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How Many Massacres Will It Take for Politicians to Stand Up to Gun Nuts?

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Here are basic facts about the massacre that took place in Aurora, Colorado, early yesterday morning. A 24-year-old man, James Holmes, opened fire in a movie theater with an AR-15 assault rifle and other weapons that he had purchased legally. He killed 12 people and wounded 58 before being captured by police.

The killing spree has triggered the usual polarized reactions. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, according to The New York Times, "Maybe it’s time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it, because this is obviously a problem across the country."

And here, again according to The Times, is the familiar counter-reaction, from Luke O’Dell of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners: "Potentially, if there had been a law-abiding citizen who had been able to carry in the theater, it’s possible the death toll would have been less."

Because I don't know what else to do, I'm going to reprint an edited version of a piece I wrote in January, 2011, after Jared Loughner killed six people and wounded 14 others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona. But I don't harbor any illusions that what I or anyone else says will make any difference:

Every time a deranged American male goes on a rampage, shooting down dozens of people, gun lovers trot out the familiar excuses: Guns don’t kill people, people do. If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns. If some of the victims had been packing heat, they could have shot the bad guy before he shot them.

Yes, that’s what we need, more guns.

I blame these massacres on not only despicable pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association—which feed off and fuel Americans’ childish obsession with firearms—but also on the cowardice of politicians. In 2008 the NRA warned that Barack Obama would be the most anti-gun president ever.

Actually, Obama, although he supported gun controls when he was an Illinois state senator, switched his stance during his presidential campaign. "I believe in the Second Amendment," he said. "I believe in people’s lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won’t take your handgun away."

He was true to his word: "Fears aside, gun rights thrive under Obama," The Washington Independent reported in July, 2010. President Obama signed a law permitting people to carry guns into National Parks. He did not protest when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states and local governments could not overrule citizens’ federal right to bear arms or when legislators in Louisiana and Arizona passed laws allowing people to carry weapons into churches and bars, respectively. After a year in office, Obama received an "F" rating from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Here are some facts from the Brady Center: About 100,000 Americans are wounded or killed by firearms each year in the U.S.—which has the highest levels of gun ownership in the world—and more than a million Americans have been shot to death since 1968. Although gun supporters tout the benefits of self-defense, a gun is 22 times more likely to be used in a suicide attempt; criminal assault or homicide; or unintentional shooting death or injury than for self-defense. Higher household gun ownership correlates with higher rates of homicide, suicide and unintentional shootings.

The American fetish for guns hurts non-Americans, too. The U.S. is the world’s leading source for small arms—defined as weapons that can be carried and operated by a single person—as it is for larger, more expensive weapons, such as tanks and jet fighters. Small arms, which range from pistols and rifles to rocket-launched grenades and shoulder-fired missiles, are the biggest killers in wars around the world. The International Action Network on Small Arms estimates that more than 600 million are in circulation.

The Action Network lobbies for tighter national and international controls on the manufacture and trade of small arms; urges a system of marking all firearms (perhaps with embedded computer chips, to allow easy tracking by law-enforcement officials); and promotes programs for collecting and destroying small arms. But the NRA has successfully blocked international as well as domestic gun control.

(Fun facts: By far the most lethal small arm in history is the AK-47, according to the technology historian Edward Tenner. The "A" stands for automatic; the "K" for Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian Army soldier who invented the gun; the "47" for 1947, the year of the gun’s invention. The firearm’s popularity stems from its lightness, reliability and the ease with which it can be repaired and manufactured. Lt. Gen. Kalashnikov, whose invention killed thousands of Americans in Vietnam and elsewhere, is a lifetime member of the NRA.)

Mexican drug thugs, who have killed more than 30,000 people in recent years, rely on guns from the U.S. "Drug cartels have aggressively turned to the U.S. because Mexico severely restricts gun ownership," the Washington Post reported in December, 2010. U.S. attempts to crack down on American dealers of arms to Mexico, the Post noted, are thwarted by "laws backed by the gun lobby that make it difficult to prove cases."

The gun lobby consists of people like Robby, whom I met in 2009 while flying to Salt Lake City to attend a conference (on the evolution of aggression, of all things). Robby (not his real name) was a chatty fellow with a bad-boy chuckle: Heh heh.

I asked him what he did for a living and he replied, with a sly grin, "Recreational equipment." His wife insisted he give strangers this answer, because she worried that liberal pansies would get upset if Robby told them that he sold firearms. Heh heh. Robby had sold all sorts of guns to all sorts of people, including Italian and Russian mobsters. In fact, in a few days he was flying to Arizona to peddle his wares at a big gun show.

Robby had a conspiratorial view of illegal aliens. Young Latino men, he claimed, were joining the U.S. armed forces in huge numbers so they could get training for gang fights and possibly race wars. War was going to break out between Latinos and whites in the U.S. Southwest; it was only a matter of time. There has always been war, Robby chortled, and there always will be. And he will be there to supply the weapons! Heh heh.

Obama had been great for Robby’s business; as soon as it looked like Obama might become president, folks started stockpiling guns, because they figured Obama would favor stricter gun controls. When I said I believed in gun control, Robby replied that he did, too: Hold onto your gun with two hands; that’s gun control. Heh heh.

Shutting down gun dealers like Robby may not have prevented the massacres in Arizona and Colorado, but it would be a step toward a saner world.

Photo of gun show in Houston courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Addendum: In 2011, after I originally posted the above arguments for gun control, and got some heated blowback, I had second thoughts, and expressed them in a followup piece, "A modest proposal for curbing homicides: Socialism," http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2011/01/24/a-modest-proposal-for-curbing-homicides-socialism/.

Addendum 2: The writer Dan Baum defends gun rights in Harper's online, http://www.harpers.org/archive/2012/07/hbc-90008724. I disagree with him--I mean, does he really think people should be able to buy assault rifles and 100-bullet cartridges, as the Colorado shooter did, and that banning these things won't make us safer?--but his post is worth reading to get a sense of what a smart, reasonable gun-rights guy thinks.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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