Sunday, June 16, 2013

Gun violence: It's a health crisis. Treat it that way.

This has been a tough post to write.  Not because there is nothing to say, but because there is so much to say, it's been difficult to keep it down to a readable length.  However, since there have been more than 5000 gun deaths since the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and nothing has been done...

In the wake of December's mass shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there were a number of ideas floated to stem the epidemic of gun violence sweeping the country - reinstituting the assault weapons ban, closing the gun show loophole in background check laws, and banning ammunition magazines/ammo clips that are larger than a certain size, among many others - all of which have been strenuously opposed by the gun industry's lobbying group, the NRA, and most of which won't become law.

Witness Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and 44 of his colleagues banding together to block a proposal to close the "gun show loophole" in the federal law requiring background checks for firearms purchases.

Even though 90% of Americans, across all demographics - Ds, Rs, gun owners, liberals, conservatives, whatever - supported the common-sense move, 45% of US Senators were cravenly swayed by the NRA's campaign contributions.

In addition, in states where the NRA's tools hold sway over the political structure, they've actually passed laws to put more guns on the streets of America.

Witness Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signing HB2455 into law.

HB2455 requires municipalities and counties, with a few very specific exceptions, to sell any firearms that come into their possession.  The bill is targeted at gun "buyback" programs, where gun owners turn in weapons, usually for a small financial compensation, and then the local or county police agencies have the weapons destroyed.

This offended the tender sensibilities of the gun industry, their lobbyists in the NRA, and their lackeys in the Arizona so much that they passed a law to override the wishes of gun owners and to usurp local control.

The proposals that have been offered up in an effort to reduce the number of gun deaths will help, but all have the same underlying flaw that would ultimately limit their effectiveness, if any of them are ever enacted -

None of them seek to address the underlying causes of the epidemic of gun violence that's sweeping the country - a societal affinity for using violence as the first, not last, resort for resolution of conflict.

Nor do they address the "guns as toys" mentality that suffuses the gun subculture in America.

While easy access to firearms is a significant contributing factor in the torrent of violence, a bigger factor may be the attitude that firearms are toys that can be used or handled in any way without the user bearing any responsibility for the results of their handling or use of the firearms.

That can, and should be, addressed in a way that doesn't infringe on anyone's "rights".

Even if the gun fetishists (who, it should be noted, are not part of the group of *responsible* gun owners, who make up the majority of gun owners) don't like it, and they sure as hell won't.

Perhaps the people who are leading the efforts to reduce the number of gun deaths should take a page from the way that a previous behavioral health crisis was address.

That previous crisis?  Drunk driving.

In the early 1980s, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started tracking the numbers, more than 21,000 people per year died as a result of alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents.

By 2011, that number had dropped to a little less than 10,000.

Why did that happen?

In large part due to a concerted effort, started in the early 1980s, to reduce both drinking and driving and the social acceptability of drinking and driving.

That effort included raising the legal drinking age (at the time, most states set that age at 18) to 21, changing the culture of enforcement (bars that served people until they were so intoxicated that they could no longer drive safely would lose their license and be subject to lawsuits, and police officers who let drunk drivers go with a warning would be held financially liable when one of those drivers would later get into an accident after being released) and increasing the penalties for those convicted of driving while under the influence (license suspensions became almost mandatory, as did jail sentences and hefty fines.  And that was even in cases where there were no injuries or property damage).

In short, the problem was addressed by addressing irresponsible behavior.

Drinking alcoholic beverages wasn't outlawed (they tried that with Prohibition.  It didn't work.  In fact, it failed miserably.).

Driving a motor vehicle wasn't outlawed (good luck with that one, not that anyone I know of is crazy enough to even suggest that, much less try to implement it).

Drinking and driving, on the other hand, while already against the law, was no longer winked at.  Because of the death toll that they inflict upon society, drunk drivers are now treated like the danger to society that they are.

To be sure, deaths due to intoxicated drivers haven't been reduced to zero, and won't be, but a huge dent has been made in the problem.

A similar approach may be the most effective way to address the epidemic of gun violence in the United States.

Completely banning guns, and no one with any credibility is pushing that as a solution, wouldn't "solve" the problem, any more than banning alcohol during Prohibition stopped all production and consumption of alcoholic beverages (or any more than the so-called "War on Drugs" has done anything to reduce the availability or use of narcotics, but that's a topic for another, very long, post).

However, there are a few approaches that can be taken that will address anti-social behavior without diminishing civil rights.  Though the gun industry, NRA, and gun fetishists will scream otherwise.

Offered, but not in any order of importance -

1. Roll back the legal shields created for gun manufacturers. If they start having to pay for their actions to make it easier for people who shouldn't be allowed near firearms to gain access to them, perhaps the industry will think twice about mass manufacture and mass marketing of handheld weapons of mass destruction such as the Bushmaster rifle and large capacity magazines.

2. Place as much emphasis on the *responsibility* that goes with possessing firearms as the NRA places on the "right" to possess them in the first place.  As with the example of drunk driving, intent to harm others wouldn't be relevant - everything from accidental discharge of a firearm with no harm to humans or property thru accidentally causing the death of another human should result in prison time.  Leaving a firearm in position, and condition, where it can be found and fired by children, should also result in prison time.  Incidents where such a firearm is actually fired would result in more prison time, and incidents where someone is actually harmed would result in even more prison time.

3. Quit messing around and expand background check requirements to cover all sales of firearms, not just those involving licensed dealers.

Some will argue that it is unfair to criminally and civilly punish people and businesses for accidents or for acts made in "good faith".

I would argue back that even if it is, it's less unfair than sacrificing the lives of thousands of innocent men, women, and children every year upon gun fetishists' (and profiteers') altar of fear of civil society.


Thane Eichenauer said...

"Nothing has been done" you say. You must have been writing posts when the news about increased gun regulation in Colorado and New York appeared.

"a societal affinity for using violence as the first, not last, resort for resolution of conflict."

I disagree. Nearly all people, including armed government agents (police and soldiers), take steps to resolve problems without using violence. Nearly all people, including gun owners, use violence as the the last step to address problems. If a person is mentally incompetent or just plain criminal minded they will use violence instead of other options.

As for "guns as toys" I think that 99.99% of NRA members would agree that people who treat guns as toys rather than as very serious tools capable of causing the death of a human being should either be trained to correct their attitude or discouraged from owning a gun in the first place.

I and many other gun owners and NRA members want to encourage responsibility and discourage irresponsible behavior. Find a law that can do that and you might just find an ally.

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