GEORGE KENNEDY: Lives lost are price of our continuing gun culture

Friday, December 21, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

The massacre of children and teachers in Newtown, Conn., has stirred everybody from the president of the United States to the coach of the Syracuse University basketball team to call for gun control.

President Barack Obama, in establishing a task force on the subject to be led by Vice President Joe Biden, this week expressed support for a renewed ban on assault weapons, elimination of high-capacity ammunition magazines and required background checks for all gun purchasers. He also noted that it should be as easy to obtain mental health care as it is to buy a gun.

All that is highly desirable and long overdue. But let’s not get our hopes up.

Consider …

  •  The Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives are reciting the National Rifle Association mantra, “Guns don’t kill people.” They typically neglect to add the corollary, “People with guns kill people.” Sen. Roy Blunt sounds skeptical of any controls.
  • We have today an estimated 300 million or more guns in this country. Nothing is being proposed that would reduce that number.
  • Not even all law enforcement officers are in agreement. The national police chiefs’ association favors tighter controls. But I spoke this week with Boone County Sheriff Dwayne Carey, a self-described “avid hunter.” He responded to my question by saying, “I don’t know that guns are the issue.” He added, “I can’t say I’d support” an assault weapon ban or magazine limitation. (I tried multiple times to reach Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton and was eventually told that he is out of town for the holidays.)
  • And when I visited the Bass Pro store on the north side of town, a friendly salesman offered to sell me a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle similar to the one used in Newtown for $849.95. He’d have to see my driver’s license, to run me through the FBI’s database. If I wanted to buy the rifle for somebody else, he said, I should but don’t have to inform the sheriff. The Bushmaster comes with a 10-round magazine. He said Bass Pro doesn’t sell any with higher capacity. I overheard another salesman tell a guy who was buying a pistol that the whole sales process takes about 45 minutes. Business has been good.

Americans’ relationship with guns has a history longer than the history of the nation itself. The Second Amendment was usually interpreted to mean that the right “to keep and bear arms” was associated with “a well-regulated militia” until an activist five Supreme Court justices ruled in 2008 and 2010 that it is instead an individual right. Just how much regulation is permissible remains unclear, even to legal scholars.

The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence cites studies showing that a gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a homicide or suicide than in self-defense. The online firearms tutorial maintained by the University of Utah School of Medicine reports that in 2010 there were 31,513 gun deaths in the United States. Of those, 19,308 were suicides, 11,015 were homicides, and 600 were accidents.

So what, if anything, are we really going to do? What should we do?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the subject this week. The experts generally seem to agree on a few steps that would make a difference, though they’re also in agreement that rampages such as the ones at Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine or Virginia Tech probably can’t be prevented altogether.

First, those three actions endorsed by President Obama should be taken. Federal law now requires that licensed gun dealers – such as Bass Pro – conduct background checks. But at least 40 percent of sales are made at the 4,000-plus gun shows every year or between individuals. Those should require background checks. And the national database is currently far from complete. In some states, NRA-inspired legislation forbids participation. That must be fixed, too.

The assault weapon ban we had until it expired in 2004 was so full of loopholes that the Bushmaster, for instance, would have been legal then as it is now. So we’ll need a tighter, more carefully crafted ban.

Second, every state should require for shooting what we require for driving – a license, training and registration.

That leads to another required change, one that could make the others possible. Somehow, the stranglehold the NRA has held for three decades over gun-related politics must be broken. We’ll get a clue Friday whether that rabidly anti-regulation organization is really interested in cooperation or whether it will continue to bully or buy our lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the small tragedy in Missouri mentioned by the president shows the continuing cost of our gun culture. A 4-year-old boy in Kansas City, shot in the head as he sat in a car, was taken off life support Tuesday. Police suspect the shooting was gang-related.

On the Brady Center website, there’s a counter that adds up the toll the gun culture takes. As of 10 a.m. Thursday, it showed that 95,713 of us had been shot this year, 123 so far Thursday.

Isn’t that enough?

Postscript: For an easy-to-read but thoroughly documented summary of the our relationship with guns, I recommend “Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment” by Craig R. Whitney, published in 2012.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 8:50 a.m.

"The Second Amendment was *usually* (my emphasis added) interpreted to mean that the right “to keep and bear arms” was associated with “a well-regulated militia” until an activist five Supreme Court justices ruled in 2008 and 2010 that it is instead an individual right."

Well, here we have another opinion writer who has never read the entirety of the SCOTUS 2008 Heller decision. If he had, he would have realized the absurdity of this sentence. Especially the "usually" part.

The Heller decision is one of the most, if not THE most, comprehensive histories of firearm use and purpose ever written in America. It delves into the writings of our founders and many others, plus references all sorts of state and community judicial decisions.

"Activist?" Now that's funny. George knows full well it isn't "activist" to keep an original "intent" that was identified and well-documented in the Heller decision. George should know better and either does but deliberate writes otherwise...or doesn't, in which case he should read Heller and no longer be unknowning.

Here's a summary:

And, here's the opinion:

Get busy........

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 9:07 a.m.

A second point: Kennedy speaks of the "NRA stranglehold" as if the organization is some sort of non-human a garret...that throws its noose around government's neck.

Not so. The NRA is an organization of HUMAN BEINGS who belong to that organization because they support its beliefs. It is comprised of ordinary citizens just like those that join the ACLU or Sierra Club. All of these are lobbying groups that reflect the wishes of the various constituencies.

The "stranglehold" may indeed be a stranglehold, but that ligature comes from a sizable proportion of individual US citizens who pay their membership dues and contributions in support of an objective.

So, if you wish to demonize, do not dehumanize the supportive population by using words and phrases that imply the NRA is an entity unto itself. It is not; rather, it is us and it reflects what we want.

Disclosure: I am not a member of the NRA and do not contribute to the organization.

(Report Comment)
Bob Hill December 21, 2012 | 9:34 a.m.

Your facts & logic are severely lacking.

Do you want the government to confiscate 300 million guns? Ain't gonna happen.

The Bushmaster used in the Connecticut shooting would NOT have fallen under the 'assault gun' ban as it did not meet the criteria. So that suggestion wouldn't have help, and wouldn't have helped except in 3% of mass killings. Assault weapons are terribly ineffective; a handgun with a sufficient number of magazines is much better (and why it is the preferred choice in the other 97% of mass killings).

Most law enforcement officers DO prefer an armed citizenry. The ones that do are usually political organizations, not the rank & file.

I do have license and training to carry a concealed weapon. Why do you imply otherwise?

There is NO evidence that personal gun sales have EVER contributed to a mass killing.

What about the 2.9 million times a year that guns are used in self defense? Are these lives worthless? Do you prefer that individuals just be gunned down by criminals who WILL get guns and terrorize law-abiding citizens?

The rights to keep and bear arms was not just for personal protection, but to protect oneself against the government as well. There's a reason that every mass slaughter of people by government in recent times started with a confiscation of guns. This is also one reason why private citizens need 'assault' weapons. They are protect ourselves from those (government) who DO possess these type of weapons.

When do you assume you have the moral authority to take away my rights? I did not assign them to you -- and I couldn't anyway as they are unalienable -- so go back to policing yourself. I am a law-abiding citizen with the right to protect myself and my family.

Grow up. The adults are talking. If you want to understand true protection, look at Israel. They stopped school shootings completely by arming the teachers.

Focus on real solutions, not just what makes you feel good. False security is worse than no security. Your intentions are good, but your outcome will only result in more deaths.

(Report Comment)
hank ottinger December 21, 2012 | 12:19 p.m.

The NRA is essentially a shill for the firearms industry which has contributed close to $40 million to it since 2005. Moreover, 69% of NRA members favor background checks for those purchasing weapons at gun shows, a policy the NRA has continually opposed. The organization has 4.3 million members, and they all don't move in lockstep with LaPierre & Co. Perhaps some remember when the NRA was all about education and safety; then it became obsessed with presumed threats to the Second Amendment. Follow the money.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 12:48 p.m.

HankO: A shill?

The NRA apparently contributed 16 mil to various campaigns in the last election while the top 5 studios in Hollywood contributed 40 mil to protect their own violent profits.

Shill, indeed. Look to the mote in your own eye.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 12:52 p.m.

Hank: Further, those "presumed threats" were a whole lot more than "presumed."

If you doubt me, simply tell us why SCOTUS had to rule on the 2nd Amendment in DC vs. Heller?

Speaking of which, did you read the decision?

Here's the opinion in case you lost it the first time:

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 1:01 p.m.

Hell, even Ginsberg agreed with the meaning of "bear arms":

From the decision ( 10) referenced above:

"At the time of the founding, as now, to “bear” meant to“carry.” See Johnson 161; Webster; T. Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language (1796); 2 Oxford English Dictionary 20 (2d ed. 1989) (hereinafter Oxford). When used with “arms,” however, the term has a meaning that refers to carrying for a particular purpose—confrontation. In Muscarello v. United States, 524 U. S. 125 (1998), in the course of analyzing the meaning of “carries a firearm” in a federal criminal statute, JUSTICE GINSBURG wrote that “[s]urely a most familiar meaning is,as the Constitution’s Second Amendment . . . indicate[s]: ‘wear, bear, or carry . . . upon the person or in the clothing or in a pocket, for the purpose . . . of being armed and ready for offensive or defensive action in a case of conflict with another person.’”

Y'all really should read it........

(Report Comment)
George Kennedy December 21, 2012 | 2:53 p.m.

Mr. Williams et al --

I have read the Heller decision. I prefer the arguments of the four dissenters. If you want to know more about the history of our relationship with guns, I recommend a piece by Jill Lepore that ran in the New Yorker last April. I always appreciate a civil discussion.

Thanks for reading.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 3:47 p.m.

Mr. Kennedy: You may prefer the dissenting opinion, but I'm amazed you disregard the topic's history so well documented by the majority. These are historical facts, writings, and decisions drawn together into a single document. To ignore these historical writings is similar to a denial of the content of the Gettysburg Address. It is not intellectually permitted.

Nonetheless, the 2nd Amendment has been formally interpreted as protecting the rights of an individual to keep and bear arms. This is now established law and to say otherwise is as silly as saying Rowe v. Wade isn't established law (Note: I do not accuse you of this latter sentiment; my comment is reserved for others).

Now, as mentioned in the Heller decision, we turn to whether (and how much) the federal government can regulate that ownership. If I had to guess (and it's certainly only a guess), SCOTUS will reject significant federal regulation but be more permissive of state regulation so long as it does not interfere with the law-abiding citizenry's established and individual right established in Heller. However, such a posture will likely call the Commerce Clause into play...again.

My comments regarding your uses of "usually" and "activist" remain intact. I think you are way off base with these two biases structured to provoke an unwarranted emotion and belief.

PS: I just heard Rudy Giuliani say that CT has a assault weapon ban. Can anyone support or reject this statement with a reputable source?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 21, 2012 | 4:02 p.m.

CT assault weapons ban:

Quick read says...yes.

See the definition in the glossary and 53-202c.

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.