous day. The blog makes for brutally sad reading, but it brings home the bleak reality of the gun violence that has become an all too routine feature of our daily lives. It may well be the single most effective example of pro–gun control advocacy being produced today. Here’s an example, taken at random from the April 26 blog:

A woman was shot and killed in front of her young child in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday night. The woman was reported shot at 8:43 p.m. just blocks from Oakland Children’s Hospital. Her 4-year-old son was found unharmed at her side. Two men in a car were witnessed fleeing the scene. It is Oakland’s fourth homicide this week.
CBS San Francisco
A 10-year-old boy was shot and killed inside his Marengo, Ohio, home Thursday evening. The sheriff says the death is being investigated as an accidental shooting.
10TV.com
A mother was accidentally shot by her teenage son at their Oakville, Mo., home Thursday evening. The 18-year-old picked up his father’s gun to clean it when it went off, hitting his mother in the leg. She is expected to survive. The victim’s sister-in-law said they are a big gun family.
KMOV

If we are to break the logjam about gun violence in the United States, the first step is to pay attention to the mayhem that occurs around us. Every citizen should read Nocera’s blog. Tragedy grabs our attention temporarily when a mass shooting occurs in Newtown or at Virginia Tech, but the much broader tragedy is felt every day by victims of less spectacular but equally sad events. Real reform must take on this too often overlooked aspect of daily American life.

2.

The second step to a sane gun violence policy, however, is to recognize that there are legitimate competing interests on the other side of the ledger, and that many Americans value those interests particularly deeply. If proponents of gun control fail to understand or respect the opposing point of view, they may well undermine their own interests in achieving reform.

Guns breed hyperbole on both sides. The NRA has for years warned that any regulation is a step on the slippery slope to a wholesale ban—even after the Supreme Court announced in 2008 that the Constitution precludes outright bans on handguns and ordinary rifles, and even though only about 26 percent of Americans favor banning handguns.3

But liberals are also guilty of hyperbole. Consider, for example, Tom Diaz’s The Last Gun. Diaz effectively describes the substantial costs of gun violence in American life, and asks, justifiably, why we pay so much more attention to terrorism than to gun violence. But his diagnosis is unlikely to persuade anyone who does not already fall in his camp. He attributes the problem to “deliberate suppression of data regarding criminal use of firearms, gun trafficking, and the public health consequences of firearms”; “the almost universal failure of the American news media to report on…gun violence”; gun manufacturers’ marketing of increasingly lethal and militarized weapons; and “widespread acquiescence by elected officials to the gun lobby’s unrelenting legislative campaigns.”

But as Nocera’s Gun Report and any viewing of the evening news illustrate, the media regularly cover gun violence, and as Diaz himself demonstrates, the toll of death, injuries, and crime inflicted with guns is no secret. It’s true that gun manufacturers market their wares, but who would expect otherwise? Guns have become increasingly lethal, but most gun violence is caused by ordinary handguns, not militarized assault weapons. Diaz devotes almost an entire chapter to a detailed description of the very powerful Barrett 50-caliber antiarmor sniper rifle. But he then notes that this weapon has been involved in only about thirty-six criminal incidents nationwide over a twenty-three-year period, or less than two a year. Civilians may not have any legitimate need for such a rifle, but it is hardly the core of the problem.

Diaz’s chapter on the Supreme Court’s decision in Heller v. District of Columbia is similarly vulnerable. That decision essentially overturned a long-standing precedent holding that the Second Amendment protected only the states’ rights to maintain militias in which citizens bear arms, and held instead that the amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. Diaz barely discusses the Court’s reasoning, which concluded that there was historical evidence supporting an individual right. Instead, he dismisses the case as the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy, in which gun rights advocates concocted a test case, funded by a wealthy gun advocate, and supported by the NRA. As Diaz breathlessly sums up, the Heller case was

a snow job produced from the flakes of dabblers in history, created and underwritten by a wealthy philosopher-king from the throne of his Florida condominium, with a cast of thousands from right-wing front groups, the NRA, the gun lobby, the gun industry, and paid-for scholars.

While it is true that the NRA campaigned for many years to obtain constitutional recognition its vision, the same could be said of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s campaign to overturn the doctrine of “separate but equal.” The fact that citizens committed to certain ideals organize, educate, advocate, and file test cases to advance a particular view of the Constitution, and that such efforts cost money, is neither news nor grounds for criticism. It is simply constitutionalism at work.

Moreover, while the Court in Heller recognized a right to bear arms, it simultaneously acknowledged the government’s right to impose reasonable regulations. In particular, the Court noted, the Second Amendment allows the government to ban felons from possessing guns; exclude guns from places such as courthouses or schools; license gun sales; and prohibit altogether dangerous and unusual firearms. Thus, it is politics, not the Constitution, that is the real barrier to gun control these days. And that politics is not aided by expressions of disdain.

  1. 1

    Elizabeth Drew, “Obama and the Myth of Arm-Twisting,” NYRblog, April 26, 2013. 

  2. 2

    Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, “ The Case for Gun Policy Reforms in America,” October 2012. 

  3. 3

    “Record-Low 26% in US Favor Handgun Ban,” October 26, 2011, at www .gallup.com/poll/150341/record-low-favor-handgun-ban.aspx. 

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