Year after year, nearly 100,000 Americans are shot or killed in gun-related incidents. That is the equivalent of a war – one waged in US communities and homes on a daily basis.
But we only take notice of the grim toll inflicted by widespread and largely unregulated gun ownership when the violence is sufficiently spectacular to attract major media coverage. So when 20 young children and six adults are murdered in a shooting spree in a grade school in a quiet Connecticut community, as well as the gunman killing himself and his mother, the entire nation is appalled by such random and massive violence.
However, on a typical day in the United States, 33 people are murdered by guns, and another 50 die in gun-related suicides.
And there are three specific groups of people who are the most common victims of gun violence: the wives and girlfriends of men who own guns, young inner-city African-American men, and people who suffer from clinical depression – though random mass shootings remind us that others, too, are vulnerable.
It is a sad commentary that the spectacular series of shootings in classrooms, malls, and theaters – rather than the more widely destructive everyday incidents – could be the galvanizing force that finally moves America to sensible gun regulation. But regulate America must.
As a nation, the US has failed to do anything meaningful to stop this senseless bloodshed. The public has been hoodwinked by an ideological campaign based on misleading arguments, and politicians have been cowed by the gun lobby. But as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg rightly commented after the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, the power of the National Rifle Association is “vastly overrated.”
For decades the gun lobby has loudly proclaimed that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to gun ownership. Only recently has the Supreme Court actually endorsed this interpretation, and the court held only that the federal and local governments cannot impose absolute bans on gun ownership, emphatically emphasizing that the Constitution does not prohibit strict regulation of gun ownership.
Regulation of guns is in fact almost entirely a political issue, for which a wide range of politicians has dodged responsibility by hiding behind a largely fictional cover of constitutionality that supposedly disallowed regulation.
Another common argument is that hunting and sport shooting is a sacred “way of life” for gun owners. But isn’t “hobby” a more accurate term?
My own preferred hobby is driving my Volvo 850 at 140 miles per hour. Law-abiding and responsible gun owners protest that their legal enjoyment of guns should not be constrained by restrictive gun legislation. I am a responsible and law-abiding driver and the speed limits on America’s highways deprive me of the pleasure of high velocity auto travel, which I can enjoy on the Autostrada when I visit Italy but not when I am on US Interstate 95. Yet I respect the right of my fellow citizens to impose a speed limit in the interests of public safety.
One other oft-heard argument in support of unrestricted gun ownership is that gun owners can stand against internal tyranny or external military threat. The idea that random Americans wielding personal firearms – or even a group or groups of armed Americans – might constitute a viable military force may work for Hollywood, but not in reality.
But even a recent historical example – Slovenia’s 1991 fight for independence from Yugoslavia – was entirely based on the mobilization of local Slovenian police and the country’s national guard in order to succeed. The better way to guarantee and participate in political liberty or national security in the US is through civic participation or military service.
The need to better restrict access to guns is urgent. Millions of Americans suffer from depression or have serious problems with controlling anger – a vast pool of people who potentially pose a risk of harm to themselves or to others that is needlessly exacerbated by the easy availability of guns.
And tens of thousands of Americans are seriously mentally ill, and categorically should not be allowed to own firearms. Yet we tolerate such seriously ineffective barriers to gun purchasing that even deeply troubled people can walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a Smith & Wesson. Background checks and data entries must be much more thorough.
Violent crime in America has been declining since the early 1990s. Still, it is far greater in the US than in other industrialized countries. This criminal violence is needlessly amplified by a thriving illegal black market in guns that is facilitated by lax regulation of gun sales. In effect, states such as Virginia that permit promiscuous, multiple gun purchases are exporting murder and mayhem into cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York.
Legislators in such states must now respond to the facts, as reported by a study underwritten by 300 US mayors. The 2008 study found that states with lax gun laws had more sales of weapons used in crimes in other states than did states with more strict regulations (the lax states also had higher rates of handgun killings and of fatal shootings of police officers).
A rational analysis of the immense social costs of unregulated gun ownership shows they far exceed the benefits gun ownership confers. Arguing otherwise is to say a weekend hobby of hunting or target practice is more important than the lives of 20 schoolchildren or tens of thousands of other Americans. Or that profits from selling handguns by the dozen are more important than the rights of millions of inner-city residents to live in relative security.
Gun violence in America is a national plague that we urgently need to eradicate. Let Newtown be the new day for gun regulation, beginning with a return to outlawing assault weapons, the very kind that shooter Adam Lanza used to such devastating effect.
Mark Nuckols is a professor of law and business at Moscow State University Higher School of Business and at the Russian Academy of National Economy. He grew up in rural Virginia.