In any discussion involving firearms or the 2nd Amendment we are almost certain to hear the phrase, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This may be a true statement but it isn’t very helpful. Yes, guns require that there be a person to pull the trigger. The difficulty with placing the blame on the user is that, however mentally deranged or socially deviant the person at the trigger, guns make killing shockingly easy. Every year people go to prison because the gun they were holding fired either accidentally or because it fired far more easily than they expected. While many things can be used to harm others, few other weapons suffer from this trio of horrors, a) ease of use, b) devastating damage, and c) the potential for accidents.
On the other hand, there remains a human being who is in control, who makes a conscious decision to load, carry, and point a firearm. Once that is done, the “accidental” nature of a discharge, intentional or not is practically irrelevant next to the intent already demonstrated and the chain of poor choices that has already been made. The truth is that social misfits, deranged persons, and anyone who intends to do harm to another will not be deterred by a lack of access to a firearm. Congresswoman Giffords was meeting people in a supermarket parking lot. Without a gun, her assault could just as effectively been carried out in an automobile and the harm to innocent bystanders would have been equally great or worse.
Congresswoman Giffords’ assailant was not unintelligent. Without access to a firearm, it would not been difficult for him to construct an improvised explosive device (IED). Fifty years ago construction of such a device might have taken a fair amount of research but today the Internet makes it all too easy. Curiously, the man who disarmed the gunman credits his courage to the handgun he himself was carrying and wonders what might have happened had he not stopped for cigarettes and arrived a few moments earlier.
If it seems that I am taking both sides in this discussion it is because I am. Once again we are engaged in a public discussion where both sides have legitimate concerns. There are no easy answers. Every potential solution has potentially serious and harmful consequences, including that of doing nothing and allowing things to continue as they are. As we move toward a solution, we must continue to have an open discussion that reveals all of our concerns because what we are ultimately choosing are those consequences with which we are most willing to live.
It is difficult to say whether we are on the right road or the wrong one. The statistics that are available present us with a mixed bag. FBI statistics reveal that violent crime (in fact crime of all kinds) in the US has been falling steadily since the early 1990’s and currently is about half the level it was in 1991.
According to statistics from the United Nations, the United States ranks 24th in murders per capita (behind Columbia, South Africa, Mexico and Russia but ahead of most other developed nations) but 8th in murders with a firearm (again behind Columbia, South Africa, and Mexico). We are also 8th in total crimes per capita but this time behind nations like New Zealand, Finland, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Finally, according to an EU study cited in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper,the per capita violent crime rate in the US is less than that of ten European nations of the EU and Canada (but more than Australia).
What I see in this data is that while we (in the US) seem to stand out in our capacity to murder, American society is less prone to violent crime overall. For years it was assumed that violent crime was linked to population density and this was used to explain why cities appeared to have more violent crime. Recent studies seem to refute this and show that per capita, cities are no more violent or prone to crime than other less populated areas. How guns play into this remains unclear, at least to me. It would be interesting to compare the rates of violent crime, murder and gun crimes in cities where strong gun controls have been enacted with cities that have none. I favor a ‘go slow’ approach that allows local and state governments to try a variety of solutions and see what works (and what does not) before launching a nationwide initiative based on untested theories and hunches particularly when each potential solution has a consequence of its own.