Column: The real issue

By Zak Lutz

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE

When Democrats call for broader levels of gun control, they’re potentially cashing in on a political winner. Most people—including this gun-loving, former NRA member—recognize, or at least are beginning to acknowledge, how unnecessarily dangerous assault rifles and oversized clips are. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking an assault weapons ban or a clip size limit will substantially reduce gun violence. Though mass shootings have the unique ability to capture national attention, they account for a small fraction of yearly gun deaths.

Last year, guns killed 31,347 American civilians. Only forty died in mass shootings, and the most liberal estimates available claim only a few thousand gun-related deaths were a result of assault weapons. (These weapons most likely account for less than 1% of gun violence.) Even in the recent Newtown tragedy, the shooter had more than enough guns to use if his Bushmaster .223 rifle had not been available. Renewing some version of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban would be a great start towards preventing certain kinds of gun violence, but let’s not consider it anything beyond a start.

What else has been proposed? Some Republicans have called for more guns; the likes of Ann Coulter have regularly noted that more concealed carry permits would lead to fewer mass shootings, and that’s right. If the principal at Sandy Hook Elementary had a gun, priceless lives could have been saved. The same goes for those present in the Aurora theater, the Sikh temple, and the Tucson “Congress on Your Corner” event. This view, however, ignores the more important studies that find a positive relationship between gun ownership and gun violence in the United States; saving ten lives in a mass murder isn’t worth losing fifteen lives in a dark alley.

America might be better served if politicians heeded the oft-uttered mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” International evidence confirms many countries, unlike the United States, have lots of guns and relatively few murders and vice versa. (Look at Switzerland.) While there may not be a correlation between some nations’ gun ownership rates and their gun violence, there seems to be a common cause that increases the lethality of this combination in America: culture. The issue is not easy access to guns, but instead our desire to obtain and use them. This is the root of the issue, and any attempt to limit gun ownership merely provides a temporary, patchwork solution. At the same time, there’s a lot we can do to reduce gun violence—we don’t simply have to throw our hands in the air and accept it.

Criminologists have identified a number of factors that noticeably increase violent crime: racism, gender inequality, bad parenting, poor schooling, bullying, alcohol use, religious involvement, lack of mental health treatment, income inequality, and so on. In relation to the rest of the industrialized world, America scores quite poorly on many of these indicators; not surprisingly, our firearm-related deaths are much higher than Europe’s.

The government cannot play Big Brother and try to fix all of these issues—many are beyond its scope or ability to fix. But let’s stop pretending guns are the main issue. Anyone truly interested in reducing gun violence shouldn’t write their congresspeople asking for gun control, but instead should request universal healthcare, better public schools, more progressive taxes, less public worship, expanded welfare programs, an Equal Rights Amendment, etc. Rarely, if ever, do advocates of a safer society bring these issues to the forefront; they seem undoubtedly partisan and unrelated to the problem.

America has developed a culture of fear and violence. To steal an example from Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Canada has gun laws as lax as ours, yet they have significantly lower rates of gun violence. Some cultural differences may remain forever embedded in American society, but following Canada’s lead in addressing the needs of the underprivileged could do more than any increase in gun control. Though another assault weapons ban is probably a good idea, it won’t go far enough towards solving the real issue. We cannot end violence with one bill, but we can begin to address gun violence by recognizing our societal flaws and pushing for broader public policy changes.

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