October 4, 2015

HARDIN | This Has Everything to Do With Guns

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By EMILY HARDIN

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.