More Guns Do Not Make Us Safer – posted 1/25/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/4/2015
This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 2/4/2015 under the title “Culture of Fear”.
In the debate that recently allowed concealed carry in the New Hampshire House, there was one quote that grabbed my attention.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The Republican legislator who made that statement appeared to encapsulate the majority view. In this view, guns prevent violence and the more guns, the better. Safety would be all legislators, armed.
But I guess it is not just legislators. From all appearances, gun proponents think the world would be a safer place if everybody was armed, everywhere. This must be the dream of gun manufacturers. In this dream, if you do not have a gun, you are a sitting duck.
The crazy thing is we are not living in some 19th century Wild West. You would think civil society is a war zone like Syria. Why would legislators be expecting a shootout in the New Hampshire House in 2015? Are legislators that scared and insecure that they need a gun in their possession at all times?
Apparently they are.
We live in a culture of fear-mongering. There are many fears to catalogue. There is fear of terrorism, foreign and domestic. Then there are mass shootings at colleges, schools, movie theaters, religious sites, and malls. There are serial killers, drug lords, gangs, and just common criminals. The list is long.
We have a 24/7 media spin cycle that thrives on sensationalism. Shootings, especially mass shootings, grab large audiences so they are featured by many cable outlets. Politics are secondary. Whether it is Fox News or MSNBC, they all cover it for the ratings.
I would submit that fear-mongering has damaged our collective lives. All the sensationalist coverage has led us to expect Charlie Hebdo-type episodes. Even in sleepy, backroads New Hampshire, we are not immune. The local history of no such carnage does not seem to reassure.
I think this is sad because the New Hampshire reality is so much more about neighbors helping neighbors as we move through our daily lives. That has certainly been my experience living in Wilmot for the last 25 years. We actually depend on each other to get through.
All the fear from TV promotes paranoia, wariness of others, and a more Hobbesian view of the world. I am afraid there is something of a crossover where mass media infects real life expectations. Some people respond by stockpiling weapons, turning their homes into bunkers, and expecting the worst as an imminent event.
So now seems like a good time to address the view that more guns make us safer. That view is both false and dangerous. Whatever security all the guns have brought is outweighed by so many needless and senseless deaths they have caused. Gun proponents have a blind spot about the harm.
The United States is awash in guns. It now has by far the largest number of privately owned firearms in the developed world. I have seen the number estimated at between 200 to 300 million guns.
Every year there are more than 30,000 firearm deaths in the United States. That works out to over 85 a day. And that does not even get to the many hundreds of daily nonfatal injuries. While the United States is not more violent than other high income, industrialized nations, it has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country.
How can we not see this is a public health emergency? Just as we dealt with tuberculosis, tobacco, and auto safety, we need to see gun violence as equivalent to an epidemic. The lethality of guns so often has death as an end result.
David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard and the author of Private Guns Public Health has persuasively argued a harm reduction strategy. He says that scientific evidence shows a substantial number of murders, suicides, and unintentional firearm fatalities can be prevented with reasonable gun policies. Public health is not about banning guns – it is about creating policies that prevent violence and injuries.
Unfortunately, the gun lobby has been successful in framing the debate as only a matter of the right to own and bear arms. They have tried to narrow options: either citizens have the right to keep their guns or not. Other concerns are extraneous. That is a disservice because the public health approach asks how we reduce gun violence accepting that the millions of guns are already out there.
Just browsing the news over the last couple weeks, there was the Idaho story about the two year old who accidentally shot and killed his mother, a nuclear scientist, in Walmart. The mother kept a loaded handgun in her purse. When she was not paying attention, her two year old reached in and grabbed the gun with tragic results.
Then there was the nine year old in Arizona who accidentally shot and killed her instructor at a gun range. The child was firing an Uzi submachine gun while the instructor stood by her side. She was apparently unable to control the gun’s recoil.
I mention these stories simply because they are typical. Stories like this seem to get reported everyday. Reaction seems to be utterly muted.
Human beings make an infinite number of mistakes. It is not because they are good or bad. Legislators who fantasize self-defense gun use are kidding themselves. They have watched too many cop shows on TV. They are more likely to shoot themselves or each other than any criminal or terrorist. What might go wrong usually does go wrong.
Professor Hemenway says that one of his goals is to help create a society in which it is harder to make fatal blunders. He says that fairly small tweaks in design and engineering could save countless lives. I would also mention that suicides make up a huge percentage of gun fatalities. They are typically impulsive acts made easier by ready access to firearms. It is wrong-headed to assume all these deaths are inevitable.
To those who say more guns will make us safer, I say we have already tried that and the results are too apparent. We need to figure other ways to cut the death toll. It is not pro-gun or anti-gun to say that.