By Brian L. Grant MD
Many of us were in a sad mood on December 14, the day of the Connecticut shootings. But further reflection lead me to the unfortunate conclusion that beyond the fact that the carnage in one spot was mainly children and the number in this single incident was high, this was a typical day in America.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we had 31,347 (10.2 per 100,000) deaths by firearm in the U.S. in 2009. That is an average of 86 per day. Of these about 64% are actually suicide, and a small number are accidental.
In the same year, motor vehicle accidents took the lives of 34,485 (11.2 per 100,000 or about 94 per day). Only a few more than were killed with guns. Cars serve a vital purpose and there is unfortunately collateral damage when they collide. Guns are for killing.
Related statistics from Wikipedia describe firearm deaths across many countries in the world.
Our rate per population of gun deaths in the U.S. is roughly 40 times that of the UK and twice that of Canada. Both countries, along with much of Europe, have significant limits on guns. We can’t identify who might engage in slaughter ahead of time without locking up all of us. What we can do is make those predisposed to harm others less lethal by making it a lot tougher to get a gun and limit the types of guns available. This might include limiting access to military and police only on guns capable of shooting many shots rapidly.
As a non-expert on the technical aspects of firearms, I would defer details to those better informed regarding guns and ammunition that ought not be in civilian hands. No hunter or person protecting their home will be meaningfully limited in their purpose by such restrictions. But it might change our landscape regarding gun violence.
We have attempted in this blog to address irrational behavior in a number of areas including the obesity epidemic and our dysfunctional health care system. The recent tragedy may have the positive outcome of shocking society and political leaders into a careful review of the status quo, based upon data and not rhetoric, and hopefully without “shooting” the messengers, as is the habit by those who don’t like what they see or hear.
In the aftermath of the shooting, outspoken gun opponents such as Mayor Bloomberg of New York are being attacked for their opinions, at least as much as their opinions are being challenged.
The political force represented by gun proponents, embodied by the National Rifle Association (NRA), is formidable. Politicians are scared of being on their bad side. Perhaps now more than a few of us, including politicians, will finally say enough and make rational decisions based upon careful analysis. This should include reviewing laws and gun cultures of other countries where freedom seems to coexist with safety and more restrictive gun laws. How many might have the courage to publicly take on the extreme positions of the NRA? Could their political dominance come to an end? Can caring and decent gun owners take it upon themselves to move beyond rhetoric to consider that change may be in order?
It is truly hoped that responsible gun owners will separate themselves from the extremists who see limits on guns at virtually any level as impingement on their freedom and our nation’s values.
One person’s freedom is another person’s burden, or even death, when an innocent is shot with a gun that should not have been available. Competing interests deserve to be heard. We should not be proud of our national record of gun deaths.
For every person who defends themself with firearms reasonably, how many have abused their power and taken a life that could have been preserved? How many murders are the result of open and basically unrestricted commerce in guns? How many suicides would have not taken place if limits were in place? How many people would be served in a positive way by a change, including lives saved?
Indeed, how many actual additional deaths of innocent victims of criminals with guns, as claimed by proponents, would take place? Do international comparisons have relevance, or are we Americans so special and unique that we have nothing to learn from countries like Australia, France, Canada, and Chile, among others? Should we instead emulate Brazil and El Salvador? Even the Mexican drug cartels get their weapons to commit mayhem from north of the border.
We require cars to have all sorts of safety features that have reduced mortality. We license drivers and cars. We have police watching our driving and enforcing driving laws daily. What reasonable limits on access and types of guns and ammunition would balance safety with ownership?
Our constitution has been amended many times including establishing the right to bear arms, allow women to vote, and abolish slavery. What would our founding fathers say about modern weaponry including semi-automatic rifles and their place in the hands of ordinary citizens? Can the constitution stand as it is with respect to guns while allowing meaningful laws to be imposed? The constitution is silent on types of weapons and the government should be allowed to regulate as they already do, and are hired by us to do.
Let me briefly put to rest the concept that we can prevent many firearm deaths by better mental health assessment. The majority of mentally ill are not violent and unless one chooses to define violence as mental illness, the majority of those who shoot others are not mentally ill. The proximate cause of gun deaths are bullets and guns, not mental illness. Other countries with their share of troubled people and criminals have fewer deaths because violence is enacted in less lethal ways, such as with knives or fists.
We had a sad day. Let us hope that we will honor the memory of all victims of violence in the U.S. with meaningful change consistent with both our respect for liberty and for human life.