The time is now

Saturday December 22, 2012

Between Dec. 14, when 20 children and seven adults were murdered in Newtown, Conn., and Dec. 20, about 500 Americans were killed by guns, 50 of whom were children and teens.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since 1979, 116,385 people under the age of 18 have died of gunshot wounds. That’s nearly 75 dead children every week for the past 30 years.

On average, more than 30,000 Americans are killed each year by guns -- victims of homicide (about 12,000), suicide (about 19,000) or accidents (about 500).

"This is a country riddled with multiple gun tragedies," said Robert Sampson, a Harvard University sociologist. "There is the sudden and concentrated tragedy of Newtown, but there is also this ongoing, steady slow drip of tragedies in so many communities that don’t share the spotlight. America’s gun violence problem, as I see it, is a problem of both steady violence and mass shootings."

Even though the number of American households where guns are present has decreased over the years, the numbers of firearms in the U.S. has increased to more than 300 million.

That number continues to increase -- sales skyrocketed after President Obama was reelected and then spiked again the days after the Newtown shootings. According to gun sales records, an alarming number of the weapons sold have been high-caliber firearms.

The nature of the Newtown shootings has inflamed passions on both sides of the gun control debate and left many in the middle feeling helpless. Meanwhile, the debate about how best to control gun violence has heated up, and rightly so. We just regret that the national discussion has taken so long to reach a critical mass.

Since the shootings, gun rights advocates have been on the defensive, but have resorted to the platitudes that have served them well in the past.

One favorite is: "An armed society is a polite society."

According to that logic, wrote Firmin DeBrabander for the New York Times, "If we allow ever more people to be armed, at any time, in any place, this will provide a powerful deterrent to potential criminals. Or if more citizens were armed -- like principals and teachers in the classroom -- they could halt senseless shootings ahead of time, or at least early on, and save society a lot of heartache and bloodshed."

DeBrabander doesn’t actually believe that. He was paraphrasing a comment made by N.R.A. president Wayne LaPierre prior to the Newtown shooting.

On Friday morning, LaPierre reiterated the N.R.A.’s position.

"I call on Congress, today, to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation, he said. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex., said on "Fox News Sunday," of slain principal Dawn Hochsprung: "I wish to God she had had an M-4 in her office, locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands, but she takes him out, takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids."

To which we ask: Are we are willing to spend billions of dollars to militarize our schools while cutting funding for Head Start, pre-school and after-school programs, child care, family services, recreation, and mental-health services?

Tom Mauser, who lost a son in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg he doesn’t believe in the militarization of our society.

"We know that if the country adopts this vision that everyone should be armed -- that administrators and janitors in school are armed, that people are walking around armed -- we won’t be safe," said Mauser. "In Aurora, if five people in that theater had guns, they could have just ended up shooting each other or innocent people in the crossfire. It just makes sense that if people are walking around armed, you’re going to have a high rate of people shooting each other."

Washington’s mayor, Vincent Gray, said: "If you have a gun on you, that’s just another opportunity to use it. It’s the temptation of the moment. I just think the opportunity is there to create more violence."

"If you’ve got people walking around in a bad mood -- or in a divorce, they’ve lost their job -- and they get into a confrontation, this could result in the use of a gun," John Gilchrist, the legislative counsel for the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police, told Goldberg.

You need only look at the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona in 2009. In that case, there were at least two armed civilians in the crowd, but they didn’t pull their weapons because of the panic at the scene.

But gun rights advocates have their own set of facts to bolster their belief that more guns means more safety.

Jeremy D. Blanks, a frequent poster on Keep and Bear Arms, contends crime rates in states with fewer restrictions on gun ownership have dropped in the last 20 years.

"Those states that have enacted concealed carry measures have seen their crime rates immediately fall and continue to do so at rates in most cases faster than the national average," he wrote.

One of the best examples is Florida, noted Blanks.

"Prior to their enactment of concealed-carry laws in the late 1980s, the crime rate in Florida was higher than the national average. However, following the enactment of the concealed-carry law their crime immediately began to drop and has continued to do so today. Additionally, the U.S. state with the lowest crime rate, Vermont, also happens to be the state with the fewest gun control laws and they allow all law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons."

Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA, found that permit holders in the U.S.commit crimes at a rate lower than that of the general population.

"We don’t see much bloodshed from concealed-carry permit holders, because they are law-abiding people," Winkler told The Atlantic’s Goldberg. "That’s not to say that permit holders don’t commit crimes, but they do so at a lower rate than the general population. People who seek to obtain permits are likely to be people who respect the law."

Goldberg has an even more visceral reason for arguing for more concealed-carry permits.

He recalls Dec. 7, 1993, when a man killed six people, and wounded 19 others, on the Long Island Rail Road

"Had I been on the train, I would much rather have been armed than unarmed," wrote Goldberg, who said he believes we need tighter gun controls. "I was not, and am not, under the illusion that a handgun would have necessarily provided a definitive solution to the problem ... But my instinct was that if someone is shooting at you, it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray."

Information and emotions from both sides of the divide is confusing, admitted Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, one of the dissenters in the 5-to-4 decision that overturned Washington, D.C.,’s restrictive gun control law.

"The upshot is a set of studies and counterstudies that, at most, could leave a judge uncertain about the proper policy conclusion."

And gun rights advocates have expressed concerns that attempts to ban all guns in the United States is a slippery slope to the American version of Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.

That’s just fear-inducing hyperbole.

Does anyone really believe the government will mobilize our military to conduct a door-to-door search to get all guns off the streets?

But gun-control advocates also need to realize that the horse is out of the barn. Guns are in our society and they are not going anywhere.

Despite all the rhetoric that has been hurled by both sides, we welcome this long-past-due discussion about what we can do to regulate guns and keep them out of the hands of those who would commit crimes or do harm to our loved ones.

There are common sense measures that should be enacted with the minimal amount of fuss.

They include limiting gun purchases in a way that curbs gun trafficking, perhaps by requiring all gun buyers to have a national identification number that is automatically flagged when a certain threshold of purchases has occurred.

We should also restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines and prohibit the sales of weapons and ammunition over the Internet.

There should be universal background checks for gun buyers, even private sales such as at gun shows. Right now, background checks are a hodgepodge that differ from state to state.

Serial numbers should be designed to be impossible to be removed from guns, thus helping to keep them out of the hands of criminals.

Mental-health professionals could be encouraged -- or mandated -- to report patients they suspect shouldn’t own guns to the FBI-supervised National Instant Criminal Background Check System. (To that end, we need to put more emphasis on giving people the help they need before they feel compelled to do something this horrible. And that means ending the stigmatism of mental health issues so more people will seek out help.)

We also need longer sentences for people who possess weapons illegally or who use or brandish weapons in the commission of a crime.

And military-style semi-automatic weapons should no longer be sold to citizens who are not part of a "well-regulated militia."

Because we have not yet instituted rational gun control measures, we, in effect, have decided our unregulated access to firearms and the right to possess unlicensed guns far outweighs the lives of our children.

"American schoolchildren are protected by building codes that govern stairways and windows," wrote the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof. "School buses must meet safety standards, and the bus drivers have to pass tests. Cafeteria food is regulated for safety. The only things we seem lax about are the things most likely to kill."

The Reformer thinks the time is now to enact legislation that protects the most vulnerable of our citizens while also protecting the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

It can be done, and it should be done.


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