Editorial: If reason prevailed, gun safety would too
If commonsense gun control legislation can’t convince Republican Senators to protect their constituents for fear of upsetting the gun lobby and white supremacists within their party, perhaps portraying the problem as a public health issue would be more palatable — and productive.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made that suggestion in a column written in 2017 after 26 people were killed in a Texas church in the small town of Southerland Springs, not far from San Antonio. His column was updated and reprinted this week in light of the mass shootings on May 14 when a gunman killed 10 people in a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., and when an 18-year-old high school student forced his way past an armed guard and killed 19 students aged 7-10, along with two adult teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. The killer, Salvador Ramos, has been identified as a troubled teen who turned 18 on May 16, immediately bought two rifles and on May 24 shot and critically wounded his grandmother before driving recklessly to the school for his attack.
The both shootings the gunmen were able to obtain semi-automatic AR-15 rifles with little difficulty to carry out their mass killings. It’s also important to note that on Tuesday, Ramos, who had only had his semi-automatic rifle for a week, was able to storm his way pass an armed guard at the school, enter a classroom, kill 21 people and wound two local officers who returned fire — all before more police backup came to exchange gunfire and kill Ramos.
If reason prevailed in this country, measures to curb gun violence would have been implemented years ago. But it’s clear that the political battle over gun control and Second Amendment rights is going nowhere.
This gets to the point of Kristof’s column: that America can perhaps reduce shootings, and death, by reframing the debate.
The first step, he says, is to understand the magnitude of the problem: the U.S. has more than 300 million guns among its citizenry — roughly one per person — and it leads the world in gun death rates as well. Japan, on the other hand, has less than one gun per 100 people, and typically has fewer than 10 gun deaths a year.
The United States witnessed 45,222 gun deaths in 2020.
The correlation of gun deaths to the number of guns a country has is irrefutable. The Republican mantra that the only way to be safe is to “arm good guys with guns” is a lie created by a gun lobby intent on selling more guns. The exact opposite has proven to be true, as the more guns America buys the more gun-related deaths we see.
But if facts can’t convince Republicans to act in their own self-interest, and for the good of the country, then perhaps reframing the issue is necessary.
Kristof agrees that the liberal opposition to guns has sometimes been counterproductive. The focus on “gun control” sounds too much like gun restriction — which to Republicans is an outright abridgment of the Second Amendment.
But if the issue is framed as “gun safety” or “reducing gun violence,” as a public health issue, those are talking points that may resonate more widely.
Kristof draws a parallel of gun safety to automotive safety. He notes that gun enthusiasts protest that cars kill about as many people as guns, but we don’t “ban” cars — but we do “regulate” cars, and the people who drive them. For example: seat belts were first offered in cars in 1950, and their use is now mandatory in most states; in 1978, Tennessee was the first state to require child safety seats, which is now universal; car safety ratings were introduced in 1993 and airbags became mandatory in 1999. And then there are the stiffer drinking and driving laws, lower speed limits, and all the requirements around getting a driver’s license. Consequently, those and other measures have driven the death rates by car to one-seventh of what it was in 1946.
Similarly, Kristof suggests what it would look like to implement measures of gun safety, including:
- implementing background checks, noting 22 percent of all guns are obtained without checking the person’s background;
- safe storage, including trigger locks and storing guns and ammunition safely in the house;
- end immunity for firearm companies (so they would have incentive to implement safety features on guns);
- ban bump stocks of the kind used in Las Vegas to mimic automatic weapon fire;
- tighter enforcement of laws on straw purchases, and some limits on how many guns can be purchased in a month;
- prevent individuals who are subject to domestic violence protection orders from having guns.
Kristof admits that these measures wouldn’t stop all mass shootings, but the facts point clearly to one conclusion: regulating guns lowers gun-related deaths.
As well as the country-by-country comparisons, he cites the experiences of two states: Connecticut and Missouri. In 1995, Connecticut tightened gun licensing laws, while in 2007 Missouri eased gun laws. Afterward, gun homicide rates dropped 40% in Connecticut, but jumped 25% in Missouri. Meanwhile, suicide rates dropped 15% in Connecticut and rose 16% in Missouri. The statistics are reflected in the experiences other states have seen as well.
Kristof also says legislators too often focus on the firearms themselves, rather on restricting who gets access to them. Rather than banning assault weapons, he suggests, restrict the access to them through regulation.
In many states, he says, there is more rigorous screening of people who want to adopt a dog than of people who want to purchase an AR-15. And he also notes the lack of research on gun violence, primarily because the NRA and gun lobby (and their Republican followers) have blocked research for fear of the obvious answers.
Finally, Kristof and others cite public polling on the issues, which would seem to defy the GOP’s position on this issue, except when one considers the huge amount of campaign contributions the NRA provides to Republican legislators — making it worth bucking public opinion.
Polls show that, of Americans with guns in their homes:
- 93% support background checks for all gun buyers;
- 89% agree regulations should prevent the mentally ill from buying guns;
- 88% agree to a ban on the sale of guns to people who have committed violent crimes;
- 82% agree to ban gun purchases by people on no-fly or watch lists;
- 77% support background checks for private sales and sales at gun shows;
- 72% support federal mandatory waiting period on all gun purchases;
- 67% support a ban on modifications that make a semi-automatic gun work like an automatic gun.
And on and on. That same poll shows that Americans who do not own guns support those measures by similar or higher percentages.
Importantly, regulation doesn’t mean the federal government or states are coming after a person’s guns — a common theme falsely cited by Republicans to drum up fear and opposition. It does mean that those people who seek to buy a gun, should go through a background check for suitability. And if that person has recently committed an act of violence, is suffering from mental illness, is on a no-fly or watch list, or wants to modify a weapon to make it automatic (the only purpose of which is to shoot lots of people,) then restrictions are in order. The majority of Americans agree with such restraints.
The surprise is that America is the only western country in the world that has failed to curb such gun violence. The surprise is that Republican senators, and their supporters, won’t compromise and get something done.
To that end, here’s Gov. Phil Scott’s statement on the shooting in Uvalde:
“Our hearts are shattered for the 19 families whose children did not come home last night, and the loved ones of two brave educators. I’ve struggled to find the words to share in response to the horrible, gut-wrenching tragedy in Uvalde because we’ve gotten to a point where words are not enough. It’s time for us to come together as a nation to better protect the most innocent among us – our kids. In Vermont, we showed you can take meaningful action on commonsense gun safety measures to protect our citizens – upholding both their safety and their rights. It’s time for the federal government to take similar action.”
Gov. Scott’s comment would be more succinct, and honest, had he ended: “It’s time for Republicans in Congress to take similar action.” Democrats have been pushing for reforms for two decades. Republicans have been steadfastly opposed. Voters should remember that difference, and the governor should incorporate it in his comments.
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