Gun Control in America

Excerpts from an article in the December, 2012 Atlantic Magazine by Jeffrey Goldberg titled THE CASE FOR MORE GUNS (AND GUN CONTROL) with additional comments by myself.

About 40% of all legal gun sales in the US take place through gun shows, on the internet, or through more informal sales between private sellers and buyers, where buyers are not subject to federal background checks. After the Columbine killings in 1999, people were disgusted that Harris and Klibold, neither of whom were the legal age to buy firearms, had found a way to acquire guns. An 18 year old woman and friend of the two shooters, bought 3 weapons legally at a gun show, where federal background checks were not required. After Columbine, Colorado closed its “gun show loophole”, but efforts to close the loophole on the federal level failed. The National Rifle Association and other anti-gun-control groups worked diligently to defend the loophole. Though anti-loophole legislation passed the US Senate, it was defeated in the House of Representatives. On top of that the 1994 ban on sales of certain types of semiautomatic weapons, known as the assault-weapons ban, expired in 2004 and was not reauthorized. Background checks, which are conducted by liscensed gun shops, have stopped almost 1 million people from buying guns at these stores since 1998. No one knows how many of these people gave up their search for a gun, and how many simply went to a gun show or found another way to acquire a weapon.
Other measures could be taken as well. Drum-style magazines, which can hold up to 100 rounds of ammunition, and which make continuous firing easy, have no reasonable civilian purpose, and their sale could be restricted without violating the Second Amendment rights of inidividual gun owners.

47% of American adults keep at least one gun at home or on their property, and many of these gun owners are absolutists opposed to any government regulation of firearms. According to the same Gallop Poll, only 26% of Americans support a ban on handguns. To that 26%, American gun culture seems inexplicable. Guns are responsible for roughly 30,000 deaths a year in America, more than half of those deaths are suicides. In 2010, 606 people, 62 of them children younger than 15, died in accidental shootings. It is important to distinguish among types of gun violence. The vast majority are not committed during mass shootings; the most common is during arguments, followed in frequency by robberies and juvenile gun violence. The reported number of people treated for gunshot attacks from 2001 to 2011 has actually grown by nearly half. What’s changed is that doctors and first responders have gotten better at treating gunshot wounds, so fewer people die from these injuries. The fact is, Americans will be safer from gun attacks when there are fewer guns. Gun deaths are on track to exceed traffic deaths by 2015. 62% of gun fatalities every day are suicides. The large surplus of guns makes us not more likely to commit crimes, or even to prevent them, it makes us most likely to kill ourselves.

It is hard to believe that the number of gun deaths fails to shock. Is the American attachment to guns due to ignorance? immaturity? Americans don’t like it when the government tells them what to do. They don’t trust government to do what’s right. They believe that guns made America free and are an important part of American culture and heritage. They are very attracted to the idea of a nation of individuals, and don’t think about what’s good for the collective. They don’t understand that having guns around puts them in more danger. The primary justification for obtaining a firearm for self defense is that there are so many guns out there already. It is a self fulfilling promise. And it is misleading. Canada, with far fewer guns per capita, and where most guns must be registered with the federal government, has a firearm homocide rate one-sixth that of the US.

However, these gun control efforts, while noble, would probably have only a modest impact on the rate of gun violence in America. Because it’s too late. There are an estimated 280-300 million guns in private hands in America – many legally owned, many not. Each year, more than 4 milliion new guns enter the market. This level of gun saturation has occurred not only because the anit-gun lobby has been consistently outflanked by its adversaries in the National Rifle Association, but because so many Americans agree with its basic message. The Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment gives citizens the individual right to own firearms. Even if it suddenly reversed itself, there would be no practical way for a democratic country to locate and seize those guns. The leading advocacy group for stricter gun laws, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has given up the struggle to convince the courts, and the public, that the Constitution grants only members of a militia the right to bear arms. They believe that reopening that debate is not what they should be doing. A lot of decent, law-abiding people believe in gun ownership.

When even anti-gun activists believe that the debate over private gun ownership is closed; when it is too late to reduce the number of guns in private hands; when only the naive think that legislation will prevent more than a modest number of the criminally minded, and the mentally deranged, from acquiring a gun in a country absolutely inundated with weapons – it has been suggested that an effective way to combat guns is with more guns! Today, more than 8 million vetted and trained law-abiding citizens possess state issued “concealed carry” handgun permits, which permit them to carry a concealed handgun or other weapon in public. Rather than representing a serious threat to public order, would allowing more law abiding private citizens to carry concealed weapons – when combined with other forms of stringent gun regulation – actually reduce gun violence? If someone is shooting at you, it is generally better to shoot back than to cower and pray. Almost all multiple shootings end when the gunman stops to reload, or pulls the gun on himself. Occasionally former or off-duty police officers, or even ordinary armed civilians have ended shootings.

There are many potential problems that present themselves. In a dark, confined space like a theater, getting a good shot could be difficult. There is a chance of shooting an innocent bystander instead of the target. Simply having a gun on you encourages the temptation of the moment with the opportunity to create more violence. An armed population could create chaos in the streets, and accidents will become much more common. More guns beget more gun violence. People use guns in the heat of the moment during arguments. Someone in a bad mood, after a fight with a girlfriend, or after they just lost their job for example, could use a gun during a simple confrontation. Most stories after conceal-carry laws have been enacted are anecdotal. Few studies have looked at the issue and opposition to gun ownership is ideological, not rational. There is no proof that conceal-carry permit holders create more violence than would otherwise occur. They may, in fact reduce it. Permit holders actually commit crimes at a lower rate than that of the general population because they are generally law abiding people with respect for the law. In fact, now, with the highest ever conceal-carry rate, the homicide rate is the lowest it’s been in 40 years. This is despite residents of Vermont, Wyoming, Arizona, Alaska, and parts of Montana do not need government permission to carry personal firearms and are not counted in the 8 million known permit holders (in these states, the Second Amendment is their permit).

There may even be a link between an increasingly armed public and a decreasing crime rate. Ever since the early 90’s, the crime rate in the US has been decreasing. There are many factors involved. More effective law enforcement may be a factor. Concealed-carry may be linked. Longer sentencing can deter criminality by making it riskier for people to commit crimes. If the criminal population has the impression that the law abiding citizen they want to target has a gun, that would increase the risk of committing a crime. This may be born out by the fact that in America, only 13% of home burglaries occur when the occupant is home (as opposed to 45% in Britain where guns are much scarcer). Burglars are more afraid of armed home owners than they are of arrest by the police. However, cities like Los Angeles, with very restrictive gun control laws, have seen the same remarkable drop in crime. Waning crack wars may be a factor. In “Freakonomics”, Steven Leavitt shows conclusively that legal abortion, introduced in 1973 with the landmark law, Roe vs Wade, has resulted in 1 million fewer unwanted children per year, and thus, twenty years later, much less crime. The crime rate dropped three years earlier in the five states that introduced legal abortion three years earlier in 1970. To my mind, this makes the most sense for the unparalleled reduced crime rate that began in the early 90’s and continues today.

Universities, more than any other institution in the US, are unified in their prohibition of licensed conceal-carry weapons. They also aknowledge that they are unable to protect their students from lethal attack. It seems illogical for campuses to advertise themselves as “gun-free”. Despite this, campuses remain one of the safest places in the US.

A balanced approach to gun control in the United States requires that both sides agree on several contentious issues. Stringent universal background checks would keep more guns out of the hands of criminals and the dangerous mentally unstable. Requiring background checks on buyers at gun shows would not represent a threat to the Second Amendment rights embodied in the constitution. Closing the gun show loophole would be both extremely effective and a politically moderate and achievable goal. Conceal-carry permits should be granted only to people who pass rigorous criminal checks, as well as thorough training and safety courses, possibly similar to what police recruits undergo. Limiting magazine size to ten only makes sense as there is no need for anything larger. Assault weapons likewise don’t have any use to normal citizens. Gun control legislation is not the only answer to gun violence. Responsible gun ownership is also an answer. Guns, in themselves, do not possess moral characteristics. Isn’t it a question about what kind of society Americans want to live in? Do we want to live in one in which the answer to violence is more violence, where the answer to guns is more guns? Do we want our hospital workers, our librarians, our babysitters, our teachers, and our Little League coaches all armed? What is the message that such a society sends to itself and its children? If we are to rely on the “more guns make us safer” principle, logically we’d have to carry guns all the time, everywhere, because you never know. There is very little real world evidence of “good guys” or ordinary citizens who happen to be armed, taking out shooters in the way a more guns hypothesis suggests. How many average citizens, if armed, would be sufficiently clear minded and quick thinking to respond to a armed attacker? However in a nation with nearly 300 million guns, these questions may be irrelevant.

History of recent laws and the Gun Lobby
The Dec. 14, 2012 shootings in Newtown, Conn., which resulted in 28 deaths, including that of the gunman, Adam Lanza, once again turned the spotlight on the debate over gun ownership in the U.S. It has been a political hot potato for years, and one that Congress has dealt with gingerly — too gingerly, in the view of groups favoring tighter regulation of firearms.
The last major piece of gun control legislation to make it into the U.S. Code was the assault weapons ban, which passed in 1994 as part of a larger crime bill passed by Congress and signed by then-President Bill Clinton. The ban applied to the manufacture of 19 specific models of semi-automatic firearms and to other guns with assault-weapons features. But the ban expired in 2004, and repeated attempts to renew it have failed.
Some Democrats believed their support for the assault weapons ban cost them control of Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections. Whether that’s true or not, there’s little question that the politics of gun ownership have swung to the right. Republicans largely oppose gun control, and Democrats are split, with some lawmakers cautious about going against the views of more conservative constituencies, especially in rural districts. And in 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in, striking down Washington, D.C.’s blanket ban on handgun ownership in a case known as District of Columbia v. Heller. The ruling established that the Second Amendment to the Constitution — “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” — means that individuals, and not just the police and military, may own guns.
The ruling was a narrow one, though, applying only to a person’s right to keep a gun at home for self- defense; it doesn’t mean that guns can’t be regulated in any number of ways. Still, despite various, highly publicized murders and mass shootings — such as the one in 2007 at Virginia Tech, in which 33 people were killed, the American Civic Association killings in 2009 in Binghamton, N.Y., that took 14 lives, or the 2011 shooting that severely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six — no gun control measures have made it through the House and Senate in recent years.

The Money
If lawmakers seem to tiptoe around gun issues, it’s at least in part because the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups are loaded for bear. Cash is their ammunition, and they have no shortage of it. Gun rights groups have given more than $30 million in individual, PAC and soft money contributions to federal candidates and party committees since 1989, with nearly $27 million — or 87% — of it going to Republicans. And in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, they let loose another $41.2 million (at least) in outside spending, almost all of which has put Democrats in their crosshairs. The NRA has provided the lion’s share of the funds, having contributed more than $21 million since ’89 and further opening its coffers to make $25 million in outside expenditures.

Gun control groups, by comparison, have been barely a blip on the radar screen. They’ve given a total of just under $2 million since 1989, of which 94 percent has gone to Democrats. In the 2012 election cycle, they gave only $5,000.

Several new groups on the scene could alter the balance a bit. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg started a pro-gun control super PAC, Independence USA PAC, in 2012; it spent more than $8.3 million in several congressional races that year, with mixed results. Former Rep. Giffords started a super PAC in January, 2013, to counter the NRA’s influence; it set a fundraising goal of $16 million to $20 million to spend in the 2014 House and Senate elections. And another anti-NRA PAC launched in February, calling itself Americans for the Protection of Children.

The dominance of gun rights groups when it comes to lobbying Congress and other federal agencies is even greater than it is in the realm of campaign finance. From 1998 through 2012, the gun rights lobby spent $75 million making its case in Washington; in 2012 alone, it spent $5.6 million. The NRA accounted for more than half of the 2012 number, or $2.9 million, but over the years other groups — such as Gun Owners of America and the National Shooting Sports Foundation — have also made significant lobbying expenditures. And gun control groups? They spent just $240,000 lobbying in 2012.

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I would like to think of myself as a full time traveler. I have been retired since 2006 and in that time have traveled every winter for four to seven months. The months that I am "home", are often also spent on the road, hiking or kayaking. I hope to present a website that describes my travel along with my hiking and sea kayaking experiences.
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