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Debating fire

If more guns equal safety, then the U.S. would be the safest place on earth ... and it's not



The gun-control debate has mostly revolved around interpretation of the Second Amendment. It would be more productive, instead, to focus on societal ramifications of the prevalence of guns.

The Violence Policy Center analyzed the data compiled by the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics for a five-year period (2007-2011). It revealed that average annual “defensive” gun use occurred 67,740 times. In 2009, this resulted in 13,636 homicides by private citizens supposedly in “self-defense.” However, law enforcement officials determined that merely 215 were justifiable; thus 98.4 percent of homicides were illegal murders. 

More Americans died from guns in the United States between 1968 and 2011 than in all wars fought by the U.S. There were 1.4 million firearm deaths during that time, compared with 1.2 million deaths from the War of Independence to Iraq.

According to Harvard Professor David Hemenway, American children are 14 times more likely to die from guns as children in other developed countries.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 31 percent of world’s mass shootings since 1966. University of Alabama criminologist Adam Lankford stated, “Perhaps no single factor sets the United States apart as sharply as does the gun ownership.” United States tops all other countries in gun ownership with 112 guns per 100 Americans. The distant second is Serbia with 69.7 guns per 100 residents. Gun homicides per 100,000 people are 3.2 in the U.S., 0.19 in Germany, and 0.06 in France.

On average 108,476 Americans are shot annually, of which 32,514 die. In 2014, more than 38,000 Americans committed suicide; more than 60 percent of them were by gun. FBI data show that gun owners are 78 times more likely to kill themselves than carry out a “justifiable homicide.”

Despite the more than 32,000 gun-related deaths annually, very little research has been done on the problem due to opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA) leadership with the cooperation of politicians in Washington, D.C. In 1992, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) established a National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; gun violence was an important research topic. Studies found that having a gun in the home triples the risk that someone there will be murdered and dramatically increases the chance of a suicide occurring. NRA leaders attempted to discredit these studies by questioning the competency of the researchers and accusing them of falsifying data. In 1995, the NRA lobbied for elimination of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. The following year, Congress eliminated $2.6 million budgeted for firearm injury research. The Associated Press reported that congressional Republicans also included language directing that no CDC injury research funding could go to research that might be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.

Between 2000 and 2013, the NRA, the firearms industry, and the Gun Owners of America contributed more than $81 million to politicians. It produced real results. When legislation for background checks came before the Senate in 2013, 46 senators voted down the bill. Subsequent analysis revealed that 43 of them had previously received contributions from the gun lobby.

An overwhelming majority of Americans supports stronger restrictions on firearms, according to a Johns Hopkins University national survey. Specifically, 89 percent of all respondents and 75 percent of NRA members support universal background checks for gun sales. These findings are consistent with surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup. Approximately 70 percent support bans on semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. More than 80 percent support restricting who can buy guns, such as people with a history of domestic violence. 

“Not only are gun owners and non-gun owners very much aligned in their support for proposal to strengthen U.S. gun laws, but the majority of NRA members are also in favor of many of these policies,” Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, stated. Additionally, 70 percent of NRA members supported a mandatory minimum of two years in prison for selling guns to those who are legally not allowed to purchase. 

Last month, President Barack Obama broke down as he recalled the 26 children shot to death in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA, issued an arrogant statement accusing the president of engaging in “political rhetoric.” 

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, President Obama sought passage of legislation to require background checks for all firearm purchases. Under pressure from the NRA, our “representatives” in Congress rejected the legislation that would have resulted in critically needed reforms. 

The New York Times expressed outrage in an editorial at this unholy alliance: “The attention and anger of Americans should also be directed at the elected leaders whose job is to keep us safe but who place a higher premium on the money. … Worse politicians abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them … .”

President Richard Nixon stated in 1972: “I don’t know why any individual should have a right to have a revolver in his house.”

President Ronald Reagan declared in 1991: “Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns. This level of violence must be stopped.”

A report based on 2014 data released by the CDC concludes that states with weak gun laws have the highest overall gun death rates in the nation. Conversely, the states with the lowest overall gun death rates have some of the strongest laws. Another report from researchers at Johns Hopkins and Stanford universities also found a positive link in all 50 states between right-to-carry laws and a rise in violent crime. 

During the last two decades, California has continuously strengthened state gun laws. Between 1999 and 2010 California’s gun death rate dropped by an impressive 56 percent. Presently, California has the ninth-lowest rate of gun deaths among the 50 states.

There is a higher chance of being murdered in a state with weak gun laws, especially for law enforcers. Various studies have concluded that law enforcers have a much greater chance of being killed on duty in pro-gun states.

Finally a question: If more guns make a country safer, then shouldn’t the U.S. be the safest place on earth? 

Zaf Iqbal contributes a commentary to New Times the first week of every month. He is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business. Zaf volunteers with several nonprofit organizations, including Wilshire Hospice, Good Neighbor Program, and Mentoring Program for At Risk Youth at the Pacific Beach High School. He is Partner for the Future at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. Send comments to [email protected].

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