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Gun Violence

Posted by Mathias Pollock, MPH on July 24, 2012
Labels: Gun Violence

In the wake of another thoughtless, unspeakably violent crime with tragic, unnecessary fatalities, it is once again time for the people of the United States to address the issue of gun violence in our country. Most of us, thankfully, have a bit of telescopic luxury when it comes to firearm crimes. This has nothing to with a political stance; it has to do with circumstance. For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to ask you to try to examine the issue from the perspective of those who don’t have that luxury- the hundreds of thousands of Americans whose lives are taken or irrevocably altered by guns every year.

When I woke up Friday morning and saw the reports of a single gunman killing 12 and wounding over 50 others at a movie theater in Aurora, CO, I felt a muddle of emotions: utter devastation and grief for the victims and their families, anger at the perpetrator, and a general morose for our society- but not shock. I am shocked by things in life that shouldn’t happen, almost never happen. Gun violence should fall into this category- what’s truly shocking is that, in the United States, it simply doesn’t. 

 The truth is it happens everywhere, everyday, and it can happen to anyone.

Guns are deadly- In 2009, 31,347 Americans died in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. This is the equivalent of more than 85 deaths each day and more than three deaths each hour, with less than 1% considered legally justified self-defense homicides.

Guns are also efficient killers- despite equal incidence there are five times more deaths from gun assaults than from assaults with knives, and 90% of attempted suicides with a firearm are successful.

Guns are also expensive- once all the direct and indirect medical, legal and societal costs are factored together, the annual cost of gun violence in America amounts to $100 billion.

Columbine, the DC sniper, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora- how many more? These communities are as diverse in their geographic distribution as they are in their ethnic and cultural composition. Gun violence affects all strata of society, and does not discriminate. Whether you believe that guns protect more lives than they threaten, or you feel the opposite is true, we can all agree that they are a very effective instrument for taking lives. We are all part of the problem of innocent lives being taken; we all must contribute to the solution that prevents this from happening.

I realize that there is another side to this issue, and there is a large population of Americans who have grown up with guns, whether for hunting or sport, and have learned to possess and use them responsibly. What I worry about are the ones who have not learned safety, don’t care to learn, or simply don’t care. The U.S. has the highest rate of firearm deaths among 25 high-income nations. But irresponsible handling of guns doesn’t merely affect the owner just as improper operation of a motor vehicle doesn’t jeopardize solely the life of the driver. The overall firearm-related death rate among U.S. children under the age of 15 is nearly 12 times higher than that among children in 25 other industrialized nations combined.

We don’t need to repeal the second amendment. It is unrealistic to consider the prohibition of all firearms without threatening the democratic nature of our society. But do we really need to make firearms available at Kmart to anyone with a fake ID and an urge to shoot something? Do civilian sportsmen and recreational hunters really need access to semi-automatic weapons? Strong, enforceable regulatory policy would go a long way to ensuring that the wrong people don’t get the wrong guns.

Why can’t we regulate firearm licensing as we do driving? After all, firearms killed about the same amount of people in 2009 as car crashes (~33,000).  The difference is that more people own cars, and they use them far more frequently than people own and use guns. At least we require prospective drivers to enroll in a class, spend a minimum amount of hours supervised behind the wheel, take a hands-on test, submit necessary personal information to a validation process, and undergo periodic renewals before approving their license to drive. And, last time I checked, we don’t supply civilians with licenses to drive tanks or fighter jets whose sole purpose is to kill more efficiently, no matter how responsible they are.   

At the end of the day, it is policy and not perception that dictate the laws that govern our nation. What we need is a responsible dialogue between informed policy makers from both sides of the issue, and willingness to compromise rather than a dogged determination to fight. After all, fighting, both with weapons and words, is what has gotten us to this impasse, this stalemate of action that continues to leave loopholes in the law and opportunities open for people to obtain weapons they shouldn’t.

Following the Tucson shooting, reports were released that the Jared Loughner’s gun jammed. Similarly, the AP has reported from Aurora, CO that “the semiautomatic assault rifle jammed during the attack, forcing the gunman to switch to another gun with less firepower. That malfunction and weapons switch might have saved some lives.”  Likewise, in both cases, heroes have emerged, both in the moment and the aftermath, whose actions continue to inspire us, liberal and conservative alike. Isn’t it time we stopped relying on faulty guns and heroic acts to spare our innocent victims. Let’s fix our faulty system and spare our heroes. We don’t need more heroes; we need less of a need of their heroism.       

Politicians from both sides have called for a “united front” to support the victims of the Aurora shootings. As a grad student at the University of Arizona in 2011, I hear echoes of the same rhetoric and promises. Since the Tucson tragedy there have been outpourings of sympathy, public displays of courage by the families, and countless promises to change. There have also been more than 60 mass shootings.

Let’s trade the politics and polarization for progress and prevention. Let’s talk to and not at each other. And lastly, as I asked at the beginning of this blog, let us adopt the perspective of a victim, Gabrielle Giffords, who, despite having an appreciable reason for pushing a personal agenda, famously said: “we can do so much more by working together.”

 Photo: Non-violence sculpture by Carl Fredrik Reutersward, image courtesy of Wikipedia user Fpo


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