Less than 24 hours before the Sandy Hook shooting, students in my media and politics class, in our final meeting of the semester, debated gun control in the abstract. Students presented their findings on media misrepresentations of reality and demonstrated that, on this contentious issue, reality remains hard to grasp. Yet the next morning, reality was before us as another violent tragedy played out on television.
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Liza Long’s piece on this site about the role of mental illness in these incidents has spread widely, and many others have emphasized the importance of discussing ways to improve mental health in this country. Absolutely. But let’s not be distracted from the real issue.
Mental health is a problem around the world. Every country has troubled individuals who cannot be reached before it’s too late. The United States might have an edge, but mental disorders are “commonly occurring and often seriously impairing” throughout the world, according to an overview of World Health Organization surveys.
Richardson & Hemenway (2003): The US homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in the other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher.But America unquestionably has far higher rates of firearm deaths than other high-income countries around the world. Many poorer countries, especially in Latin American and the Caribbean, have higher per capita rates, but the U.S. far outranks other advanced industrialized nations, including European nations and others such as Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Within the United States, research demonstrates that “gun violence is not just the product of troubled or deranged individuals, as is commonly portrayed, but is both associated with and embedded within the economic and social context of places,” according to analysis by The Atlantic. “Whether looking at the state or metro level, we find strikingly consistent associations between gun violence and key markers of socio-economic disadvantage—poverty, income, education, class, and race.”
Research also supports the importance of gun control. The Atlantic found “substantial negative correlations between the rate of gun deaths and states that ban assault weapons, require trigger locks, and mandate safe storage requirements for guns.” Gun deaths are significantly lower where there are stricter gun control laws. Studies also show that homes, cities, states and regions with more guns correlates with a higher risk of firearm homicide.
We do not need to ban guns or even come close. We just need sensible restrictions, as Nicholas Kristof illustrated on Saturday when he asked why we don’t regulate guns as seriously as we regulate other potentially dangerous machines such as cars or even ladders. Gun rights advocates often mistakenly focus solely on the user of the machine (i.e., “guns don’t kill people”), but it’s the machine’s fundamental capacity to do harm that demands regulation. Kristof concludes: “The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals—all countries have them—but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns.”
Gun regulation does not violate the Second Amendment just as speech and press regulations do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment tells us to literally make “no law” restricting our freedom of speech or the press, but of course, we have plenty of laws that do just that, from libel and obscenity laws to copyright and the licensing of broadcasters. This is because most of us can come together and agree that we have certain agreed upon interests that we value above pure, unfettered free speech for everyone at all times. The same should be true of guns.
I encourage my students to look for the nuance in this and all issues. Like abortion, immigration and other tough issues, nothing is black and white. Neither the evidence nor the solution. In this case, where can we impose reasonable limits while still protecting the constitutional right to bear arms? How can we balance gun rights with other broadly shared social goals like protecting our children?
How about bringing back the assault weapons ban? Requiring trigger locks and safe storage has worked well in other countries, as have longer waiting periods and some gun buyback programs. As Kristof reports, Canada now requires two references to buy a gun. How about that? Even pet adoption requires references.
So yes, let’s have the conversation on mental illness. Surely we need to take care of those who need help. But let’s not ignore the evidence on sensible gun laws. Now is the time to find the political will to finally make some progress on this issue. Certainly it is absurd for us to sit back, do nothing, and wait for tragedy to strike again.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.