According to an ongoing tally kept by Slate, 2,453 Americans have died in a steady, unceasing hail of gunfire since the Newtown shooting last Dec. 14. You likely recall exactly where you were when you heard about the 20 schoolchildren, ages 5 and 6, who were cut down in that massacre. Six teachers also met their doom. It was a brutal, senseless tragedy. It was only about 80 days ago, after all. But since then, some 2,500 more Americans have died at the end of a gun. That’s more than 30 people per day, every single day.
Each year, more than 30,000 Americans die in gun-related shooting incidents. Not all those deaths are of the “mass killing” variety, though all are surely horrific, and each leaves behind a tragic, far-reaching network of grieving loved ones. We owe it to those victims, and to those they’ve left behind, to take a serious look at our national fascination with guns, as well as our reticence to do anything about what really amounts to a serious public health issue. The time has come to change our way of thinking about guns.
There was a time in this country when auto accidents killed more than 50,000 people a year. Eventually the nation decided that much carnage was unacceptable, and through a series of public health initiatives—including new seat belt laws, stricter drunk driving penalties, and scores of auto safety requirements—we’ve cut that number nearly in half.
If you’re of a certain age, you can surely remember the initial resistance to seat belt laws. Many Americans simply refused to comply, but the rule has ultimately proved to be an inarguable life-saver, and it’s almost unthinkable nowadays to get into a car and not buckle up.
Similarly, helmet laws were at first fiercely resisted by freedom-loving motorcyclists, those icons of the open road and American individuality, but requiring a bucket of our two-wheeled travelers has cut head injuries among motorcyclists by some 40 percent. All it took to cut the carnage was the will to change our way of thinking about seat belts and motorcycle helmets.
There was a time in America when childhood diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles killed thousands of young people each year. Eventually the nation decided such a plague was unacceptable, and through vaccine research and required immunizations we’ve virtually eliminated those maladies as killers of children. All it took to stem the tide of misery was the will to change our way of thinking about immunization.
We live in an America in which cigarettes kill tens of thousands of people each year. Tobacco-related illnesses account for far too much disease, so the nation has decided, through increased regulation and an aggressive public awareness campaign, to make sure people understand the dangers of tobacco use. As a result, we’ve seen smoking rates drop some 50 percent over the past 30 years. All it took was the will to change our way of thinking about smoking.
Kurt Vonnegut once said of a machine gun that it “sprays death like a garden hose.” We live in a world in which firearms are spraying death at an ever faster and more startling rate. Guns in America are so commonplace these days that we feel helpless to address what has clearly become an ongoing, inexorable national tragedy.
It occurs to me that when a tidal wave of bloody disaster washes over our nation, as with the steady flow of gun-related catastrophe coursing through our streets and into our schools and shopping malls, it might be time for people to stand up and say, “Enough.”
It might be time to change our way of thinking on guns.
There are many who will argue, correctly in some respects, that the Second Amendment is sacrosanct. For them, those 27 words are a sacred document. There are people who say that free and unhindered access to unlimited weaponry is part of the fabric of the nation. There are those who say that the solution to the worsening carnage in our midst is more guns. To them I can only say that there are already more than 300 million guns in America. If it were the availability of guns that made us safe, would we not already be the safest nation on the planet, rather than one of the least safe?
Our nation is a roiling, bloody Petri dish of gun-saturated insecurity.
It may be clear by now than I’m not a particular fan of guns, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have friends who are, and it doesn’t mean I don’t respect their right “to keep and bear arms.” It doesn’t mean I don’t understand that the Second Amendment is a part of the U.S. Constitution, and that it’s there for a reason. But it does mean that I strongly believe the time has come to change our way of thinking when it comes to guns.
The old arguments won’t fly anymore. When somebody claims that limiting access to military-style weapons or high-capacity ammunition clips won’t help stem the tide of death, I find it hard to take them seriously. When somebody argues that closing the “gun-show loophole” and enforcing universal background checks will do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, I can’t help but think they are not making a sincere argument. When somebody says arming a school custodian or a crossing guard is the solution to campus security problems? They are simply not being serious.
Were it up to me, I would propose a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. I would propose universal background checks at gun retailers and gun shows alike. I would even propose a national registry and a “gun insurance” requirement, so that if one’s firearm does cause death or injury, there’s a mechanism in place to assign responsibility and pay for damages.
It was Edmund Burke who said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Today in well-armed America, evil is triumphant. We have done nothing.
The time has come to change our way of thinking on guns. ∆
Ed. note: We received this commentary on March 4. As of March 13, when this piece went to press, Slate’s crowdsourced gun-death tally was up to 2,635.
Jim Mallon lives in San Luis Obispo. Send comments to the executive editor at email@example.com.
-- Jim Mallon - San Luis Obispo