Member Voices: Gun Violence and Best-Case Scenarios
Last Monday marked the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left twenty very young children and six adult employees of Sandy Hook Elementary School dead. Since that time, we have grieved with parents over the unimaginable loss of their children--both in the soft-focus glow of candles and in a harsher kind of light. Some have rushed to buy more guns, ammunition, and body-armor for their children (literally). There have been other shootings, and more than 1000 people have died from gun violence since the Newtown shooting happened. The NRA issued its official statement, criticizing a culture of violent video games and movies, and insisting that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." This guy threatened to kill anyone who tried to take away his guns, and the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security promptly revoked his gun license. New York passed tough new gun regulations. Grass-roots organizations began using the power of online social networking to turn up the pressure on our political leaders to get effective gun control legislation crafted and passed. And on Wednesday of last week, President Obama released a comprehensive list of 23 executive actions and legislative priorities aimed at curbing the public health menace of gun violence in this country.
I have been struggling with what to write about all this. It's difficult to know where to begin--so much of the public discourse about gun rights and gun control begs an educated and well-resarched response, because it is such an important discussion to have, and because so much of what is currently being said in the media seems to be nonsense.
I could start with political theory, and write about the Second Amendment and the argument that the right to bear arms is crucial to ensuring that our government doesn't tyrannize us. I would point out that our government employs millions of active and reserve military personnel, and owns hundreds of F-18s able to fire GPS-guided JDAMs, nuclear-powered submarines able to fire (while submerged) long-range Tomahawk missiles 1000 miles inland, B-52 stealth bombers capable of flying at 40,000-foot altitudes to drop 30,000 pound bunker-busters, and, you know, nuclear weapons. I might suggest that no matter how impressive our personal arsenals, what actually stands between us and tyranny is the rule of law, not guns.
Or, I could take an analytical approach, citing the ample scientific evidence that demonstrates that, rather than providing the protection promised by the NRA, having a gun actually increases your chances of being killed by gun violence. I would start with the Harvard School of Public Health, which found after a review of "[c]ase-control studies, ecological time-series and cross-sectional studies," that "in homes, cities, states and regions in the US, where there are more guns, both men and women are at higher risk for homicide, particularly firearm homicide." I could also describe the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which concludes that "guns kept in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance." I could refer to yet another study, this one from the Annals of Emergency Medicine (published by UCLA), that found that "[h]aving a gun at home is a risk factor for adults to be shot fatally (gun homicide) or commit suicide with a firearm." I could quote from the official policy letter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, published in November of 2012, which "affirms that the most effective measure to prevent suicide, homicide, and unintentional firearm-related injuries to children and adolescents is the absence of guns from homes and communities." It doesn't get much clearer than that, folks.
Perhaps I should give my post a cross-cultural flair, comparing U.S. gun violence statistics with those of other countries, which also have violent movies, video games, and mental illness, but stricter gun laws. I could relay the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that "[t]he overall firearm-related death rate among U.S. children...is nearly 12 times higher than among children in 25 other industrialized countries combined." Combined. I could compare gun murders in the U.S. to gun murders in other countries and show that, as noted by the Washington Post, "[t]he U.S. gun murder rate is about 20 times the average" of most other developed nations. This isn't really a category we want to lead the developed world in, is it?
I could write about the NRA itself, about the dramatic difference between the organization's current and previous positions on gun regulations; in 1934, NRA President Karl Frederick said, "I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses." I could calculate the exact dollar amount of funding (hint: it's in the millions) the NRA receives from gun manufacturers like Smith & Wesson, the Berretta Group, and Sturm, Ruger & Company (who would, obviously, benefit from a national gun policy of hey-everyone-buy-more-of-them). I could also quantify the amount of money the NRA has contributed to congressional campaigns. I could chronicle the NRA's successful efforts to eliminate funding for gun violence research. I could write about how the public positions of the NRA's leadership do not reflect the opinions of their actual members.
Maybe I should write about the non-gun solution to gun violence--improved mental health services--being offered by talking heads and politicians who don't seem to know the first thing about mental illness. I'm no expert, but I think someone ought to point out that: a) "being a nutcase with a gun" is not actually a diagnosis in the DSM, that b) Asperger syndrome (which the Newtown gunman was reported to have) and/or Autism Spectrum Disorder are different from mental illnesses (like major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia), and from personality disorders (like antisocial personality disorder, previously termed psychopathy), that c) the majority of people with mental illness commit no violence at all, that d) it is impossible for psychiatrists to predict who will become violent, and that e) the admirable goal of improving the mental health system would cost lots of money, in the form of higher taxes, to which the pro-gun rights crowd seems to be generally opposed. (I feel it's my duty to note here that Grover Norquist, he of the no-tax-increases-EVER pledge signed by Congressional Republicans, is on the Board of Directors for the NRA.)
I could also respond to the general naysayers, those who argue that making certain types of weapons illegal, such as semi-automatic assault rifles like the one used at Sandy Hook, would only leave law-abiding gun owners vulnerable since, "if you outlaw guns, the only people who have guns are outlaws." I would note that the weapons used at Sandy Hook, at Aurora, at Tucson, at Virginia Tech, and at Columbine were all legal weapons. (In fact, since 1982, most weapons used during mass shootings were not only legal but obtained legally.) Despite the fact that, say, an M-240 machine gun would have wreaked even more devastating violence than the weapons the shooters used, none of them went through the trouble of infiltrating the arms black-market to purchase one. Plenty of weapons are illegal for most civilian Americans--the average citizen can't own an F-18, a Cobra helicopter, a tank, a .50 cal machine gun. Adding a few more military-grade guns to that list of off-limits weapons doesn't seem all that unreasonable to me.
Maybe personal anecdotes would be most effective, especially in dispelling the idea that arming teachers is a reasonable response to Newtown. I could tell the story of my husband's dear friend and fellow USMC helicopter pilot, known for his professionalism, intelligence, and competence. This was a guy who was focused on careful, constant, life-on-the-line attention to detail, whose entire job happened in and around dangerous equipment; gun safety in the Marine Corps is as basic a concept and skill as walking in a straight line. He was accidentally killed when his loaded weapon discharged as he pulled it out of its holster after a flight. I could pose the question: if an accident like this could happen to someone as well-trained and focused as this young military officer, why on earth would we suppose a teacher, busy trying to wrangle 35 six-year-olds in from the playground for circle time, wouldn't be susceptible to a similar tragedy? To drive the point home, I might ask the parents reading this post to come up with their own anecdote: "Think of a time," I would write, "when your attention was diverted for less than a minute and your child found a way to endanger his or her life--climbing to the top of the kitchen pantry to perch there amongst a dozen wine bottles, deciding to run a one-kid race through the middle of a Costco parking lot, proudly presenting the lightbulb he or she just unscrewed from the electrified socket of an illuminated nightlight (all true stories, although not all my kid)." Now, multiply that by twenty kids and add a loaded gun into the mix. Good idea?
Perhaps I could explore another variation on the the "good guys with guns" theme: not armed teachers, but armed guards at every school. This suggestion was made by the NRA despite the fact that armed guards have been present at and unable to prevent other school shootings, like Columbine and Virginia Tech; despite the fact that shooters wearing body armor and planning suicide are unlikely to be deterred by the thought of being shot at by guards; despite the fact that anytime there's a shootout between bad guys and good guys, innocent bystanders may be wounded or killed (even by highly proficient and trained police officers); and despite the fact that American citizens--and children--would still be vulnerable at home, at work, at movie theaters, churches, hospitals, bowling alleys, retirement communities, parks, gas stations, malls, museums, grocery stores, playgrounds, aerobics classes, baby showers, in bed, and everywhere else. It's almost as if the two sides of this debate are talking about completely different issues: one side is talking about trying to solve the problem of gun violence in America; the other side is focusing on school-based gun-battle tactics.
Clearly, if I wrote about any of these things in greater detail than I already have, this post, already pushing the limits of your patience, dear reader, would be a 40,000 word gun control manifesto. So, instead, if I can press my luck a bit further, I want to write briefly about another recent school shooting.
About two weeks ago, at Taft Union High School near Bakersfield, California, a 16-year-old boy who had reportedly been bullied relentlessly by his classmates brought a 12-gauge shotgun to school, walked into a classroom, shot one student (who was seriously injured but not killed) and fired at others. The teacher, Ryan Heber, talked the boy into putting his gun down, and a school administrator--Campus Supervisor Kim Lee Fields--who had come to the classroom after the gun had been fired, "grabbed the teen in a bear hug and sat him on the ground." Police quickly arrived and arrested the shooter, who was arraigned last week and will be tried as an adult. Obviously, not every shooter can be dissuaded from violence by a trusted teacher and a hug, but can't we agree that the way this situation ended is several orders of magnitude better than the solution the NRA offers: an immature, profoundly hurt 16-year-old--a child--with easy access to a gun, labeled a "bad guy," shot by a "good guy," and added to the yearly tally of gun deaths in America?
In another recent incident involving a gun, a mother in Georgia, hiding in a closet with her two children, shot a home intruder in the face and neck five times. I've heard this incident touted on the news and internet as a textbook example of the benefits of responsible gun ownership: a woman successfully defended her home and family from someone who might have intended serious harm. It's just what the NRA advocates--a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy. But was this truly the only--or best--way she could have protected herself? Might the intruder have passed the house by entirely if there had been an alarm system sign in the front yard? Would the police have gotten there to intervene if she had called 911 instead of her husband at work at the first sign of trouble? Would a face full of pepper spray have been enough to incapacitate the intruder? (It works for grizzly bears--apparently better than guns do.) Maybe the answers to all those questions are no, but even so, there must be a better answer for what we, as a society, can do to protect ourselves from violent crime besides buy more guns. Does anyone sincerely believe that there's anything good at all about the idea of shooting another human being in the face five times while your children watch? Again, is this the NRA's idea of a best-case scenario?
"We are mobilizing for a fight," NRA President David Keene said recently of the public debate about gun control. This, to me, is the whole point: I don't want more fighting. I don't want more battles. I don't want a shootout at the OK Corral to be our best option for ensuring public safety. I want to live in a country where my child can enjoy his childhood without having to carry a bulletproof backpack. If the only--and best--plan the NRA can come up with is "Attention, Gun Owners: Decide Who the Bad Guys Are and Then Shoot Them," I don't think they should be permitted to steer the conversation about gun control any longer. The NRA's "good guys with guns" approach misses the whole point--as a culture, we should not be looking for ways to respond to horrific gun violence in the midst of the carnage, as it's happening; rather, we should be looking for ways to prevent it before it ever occurs.
It is not a tyrannical attack on American freedom to believe that guns, which are expressly designed to kill living things, ought to be at least as regulated as cars and Sudafed. It is not absurd to trust the many medical experts and peer-reviewed analyses that indicate that tougher gun laws and fewer easy-to-access guns decrease the risks of death due to gun violence. We do need to enforce existing gun laws, and we also need new, effective, creative, evidence-based solutions. We need civic and political leaders brave enough to pursue those solutions, and we need a motivated public to make--and keep--gun regulation a priority. I know that nobody can get things done like parents who are concerned for the safety and well-being of their children, so, let's get to work.