“Those who oppose it [gun control] have made a moral choice: that they would rather have gun massacres of children continue rather than surrender whatever idea of freedom or pleasure they find wrapped up in owning guns or seeing guns owned—just as faith healers would rather watch children die than accept the reality of scientific medicine. This is a moral choice; many faith healers make it to this day, and not just in thought experiments. But it is absurd to shake our heads sapiently and say we can’t possibly know what would have saved those lives …”—Adam Gopnik, “The Simple Truth About Gun Control” The New Yorker, December 19, 2012
“All politics is local” is a beloved truism in American public life. The sheriff of the New York county in which I used to live is in international headlines today because he took advantage of yesterday’s two gun sprees to urge gun-owning citizens of his county to start carrying their weapons with them just in case.
Ulster County Sheriff Paul J. Van Blarcum published a release on Facebook this morning that was shared several thousand times within an hour of its posting and received international attention because Ulster County is nowhere near either of the two incidents so he decided to jump on board a train of his own invention before it left the station and also because it is bluntly pro-gun:
ATTENTION LICENSED HANDGUN OWNERS
In light of recent events that have occurred in the United States and around the world I want to encourage citizens of Ulster County who are licensed to carry a firearm to PLEASE DO SO.
I urge you to responsibly take advantage of your legal right to carry a firearm.
His release has received almost unanimous praise. I am not in that camp. I consider his press release to be staunchly pro-mayhem. He continues:
To ensure the safety of yourself and others, make sure you are comfortable and proficient with your weapon, and knowledgeable of the laws in New York State with regards to carrying a weapon and when it is legal to use it.
I also want to remind all Police/Peace Officers both active duty and retired to please carry a weapon whenever you leave your house. We are the thin blue line that is entrusted in keeping this country safe, and we must be prepared to act at any given moment.
He does not usually take time out of his busy day to remind us to carry umbrellas when it rains, so this gentle reminder (his word) is something better characterized as fear-mongering. A friend of mine wrote, “The idea of actively encouraging people to carry firearms in the normal, public routine of their lives is irresponsible at best and reprehensible and dangerous at worst.” Especially when it is from the desk of a public official, it seems to me.
One person wrote online that at first they thought this statement was sensible, as she is in the military and owns a gun, but then, “About 20 seconds after reading this I changed my mind.” The person explained that she has a child who “has never seen my gun or heard it get fired. To think that people will see this message and think that they’ve got to be armed all the time. I can’t imagine the fear that would hit the very first time a gun owner fires before thinking it through and then triggers other gun owners to do the same. How safe will people be, and how easily would an actual shooter blend, in a crowd filled with firearms?”
The Sheriff certainly can not guarantee that every gun-wielding citizen has that weapon completely under his or her control. Accidents happen. David Waldman of DailyKos has kept an accumulating tally of gun accidents in America for several years now and has found that there are at least several dozen gun accidents, most of them non-fatal, per week that are reported. How many more are not reported is unknown, for obvious reasons.
I trust myself with my (expensive) cell phone, yet I drop it daily. (It is in a sturdy and flexible case.) If I decide, for the sake of convenience, to carry it outside the case, and I drop it and it shatters, who cares? If I was a licensed gun-holder who decided for the sake of convenience and against my training to carry my gun unsecured and I accidentally dropped it in a public place, because I forgot which pocket it was in or any other of a host of reasons, in the food court at a mall, say, and it went off, there is a chance that more than my pride will be injured. If a first shot is fired accidentally, the second shot, the shot fired in the direction of the first one, quite likely will not be.
One of the few people to study violence in an dispassionate way in this nation is a Harvard professor of public health named David Hemenway. His studies, conducted over decades, can be summed up succinctly: More guns = more death. Across regions and state borders, across income ranges, when a gun is present, mayhem often follows, and when a second gun is present, mayhem is all but guaranteed.
The sheriff in Ulster County is either unfamiliar with Dr. Hemenway’s work or is choosing to ignore what his own police work (he has been in the Sheriff’s department since 1976) would probably bear out: that dangerous situations likely came under his control when he was present with his badge as well as his gun, not just his gun and not merely his badge. Because when a second gun is displayed by an individual who has no authority behind it, that is the prelude to what we might call in layman’s terms a “duel.”
* * * *
Until 2008, the common judicial interpretation of the rather ungrammatical Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—”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”—found that the first clause has more importance than the second. In case after case, from the lower courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the amendment was interpreted as conferring on state militias a right to bear arms—not one court, not one judge, successfully interpreted the Second Amendment as granting individuals a right to own or carry a weapon.
In District of Columbia v. Heller, a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Antonin Scalia in 2008, the Supreme Court for the first time found that the Second Amendment protects a right for the individual to keep and bear arms. It was a triumph for those who for the previous three decades had been fighting for that right to be recognized as the law of the land. The National Rifle Association (NRA) led that fight. Since 2008, gun ownership has increased sharply, as have the cries that the government is threatening to take away gun owners’ weapons. It has become ever easier to own guns since 2008.
For all of Justice Scalia’s many arguments that he is a Constitutional “originalist” who believes that the document is set in stone and that there is no such thing as a “living” Constitution, it was curious to see him offer his editorial services to the Founding Fathers in his decision: “The Second Amendment is naturally divided into two parts: its prefatory clause and its operative clause. The former does not limit the latter grammatically, but rather announces a purpose. The Amendment could be rephrased, ‘Because a well regulated Militia is necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.'” (Scalia, District of Columbia v. Heller)
Since January 1, 2013, through yesterday’s two mass shootings, there have been 1052 mass shootings in 1066 days here in America, which have killed 1347 individuals and wounded more than 3800 others. A mass shooting is defined as one in which four or more people have been shot.
More than 30,000 people are shot to death each year in America. (This number does not include accidents.) For the sake of supplying you with more mind-numbing statistical data, this is slightly more than the population of Bowling Green, Ohio. Statistics are made up of individual stories, and it is easy to lose the individual in the wash of large numbers.
Guns are efficient tools: they turn individual stories into statistics.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the source for that statistic. The CDC is a federal government agency that tracks every conceivable illness and manner of death in our nation; violence is one more sad region of modern life that it maps, and it breaks the topic down into areas like workplace violence, domestic violence, gang violence, gun violence. The most recent year that it tracked gun violence, 2013, the CDC found that 33,636 individuals were shot and killed that year, 21,175 by their own hands, and 11,208 at the hands of others.
Overall, the number of homicides in America in 2013 was 16,121, so gun homicides accounted for 70% of all homicides. Murders will happen; the fact is that the successful accomplishment of desired violence, mayhem, carnage, and murder is more efficiently realized when a gun is present. When a second gun is present, the numbers sharply increase.
We are not a nation that is more violent than others—fights happen everywhere—but our violence tends to be more lethal. In America, it is estimated that there are more than 300 million privately owned firearms. That is almost one gun for every human being here. In 2004, before District of Columbia v. Heller, it was estimated that 35% of all American households have guns. Since 2008, those numbers have increased, and gun manufacturers have doubled their annual production in just a few years. (They would not make them if they were not selling them.) Many of those 11,208 who died in 2013 and were joined by a similar number in 2014 and another small city’s worth of gun homicides this year ought to be here today, and they would be here if this country did not have its current obsession with gun ownership.
In 2013, the last year for which reports are available, automobile accidents resulted in 32,719 fatalities. That number has been declining for 50 years even as the total number of miles driven steadily increases. Yes, there are many anecdotes about dangerous airbags and seatbelts and I do not disbelieve or discount them; further, I hate the growing pile of numbers I am throwing about in this piece, but causation can be discerned here: a better-educated driving public and safer cars have combined to make fatal car accidents less common. Not uncommon or even vanishingly small, but less common.
So we have two tools with very different purposes that each claim a similar number of American lives per year. With one, we pursue greater safety through public legislation enacted via our employees: the elected officials. With the other, we pursue less safety through public legislation enacted through our employees: the elected officials. A powerful lobbying company, the NRA, which once upon a time was a pro-safety, pro-education organization, has spent three decades and millions of dollars starting in 1977 in pursuit of where we are now: with more guns than humans, with guns that are not safer but are more lethal, more efficient. With blood on its hands.
In the piece that I quoted at the top, Adam Gopnik’s article in The New Yorker, he also writes, “Gun control is not a panacea, any more than penicillin was. Some violence will always go on. What gun control is good at is controlling guns. Gun control will eliminate gun massacres in America as surely as antibiotics eliminate bacterial infections. … Those who fight against gun control, actively or passively, with a shrug of helplessness, are dooming more kids to horrible deaths and more parents to unspeakable grief just as surely as are those who fight against pediatric medicine or childhood vaccination. It’s really, and inarguably, just as simple as that.”
I hate the Ulster County Sheriff’s fear-pandering, and I hope that this national story does not become a local one in my former hometown.
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