Propelled by the tragic shootings in Newtown, the rancorous gun control debate is spitting fire out of both barrels once again.
Not since the Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that gun ownership is an individual right has gun control taken center stage. Back then, the Court ruled you do not have to be in a militia to own a gun even though the Second Amendment specifically uses the word militia. Some even believe that gun ownership is a civil right under the 14th amendment…just like freedom of speech and religion. The big notch in the gun control timeline before that was in 2004 when Congress and President George W. Bush allowed the 10-year-old assault weapons ban to lapse.
So 31 school shootings since Columbine, here we are again debating the tighter regulation of gun ownership. Gun control advocates are enjoying some success at the state level, but as the searing images of Newtown fade in the nation’s collective consciousness, Congress is doing what comes naturally – nothing.
Before I make the case that gun control at the federal level is woefully inadequate, here’s a few statistics to keep in mind.
The FBI estimates there are 200 million privately owned guns. Throw in the military, cops and museums, the number rises to about 350 million or a firearm for every man, woman and child in the United States. Another estimate is that about 1 in 4 U.S. citizens owns firearms. The Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva estimates there are 270 million privately owned firearms in the U.S.
The difficulty in estimating a more definitive numbers is that all but four states – California, NY, Connecticut and New Jersey – do not require registering specific firearms. Yes, not even in gun-tough Massachusetts do individual guns have to be registered. Cars in Massachusetts do not only have to be registered: through the titling process, they have to show they were not stolen, too. As a result, Massachusetts has gone from the stolen car capital to enjoying one of the lowest rates of car theft. Might than not work for guns? Just a thought.
Still, Massachusetts has strict guns law compared to other states. The gun owner must register with the local police department and can apply for three types of permits, the most common of which is a Firearms Identification Card. A Class A permit allows the carrying of a concealed weapon. A Class B permit allows the carrying of a weapon except that they must be in a case and unloaded. Gun owners in Massachusetts are also required to take training, which varies according to the permit. Individual gun ownership in Massachusetts starts at age 15 with parental consent.
Under consideration at the federal level are a series of measures most of which are languishing as the horrors of Newtown fade (we know now that the cowards in the Senate voted down expanded background checks.). The most important measures are background checks for all gun sales; a renewed ban on assault weapons, limits of magazine sizes and funding better mental coverage for young people.
As of Friday, the only measure still breathing in Congress was background checks. Even 74% of the NRA members support background checks for all gun sales, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. That seems like a no-brainer and at this juncture has a chance of becoming law. And just about everyone is for keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally unstable…except the mental unstable, who repeatedly get their hands on firearms and commit mass murders.
In face of opposition, even Democrats at the federal seem to have given up on the assault weapons ban and limiting the size of ammunition magazines. So the sum total of gun ownership regulation at the federal level since Columbine has been affirmation of largely individual gun ownership and allowing assault weapons back into society.
While I firmly believe gun control is federal issue because guns travel across states lines, much is happening at the state level. Still reeling from the Aurora shootings last July, Colorado where gun rights are sacred is likely to adopt more intensive background checks and limits on magazine sizes.
Connecticut lawmakers just yesterday passed background checks on all gun sales and mandated the creation of registries for magazines with 10 or more rounds and one for dangerous weapon offenders. The new set of comprehensive laws also require certificates to purchase a rifle, shotgun or ammunition. To get a certificate, you have to be fingerprinted, undergo a nation criminal background check and go through training.
Indeed the number of state regulations is long, but NRA director Wayne LaPierre’s contention that there are 9,000 federal regulations and a total 20,000 different gun laws in the U.S. have been completely discredited. I mean this is the man who leads an organization that just robo-called traumatized Newtown parents about gun rights and advocated putting armed guards in the classroom.
State regulations in the absence of more uniform and stringent curbs on gun ownership at the federal level have helped curb gun violence. The JAMA’s Internal Medicine journal found that states with the toughest gun laws, logically enough, have the fewest gun deaths:
I quote from the Boston Globe: “JAMA found that fatality rates ranged from a high of 17.9 per 100,000 people in Louisiana — a state among those with the fewest gun laws — to a low of 2.9 per 100,000 in Hawaii, which ranks sixth for its number of gun restrictions. Massachusetts, which the researchers said has the most gun restrictions, had a gun fatality rate of 3.4 per 100,000.”
When I was growing up, it seemed the people who had guns were sportsmen and some high school friends who had BB guns and occasionally, a .22 rifle. Certainly criminals had them, but I was fortunate to grow up in Newburyport, which like most communities around here, had little gun violence.
Let’s review why private citizens own guns?
— They hunt and target shoot legally and secure their weapons: no problem there.
— They are collectors, own firearms legally and secure their weapons: no problem there.
— They want to commit mass murder: big problem.
— They’re criminals and use guns in their line of work: big problem there, too.
— Some say they own them for self-defense.
Perhaps that argument holds water in some very dangerous parts of the U.S., but certainly not around here. I drove a cab in most dangerous parts of Boston in the early and mid-70s and the thought of carrying a firearm never occurred to me or my fellow drivers. The one time I was robbed, I did what police recommended: I handed over the money at knife point and was unharmed.
So what about guns for self-defense? Certainly there are anecdotes where a gun was effectively used for that purpose, but the odds are against it in my estimation. A single woman friend of mine was telling me the other day that she just got a permit for a handgun. She wants it for self-defense so some she can fend off some creep who might wander into her bedroom one night.
For a few seconds, I thought it made sense, but in hindsight I wondered is she going sleep with it under her pillow? That’s life changing. Many police chiefs will tell you a hand gun for self-defense introduces more problems than it solves. It can be a prescription for disaster.
She’s about 50, grew up in West Roxbury and lives on the Cape. To my knowledge, she’s never been accosted. I guess we hear the rare story when someone successfully defended him of herself with a small arm, but those tales seem rare.
Granted, you can find statistics, studies, surveys and evidence on the web to buttress both sides of this highly-charged issue. You can find studies that say citizen-owned handguns deter crimes and offer peace of mind. You find ones that say they don’t. But one thing is certain: handguns are largely responsible for gun deaths: 6,009 in 2010 versus 358 committed with a rifle.
All those handgun deaths qualify the U.S. as number 11 in the world with gun fatalities – 10.2 people per 100,000 of population. Numbers 1-10, by the way are all poor, developing and unstable nations with the borderline exception of Brazil.
Breaking down the U.S. number, 3.2 are homicides, 6.3 are suicides and .2 are accidents. Clearly there’s a link between homicides and suicides and the sheer number of firearms circulating in our society.
The United Kingdom has one of lowest gun death rates in the world…. .25 deaths per 100,000 thanks to tough gun laws.
Handguns were outlawed in 1997, a year after the Dunblane school massacre. There’s little debate on the topic except some occasional carping from shooting clubs. With the exception of a relatively small number of illegally owned firearms, gun violence is virtually nonexistent in the UK.
Such compelling evidence that gun control works is ignored here. Many insist that gun rights are sacrosanct.
But I share the view of New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz recently tweeted “what about my right not get shot?” Or be threatened by firearm ownership….
So let’s look at the two provisions Congress does not seem to have the courage to pass: Renewing the ban on assault weapons and limiting size of ammunition magazines.
For the same reasons you are barred from parking an Abrams tank parked in your driveway, assault weapons should once again be banned. Loosely, an assault weapon be it a pistol, rifle or shotgun can fire off dozens of rounds in a matter of seconds. Some gun rights advocates say an assault rifle, for instance, is impossible to define, and as such should not be banned.
Here’s the wikipedia definition.
The term assault rifle is a translation of the German word Sturmgewehr (literally “storm rifle”, “storm” as in “military attack”). The name was coined by Adolf Hitler as a new name for the Maschinenpistole 43,[nb 1] subsequently known as the Sturmgewehr 44, the firearm generally considered the first assault rifle that served to popularize the concept and form the basis for today’s modern assault rifles.
The previous ban outlawed 19 models of semi-automatic pistols and rifles whose magazines allowed firing multiple rounds without reloading. This is called semi-automatic meaning a spent round is expelled and a new enters the firing chamber automatically. That means one round fired for every pull of the trigger.
Multiple rounds fired with one pull of the trigger or fully automatic is a machine gun and they, fortunately, have been strictly regulated since 1934.
When the last ban on assault weapons went into effect in 1994, 1.5 million assault weapons stayed in circulation. It was perfectly legal to use and resell them. The ban, which was full of loopholes, really just barred making new ones and. However whereas assault weapons had to possess two of about a dozen characteristics, the new Connecticut law narrows it to one. Connecticut is getting tough with guns although many of the Newtown parents say the recent legislation does not go far enough.
The other measure is to limit the size of magazine to, say, 10 rounds. The idea is that fewer rounds in the magazine, the lower the lethality of the weapon. But these measures would not make it through the House. Probably not the Senate either…this is not a strictly Democrat v. Republican issues.
The reality is that Congress can’t even agree on these stopgap measures. Is the U.S. that much different from the United Kingdom? How about having the testicles to do what British lawmakers did in 1997? Clearly, Dunblane made a bigger impression on the Brits than Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, rampant gang violence and countless other slaughters have on us.
That is truly a shame. The proliferation of guns feeds violence in our society.
Yes, we all come into this with a bias. You either like guns or you don’t. Maybe you fall in between. There are many law-abiding NRA members who desire for a common sense approach to gun laws because firearms in the wrong hands stigmatizes all gun ownership.
I have never been fascinated with firearms. I own my grandfather’s 30 odd 6 single bolt Army rifle from WWI. Many decades ago, he had the firing pin sheered off because his two grandchildren lived in the same home with him. Maybe, he learned about the horrors of gun violence in 1917-18 as an Army lieutenant in France. Milton occasionally hunted waterfowl, but fishing and hay baling were more his sport.
It’s hard to see how what President Obama proposed in January would affect gun owners unless they own assault rifles. That would depend on whether the law against them passed and if that law forced owners to turn them in – unlike the last ban.
If you sell a gun privately, you’d have to jump through a couple of hoops to make sure that person was law-abiding and didn’t have anything in their background that showed them to be insane. Something like selling a car.
To me the choice is simple: common sense gun laws or more school massacres: as imperfect as the decade long ban on assault weapons was, that period showed a decline in murders caused by weapons covered by the ban.
With the sheer number of guns in our society, stricter gun control won’t end gun violence. But they could put a serious dent in it.
Heaven forbid we become society when it’s a good guy with gun in every classroom. A gun can turn some good guys bad pretty quickly. Removing guns from many corners of our society means fewer gun deaths. That’s just common sense.
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