On the murder of innocents

December 17, 2012

There was another mass killing in the country on Friday. Having shot his mother to death at the home they shared in Newtown, Conn., a 20-year-old man drove to nearby Sandy Hook Elementary School. He fired at least one bullet through a pane of glass and began shooting adults and children. Twenty youngsters and six adults were slaughtered at the school.

The Sandy Hook slaughter commanded the nation’s attention for what seemed like most of Friday. For me personally, it was the second Friday in a row dominated by news of murder. (On Dec. 6, I learned that a friendly man who owned a restaurant near my house had been shot to death.)

On both Friday afternoons, I found my life warped by pain and horror. And as hard it was to come to grips with the murder of the man I had known (although not well), it’s been even harder to dissipate the awful feelings provoked by the slayings of complete strangers in faraway Connecticut.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the Sandy Hook slaughter, while tragic, is not nearly as much of an aberration as one would hope. Already this year, according to this Mother Jones timeline, there have been seven deadly mass shootings. Seventy-nine people were killed; a similar number were injured. (MoJo defines as a mass shooting as one in which at least four people were killed by gunfire.)

***

In case you’ve forgotten any of the massacres, Mother Jones lists them as such:

• Feb. 22, Su Jong Health Sauna, Norcross, Ga.

• April 2, Oikos University, Oakland, Calif.

• May 22, café, Seattle, Wash.

• July 20, movie theatre, Aurora, Colo.

• Aug. 5, Sikh temple, Oak Creek, Wisc.

• Sept. 27, Accent Signage Systems, Minneapolis.

• Dec. 13, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Conn.

In the last 30 years, Mother Jones found 62 separate mass shootings. An article contains this telling passage:

In not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun. Moreover, we found that the rate of mass shootings has increased in recent years—at a time when America has been flooded with millions of additional firearms and a barrage of new laws has made it easier than ever to carry them in public. And in recent rampages in which armed civilians attempted to intervene, they not only failed to stop the shooter but also were gravely wounded or killed.

The article also found that as the number of civilian-owned firearms in the nation has risen, the frequency of mass shootings appears to be on the rise.

When the Aurora massacre happened, I believed that that would be the bloodiest mass shooting of 2012. In fact, later events dictated that it wasn’t even the worst massacre of the latter half of the year.

In 2007, the Small Arms Survey determined that there were 270 million privately owned firearms in the United States. (That’s the midpoint between high and low estimates of 250 million to 290 million weapons.) The next largest private armory belonged to India, said to have no more than 60 million firearms. Yes: A nation with more than three times America’s population had less than one-fourth the number of private-sector guns.

Our nation, incidentally, has about 89 private firearms per 100 people, tops in the world. India has fewer than six and ranks 110th out of 178. The only nations with 35 guns or more per 100 people, besides the U.S., are:

  • Yemen: 54.8 guns/100 residents, 11.5 million privately held firearms, 21 million residents.
  • Switzerland: 45.7, 3.4 million, 7.4 million.
  • Finland: 45.3, 2.4 million, 5.2 million.
  • Serbia: 37.8, 3.1 million, 8.1 million.
  • Cyprus: 36.4, 275,000, 758,000.
  • Saudi Arabia: 35, 6 million, 23.1 million.

Surely something must change. And yet there are many conservatives who have signaled clearly that, literally and figuratively, they intend to stick to their guns.

***

Let me be clear: The Second Amendment as interpreted by the courts grants Americans the right to own guns privately. It does not, however, grant unlimited rights to own and wield firearms.

Even if the amendment were to be repealed tomorrow — and I very much believe that it and its current interpretation will stand — it would not be possible to remove more than a relatively small fraction of the nations many millions of firearms from their owners.

But there must be a middle ground. There must be something — however partial or imperfect a solution — that can be done to cut down on at least some of the bloodshed.

To say otherwise is to ignore what we know about the much lower gun homicide rates elsewhere in the industrialized worlds. To say otherwise is to sanction the 20 dead children at Newtown and the many dead adults there, in Minneapolis, in Oak Creek, in Aurora, in Seattle, in Oakland and in Norcross — and the many other people who will be killed in 2013, the year after that and the year after that…

Something must be done. I believe President Obama and other Democrats, and possibly a few Republicans, are prepared to spend some political capital to do it. The road will not be easy. It will not always be clear. But this road will — more, it must — be traveled.

There will be bloody days in 2013, 2014 and beyond even if effective gun control legislation is enacted. But surely there will be fewer than if no action is taken.

I for one have no wish to contemplate any future school shootings. America’s response to the Sandy Hook slaughter will say much about our nation’s character.

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