2012 was a particularly gruesome year for firearm deaths, capped off by the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT last month. Arriving on the heels of several historic mass shootings, as well as a host of arguments which had escalated to deadly altercations, often with claims of “self-defense,” the event has flung the gun control issue back into the center of our society. But the debate is often clouded with delusions on both sides that simple solutions are available, a fallacy that fails to recognize the complexity of our culture, especially when it comes to our relationship with guns.
Roughly 9,000 Americans are murdered by people using firearms each year – about 20 times the rate of other developed nations. No matter whether you think that makes an argument for more law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons, or you think it is justification for tightening gun control laws, I cannot imagine anyone denying that it is a staggering number, which is for some reason wholly unique to the United States among the developed nations of this world.
Like many issues in our society, there are fierce advocates on both extremes flanking a moderate middle, who seem to agree that there is a very serious problem, while remaining unsure as to what the best remedy might be. As is often the case, the issue is clouded by a bounty of propaganda and disinformation. As such, I think it’s fair to say that gun regulation is one of the great societal challenges of our time.
Gun control advocates correctly point out that data has shown that where there are more guns, there are more homicides. Just like the United States, with its 300 million firearms in circulation, has many times the number of homicides than other developed nations, the areas of the U.S. which have the most guns, also experience the most murders by shooting. They've also pointed out the greater number of accidental shootings compared to defensive ones, as well as the compounding effect in which the theft of these legally-obtained firearms has made it even easier for untraceable guns to end up in the hands of criminals. In fact, a five-year U.S. Department of Justice study showed that theft of firearms outnumbered defensive use 4-1.
What gun control advocates often fail to recognize, however, is the difficulty in crafting sensible regulations, which can be realistically enacted and enforced on would-be criminals. Gun advocates quickly point out that law-abiding citizens are instantly disadvantaged if only those willing to break the law – which criminals, by definition, would seem willing to do – have guns, or even just the most deadly ones. There is something to be said for the idea that if only such people are armed with the high-caliber, high-capacity, tricked-out assault weapons already in circulation and not relevant to new bans on selling them, it becomes significantly harder for law-abiding civilians to defend themselves against such armament without running afoul of the law.
Clearly, the first question here is whether there can be effective enforcement of any regulation we consider. But with roughly one firearm already in circulation for every adult in America, the creation of a large and accessible black market is all but certain if rules were meaningfully tightened, and just look at the spike in sales that talk of stiffer regulations has wrought. I think most Americans would agree that gaping holes in the sensible regulations we already have, such as the gun show loophole and gaps in information within the database now used for background checks in gun sales are no-brainers. More can and should be done to ensure that Americans who are not allowed to purchase firearms under current U.S. law are prevented from doing so, and it is promising to see some of the current ideas flowing in that direction.
But remember, the shooter in the Sandy Hook massacre simply took a legally-owned assault rifle from his family home. He didn’t need to obtain one through regulated channels or a black market and his mental status was a non-issue. How would such a crime be prevented? The answer is at once simple yet complicated. Even countries like Japan have been unable to completely eradicate gun violence with strict gun control (though it's about 1/1000th as common there than it is in the U.S.), while Switzerland and Finland, whose per-capita gun ownership rate is closest to the U.S. among developed nations, have very low rates of firearm crime compared to the United States. No system is 100 percent effective, but again, the less guns that are in circulation, the less gun crimes that are generally committed. So to truly have a significant impact on reducing non-defensive shootings, we would have to look at drastically altering our concept of gun ownership, a much larger endeavor that would likely require a constitutional amendment, given the composition of the current Supreme Court and the positions the Court has previously taken.
However, if we also agree that criminals are going to obtain and use guns regardless of whether it is legal, we would have to agree that the only way to severely limit, if not totally eliminate the opportunity for criminals to obtain firearms, is to pretty much remove the bulk of them from existence. Countries have attempted this, Australia being the most recent and comprehensive example. The idea that a similar culture could emerge in the United States, however, seems all but impossible. With the amount of firearms already legally and illegally in circulation in our enormous, sprawling and heavily-populated country, the scope of such an undertaking isn’t even imaginable. And that’s before you get to the politics of the issue, which would seem even more insurmountable than the logistics.
This is where the trick bag seems to present itself. Given the incredibly unique current status of guns in our country, we seem to face two options. 1.) Completely redefine the concept of gun ownership in the United States and then dedicate an unprecedented body of resources to implementing and policing such policies – i.e. no guns outside of the military or police forces with a compulsory buy back of current ones. 2.) Come together in order to enact sensible and feasible adjustments to the way we currently administer present laws, focusing first on ensuring that those who are not allowed to obtain firearms don't, and that more is done to ensure that mentally unstable individuals are prevented from whimsically securing such weapons, while still acknowledging that it will be impossible to completely eradicate such instances in a nation of 300 million firearms.
People with a gun are far more likely to accidentally shoot themselves or someone else, use it to commit suicide, or use it in a non-legal shooting than to shoot someone in justified self-defense. While the pro-gun lobby likes to say otherwise, their arguments rely almost wholly on two flawed and outdated studies which have been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked (a 1992 survey by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck and a 1997 paper by John R. Lott Jr. and David B. Mustard, titled Deterrence and Right-To-Carry Concealed Handguns). But that still doesn't necessarily mean that a responsible and well-trained gun owner should not be able to own a gun for defensive purposes. Though it is less likely in terms of percentages, people still do exercise their legal right to defend their person and property with legally-owned and permitted firearms every day.
Nevertheless, I don't think there is any sort of sizable contingent trying to change that. Yes, there is something to consider in terms of our culture of violence, and yes there are far too many instances where it is highly likely that had a gun not entered into the equation, escalating a simple disagreement into mortal tragedy, someone's child, father, mother or friend might still be with us today. All of the “personal responsibility” we might assign to the shooter does not bring them back. We can and should consider whether policies that make it far more likely that a gun will be present in more and more of these situations make sense, but irresponsible use is never going to be eliminated, especially in a culture like ours. Again, that seems to leave us with two possible courses of action, only one of which is likely to have legs.
I doubt I’m alone in my skepticism that the debate will ever be approached from this pragmatic, two-pronged angle. More likely, we’ll see a ham-fisted patch quilt of various rules and regulations that do little to fundamentally address the actual issue, while bogging down the system of enforcing our litany of laws. Gun control will remain a polarizing, special-interest driven issue in which the two sides of our bought and paid for Congress spend more time coddling lobbyists than crafting solutions, and at the end of the day, it is unlikely that we will see meaningful change – a sentence that could probably end any column dedicated to an issue requiring Washington's involvement.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.