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THE CASE FOR UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS

Part I

The issue of gun laws is a matter of much debate and is properly prominent in the news. Despite annual death rates unequalled anywhere except in Central America and Iraq, we seem to be paralyzed and incapable of official action in the U.S.

In this first section I address the typical arguments against further gun legislation with my responses. I am neither “anti-“ nor “pro-“ gun. I have no problem with hunters or others who practice safe and legal gun ownership and use. My goal is to clear the field of specious, obfuscating arguments that block all debate and get down to the heart of the matter of better protecting all.

In Part II, I will deal with addressing the problem.

 

  1. Restricting my access to guns violates my constitutional rights.

The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Even though the full meaning is debatable, the Second Amendment  allows private citizens to own arms.

But there are limits. No constitutional right is absolute.  In 2008 the US Supreme Court upheld an individual’s right to bear arms but also ruled that right was subject to regulation.

The rights conferred under the Second Amendment already have significant limitations. A private citizen may not possess bombs or a functioning rocket launcher or a fully automatic firearm.  Certain groups of people also can lose their right to own guns. Many states ban gun ownership by convicted felons, for example. Those limitations have passed constitutional muster and do not violate “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”

The argument that any restriction of gun ownership violates the Constitution is a false one and does not stand.

 

  1. Guns don’t kill people; people do.

Yes, someone has to pull the trigger and that is the point.  The key is who is holding the gun.  We need to do a better job of keeping the firearm out of the hands of those who want to harm themselves or others.

 

  1. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

This argument is demonstrably false on more than one level. If it were true, how can we explain the shooting of police in Dallas and other communities since then? In those examples, there were plenty of “good guys” present, many of them armed and well trained.

In fact, some of the Dallas protest marchers were also armed. As many as 20 of them were openly carrying assault rifles. Not only did they NOT stop the shooting, they actually made the situation worse, since the police had to sort out who was shooting at them and who was not.

What if the armed protestors had joined in the gun battle? It would have been much harder to sort out who was bad and who was good.  Then add the consideration that the protestors probably were not as well trained as the police. The body count could have been much higher.

Two-thirds of our annual gun deaths are suicides. There is no role for an armed good guy in that situation, and the additional firearms just make access to an effective suicide tool easier.

The formula of putting more weapons into the system to make us safer simply does not compute.

 

  1. The government wants to take away our guns.

People want reform and sensible gun laws that do a better job of protecting all of us. There is no proposal in Vermont to eliminate private ownership of guns. If there were such a proposal, it would be unconstitutional. As noted earlier, the Supreme Court has upheld that right.

 

  1. We need guns to defend ourselves against bad guys.

There are very few documented cases of an armed civilian preventing a crime. Americans have the right to own guns for self-defense, but they should be aware of the statistics. Gun owners are actually less safe than others. According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, having a gun in the house means you are 4.8 times more likely to die by suicide and 2.7 times more likely to die by homicide.  

Once again, the math does not work.

 

  1. Talking about gun control right after a mass shooting politicizes the act.

Yes, it does. Refusing to talk about it is also a political statement.

Any discussion of public policy is political.  All controversial issues are political. Let’s get political and discuss it.

 

  1. Gun laws have no effect on the bad guys.

The gun lobby uses this argument against any restriction on gun ownership.  It has already been pointed out that restricting gun ownership is legal and constitutional, but this argument goes further in saying that bad guys will still do bad things regardless of the law; therefore, the law is unnecessary.

Speeding is illegal. Do drivers still speed?  Burglary is illegal. Do thieves still break into homes and steal?  According to the logic used above, we should do away with all of our laws.

Laws exist not primarily as a deterrent, for there are always some people who will ignore the law.  Laws exist to give us a means of dealing with those who break the law.  If someone steals your car, the law allows us to appropriately punish that person. Without laws there would be anarchy.

 

  1. It’s too soon to talk about this issue.

We heard this argument after the Newtown, CT shootings and others. A political opponent used it in 2014 at a candidates’ forum when Cheryl Hanna’s death came up.  If a bridge had collapsed and killed 26 people, would it be too soon to talk about bridge repair? If a disease had taken 26 people in a single day in Newtown, would it be too soon to talk about disease prevention? I would argue that rather than too soon, we are too late in all those cases.

“Too soon” is code for “never.”  It wraps itself in apparent sympathy for the families of the victims. What those people really want is action, not silence.

 

  1. It’s not a problem in Vermont.

It is true that Vermont has a relatively low homicide rate, but when we look at gun deaths from all causes, we Vermonters are average Americans.  According to the National Institute of Health, the rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. is 10.3.  Vermont’s rate is also 10.3, making us average by national standards but the worst New England state (RI 3.0, MA 3.2, CT 5.0, NH 8.7, ME 9.4).

In general, the more guns are available the higher the gun death rate. Hawaii has the second lowest rate of gun ownership (6.7%) and the lowest rate of gun deaths (2.6 per 100,000). Alaska has the second highest rate of gun ownership (57.8%) and the highest rate of gun deaths (19.2 per 100,000). That rule does not necessarily apply to the rate of gun homicides. Wyoming has the highest per capita rate of gun ownership in the U.S (59.7%). yet their gun homicide rate is basically zero. However, even without homicides, Wyoming’s rate of gun deaths from all causes is 16.2 per 100,000, well above the national average. This fact is a good reminder that our public debate on how to prevent gun deaths cannot be limited to homicides.

There are no good reasons to further delay debating reasonable gun policy leading to good legislation. Throwing slogans at one another does not lead to solutions. Let’s not wait for more first-graders to be slaughtered.

 

Part II

In three years of war in Korea, this country suffered 33,652 combat deaths.  Every year over 33,000 Americans die by gun. We manage to kill our fellow Americans at rate three times higher than when fighting a vicious war. Since 1968 more Americans have died by gunfire than died in all the wars in this country’s history. It is not a record to be proud of.

There are 112.6 guns for every 100 Americans, making us by far the most heavily armed nation on earth. Serbia is in second place with 75.6 guns per 100 people. We rank only behind Central America (gang related gun deaths are very high there) and Iraq in the rate of gun deaths. These statistics obviously belie the gun lobby’s assertion that the better armed we are, the safer we are. The opposite is true.

The Harvard Injury Control Research Center compared the relationship between gun ownership and gun deaths among U.S. states and across the world and concluded, “where there are higher levels of gun ownership, there are more gun suicides and more total suicides, more gun homicides and more total homicides, and more accidental gun deaths.”

There are variations.  Wyoming has a high gun ownership rate but practically zero gun homicides.  On the other hand, even with no homicides, Wyoming still has a higher than average rate of gun deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control track three types of gun deaths: accidents, suicides, and homicides.

 

What can we do about each of these types of deaths?

  1. Accidents

Accidents happen. There is no way to completely eliminate them, but we can do more prevention. Gun owners have the responsibility to properly use, handle, and store their firearms and ammunition, and their record is good.  We have far more guns than automobiles in the U.S., but many more people die in car accidents than in gun accidents.

An unattended child and a loaded weapon are a lethal mix that should never happen. Yet every year we hear of a child shooting a sibling, a playmate, a parent, or him/herself.

Before cleaning a weapon, basic gun safety dictates first checking to make sure there is no round in the chamber. A firearm, loaded or unloaded, should never be pointed at another person unless the intention is to use it.

All hunters know the basic rules. The most important is to have a clear view and know what you’re shooting at. Another is to keep the safety on until ready to shoot.

None of these safety guidelines are news to a gun owner, yet we suffer hundreds of accidental gun deaths every year.  We need to be relentless on proper training and awareness.

 

  1. Suicides.

About two-thirds of our annual gun deaths are suicides.  One reason they are so prevalent is that guns do their job so well. A person is much less likely to survive a gunshot wound than a drug overdose; the death rate is 85% when the instrument of suicide is a gun.   And since there are more guns than people in the U.S., a gun is all too often the weapon of choice.  About one-half all suicides are by gun nationally. In Vermont the rate is slightly higher: 55%.

Twenty-two American veterans kill themselves every day, and they often reach for a gun to accomplish the task.  Recent data shows that the rate is growing. We are doing a poor job of serving those who have served us.

So part of the solution is to make guns less readily available to vulnerable people. Keeping the weapon and ammunition locked up can help.

Better suicide prevention is key. Everyone needs to be trained in how to recognize and deal with suicide risk. We need to be open as a society in treating depression as an illness and not a condition to be ashamed of and hidden.

Since suicides account for the majority of American gun deaths, this issue should move to the center of the gun debate. Mass shootings make the big news stories, and we must also do something about them, but the biggest health and safety issue is suicide. We can drastically reduce our gun deaths if we effectively address it.

The Gun Shop Project demonstrates how gun dealers can try to keep weapons out of the hands of the suicidal. It is a commendable effort that deserves our support, but we must also remember its limitations. People with mental health issues are often good at masking their symptoms. Gun dealers, even though they can be trained to recognize warning signs, are not mental health professionals. And then there is the huge loophole of gun shows and private sales.

 

  1. Homicides

Homicides grab the headlines, especially when committed en masse, and they account for nearly one-third of our annual gun deaths. In Vermont, gun homicides are more closely related to domestic abuse than to robberies or gang killings.

Guns are simply too available to those who should not have them. In the most notorious mass shootings, the shooters typically have a history of being unstable, so the mental health issue arises here again. One cannot conceive how 20 first-graders could possible be viewed as enemies or worthy targets.

The vast majority of people with mental illness are not dangerous. We need to focus on those who have been found dangerous by a court and do our best to keep firearms out of their hands.

There are a couple of practical steps we can take.

Universal background checks. A Vermont legislator told a moving story last session of his suicidal brother. The family removed all guns from their homes and asked a local gun dealer not to sell anything to the brother. He traveled some distance away, bought a gun, and killed himself. There was nothing in law then that could have prevented it.

That story should not be repeated now. In 2015 we passed a law that requires that the name of a person adjudicated to be a danger to himself or others be reported to the NICS system.  That brother would now not be able to purchase a firearm from a licensed dealer. However, he could still obtain a gun through a private sale.

A firearm should not change owners without a background check by a licensed gun dealer. None. Period. Even private transactions should go through a licensed gun dealer, who should be allowed to charge a small fee for the service. And there should be no gun show loopholes. We should further stiffen the penalties for straw purchases.  A Quinnipiac poll shows that 92% of gun owners support universal background checks, yet we can’t get a bill through Congress.

Technology. The 2015 quadruple homicide in Barre and Berlin was committed with a borrowed rifle. Smart gun technology would have made that act impossible.

The technology exists in different forms, all with the same result: only the owner of a firearm can fire it. It is widely available in Europe but has been blocked by the gun lobby in the U.S.

Not only would smart gun technology help prevent borrowing a gun to commit a crime (or suicide), but also help prevent the accidental shootings by children. It would also make stealing a gun pointless. Let’s make this technology available to American gun owners

No one is in favor of gun crimes and needless deaths. We all want a safe society that not only protects our persons but also our rights.  It is time we came together and started talking about what we can to stop the killing.  There is no way to eradicate all deaths by gun, but we can do a better job of saving lives.  The whole point of my analysis is to clear the deck so that we can all sit down and work out reasonable solutions to a real problem. No more Korean War death tolls every year.

 

Sources:

American Journal of Epidemiology

Centers for Disease Control – National Center for Disease Statistics

Constitution of the United States

DemographicData.org

Harvard Injury Control Research Center

Kaiser Family Foundation

National Institute of Health

Vermont Department of Health

www.snopes.com

www.washingtonpost.com

Quinnipiac University