This country has a massive problem with gun violence. People, including children, are dying in our schools, churches, workplaces, concerts, and shopping centers. This is unacceptable, and we must do something about it.
The US currently ranks 16th in the world for firearm homicides, at 4.46 per 100,000. The closest developed country to us is Israel, ranked 25th at 1.04 per 100,000, and the next after that is Germany, at 27th and 1.01 per 100,000. This means that our firearm murder rate is solidly in line with the impoverished developing world, and wildly out of step with all other advanced democracies. Unless you want to take the unpatriotic assumption that there is something uniquely evil about Americans – and I certainly dispute that – we have to look at what is different about the US and solve the problems. I will point to some key differences and then propose some solutions.
Let’s begin with the laxness of our gun laws. Only one other country requires no permit or license to obtain firearms, and Yemen is one of the most violent places in the world. Critics of gun control laws love pointing to Chicago’s violence, but ignore the fact that Alabama has twice the rate of gun violence per 100,000 of population as Illinois, and – you guessed it – has far looser gun laws. Critics also love to complain that California and New York’s gun laws cannot possibly be helping, but ignore the fact that both have among the lowest levels of gun violence in the country. They are also wealthier states, though, and we must acknowledge that this plays a part. Much violent crime in the US comes about due to extreme stress levels, grinding poverty, and desperation, the same as most other forms of crime.
But guns are a unique problem, and we can see that playing out in our firearm suicide rate, where we rank number one in the world by a wide margin. Suicides by firearm in the US occur at a rate of 7.32 per 100,000. The next highest developed country – and one that also has relatively high levels of gun ownership – is Finland at 2.94 per 100,000. Yet much of Finland lies inside the Arctic Circle, and Seasonal Affective Disorder impacts mental health there! (It is worth noting that Alaska has the highest death rate by firearm in the United States.) The US also ranks high in global statistics on suicide in general, and we have to connect that to our high levels of stress and overwork, uniquely stingy social benefits, and declining standard of living. The middle class has lost a trillion dollars in wealth over the past few decades, and this is bound to have caused some social anxiety!
I am proposing three main areas of change, one simple and two more complex. The first is easiest – remove the pointless restriction on the CDC studying gun violence. All other forms of death in America can be studied, but lobbyist money has made this one off limits, and that reduces our understanding. With proper CDC-funded studies, we can explore the legislative options that have the best chance of solving this problem for good.
Second, we need comprehensive background checks on all firearms sales – an idea with broad popular support across party lines. According to Pew surveys, background checks for private sales are supported by 79% of Republicans and 91% of Democrats. That such extreme loopholes remain for gun sales is unconscionable, and make the US more akin to places like post-revolution Libya for the ease with which people can acquire guns! No-one should be able to buy a gun from the trunk of someone’s car without even showing ID, as can happen in much of the US.
Finally, I will push for and propose a system of training, certification, and licensing for gun ownership, patterned essentially on the DMV. We need to get in line with the rest of the planet and require some basic licensing and competency for the possession of deadly weapons! We train and license drivers before putting them behind the wheel – so why are we handing deadly weapons to untrained children? Basic training and levels of certification for each class of weapon ensures that our fellow citizens are competent in their storage and handling, reducing the fear which currently surrounds lawful gun owners in many cases, and reducing the rate at which toddlers (and dogs!) kill themselves and others. And a regular licensing requirement could assure us that conditions have not changed in ways that could imperil our safety, as through some illness like advancing blindness or the development of a violent criminal record.
I understand that guns are a polarizing and toxic issue in American politics. Routine calls to ban weapons lead consistently to spikes in sales, with the end result that the Americans who are armed tend to have many weapons, and we have by far the highest rate of gun ownership per 100,000 in the world. Contentious debates in the public sphere have also contributed to Republican electoral victories in numerous state legislatures. In 1992, Democrats held total control in 26 statehouses, Republicans in 7, with another 17 split between the parties. By 2016 the numbers had shifted dramatically, with Democrats controlling just 14 statehouses, while Republicans held 32, and just four were split between them. And this despite all polls suggesting that the country has grown markedly more liberal! Once in power, Republicans began loosening gun laws, with the end result being that many states allow concealed or open carry of firearms with no training and no permit required! This makes us all much less safe.
But any discussion of licensing does need to acknowledge that, in any advanced democracy, privileges and rights should not be restricted arbitrarily. We should have, as a society, the right to determine that some criminal records, medical conditions,etc., are disqualifying. But anyone refused the right to obtain weapons should have an available legal process of appeal, and this is a significant lacuna in the current “terrorist watch list”, which allows for Americans to be refused basic liberties including travel with little to no chance of appeal in many cases. When expanding the authority of the state to regulate weapons, we must also guard against granting it unchecked power. Law-abiding and unthreatening persons who have completed the necessary training and certification should not be deprived of their rights without Constitutional due process and recourse.
Photo by Airman 1st Class Justin Armstron, Courtesy Joint Base Charleston, S.C.