My friend Rob has been talking about his tough neighborhood 50 years ago in Philadelphia, where fistfights, dares, taunts, and threats were all too common. Still, he says, “we all walked away.”
What he means is that there were no guns–boys and young men fought, they acted ugly to each other, but they did not kill each other.
No guns. What a concept! Think how different today’s Baltimore, or D.C., or Philadephia or New York or Detroit would be.
That would be my ideal world. No guns on the streets except for police when absolutely needed to stop crime. Indeed no guns in the forests or woodlands either (I am a vegetarian and don’t want animals killed for our food) except for those legally empowered to protect us from marauding, dangerous wild animals (similar to police protecting us from marauding, dangerous human animals).
Still, I know that is unrealistic, especially in the United States.
Still, something must be done. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in much of the nation today, deaths from gunshots now outnumber deaths from traffic accidents, and overall a person in the United States is as likely to die from gunshot as from auto accidents. This is a new situation, an indicator of two things:
- how much has been done over the past several decades to make cars, highways, and driving safer (as well as improved medical treatment)
- and how little has been done to make guns safer to use and to restrict their use by people not properly equipped to do so.
Gun-related deaths did decline in the 1990s but the numbers have since remained steady. And homicides by gunshot have declined, while suicides committed with guns have risen.
Thus, it feels to me that at least some of the rhetoric about Second Amendment rights is saying that people have a constitutional right to kill themselves with guns. And I suppose I agree (although I do not know if the Supreme Court agrees).
However, I am not sure I agree that it is an unlimited right. Can we not better protect people in the midst of mental health crises from killing themselves (as well as others)? Is that not a matter of protecting the public health (especially when unstable people have access to guns in order to kill others)?
Three things can be done.
- First, we can make guns safer by mandating various safety locks and mechanisms so people (including children) cannot just pick up a gun and shoot.
- Second, we can insist on background checks on all gun buyers and every purchase. No exceptions.
- Third, Congress must remove the ban on many types of federal gun research–so we can be smarter about how to prevent gun deaths without denying the right of people to own guns. Much of the decrease in automobile-related deaths is traceable to extensive federal research, often undertaken in cooperation with the auto industry. The NRA and the gun industry could learn from this. Fewer gun deaths would make the cause of gun ownership less toxic in our culture.
There is another set of factors to consider here. Like much else in our nation, gun-related deaths reveal underlying racial and class divisions. For example, Black Americans are significantly more likely to be victims of homicide even though only 1 in 5 Black households has guns. In contrast, more than 2 in 5 Americans who call themselves white have guns in their households, but gun violence is more likely there to be from suicide. Both sets of numbers make changing some of the rules imperative.
It feels to me that a culture of violence is growing our nation–verbal violence in our politics, gun violence on our streets, visual violence in the world of video games and even the traditional and social media. Of course, ISIS and the Taliban and other violently radical groups cause great anxiety–especially in light of San Bernardino–and many people seem to be trying to ratchet it higher.
The bottom line is that violence in response to violence does not increase safety or peace ultimately. Instead, it simply multiplies the overall level of violence. Hatred begets hatred, violence begets violence.
My friend Rob’s old Philadelphia neighborhood sounds almost idyllic–boys being boys, men or about-to-be men being men, contesting for territory and badges of masculinity but staying alive to shoot hoops or chase girls or just hang out and talk big.
It seems hard to believe that old days may have been less violent, and yet in some ways and places that may be true. We are often blinded by thinking that technological progress is the same as moral progress (though improved gun technology could lower the odds for gun deaths), but it ain’t necessarily so.