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My Turn: Where do we go on guns?



For the Monitor
Thursday, November 09, 2017

Growing up in small-town New Hampshire, guns were just another part of life. When I was 9 or 10, I saved and bought a BB gun with my brother to shoot tin cans out back. Although it lacked much kick, it was more exciting than my homemade crossbow. Then there were my uncle’s rifles at the family farm and his old editions of American Rifleman from the NRA – any boy’s dream. I had school friends with shotguns for the nearby sandpit and tried my hand at pistols at the shooting range.

Guns in good hands were never threatening but fun.

Then came Columbine. Like the shooters and their victims, I was in high school at the time – a rural public school with plenty of pickup trucks and gun racks in the parking lot. For the first time, I had to stop and think about what it meant when guns got into the wrong hands. If angry, unstable people in a leafy Denver suburb could get hold of semi-automatic weapons designed for hunting human beings and shoot up a school, was anybody safe?

Banning guns wasn’t the issue for me, but I wondered why we didn’t try a little harder to limit certain guns for certain people through background checks and training.

Columbine was the first mass shooting I can remember but it certainly wasn’t the last. In the 18 years since that painful day, I’ve felt the familiar knot in my stomach far too many times as TVs lit up with gruesome scenes of yet another killing spree in schools, churches, night clubs, and the like. Each time, I’ve held my loved ones close and asked the same question: Why don’t we at least try to stem the bleeding by limiting certain guns for certain unstable people through universal background checks and training requirements?

It is natural to ask these questions when mass shootings occur and then forget them when the cameras leave the scene. But for too many Americans, the questions never cease.

In the 15 minutes or so you spend reading this article and thinking about gun safety, one person will be killed by a gun in our country. By the time you finish your day, roughly 90 people will have been shot to death. By the time 2017 comes to a close, the total for the year will likely surpass 33,000. If these facts alone do not give us pause, consider the scourge of gun violence from a different perspective.

As a student of American poverty, I am painfully aware of how violence and insecurity affect poor and minority communities far more than they do middle-class people like me. The rate of gun homicides in the United States is 25 times higher than other developed countries, according to the American Journal of Medicine, and they are disproportionately concentrated in places with little access to opportunity and the American Dream.

As an advocate of gender equality, I know that nearly 1,000 American women are murdered each year by an intimate partner, two-thirds of them with a gun, according to the FBI. Having a gun at home increases the risk of homicide 20 times when there is a history of domestic violence.

As a parent of young children, I was mortified by recent reports of a 4-year-old girl in Tampa killed when she reached into her grandmother’s purse for candy and found a gun instead. In fact, the latest CDC data show that 23 children are shot each day, and numerous academic studies have confirmed that guns in the home don’t make our families safer – they make it far more likely someone will die.

As a friend to people with depression who have attempted suicide, I have seen the Harvard research showing that whether you live or die depends in large part on whether you have access to a gun. The higher the rate of gun ownership in a state, the higher the suicide rate – and the problem appears to be getting worse, according to the CDC.

Finally, as a person of faith, I fervently believe that all lives are sacred and must be protected. Although the right to bear arms is enshrined in our Constitution, no right can supersede the right to life itself.

Where do we go from here?

Advocates of unlimited gun ownership often make the point that “guns don’t kill people – people do.” They are partly right, of course, and we must seek to confront the deeper malaise afflicting our society that drives too many people to devalue their own life or the lives of others.

But that is no excuse for inaction when there are sensible steps toward gun safety, which the vast majority of Americans – save the profit-hungry gun industry and its lobbyists – already support. Although guns and gun violence will always exist, we have the chance to save innocent lives by curbing the sale of deadly arms to people who are not fit to use them. Just like seatbelts and carseats prevent thousands of deaths each year, universal background checks, training and safety requirements, and limiting the sale weapons built for war can do the same.

Legislation to accomplish these goals has long since been introduced in Congress. It enjoys strong bipartisan support from the American people. Now is the time for Republican lawmakers to stop accepting money from the gun industry and stand up for gun safety instead.

(Dan Weeks, a 12th generation Granite Stater and chair of Open Democracy, lives in Nashua with is wife and kids.)