Throwing statistics up showing the number of people murdered annually in the United States through gun violence trivializes the lives of the dead. But the numbers bear repeating if only to shame us into the fact that we Americans are accomplices in the violent deaths of each and every one of them. And unless we rid ourselves of weak willed Congressmen and state representatives who shield themselves behind the massive voter-proof vests paid by the NRA and other private interest groups, we will continue to have blood on our hands, by the bucketful.
Last week, 12 people were murdered at the Washington Navy Yard by a gunman who authorities say showed signs of psychosis. And in gang related violence, 13 people including a infant were shot in Chicago, a city now ranked by the FBI as #1 in gun violence.
Using CDC estimates roughly 25 thousand people have died from guns in the United States since December 2012. Of those, approximately 60% are suicides and the rest are homicides. A white person is five times as likely to commit suicide with a gun as to be shot with a gun; for each African American who uses a gun to commit suicide, five are killed by other people with guns.
FBI statistics show a steady decline in US gun homicides in past few years, down to 8,600 in 2011. At the same time however, almost half of the 62 mass shootings that have occurred here in the last 30 years have all happened in the past 7 years and a third of those 25 happened in 2012 alone, including the Newtown, CT elementary school massacre. The shooters’ weapons of choice include various assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines favorites being the AR-15 assault rifle and the .232 Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle. The ease and speed with which a mentally impaired or fully functional killer can massacre and maim dozens of people with these weapons is well documented — it’s a simple matter of bullet physics vs. human reaction times.
Apart from the high rate of gun suicide deaths, the threat to others’ lives also increases when guns are more available to the public. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center assessed the literature on guns and homicide and found that there's substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This holds true whether you're looking at different countries or different states. And with the most guns per capita in the world, the US has the highest rate of deaths from firearms, compared for example to Japan, which has the lowest rate of gun ownership, and the least number of gun deaths.
"Although correlation is not the same as causation, it seems conceivable that abundant gun availability facilitates firearm-related deaths. Conversely, high crime rates may instigate widespread anxiety and fear, thereby motivating people to arm themselves and give rise to increased gun ownership, which, in turn, increases availability. The resulting vicious cycle could, bit by bit, lead to the polarized status that is now the case with the US," doctors write in the American Journal of Medicine, 9/18/13 October issue.
The long standing slogan associated with the NRA “Guns Don’t Kill, People Do” is part of a clever campaign meant to move the discussion about gun violence off the possession and acquisition of guns themselves and onto individual responsibility for their unlawful use. It is true that having a gun, even one that is powerful, high capacity, high speed, doesn’t turn someone into a killer but the campaign fogs the fact that if someone is already mentally unstable and dangerous to himself or others, a legal standard for civil commitment and other civic restrictions, having an assault weapon readily available makes him more of a threat than someone who isn’t ill. Troubled people hearing Satan’s murderous urgings though the microwave are less dangerous if all they have available to carry out their butchery is a bag of rocks. But the NRA isn’t selling rocks.
Killers’ mental health problems continue to focus our attention on what some believe to be the key to stopping or slowing gun violence. But identifying who is thinking about and planning to carry out a single, serial or mass killing of other human beings is one of the most elusive factors in predicting violent behavior. How could we as a society that cherishes the right to privacy, including medical records, get that information? Ask a person so dangerously ill to come forward and undergo treatment and/or institutionalization? Encouraging self-reporting of delusional thoughts isn’t likely to draw the dangerously mentally ill into treatment. And privacy interests, coupled with the real need for meaningful treatment of any kind depends heavily on doctor-patient confidentiality.
Apart from the unwieldy legal tangle we would find ourselves in trying to corral the dangerously mentally ill before they can do harm, the evidence doesn’t seem to show what aspect(s) of mental health problems will point us toward those most likely to commit future acts of violence anyway. “High rates of mental illness…(do) not predict more gun deaths." Simply saying that we need better mental health laws, without explaining how they would be crafted and operate Constitutionally, distracts from the debate over banning an entire class of weaponry except for use by the military. Put another way, sharpening our focus on legitimate mental health issues should not mislead us into believing that a cure-all for curbing gun violence has a single issue solution.
Let’s be clear. There is no Constitutional right for anyone to have any kind of gun.
In 2008, the United States Supreme Court narrowly decided in US v Heller that the 2nd Amendment protects a person’s right to keep an operable handgun in their home, because of the Constitutionally protected right to self defense. Any law barring that right absolutely is unconstitutional. But Heller didn’t declare open season on weapons’ possession and use across the board. The decision says, “…nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or on laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions or qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” (p.54) And, the kinds of weapons a person can have isn’t unlimited either, so having “dangerous and unusual weapons” isn’t protected. (p.55)
The NRA has done a bang up job, so to speak, rebranding itself from a group that used to speak for gun sport enthusiasts and firearm safety; into a powerful special interest lobbying group for high profit, high powered weapons. They could not care less, I’m sure, about anybody’s Constitutional rights as long as it keeps the coffers brimming with fat donations from gun manufacturers. Any ad agent will tell you that you need to tap into people’s primal instincts to get them to buy what you’re selling. Sex sells. Desire sells. Fear sells. Whatever it takes “The spice must flow.”
We are a modern-day, democratic, industrialized, 21st century, civilized society. There is no more threat of the government “coming for” people’s guns than there is of it euthanizing our elderly. That paranoia is part of the messaging used by the NRA to scare people into thinking otherwise and encourage them to oppose responsible leadership and reasonable gun-control legislation. The millions they pour into campaigns against a politician can cost him/her her job, as it just did recently in Colorado, a place that has had more than it’s share of bloodshed at the hands of the mentally ill in possession of guns.
It’s time to get brave and talk truth to power. Each of us. We don’t have to throw out the 2nd Amendment to do it. We need to support strong candidates that support assault weapons bans, and mental health outreach, treatment and research funding. And we need to get rid of the cowards in Congress and our state houses who are more interested in keeping their jobs than in doing them.
Not another minute. Not another life.
It’s time to Stand Our Ground.
Cynthia is a criminal defense attorney in New York. She has worked on high profile criminal cases, taught litigation as an Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington DC and has a popular radio talk show on WVOX.com.
She blogs at CynthiaLobo.wordpress.com, twitter @CynthiaLobo