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Will Connecticut Massacre Give Politicians the Guts to Take on the Gun Lobby?

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It's happened again: a lone gunman has carried out a massacre, this time in an elementary school in Newtown, CT. A young man killed 18 children and eight adults, reportedly including his mother, a teacher at the school, before taking his own life.

And so once again I'm dragging out my plea for gun control, just as I did last summer, after James Holmes shot 12 people to death in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and in January 2011, after Jared Laughner killed six people and wounded 14 others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona.

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.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg floats this argument in this month's The Atlantic. "Guns are with us, whether we like it or not," Goldberg writes, so maybe good guys should arm themselves so they can take out the bad guys. After quoting a gun-control advocate asking whether we want to live in a country in which "the answer to violence is more violence," Goldberg responds that "in a nation of nearly 300 million guns, his question is irrelevant."

I reject this defeatism. I blame our recurrent mass shootings not only on 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 Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Here are some facts from the Brady Campaign: 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.

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.”

President Barack Obama said in a brief, emotional appearance today: "We’ve endured too many of these tragedies in these past few years." Indeed. So what are he and other politicians going to do about it?

Postscript: I just posted more thoughts on the Connecticut massacre: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/2012/12/16/question-for-gun-rights-fanatics-have-you-no-sense-of-decency/

Photo: Newtown Bee.

 

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

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