Suppose we approached the problem of gun violence in America in the same manner as other significant public health hazards—such as, say, passenger vehicle fatalities and injuries—by using data analysis, science, and innovation to make a useful but demonstrably dangerous instrumentality safer?
After all, data prove beyond dispute that death and injury from firearms are a significant risk to our public health and safety. Over a six-year period—2005 through 2010—187,426 Americans were killed with firearms, an average of 31,238 per year. In comparison, 101,970 persons died in terrorist incidents, worldwide. Your chance of being killed by a firearm? About one in 22,000. Of being killed by a terrorist? Around one in 3,500,000. Yet, we’ve spared no expense to protect ourselves from terrorists; between 2001-2011, we spent more than $1 trillion on federal, state, and local “homeland security” initiatives. In federal fiscal years 2012 and 2013, we budgeted $96.5 billion on the Department of Homeland Security; at the same time, the total budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has been $22.5 billion. We’ve enacted and re-enacted the PATRIOT Act, which includes compromises to our individual liberties under the Bill of Rights that, while still debated, are in effect.
A no-brainer, right? Wrong. Standing in the way for the last two decades have been the National Rifle Association; its affiliates; and their underwriters, firearms manufacturers and plutocrats associated with other, right-wing causes.
That’s the case that Tom Diaz makes in his second book on the subject, The Last Gun. (The first, Making a Killing, was published in 1999.) Over the past 15 years, he demonstrates, this alliance has been responsible for:
- Prohibiting the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—the federal government’s public health research agency—from sponsoring peer reviewed studies of the public health effects of gun violence;
- Barring the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), through its National Tracing Center, from releasing any meaningful data in its own database on guns used in crimes;
- Immunizing the gun industry from any significant civil liability for wrongful death or injury resulting from firearms use;
- Through its state affiliates and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), enacting a flurry of state laws promoting the public use of firearms by “law-abiding citizens,” including “concealed carry” permits and Florida’s “stand your ground” law, made infamous by the Trayvon Martin case; and
- Implementing a decade-long legal strategy designed to frustrate local governments’ ability to regulate firearms ownership and use, or take legal action against manufacturers or dealers for death or injury, that culminated in District of Columbia v. Heller, a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned two centuries of legal precedent to recognize an individual right to own firearms unconnected to a “well-regulated [state] militia,” as expressed in the Second Amendment.
These purposeful strategies were undertaken in service to the NRA’s putative traditional mission: to protect the right of “law-abiding citizens” to keep their persons and places secure from criminal and governmental intrusion, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. Diaz offers a more pedestrian motive: protecting and sustaining firearms sales and profits. His case is compelling. First, consider some identifiable trends in firearms ownership characteristics:
- Currently at fewer than one in three, the number of households holding firearms is declining; rather, ownership tends to be concentrated and growing—if at all—in existing households. Over the last 40 years, the number of respondents under age 30 reporting a gun in the household has declined from 45 to 20 percent.
- As a percentage of both their demographic and the population, most gun owners are white males.
- Traditional, culturally-based reasons for owning firearms—rural living, hunting, and related sport shooting—are in decline. Younger users drawn to firearms at all are now more susceptible to “self-defense” as a reason.
- Despite the industry’s best efforts to the contrary, handgun sales to women are flat.
Given these trends, Diaz lays out how the NRA and the industry have concentrated their efforts on overstating the likelihood of being a victim of crime or violence and capitalizing on that fear by marketing paramilitary products and accessories that kill or injure more efficiently.
The irony in all this is that firearms death and injury as a unique public health problem of ours is likely to sort itself out over time, left to its own devices—at considerable human and economic expense in the meantime. Right now, over 90 percent of American households have a car, while fewer than a third contain a firearm; the year-by-year trends of deaths nationwide from these two consumer products are on trajectories to intersect.
How do we turn this situation around? Diaz offers six categorical suggestions:
- “Stop accepting excuses from politicians.” His position is that the NRA and its allies control this issue because our representatives who desire re-election and a compliant media allow it.
- “Demand an end to the lockdown on gun and gun violence data, and insist on the creation of comprehensive databases and open information about guns and gun violence.” Diaz has two recommendations. First, establish a unified, searchable federal database of a type that will enable “[p]ublic health analysts, policymakers, and ordinary citizens…to find out as much about the trends in gun violence as that which is freely available today about trends in tire blowouts, baby stroller design, tainted foodstuffs, and virtually every item of consumer usage.” Until that happens, organize and coordinate all available state and local information on gun usage, morbidity, and mortality and make it available to the media on a regular basis. (Most current studies rely on media reports of gun violence, which—as Diaz demonstrates, repeatedly—are hardly scientific, but all we’ve got.)
- “Understand that gun violence is not someone else’s issue.” Gun violence cannot be viewed in isolation. It affects communities at every socioeconomic level, and its contributions to domestic violence; gang presence and control; and drug usage are inescapable.
- “Learn about guns and the gun industry.” I can’t say it any better than Diaz does: “Gun control may be one of the few issues in America in which all opinions, no matter how under- or misinformed, are given equal weight.” I know of no interest in America better at staying on message and changing the subject than the NRA.
- “Look upstream for gun violence prevention measures.” Again, Diaz: “A database that includes all the details of incidents of gun violence—similar to databases on contaminated drugs, automobile crashes, and injuries from defective children’s furniture— would yield invaluable information, no matter what label the industry chooses to use in its marketing programs.”
- “Learn from successful programs.” There are good reasons that other post-industrial, first-world nations don’t suffer gun violence at the rates we do, and we shouldn’t be afraid to study them to find out why. Australia’s 1996 reforms, which included an assault weapons ban and massive government buy-back program, would be a good place to start.
Overall, the only chink in Diaz’ armor I could find was his indictment of politicians craving re-election and the politics of “triangulation” as enablers of the NRA’s coalition—not because they aren’t, but because their positions on gun control are relative and taken out of context. It cannot be denied that the NRA is one of the most successful, “single interest” lobbies ever devised, but it has profited in large part—especially lately—by aligning itself with other moneyed interests who manipulate the system for their own gain. I agree with Diaz that the NRA is not nearly the electoral tiger it makes itself out to be, but what ails us politically extends well beyond this issue. Because I’ve been there, I know that the cynical calculation necessary to win another term requires prioritization of those issues likely to hurt you and, unfortunately, gun control is down the list.
At last, the author puts the onus on us, the citizen-electorate:
America will get the kind of gun violence prevention programs that it deserves only when, and if, the vast, silent majority realizes that strong and effective fact-based policies that significantly reduce gun death and injury are in their interest—and then does something about it.
This applies not just to gun violence but every other subject of importance that runs aground on the political shoals in the Congress. The shortest distance between two points here would be national electoral and some constitutional reforms, about which I’ve written elsewhere.
On the present issue, though, here’s a start: Read this book to inform your own arguments, then ask those who disagree with it to demonstrate, chapter and verse, how, where, and why any of Diaz’ analysis is wrong. Be civil, but firm—and, above all, don’t allow them to change the subject.