"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Lawyers, Guns and Money

Along with the rest of the country, I awoke on Friday to the news that 12 innocent people in Colorado had been murdered, shot to death, by a lone gunman.  I digested the details of the shootings with a sick feeling in my stomach and deep sadness in my heart.  I listened to the President and his words of condolence and comfort, I read news reports and online blogs, but mostly I just stewed.  My stewing soon turned to anger. I know the routine: people across the country are sad and horrified about yet another massacre of innocent people.  They’ll shake their heads, shed a few tears, post about what kind of sicko murders people in cold blood, and then in a few weeks it will all be a distant memory.  Americans won’t rise up and join forces, harnessing their outrage and sadness into action, demanding stricter gun control laws. Despite overwhelming public support for stricter gun control regulations, nothing changes.  When it comes to gun control, our country is in a stalemate, and has been for a long time, unwilling to discuss common sense measures that will save lives. 

Not long ago, I was one of those people that watched the news, shook my head, muttered that something needs to change, and then went on with my life.  I’m no longer that person.  The last two years have changed me.  Senseless and needless loss of life, in any form, for any reason, is something I can’t ignore, especially when there are practical ways to prevent such unnecessary losses. 

I’m not naïve or unaware that gun control is a controversial topic, nor that the NRA is one of the most powerful special interest groups in the country, heavily influencing both public policy and opinion.  In 2005, a poll of congressional insiders by the National Journal reported that Democrats considered them the most effective lobbying group on Capitol Hill, while Republicans ranked them as #2.  Their political power and influence can’t be denied.  In fact, next week when the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is in Salt Lake City for their Annual Meeting, they’ll be treated to a shooting party hosted by the NRA.  The thing is, I guess I am naïve or idealistic enough to believe that even such powerful forces like the NRA can be defeated, or at least their power and influence can be lessened.  I don’t think advocating for stricter gun control laws is an exercise in futility, given that 70 percent of Americans favor a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons. 

The arguments from gun control opponents do nothing to sway me.  Why would I be swayed by mindless rhetoric designed to obfuscate?  Hearing variations on the same old justifications such as “Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people”, “An armed society is a polite society”, and my personal favorite “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”  Please! Why are people so willing to be puppets of a cynical, powerful, special interest group?  The lack of independent, critical thinking given to such an important public safety issue scares me.  Why can’t there be more intelligent, thoughtful discussion backed up by facts?

First, I’m not advocating outlawing guns or taking away anybody’s constitutional right to bear arms.  Let’s just take that argument off the table right out of the gates, since the Supreme Court ruled in the 2nd Amendment case District of Columbia v. Heller that banning handguns was unconstitutional.  In Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion, he stated the amendment “elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”  Since the 2nd amendment right to keep and bear arms is a moot point, why not have a discussion about strengthening gun laws in order to keep guns out of the wrong hands?  Seems reasonable to me. 

As for the “Guns don’t kill people.  People kill people” argument, I agree with iconic rocker Ozzy Osbourne. “I keep hearing this *&%#$@* thing that guns don’t kill people, but people kill people.  If that’s the case, why do we give people guns when they go to war?  Why not just send the people?”  Guns are weapons, designed to kill.  Guns enable people to kill.  This argument is so ridiculous, especially when the same sort of logic is applied to other inanimate objects that can also cause death.  Cars don’t kill people, but plenty of people driving cars kill people.  Cars and drivers are heavily regulated and licensed, because the wrong people, driving unsafe cars most definitely present a risk of death.  How about lawn darts?  Fairly innocuous and safe in and of themselves, right?  But people kill people with lawn darts.  In fact, lawn darts were outlawed in 1988 after three children were killed when playing with them outdoors.  The effort to outlaw them was led by Representative John Dingell of Michigan, who pushed the Consumer Product Safety Commission to outlaw lawn darts.  Strangely, he’s a strong opponent of imposing safety standards on guns, despite the fact that between 1996-2000, an average of 270 children and teens died from unintentional shootings, and four times that number were injured.  Amazingly, no federal agency has the power to set safety standards for guns, test them for safety or recall defective guns. 

How about licensing gun owners, another measure that many are vehemently opposed to?  The argument is that owners who keep a gun, or guns, in their home for self defense shouldn’t have to be licensed.  However, many unintentional shootings occur in the home.  A 1998 study, Injuries and Deaths Due to Firearms in the Home showed that guns in the home were four times more likely to be involved in accidents than to be used to injure or kill for self defense. 

Another part of the gun violence equation that doesn’t get much attention is gun suicide.  The New England Journal of Medicine published a study by Dr. Arthur Kellerman and his colleagues that showed having a gun in the home increases suicide risk by nearly five times.  Sixty percent of suicide deaths of youth under the age of nineteen are committed using firearms, making firearms the most common method of suicide among adolescents.  Training on safety, including safe gun handling and storage practices, along with education about the increased risks posed by having guns in the home could reduce the number of unintentional shootings and youth suicides.   

Guns are lethal weapons, with a unique capability to inflict fatal damage compared to other weapons.  Sure there are plenty of other weapons that when put in the hands of someone determined to maim or injure another, will cause injury, or even death.  Simply because guns aren’t the only weapon that can be used to cause harm doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be subject to greater regulation.  Time and again, studies have proven the greater lethality of guns over other weapons.  Guns are used in only four percent of all felonies, including non-violent offenses.  In felonies that include threatened or actual bodily injury, the use of guns jumps to 20 percent.  In homicides, guns are involved 70 percent of the time.  People kill people more often with guns, period. 

There are those that suggest people who use guns vs. other weapons to harm others, or themselves, are more determined to kill.  Studies have disproven this.  George Zimring analyzed assaults in Chicago for a one-month period in 1967, looking at the location and number of wounds inflicted, which he used to judge the seriousness and intent of the assailants.  His findings showed that 77 percent of knife attacks reflected an intent to cause serious injury or death, while only 60 percent of gun attacks showed the same intent.  He said “nothing about the data suggest that the average knife attack is any less seriously intended than the average gun attack”.  Gun attacks were more lethal than knife attacks, which shows their greater lethality, not a greater deadly intent than those that attack with knives.  He concluded, “if knives were substituted for guns, the homicide rate would drop significantly.”

As for suicides, the use of a gun doesn’t necessarily show a greater determination to die.  A study in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania analyzed over 1,000 suicides and 1,600 attempted suicides.  Attempted suicides with a gun resulted in death 92 percent of the time.  Only 4 percent who attempt using a knife or other sharp object succeed. The same study found that those who attempt suicide with a gun are actually less likely to later complete suicide by any other means than those who unsuccessfully try using other methods.  So, although gunshot is the most lethal suicide method, it only ranks 6th as a predictor of future suicide.  6.25 percent of those who attempt suicide with a gun later complete suicide using some method.  4.83 percent who attempt suicide by cutting themselves later complete the act.  These numbers show a slightly greater determination by those who attempt with a gun vs. other means, but don’t account for the huge difference in lethal outcomes (92 percent vs. 4 percent).  Simply put, guns are more lethal than other weapons.  This is especially tragic when it comes to guns and teen suicide.  In Nebraska hospitals in 2003, 553 children were treated for self-inflicted injuries or suicide attempts.  386 children who swallowed pills or poison were discharged.  Only three who used guns were discharged.  The rest went to the morgue.  Dr. David Grossman, a Seattle pediatrician and researcher starkly points out, “If we can get them to take pills instead of a gun, it is more likely to turn a suicide into a suicide attempt.”

Lastly, I’ll address the “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” argument, which suggests that gun control is futile because only law-abiding citizens would obey such laws, leaving law-abiding people defenseless against armed criminals.  Laws such as the Brady Act don’t rely on compliance by criminals.  Instead, their effectiveness comes from compliance by licensed dealers selling guns.   People will argue that those determined to buy guns to commit crimes will buy them using illegal means.  Which some do.  However, since the Brady Act has been in place, 1.5 million prohibited gun buyers have tried to buy guns from gun stores. 

Alternative sources for guns, such as criminals buying them “off the street” exist, and gaping loopholes in existing laws make these sources possible.  Rather than using this as justification against gun control, why not use it as a reason to strengthen existing controls and close loopholes?  Laws such as Virginia’s one-gun-a-month law do this.  Multiple purchases of guns by a single buyer have long been a clue to law enforcement that the buyer intends to traffic guns illegally on the black market.  Before this law was enacted, 35 percent of all guns coming from the Southeast and traced in the Northeast came from Virginia gun shops.  Not long after the law went into effect, only 16 percent of southeastern guns traced to crime in the northeast came from Virginia. 

Guns trafficked illegally don’t just show up out of nowhere.  There is a connection between legal gun sales and illegal trafficking.  The ATF has found that crime guns recovered within three years of their last retail sale is a “significant indicator” that the gun was trafficked out of a gun shop.  There is a flood of guns moving quickly from retail gun shops into the illegal market.  In a study of 27 communities in which guns recoverd in crimes were traced, the ATF found that between 32 and 49 percent of guns recovered from individuals aged 18-24 had been sold by a retail dealer or pawnshop less than three years before.  Many other loopholes exist which can easily be controlled or eliminated by common sense gun control laws that will have no impact on those who own weapons for self-defense, sporting and hunting activities, or collecting. 

My hope is that the flurry of outrage and emotion resulting from the Aurora, Colorado shootings will cause people to demand that our country’s political leaders stop pandering to special interest groups like the NRA and make some long overdue changes to our gun control laws.  In 2003, at a celebration marking the 10-year anniversary of the Brady Act, then President Bill Clinton talked about the disconnect between the gun lobby’s arguments and reality.  This is all about getting people to stop thinking.  Ignoring the human consequences of a practical problem.”  He continued, “But the human consequences are quite severe, because the landscape of our recent history is littered with the bodies of people [who] couldn’t be protected, under sensible gun laws that wouldn’t have had a lick of impact on the hunters of sportsmen of this country.”

That was nine years ago.  The human consequences are still being ignored.  It’s beyond time for that to change.