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.
- 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.