It’s been a while since I blogged. I was sick for a bit, then the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut happened. After something so devastatingly monumental I couldn’t see how I could possibly feel like being funny or even muster the energy to rant about anything. Nothing was as important as that devastating moment, and I didn’t feel like I could put any of the feelings I felt about the situation into words that didn’t feel like I was taking advantage of the incident as a blogger. It was more important to remain silent than throw something together to draw clicks to my blog. What I do know, is someplace along the way we screwed up and became this culture where we kill each other and in instances of the Sandy Hook tragedy it becomes this giant spectacle where we can’t even come to a consensus on who’s to blame or how to go about reforming society, laws, gun laws, healthcare, or if anything even needs to be reformed.
A week and a half after the shooting at Sandy Hook (about 10 minutes from where I live, in Webster, NY, a suburb of Rochester) on Christmas Eve, an ex con who served 17 years during the 80’s & 90’s for bludgeoning his grandmother to death with a hammer (who had since been released from jail) set his home on fire and shot upon unsuspecting firefighters who responded to the call. Two men were killed, two others shot, another civilian injured. The man who did this killed himself and left a note saying that he wanted to burn the neighborhood down and do what he liked to do best, which was killing people. This bizarre setup is almost unimaginable, yet it’s real.
And here we are again, faced with the aftermath of a sicko who just wanted to kill people, and do so by shooting them with guns. This thought is frightening.
The topic of gun control has swirled around and around. It goes back and forth between the pundits on TV, across the dinner table over holiday ham on Christmas, journalists and bloggers and various media outlets and so many more post snap reactions and opinions in 140 character sound bites throughout social media.
I’ve gone back and forth and sat on top of the fence of opinion. I’ve echoed many pundit’s call for a ban on high-powered assault weapons and ask for stricter screening processes when purchasing guns, but I think all those measures are misguided attempts at trying to chisel away something that will only barely scratch a much larger surface.
To understand the real problem we need to look at statistics. Oh there’s been plenty of statistics thrown around about the large number of gun murders we have in this country. Most of us have seen graphs depicting over 10,000 gun homicides annually lined up beside a much smaller number of gun deaths in other countries. And it’s not just because we own more guns in this country, but it’s the fact that we’re a nation of people killing other people. And statistics show, we’re not just killing people, we’re killing specific groups of people, but I’ll talk more about that later.
Switzerland, for one, has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the world, with somewhere between 1.2 to 3 million guns in the private residences of its 8 million citizens. In 2006 there were only 34 recorded murders or attempted murders in their country with a firearm. As of 2009, the United States has a population of 307 million people and based on production data from firearm manufacturers, there are roughly 300 million firearms owned by civilians in the United States as of 2010. Of these, about 100 million are handguns.
The thing is, America is a unique country. There is a myriad of reasons why we own guns and shoot things and kill people, and kill ourselves. America is a rich country full of the most advanced technological advances in the world, just as we all want the latest model iPhones even though the older versions are perfectly capable of getting the job done, we love our advanced gadgets that make life easy and fun. Function and pleasure. In 2009, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 66.9% of all homicides in the United States were perpetrated using a firearm. There were also 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during 2000. Just over half of all gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, with 17,352 (55.6%) of the total 31,224 firearm-related deaths in 2007, and 12,632 (40.5%) were homicide deaths. Some suicides, as we know, are committed after the perpetrator has committed one or more murders. Guns are an advanced and easy way to meet the end goal: shooting stuff, killing people, scaring people, hunting animals and sport. We love our guns like we love our bacon, and heart disease kills around 599,413 Americans every year. More than 50 times the amount of yearly homicides, and we’re not about to start regulating McDonald’s anytime soon either; you will literally be prying our Baconators and our Bushmasters alike from our cold dead hands.
Guns certainly aren’t a leading killer in this country, (such as heart disease and cancer), but the numbers are still pretty alarming, and of course it’s an issue worth magnifying and working on to try to cut those numbers way down. The act of killing people feels much more alarming than other bigger killers (like disease) because there’s a morality and taboo element tied to the act.
Looking again at real statistics, a vast majority of gun deaths and shootings happen in low-income urban areas among young adult males in minority populations, specifically high in the Hispanic and black community (with gun related injury and death rates triple in black males from ages 13-17 than any other group). Gun violence also very much revolves around crack cocaine. We tend to forget about this part of the gun death population. That is, right up until the time that we need to count their numbers to portray how deadly guns are. It’s also interesting that even though more urban inhabitants are being killed by firearms, a majority of gun ownership is not actually in urban cities. In 2004, More than half of those living in rural areas (56%) owned a gun, compared with 40% of suburbanites and 29% of those in urban areas. There is no correlation between gun usage and gun ownership (just as we saw in Switzerland) so maybe there is actually some truth to the line, which honestly I used to hate, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But let’s not get this twisted, people use guns to kill, but societal and community factors cause people to kill people.
Looking into what kinds of guns kill people: In 2005, 75% of the 10,100 homicides committed using firearms in the United States were committed using handguns, compared to 4% with rifles, 5% with shotguns, and the rest with unspecified firearms. As much as it feels like mass shootings are a leading problem, it’s very minuscule compared to all the gun related deaths and injuries put together. This isn’t because there aren’t many rifles floating around, in actuality way more rifles are owned in the US than handguns (only a 1/3 are handguns, as I stated above) but rifles just aren’t being used to commit a bulk of the crimes and murders. If you ask any police officer, it’s likely many of them have never even dealt with cases where high-powered assault rifles were used in crimes during their entire careers.
So if “assault weapon” shootings are rare and only a small fraction of the problem, and handgun deaths are more prevalent in urban areas, then why are we barking up the wrong tree when it comes to outcry? I can easily guess a few reasons:
- Popular heart-wrenching stories get unequal airtime in the news.
- It “hits home.”
- It’s scary to think people who have essentially “no reason” to be shot can be targeted just because one person decides to go on a rampage.
- There’s a perceived fear that this could happen anywhere even though it happens quite rarely.
- We picture what could happen with assault rifles due to their ability.
- The people in power care more about violence when it happens in suburbia because the victims look just like them and their children; it’s their own backyard and they are in the place of having a public speaking platform, much more so than uneducated people from inner cities that see a large majority of violence in their backyards, but have no real “voice” in politics and making policy changes.
- When gun violence steps into suburbia there’s an unequal outrage because that’s not where it’s supposed to happen, right?!
- Large numbers of people think criminals and gang members deserve the violence that happens to them and that it’s simply a logical part of the culture.
There’s no doubt, what happened in Newton, CT and earlier in the year in Aurora, Co. at the movie theater shooting were horrific crimes. Each time, one person choose to kill a very large group of people. To “go up in a blaze of glory” as they say, on their way out. I can hardly wrap my head around these incidents. It’s terrifying. I admit, even though my feelings of fear were statistically irrational, I had a hard time sending my kindergartener and second grader to school the following Monday after the CT school shooting. The feeling of: this could happen to my kids, or that any number of scary things can happen to my children out of my control. It’s that perceived fear that bad things could happen to us since it happened to unsuspecting victims just like us. This is just like after 9/11 when so many people were afraid to fly, when in actuality it’s much more likely to be killed in a car accident while driving. Life is fragile and life is unpredictable. But it’s not always as risky as we think it is in some places that we tend to focus on, based on what’s covered in the news. News stories are often more atypical, and that’s precisely why it’s on the news. Everyday risks are often too commonplace to bother reporting, or just don’t garner the attention of a media that’s driven and motivated by click counts to their stories. This is part of the reason we focus on banning weapons like assault rifles that are by the numbers not as deadly.
Just a few days ago, a girl my age that I went to high school with died in a car accident during a snow storm. The same snowstorm that I drove in. Something that could have happened to any one of us. Something that kills 48,500 Americans every year. Life is full of scary risks and bad things; there are bad people who just feel like causing harm, that you may just happen to get caught in the crosshairs of, and there’s nothing you can do to know when it could happen or to prevent that. Just like you can never predict a car accident, just like a lot of things.
There are many risks in life that we can avoid, and oftentimes the best way to fight against those risks is to get to the root of the problem and make changes. To combat obesity and heart disease and diabetes (leading killers) we eat a healthy diet. We take preventive measures like get a flu shot along with giving our children a whole list of standard vaccinations. We wear seat belts and lock our doors at night. If we live in an area that earthquakes happen more often, we may anchor our bookshelves down or buy bottled water and batteries before a hurricane arrives. To reduce birth defects and miscarriages, it is wise to not smoke and take drugs during pregnancy, among other wise preventive measures. There are of course exceptions to the rule, and even those who make the best choices still get disease and die, but on a large-scale, these types of measures do work.
If we want to cut down on gun deaths we should look at the areas where the most deaths occur and implement preventive measures. We need more community based programs similar to those that have already been in place in select areas and have been proven as the most effective thing in cutting down on shootings and gun deaths. Programs like Ceasefire Chicago, Operation Ceasefire in Boston, and Project Exile in Richmond, VA have proven to have been very successful. The basis of these programs is to change behaviors of the area including drug and gang activity before the violence occurs with an intervention strategy. When Ceasefire Chicago was implemented in 2000, the area saw a 67% decrease in shootings in just the first year. In Boston the number shooting deaths in youths went from 73 for the year, down to only 10 the next year, when the program was introduced in 1996. That was just one area. There are many areas that have similar issues that could stand to use similar programs.
Compared to these social programs, other programs such as gun buy back initiatives have been proven as a largely unsuccessful way at getting guns off the street. Many of the guns traded in are either non working, damaged, or by people who would’ve been unlikely to commit crimes anyway, not to mention the sheer cost of these programs are enormous.
Another “solution” that the NRA would lead us to believe as a successful way to stop criminals would be to arm ourselves to the hilt for defensive protection. There are millions of guns in circulation already, and this has really not thus far actually thwarted a large number of violent acts and crimes from happening. Guns as self-defense are only actually used to prevent about .2% of crimes while in 2004 36.5% of Americans reported having guns in their homes. If guns were an effective form of self-defense, then you would think those numbers would correlate with each other. According to studies, they do not. In the NRA’s speech post Sandy Hook, they suggested that we arm teachers in all schools with firearms to protect our children, our most precious cargo, in similar ways that we protect other important people such as the President of our country. It sounds like a smart and convincing idea on the surface, and even though we’ve just had a really scary incident where defenseless children were shot, we really don’t have many people in this country that just want to kill kids. This is really quite rare. Most young children that are killed (in 2008 there were 1,484) a majority are done so by someone they already know, and in cases of children under 5 years of age it is typically by their own parents. Only about 3% of young children are murdered by strangers. Instead, people with a criminal record are much more likely to die as homicide victims. Between 1990 and 1994, 75% of all homicide victims age 21 and younger in the city of Boston had a prior criminal record. The President of the United States is in a unique position that garners much opposition with built-in job risks that requires protection. Again, I will reiterate, defenseless children are not typical targets of random shootings, though as we know, not completely out of the realm of possibility. Another factor in the idea of arming teachers or amping up security in schools is a very real problem of a lack of funding. The school district where my kids attend in the city of Rochester for example, it was recently announced that there is a $50 million budget deficit for this upcoming year. We are already in dire straits here. Only about 5% of our graduating seniors leave the 12th grade as being college ready. I just don’t see where the money will come from to purchase firearms, train teachers in firearm safety, plus implement all the changes it would entail to make something like this happen for a “problem” that is very rare, while taking money from an already negative budget and very real problems like illiteracy, high dropout rates and a lack of educational supplies and extra programs, and the fact that only about 30% of Hispanic males actually graduate from school at all in our district. Similar statistics exist for black males and Hispanics all over the country (See info above on who is the most likely to be involved in gun violence to put two and two together). The money to put guns in schools just isn’t there, nor would I even feel comfortable sending my child into a place where there is an arsenal of guns, where guns were not ever typically allowed. Teachers have enough to deal with, without being responsible of keeping track of guns and stopping criminals. Real threats of violence in schools include bullying and fighting and sexual harassment, very few incidents actually involve firearms at all. That being said, I am not opposed to security guards in schools, but their primary job would be to protect students and teachers from other problem children.
Back to the idea of banning or regulating assault rifles: we did have a ten-year ban on the manufacture of assault weapons that expired in 2004 and has failed to be renewed. The ban was successful to a point, but it was a flawed idea because it applied to manufacturers only and not weapons that were already in circulation in civilian hands. This means it was legal to own or resell the millions of weapons and ammunition that was already on the street. It also had loopholes that are easily bypassed by weapons manufacturers. Assault rifles are specified as such by the weapon having certain qualifying attributes. It’s easy to tweak a gun to fall just under the classification of being an assault weapon by leaving off a certain feature, but still essentially being the same gun. For example: Certain models of AR-15s and AK-47s were banned. Any semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip and a bayonet mount was an “assault weapon.” But a semiautomatic rifle with just a pistol grip might have been legal. The tight specifications of weapons banned made it easy to work around the system. The gun used at the Aurora movie theater shooting for example would have been illegal by the former assault weapons ban, but there are a handful of guns that are very similar and would produce the same results than the one that was used. It also would have been exempt if it was already owned prior to the ban or a resell. Bushmaster, the popular assault rifle manufacturer that made the gun that was used in the CT school shooting, profited over $30 million just last year alone. There’s a whole lot of interest in working around the loopholes and producing these guns. And it’s not like you can place a general ban on all automatic weapons, because that’s pretty much every gun out there, and there’s still this tricky thing called the US constitution. It is true that our forefathers wrote this document when guns were very much different from the ones used now, but when you start messing with the constitution that opens up a whole other can of worms, like how easily should we make it for people who don’t agree with laws to start changing certain inalienable rights. And as crazy as some may think it is for civilians to need guns to protect themselves, it certainly is also against reason to think that they should only be allowed rudimentary technology to do so, especially when their opposition (real or imaginary) has full technology available.
Many critics of gun regulation argue that criminals won’t follow the laws that we put in place anyway. This may be true (a majority of gun crimes involve illegally obtained guns) but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t regulate guns per sey. We still need laws in place to help guide values, control behaviors and prosecute those who do not comply. But if we want to control actual gun activity, laws alone have proven to be an unsuccessful deterrent in numbers of injury and deaths. We need to thwart criminals before they decide to become criminals, this is best done by changing behaviors. Like I mentioned above, done with inner city anti gang and drug initiatives.
Many religious people suggest that these types of things happen because we no longer have religion in public schools. I for one was largely offended by the inference that people don’t have the ability to be good without God in their lives. Basically saying that because I am not raising my children in a religious upbringing that they are more likely to commit crimes. That being said, I understand the sentiment and there are a number of community based programs that can cut crime and alter behaviors. Things like the Ceasefire programs, at risk intervention programs, rec centers, education (both in schools and in the streets), medical and healthcare assistance, and yes teaching kindness, even through religion.
There are a number of factors that cause people to kill. In the CT case, it was a mix of the perpetrator’s mental illness, him being raised in a home where guns were prevalent and obviously accessible. Obsessive video gaming was also noted. We don’t know exactly how his mother raised him or how his home life was, but there appears to have been some issues. I’m not sure what could have stopped him from killing such a large group? In the case where the man killed the firefighters in Webster there were a series of things that have contributed to the situation and failed. His mental health has been called into question, the fact that he had killed once and been released back into society, the fact that he has been able to get his hands on and keep guns in his possession. There are layers of reasons why these types of things happen. Society based programs would not have prevented either of those incidents, but many of these types of incidents where people just want to kill for sport occurs (largely in males) in these recluse types, usually being some sort of mental health issue. If I had to gander (hindsight is always 20/20) I’d say that in most cases there were warning signs along the way. Some people may just never be able to be reached, but I think there’s gotta be improvements made with the way we deal with mental health and the fact that in schools we almost pretend as if disabilities and mental issues don’t exist. We throw kids in with the general population and expect them to assimilate as if nothing is different. In either of the cases, gun purchase laws wouldn’t have helped. In CT, the gunman stole the guns from his mother before killing her, in Webster, the gunman was supplied the guns by a neighbor/ friend. Guns seem to have a way of landing into the hands of those who want them, and unfortunately Pandora’s box has already been open so to speak with the manufacture of already enough guns to supply every madman with a handful. Eliminating the already available arsenal of assault weapons and firearms would be an unrealistic, costly beyond belief endeavor, that would probably prove to be widely unsuccessful with little effect on our nation. It would be much more possible and cost-effective to work with what we’ve become as a society and chip away at the real bulk of the problem.