October 4, 2015

HARDIN | This Has Everything to Do With Guns

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The thing about America’s gun problem is that it is exceptionally and uniquely American. Nowhere else in the developed world do we see routinely high rates of gun homicides (almost six times as many as in Canada and 16 times as many as in Germany). News headlines become less surprising: Two journalists killed during live broadcast in Virginia, 3 shot near UC Santa Barbara and, most recently, mass shooting shocks Oregon community college.

We know how this story ends. The shooter is usually male and often young, most likely with a history of psychiatric issues or social isolation. The news will discuss the role of mental illness and family background for a while until we’re all convinced that the shooter was crazy, this was an isolated incident and there is nothing we can do. This is our unique, American problem.

Then it happens again. And again. And again. There hasn’t been a calendar week without a mass shooting in Obama’s entire second term. In the past 1,000 days, there have been nearly 1,000 mass shootings in America. While they are the most visible, and in many ways the most disturbing, form of gun conflict, mass shootings make up only a fraction of all gun deaths. In 2013, deaths from mass shootings accounted for about 500 of the total amount of firearm deaths. That same year, there were over 11,000 firearm homicides and over 21,000 firearm suicides. Add in accidental firearm deaths and the total number was nearly 34,000 in 2013.

So far in 2015, 10,011 gun deaths have been reported, 555 of which were children and 1,981 were teens. There have been 1,400 accidental shootings. The statistics are devastating.

The persistence of these disturbingly high numbers obscures the issue at hand — maybe what makes America different is not just our history of misdiagnosing or failing to respond to mental illnesses, nor that our social institutions fail to respond to the widespread exclusion of at-risk individuals. Maybe trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all formula to profile the persona of a mass shooter won’t be able to predict the unpredictable.

Or, you know, maybe it’s all the guns. What makes this crisis so unique has everything to do with the rate of gun ownership in America. There are nearly 89 firearms per 100 civilians in the United States, the highest rate of civilian firearm ownership per capita in the world. To be fair, most guns are legally owned by law-abiding citizens who use them for sport or for self-protection. But while guns may not cause violence, they increase the probability of death by making every potential conflict lethal. Countries with higher rates of gun ownership have higher rates of gun deaths. Period.

While Americans may be torn on the issue of passing stricter gun control policies, it is clear that guns do not make us safer. Between 2007 and 2011, at least 311 American children were unintentionally killed by guns. When there is at least one gun present in over a third of American households, there is substantial room for error. Having a gun at home actually increases the likelihood of homicide by 2.7 times.

It is impossible to comprehend how we are still discussing the role of guns in a post-Sandy Hook America. Nearly three years after 20 children and 6 adults were murdered with high-capacity semiautomatic weapons, no comprehensive gun reform has been passed in America at the federal level. Although many states have passed or intend to pass stricter gun laws, an equal or greater number of states are working towards repealing what little legislation is in place. In the wake of this unimaginable tragedy, among others, our failure to act will forever haunt our nation and disturb the memory of those we have lost since then.

The issue with gun control advocacy is that the argument on each side looks completely different. The pro-gun side is faced with the tangible loss (at the hands of the government, no less) of both their physical property as well as their right to own that property, while the opposing side is driven by goals that seem more conceptual in comparison, such as public safety. The result is an argument that is often far more abstract than it needs to be, muddled with the history of property rights and the role of government in private life.

The public benefit of mass gun ownership is very low, while the private benefit is much higher. It is difficult to argue that the convenience of not having to reload a weapon while shooting clay pigeons offers any overall benefits to society as a whole. In contrast, the public cost of widespread gun ownership is extremely high. But when the public cost of automobile ownership got too high, we made cars safer. We enacted seatbelt laws, put airbags in and made emissions tests mandatory, among other regulations. When roads, bridges and buildings become dangerous and life-threatening, we fix them. We update our regulations, tighten city codes and work to prevent future harm. Why should guns be any different? There is no other preventable public health crisis that is treated with the same degree of ignorance and misinformation.

Australia is the common case in favor of stricter gun laws. Directly following the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, in which 35 people were murdered, the Australian Prime Minister restricted the private ownership of semi-automatic weapons and instituted a massive gun buyback program. Since then, the rates of both gun homicides as well as gun suicides have fallen. Mass shootings have virtually disappeared.

The U.S. is not Australia, and what works there will not necessarily work here. Without a major reform of the treatment of mental health and a social upheaval of the way we think about gun culture, gun control legislation simply cannot be the end-all solution to this issue. But if fewer guns result in fewer deaths, it is policy worth pursuing. It is time gun laws start effectively protecting the public — not just gun owners. We must broadly redefine our conception of “freedom,” so that it means the right to live safely rather than personal entitlement to own a firearm.

Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.

  • cmthorntonjr

    Pick which facts you want but the truth is that most mass shootings happen in gun free zones and in cities with strict gun laws. The President’s home town is the worst because only criminals have access to guns.

  • Josh

    Emily, I don’t think you know all of the facts to really have an informed opinion on this, as your conclusions don’t follow the facts. The violence problem in the country is a problem, but it’s a violence problem – not a gun problem. Never been any study showing guns cause violence, or that guns prevent it. Other countries with very high rates of gun ownership (e.g., Switzerland) have a fraction is the gun homicide rate we have. There are 300 million guns in the US, and every year there are about 10,000 homicides where a gun was used. Even assuming a different gun was used for every single homicide (which we know isn’t the case), that’s only 0.003% of guns being used in a homicide. That means 99.997% of guns are being used lawfully. If guns were the cause, then that wouldn’t be the case.

    Banning certain does is proven to not work. Assault weapons are used in a tiny, tiny number of crimes. More people are killed with bare hands than assault weapons, but they get the blame anyways. The US banned the sale of assault weapons for 10 years, and it had zero effect on the homicide rate. Sure, Australia banned a lot of guns and has reduced mass shootings. But its homicide rate has been falling at the same rate the US homicide rate has been falling.

    And you ignore the positive use of guns. Putting aside sporting uses, the CDC noted they’re used defensively or to prevent crime somewhere between 500,000 and 3 million times a year. You’re conclusion that “the public benefit of mass gun ownership is very low” is not supported by the facts.

    And gun control organizations routinely inflate the degree of the problem. They write – like you do – about the “gun homicide” rate. But why does that even matter? All that is, is the rate at which a particular weapon is used to kill someone – it says nothing about the rate at which people are being killed. If a country has a much lower gun homicide rate than us, but a much higher overall homicide rate, then they’re in a worst position than the US. Overall homicide rate is all that matters. Death is death, regardless of the tool used to cause it.

    • Mark

      It is extremely disturbing to see so many people care more about the right to own guns than the lives of other humans. Hearing all of the reasoning a person has to go through in order to justify hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.

      Usually it’s “self-defense” which is ironic because it’s a mentality very popular mostly with people who live outside of larger cities, where the majority of those crimes take place.

      Meanwhile twice as many gun-related deaths are due to suicide than to homicide and far more accidents with children happen than instances of self-preservation. So if “death is death” shouldn’t the suicide rate be taken into account as well? The reason they’re so deadly compared to any other form of suicide is that a gunshot to the head is immediate and almost always fatal, which the window of suicidal ideation is only an hour long, giving most people who have taken pills or slit their wrists the proper time needed to prevent the situation from becoming fatal.

      So you can either keep your guns safely locked away from your children, or keep them nearby on the very slim chance of being robbed. Either way, just having a deadly weapon in the house significantly increases the chance of a gun-related death occurring.

      Also, your statistic that there are so-and-so many guns in America compared to deaths doesn’t mean that every person who owns a gun is going to kill someone with it, it means that our country has SO MANY guns that the overall chances of this gun-related incidents happening is just that much higher.

      • Travis

        Perhaps the self defense narrative is popular outside of cities because the response times for law enforcement are much higher in rural areas. I live in upstate NY- the Sheriff’s Department is 25 minutes from my home, and there are trooper barracks 30 minutes away. The nearest village (15 minutes away) has only one cop, period. Response times are probabilistically lower than these, since presumably there are cops out on patrol.

  • Steve

    Why couldn’t we require a huge tax on each gun sold by the mfgrs.
    We tax the heck out of cigarettes and there seems to be fewer smokers these days. If we made ownership very expensive there would be fewer guns in demand. How many Maseratis do you see on the road?

    A Federal tariff of $1,000 on a hand gun, when manufactured, to help pay for the extra security cost to society.


    • Pete

      And, at the same time, we should enact a tax on blog posts – like $100 a post. Because, despite the First Amendment, I don’t like your posts and we need to do something about it. Let’s just tax all those rights. Next up the 4th. You must allow the government to search your home and person anytime from this moment forward without cause.

      Sign up for some history classes. You need them!

    • Josh

      Because guns are not the problem. They don’t cause violence. And, the criminals who use them don’t pay the tax — they steal them or buy them illegally. It would only penalize lawful gun owners.

    • Josh

      And the tax you just proposed would make sure that poorer people cannot have guns to defend themselves. Only the rich

    • Spencer60000

      Because that’s as illegal as banning them.

  • Excellent report, Ms. Hardin.
    I agree 100% and I am not a paid lobbyist nor a member of the NRA.
    The Second Amendment has been twisted in such ridiculous ways. It is literally killing this country.
    Thank you for having the courage to report the truth.

    • Josh

      You’re a journalist. How are you qualified to talk about constitutional interpretation of the Second Amendment?

    • TM-Gun Owner

      Hey Kevin, you put out a big statement “The second Amendment… is literally killing this country”

      Back it up with facts!

    • Claire Sierra

      Totally agree.

  • GaryP

    If you want to stop these senseless murders, the answer is not banning guns. What we need to do is make the penalty for using guns in a crime so onerous that people will be discouraged from doing so. I propose that anyone guilty of committing a crime using a gun be sentenced to mandatory life in prison. If someone dies as a result of a gun being used in the commission of a crime then the perp will receive a mandatory death sentence. Removing all guns (as if that were possible) to stop mass killing makes about as much sense as removing the penis from all males in order to prevent rape.

    • Josh

      Criminals typically don’t care, or even know, what the penalties are, so it doesn’t dissuade them. We had mandatory life sentences for dealing drugs, but it didn’t dissuade people from doing so. A lot of Judges, law enforcement, and even many of the politicians who advocated for mandatory minimum sentences will tell you they don’t work.

  • RealitySucks

    I quote: “There is no other preventable public health crisis that is treated with the same degree of ignorance and misinformation.”

    Really ?? What about smoking ??

    Smoking kills more people, and costs more to society financially, than guns ever have. We know for a fact that if cigarettes were outlawed children would not have easy access to them. The problem would literally disappear in a single generation.

    According to the CDC, 480,000 people in the USA die each year from cigarette smoking – 1,300 people every day, more in one month than a whole year of gun-related deaths.

    According to the CDC, 42,000 people in the USA die each year from second hand smoke – more than all deaths from firearms in the same year.

    If you are really concerned about saving lives Ms. Hardin, why not start working on something that is easily identified, easily removed and provides immediate benefits ??

  • TM-Gun Owner

    People, the media and politicians are playing off your sympathy and fears! You are too smart to allow this to happen!

    Emily, I have a simple question for you to answer. What gun law(s) would have prevented the Oregon Community College shootings? The two news reporter’s deaths? Sandy Hook elementary?

    The phrase being thrown about is “common sense laws!” Ok! What “common sense laws” would have prevented those mass shootings?

    Simple answer… NONE!

    You throw around numbers for your convenience, how about this number… the FBI reports that hammers and clubs kill more people each year (around 600+!) In a single year, that’s more than the combined number of mass shooting deaths over the past years!

    Why are you not SCREAMING for bans on hammers and clubs? It’s unfathomable to think we are not debating the enactment of “common sense laws” on hammers and clubs. These are just as real deaths! Oh wait! It’s because those kinds of deaths do not get media attention! Well! Why don’t they? That puts us back to my initial statement now doesn’t it!

    Please don’t get me wrong. I grieve for those deaths en mass as much as I do for a single death! I wish they wouldn’t happen.

    Putting more laws in place against gun ownership is, what’s the old phrase, barking up the wrong tree!

    • We have done that and look at the result. More guns mean more gun deaths, look at numbers. And you wish more?

      • TM-Gun Owner

        More laws doesn’t mean less deaths! And you wish for more?

  • Spencer60000

    Any time I see ‘gun deaths’ or ‘gun homicides’, I know I’m being lied to.

    The simple fact of the matter is that if you look at ‘deaths’ and ‘homicides’, without specifically looking at those involving guns, the US fits right into the middle of the pack for developed countries.

    In fact countries like the Canada and the UK have violent crime rate higher than the US, almost 4 times higher for the UK.

    The author also seems to forget that according to the US Dept of Justice, between 800,000 and 1.2 million people a year use a firearm to stop a criminal attack.

    The problem is NOT guns.

    The psychos who attack schools and churches do so because of gun control laws that make these ‘gun free zones’ into safe work areas for mass-killers.

    When you remove law abiding people from an area, you make it MORE dangerous, not less.

    The answer isn’t to pass laws restricting guns, but to recind laws that do so.

    • “The simple fact of the matter is that if you look at ‘deaths’ and ‘homicides’, without specifically looking at those involving guns, the US fits right into the middle of the pack for developed countries.

      In fact countries like the Canada and the UK have violent crime rate higher than the US, almost 4 times higher for the UK.”



      For the last six decades, homicide has been much more common in the US than in other developed countries.

      The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently published a book called “How Was Life?”, in which researchers assembled historical statistics on a number of measures of economic and human development and quality of life going back as far as 1820. One of the areas the book includes is personal safety, and one of the metrics used to determine safety is homicide rates.

      The book includes a chart showing homicide rates since 1950 in the US, the UK, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, and Australia:

      US vs Europe Homicide Rates (U.S. shown much higher)

      LAW & ORDER
      The US Has Had The Western World’s Worst Rate Of Homicide For At Least 60 Years

      Andy Kiersz
      Nov. 12, 2014, 10:34 AM 4,809 8
      For the last six decades, homicide has been much more common in the US than in other developed countries.

      The US rate was vastly higher than the other Western countries throughout the last sixty years. The book’s authors note that the period from the mid-1960s through the mid-1990s showed elevated homicide rates in a number of developed countries, but the chart illustrates that that jump was most severe in the US.”

      And I don’t believe over 1 million Americans thwarted crime with use of their guns. Where is that stat from? The U.S. Dept. of Justice? Where on that site?

  • Gerald Finnegan

    This is an excellent essay. The Second Amendment denied the Government the power to outlaw guns, for the simple reason that arms were a necessity for any militia called to defend Freedom from a government grown tyrannical. It’s purpose was not to provide means whereby citizens would engage in astronomical levels of killing of each other, themselves or hated groups of other citizens. Yet personal arms are no longer an effective deterrent against the power of modern government and have morphed into common use as destroyers of private life.

    Calling on the Second Amendment to nullify the most minor attempts at regulation for the safety of the public is insanity. No one can pretend the present status we have here was the intent of any nation’s Founders, unless they were homicides.

    But unless the vast majority of Americans having little present vested interest in guns screams “ENOUGH!” nothing will happen. And what should happen is a Constitutional Amendment denying the continuing use of the Second as a supplier of masses of personal arms. It should be declared null and only replaced by another which denies ownership and use of personal guns to those who can prove absolute necessity, for example, to present members of the National Guard or Police Agencies, local, State and Federal.

    Tough medicine but an historic need intended to be filled by personal arms when they were equivalent to a government’s arms and a deterrent against its illegal actions is no longer relevant and instead the excuse for absurd levels of weapons citizens use against each other. Of what use is the paper that allows this?

  • Rob

    Of course *gun* deaths are about guns, because you’ve intentionally limited the discussion to guns. But overall *homicide* rates are not about guns. When we look at violent deaths overall, without artificially limiting ourselves to just *gun* deaths, it turns out that all the rhetoric of the anti-gun crowd falls apart.

    For example, while gun homicides in Australia have decreased, their overall homicide rate actually went up by 26% over the 5-year period following the passage of their 1996 gun law. And in the UK, where they passed an even stricter gun law in 1997, their homicide rate went up 100% over the next 5 years, and took 12 years to fall to pre-gun-law levels. During that same period, not one single other developed Western nation, including the US, experienced any increase at all in overall homicide rates. The US, in fact, which was in the most rapid part of our states passing liberal concealed carry laws, experienced a 30% decline in overall homicide rates.

    Even research by Australia’s own law enforcement agencies has failed to find any evidence that their gun laws have reduced violent crime, homicide, or even has anything to do with the reduction I’m mass shootings. As the head of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research said himself, “They may have reduced the risk of mass shootings but we cannot be sure because no one has done the rigorous statistical work required to verify this possibility. It is always unpleasant to acknowledge facts that are inconsistent with your own point of view. But I thought that was what distinguished science from popular prejudice.” And when the statistical work was done 4 years later, it failed to find any evidence that the gun law had any effect. As they noted, New Zealand, which had virtually identical rates of mass shooting deaths before 1996 has also not had a single one since, although it passed no additional gun law. And the UK, which passed a far stricter gun law than Australia’s, has continued to experience mass shooting deaths.

    As for US states, yes, those with stricter gun laws have fewer *gun* deaths, but they have significantly higher overall homicide rates. The ten states that the Brady campaign lists as having the ‘best’ (in their view) gun laws in 2013 had a 20% higher homicide rate than the ten states that they rated ‘worst’. Of their ‘best’ ten, only two are among the 1/3 of states with the lowest homicide rates, while six of their ‘worst’ states are in that group. And while only one of their ‘worst’ states are among the ten with the highest homicide rates, three of their ‘best’ states are in that group.

    If we look at cities, as Obama suggested, no one rates them for gun control, but if we look at one area that is often cited by anti-gun lobbyists, We can look at the cities in the Washington, DC area, which differ dramatically in both gun laws and homicide rates. DC, with the strictest gun laws in the nation, has a homicide rate of 19/100,000, and Baltimore, with comparable gun laws, has a rate of 37/100,000. Meanwhile, Virginia Beach, the largest city in the state that DC blames for its gun problems because of their lax gun laws, only has a homicide rate of 4/100,000, and Dover, the largest city in Delaware (which also has loser gun laws) is only 2.4/100,000.

    As for mass shootings and gun laws, the New York Times just published a list of the ways in which the mass shooters over the last several years all got their guns. Except for the shooter at Sandy Hook, who stole his, every single one bought their guns through a federally licensed dealer, and passed a background check, some in states with extremely strict gun control laws, such as New York. So strict gun laws have failed to stop such killers from getting guns, even when they’ve had to go through those laws in places where they exist. And even Australia’s laws haven’t actually stopped potential mass killers from getting guns. The 15 year old boy who attacked a police station there hours after the Oregon shooting was able to get a semiautomatic handgun, and the only reason we’re not reading about a mass shooting is because he targeted the police station, where two armed individuals were abel to engage him almost immediately, limiting him to just one killing. Had he attacked the preschool which was next door, where many of the police employees send their children, it would have been a bloodbath. Australia’s laws didn’t stop him from getting a gun, and the only thing that kept the body count from being as bad as any such incident in the US was the immediate presence of other people with guns.

    So, yes, if we artificially rig the discussion to only those incidents involving guns, and if we ignore the vast majority of the data, which doesn’t support the anti-gun agenda, then it ‘has everything to do with guns’. But if we look at overall homicide rates and look at all the data, rather than just picking a few data points that are far from representative, then we see that gun control has never reduced any form of violent crime, least of all homicide, anywhere that it has been tried, and when any change in such violence has occurred in a way that correlates with the passage of such laws, it has been for these crimes to increase, not decrease.

    • That is strictly not true. Look for example at the quote and url from which it comes above.

      That 9 or 10 people recently killed by gun in the college out West, would have been killed without a gun is silly. The killer would have what, stabbed to death all 10 without being taken down? hit all 10 with a club and killed them all and never been interfered with? that 30 kids and 5 adults would have been killed without a gun and just left the time to do it in Conn. by cops with guns and all in the school without them?
      And that 3500 a year or 490,000 Americans since 2001 would have been killed without the use of guns? Do you seriously believe that? Will you use any argument to deny guns are a contamination in this country?

      • AND, the “Opinion” posted here does not rig any discussion, it discusses death by gun and it sticks to that topic throughout.

        Guns are about THE most dangerous things produced in this society and THE least of dangerous items to be regulated by people who wish a lowering of lethal danger for themselves, their loved ones and their neighbors. Instead, the lack of regulation and permission to buy anything and do anything wished with guns and the death of innocents is treated by Rightwing Gunners as the sole aim of civilization. And if anyone objects the screech of “TAKING AWAY MY FREEDOM!” echoes through the streets.

        • Rob

          “the lack of regulation and permission to buy anything and do anything wished with guns and the death of innocents”

          This is complete BS rhetoric that has no connection to reality. Guns are by far the most highly regulated consumer products in the US. And the idea that you can “do anything wished with guns” is idiotic. There are over 20,000 laws in the US regulating what you can do with a gun, and the violation of the vast majority of them is a felony.

          As for being a danger to you and your family, according to the US Department of Justice, up to 80% of criminal gun homicides are related to gang activity. Unless you are a gangbanger involved in criminal activity, the chance of you dying by a criminal shooting is lower than choking to death on your food. The chance of you dying by a gun accident is several times less than that. Basically, if you are an average middle-class American, the only way you are ever likely to be shot is if you try to commit suicide with a gun.

      • Rob

        An invalid point. By always limiting the discussion only to incidents that involve guns, and then claiming that guns are the only issue, is dishonest. The fact is that death by criminal violence is the real issue, and the data show that in every single instance, stricter gun control either causes no change at all in such deaths, or, far more often, increases them. The fact that one particular group of people may or may not have died (you don’t know this, because, as the increased number of mass killings in Australia that do not involve guns shows, there are other means by which large numbers of random people may be killed) doesn’t change the fact that by far the most common effect of gun control is more innocent deaths, to fewer.

      • Rob

        Yes, I believe that the *number* would have been the same, or, more likely, even higher, because that is what has happened in every instance when restricting guns has been tried anywhere else in the world. Whether those *specific* 3500 people would have died is irrelevant to anyone who didn’t know them personally and actually cares about saving lives rather than simply pushing a failed political agenda.

  • rbtl

    Other than the womb, one of the most dangerous places to be in America is a gun-free zone. How many mass shootings could have been stopped, and lives saved, if someone other than the shooter had a gun and knew how to use it.

  • Claire Sierra

    Wow, Em, major hornets nest here. Keep you eye on the prize. this is a hot button issue and haters love to hate. I’m thrilled you’re willing to speak your truth (well informed and stated) and let the rest roll off you like water on a ducks back. while its true that this is a violence issue, the means is guns. So at the basic level that has to be addressed. Other countries have done it quite successfully. Here we are so afraid. Why is no one asking why young (usually white)men are so angry and disengaged that shooting college or grade school kids seems like a good day? If they were brown it would be terrorist activity and then all kinds of initiative would take place.

  • George

    If the government can put you in jail for not buying health insurance, there is a reason to be fearful. BTW, if you refuse to buy health insurance and refuse to pay the fine, you can go to jail.

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