Life’s certainties: death, taxes and gun violence

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On Sept. 16, 2013, former U.S. Navy reservist Aaron Alexis, 34 opened fire on a naval installation in Washington D.C. killing 12 employees before police shot him dead.

Alexis’ two prior arrests for firearm-related incidents or his ability to acquire a weapon despite ‘anger management problems’ associated with post-traumatic stress disorder would reignite the gun control debate—particularly for those fighting to keep guns out of the hands of those suffering from mental illness that may lend them to violence.

Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (a Democrat from Nevada), however announced he would not reintroduce defeated gun control legislation in the Senate, saying that it is because they “don’t have the votes” to support the bill.

Thirteen gun deaths is unsettling, but, perhaps more so, was the muted response from the public and the President regarding what President Barack Obama characterized as “another” mass shooting (26 people were killed at an Elementary school in Connecticut in December 2012 and 12 were killed in a movie theater shooting in Colorado in July 2012).

As debates on Obamacare, a looming government shutdown and the Syrian resolution consume Capitol Hill, gun control is seemingly quickly fading into the background.

Annually, the United States of America records more that 31,000 deaths from gun violence. Since 2006, there were 146 mass shootings and 900 shooting victims.

Yet to say that America has a greater predisposition to violence than other nations is incorrect. Guns and gun violence are certainly not unique to the United States. Their prevalence within the United States, however, does dramatically increase the lethality rates of crime.

The United States along with only two other countries (Mexico and Guatemala), constitutionally protects the right to bear arms. A 2008 Supreme Court decision guaranteed an individual’s right to possess a gun, effectively declaring the government cannot ever completely disarm its citizens. Two years later, the Court by a narrow majority extended this principle to the States.

The debate seemingly fails to convey the ultimate goal: reducing gun deaths. Discussing gun “control” becomes conflated with an eventual “prohibition” on gun rights. The right to bear arms is not absolute and uncompromised.

Firearm regulations have been implemented since the Bill of Rights’ inception. The motto above the headquarters of the National Rifle Association in 1957 read “Firearms safety education, marksmanship training, shooting for recreation.”

Irrespective of political ideology, the emphasis was on reconciling an individual’s right to bear arms with another’s individual’s right to feel safe in the presence of guns.

Trevor Burrus, Research Fellow at Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies, explains that the fundamental question in today’s gun debate is substitution. If you eliminate all concealed rifles tomorrow, does that mean you will stop all murders associated with assault weapons? If no, the assumption is that there will be no substitution with another assault weapon such as a long-gun or knife. This is simply not the reality.

He further explains that Americans do not want to live in a world with violent shootings, but, they also understand that all freedoms have costs. Completely eradicating shootings requires forfeiting benefits associated with the right to bear arms - among other things: the peace of mind of protecting yourself and your family.

NRA Vice President, Wayne LaPierre, assisted shifting the conversation following the Navy Yard shooting this month towards the “broken mental health” system. But focusing the gun violence debate on mental health alone overlooks the greater scheme of this growing crisis.

Mental health does not explain why three bored teenagers shot a 23 year old Australian student in Oklahoma recently. Nor does it explain why George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in “self-defense” last year. These examples and so many other like them, the assumption that the bulk of gun violence is committed by the mentally ill is misstated.

David Hemenway, professor of health policy at the Harvard School of Public Health, was cited recently as saying that guns are also rarely used appropriately in self-defense.

When anger, tiredness or fear take over, it’s nice not to have guns lying around.

The Senate, in the wake of the school shooting which left 20 elementary school children dead and despite receiving 90 percent of public support, rejected expanded gun background checks in April 2013. It is unlikely, particularly as the mid-term 2014 election approaches that congressional members will concentrate their efforts again on gun control measures.

When pressing Burrus, who questions the effectiveness of increased background checks given the relaxed enforcement of existing regulations, what could be gun to mitigate gun violence, he responded candidly that “twelve people die every day, all the time, in violence largely connected with the drug war either derivatively or directly.”

The single best thing we could do to fix a lot of gun violence is ending the drug war, and public education. That is where the national conversation needs to move towards.

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