How to Reduce Deaths by Guns
By Jerome Grossman
Despite a continuing decline in serious crime, the United States remains far and away the most violent industrialized nation in the entire world. In 1999, for example, the U.S. murder rate was six times as high as England’s. And the favorite weapon was a firearm.
Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death of all Americans, usually about 30,000 per year. The majority, 55 percent, kill themselves with guns.
The U.S. has the world’s highest rate of private gun ownership, with 90 weapons per 100 civilians. Here are the numbers for other countries: Yemen 61, Finland 56, Switzerland 46, Iraq 39.
According to a Harvard School of Public Health study, the rate of suicide is nearly twice as high in the 15 states with the highest gun ownership rates than in the six states with the lowest gun ownership rates.
What can we do to protect our brothers, sisters, children, and parents from these dangers?
We are limited by a gun culture established by the westward expansion that brought us into centuries of conflict with the Native Indians, the English, the Spaniards, and the Mexicans. The long repression of the African slaves in the Southern states was enforced by firearms. Gun manufacturing in this country became a big business. It has not been easy to overcome this inheritance.
In addition, the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution, a model of simplicity and clarity, bequeathed to us the Second Amendment, so obscure that it is open to very different interpretations: “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.” Some -- including President Bush -- interpret this to mean “that there is a right for people to bear arms.” Others believe it applies only to a militia organized to defend the nation.
Most Americans do agree on some federal regulations applying to all gun owners as qualifications: passing a written test, a physical test, and a mental test as well as training in using firearms.
These are merely the foundations for a safer and workable system. Every gun owner should have a reason to have a gun: military, security officer, police, hunter, target shooter. There should be uniform regulation in all states so that a person cannot buy a gun in one state but then take it to another state to evade regulations.
Enforcement should be the responsibility of the local police chiefs, who know the angry and unstable people in their area and who have self-interest because their officers are most often in the line of fire. All guns should be stored in the local police station, signed out for use, and then returned to the police station. No guns at home for a child to discover and then have an accident, or as a tool to settle an angry argument, or in a vehicle for use in road rage, or easily available in the grip of depression.
While the difficulties of installing such a system would be enormous, cost would be the least problem. Breaking the habits of centuries is far more challenging, even more than overcoming the opposition of the National Rifle Association, which protects the interests of the gun manufacturers.
Legitimate use of guns would be protected, even encouraged -- but murders, suicides, and deaths by gun accidents would be reduced dramatically. Americans should not have to be at greater risk than citizens of other civilized countries.