Many Americans agree with President Obama that we should do something about gun violence. But when he gets down to specifics — such as the executive actions he announced last week — the country fragments, political paralysis ensues and the death toll keeps rising.
We must respect the constitutional right to bear arms, but it is not easy to balance it with the anguish over gun-related deaths. Fatalities are much lower than at their early-1990s height, but gun tragedies continue to play out daily. Suicides by firearm (which account for more than 60 percent of the 33,000 annual gun-related deaths in the U.S.) are on the upswing. Mass homicide, while statistically uncommon, happens enough that it casts a constant shadow on this nation of 300 million people — who are outnumbered by an estimated 310 million guns.
Difficult though it is to find consensus, Americans largely agree on the need for better background checks, stronger steps to keep firearms out of dangerous hands, and limits on the type of weaponry that enables rapid, mass slaughter.
Perhaps it would help if we stopped seeing "gun violence" as one oversimplified stereotype.
Of the 11,000 or so gun homicides, some are very public; others occur in private. Some mass killings — such as the December attack in San Bernardino, California — are the result of ideologically driven terrorism. Others are gang-related. Some cases, such as the rampage at an Oregon community college, appear to be indiscriminate madness. Then there are those in which a family argument escalates to devastation — such as in California last week, where a man (described as a heavy drinker and gun collector) shot relatives. There are the partners-killing-partners cases, too commonplace to gain national notice. And there are the individual tragedies — about 600 a year — in which a person is accidentally shot to death. In 2011, 50 of those unintentional victims were 13 or younger, according to the Washington Post.
On the law enforcement front, more effective means are needed to track down the source of guns that are used to murder. Results could yield ways to counter the flow of illegal weapons.
When it comes more specifically to mass "rampage" shooters, there often are hints of mental instability. Yet, analyses of such killings in recent years show that in almost all of them, the weapons were legally acquired. If the killers were in fact mentally ill, their condition did not rise to a known level that would show up in background checks.
More research is needed to understand the warning signs. Research (part of Obama's effort) also might point out ways to get more people needed mental health care — including thousands who attempt or commit suicide.
Laws already ban or restrict gun access for some people: those with felony or domestic violence records, mental incompetency and certain substance-abuse crimes. But unless accurate, up-to-date court and arrest information is entered into official databases, the background-check system might miss the red flags. That was apparently the case in South Carolina, where a young white supremacist was able to buy a gun and kill nine churchgoers.
Obama's push is welcome. But it will mean little unless friends and foes of tighter gun control find common ground.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD
Photo credit: Colville-Andersen