Home > Uncategorized > After Charleston, Thoughts on Gun Violence – 7/4/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/11/2015

After Charleston, Thoughts on Gun Violence – 7/4/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/11/2015

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/11/2015 under the heading “After Charleston, thoughts on gun”.

The Charleston shootings follow on the heels of so many other mass shootings. Without even thinking about it, I recall Newtown, Aurora, Gabby Giffords, Fort Hood, and Virginia Tech. I know there are others I have missed. The pattern is depressingly well-established.

Unfortunately, the response to the shootings has also been predictably defeatist. Supposedly, nothing can be done about gun violence because of the political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA).

I want to suggest a different approach. As I have written previously, gun violence is fundamentally a public health problem. Reducing gun violence should be seen as a public health emergency. No sane society should ignore a problem that is killing 30,000 citizens a year. That figures to 85 Americans killed everyday by gun violence, an absurdly high tally.

Regardless of your position on the Second Amendment and gun rights, I would assume everyone has an interest in bringing down that number.

Professor David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health has outlined a creative agenda for curbing gun violence. He compares reducing gun violence to campaigns against cigarettes, unintentional poisoning, and for motor vehicle safety. Hemenway thinks we could have the same kind of success with curbing gun violence that we have had with other public health campaigns.

Hemenway’s multi-dimensional approach is not the same as any past formula I have seen. I think it is a bit outside the box. He suggests a campaign to de-glorify guns much as was done with cigarettes. He argues that through much of the 20th century, TV, movies and advertising glorified cigarettes as “symbols of modernity, autonomy, power, and sexuality”. The campaign against cigarettes which has included media spots, warning labels, peer stories and celebrity testimonials has been undeniably effective. Hemenway says between 1966-2010, the prevalence of cigarette smoking among U.S. adults has reduced by more than half from 43% to 19%.

The same type of campaign could be run to de-glorify guns which I think are bizarrely venerated here in America. Guns could be associated with weakness, cowardice, irrationality, death and disability. The aftermath of gun violence has been ignored and minimized. There are no television shows about the agony of parents who have lost their children to senseless shootings.

Maybe it is stating the obvious but so many shootings are utterly senseless. Often, they are the quick confluence of bad judgment, passion, snap decision-making and a convenient tool of devastating lethality. A lifetime of regret can follow from a very brief bad moment in time.

While it really deserves a separate column of its own, you do not hear much from the NRA about firearm suicides. Almost 50 Americans a day kill themselves with a gun. I think the too easy availability of firearms to people at risk increases the suicide rate. It is admittedly hard to identify in advance all those who are likely to attempt suicide.

We need to change the associations about guns in the public mind. There are no shortage of negative images which could be employed. Maybe gun violence needs the equivalent image of a Marlboro man dying of lung cancer. It would be good to see ads with Tom Brady, Richard Sherman, Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, George Clooney and Samuel L. Jackson downing guns. There are way too many casual images of movie stars shooting at other people with a sanitized and unreal ending.

Hemenway has also suggested a new national tax on all purchases of firearms and ammunition. He compares a tax of that nature to the tax on cigarettes. Such a tax could provide a stable revenue source to fund a national endowment to benefit those harmed by gun violence and their families. It could also fund prevention efforts.

In its May/June issue, Mother Jones Magazine focused on the costs of gun violence. The magazine asked Ted Miller, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, to look at the direct and indirect costs of gun violence. For direct costs, Miller included emergency services, police investigations, long-term medical and mental health care as well as court and prison costs. For indirect costs, Miler looked at lost income, losses to employers and impact on quality of life. Miller based amounts on the impact on quality of life from jury awards for pain and suffering to victims of wrongful injury and death.

Miller used data from 2012 and came up with an annual cost of gun violence in America as exceeding $229 billion. Certainly that estimate can be contested but it is hard to argue against some gigantic price tag.

Not surprisingly, there is not good data on the costs of gun violence for victims, their families, their employers and everyone else. The major reason for the lack of good data is political pressure from the NRA and the pro-gun lobby to block research related to firearms. The pro-gun forces have successfully pressured politicians to ban funding for research at the Centers for Disease Control about gun-related injury and death.

Talk about a war on science. How can we even get an objective picture of the harm when an interest group directly involved in the matter of study prohibits any government investigation? I do find it amazing that the gun lobby has gotten away with such a suppression of science. Imagine if the cigarette companies had been able to block research on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. There would be many more people dying today.

Hemenway suggests many other good ideas to heighten gun safety. He proposes key or security code locking devices on guns and reducing magazine clips. I also wonder about firearm personalization technology, including fingerprint readers.I would think the technology could prevent accidental gun deaths and it also could reduce crime because stolen guns with fingerprint readers would render the gun useless.

One other crazy thing: firearms and ammunition are exempt from consumer-oriented safety standards. Neither the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission nor any other federal agency oversees safety regulation for these dangerous products. We have the ridiculous situation where hand-held hair dryers, sleepwear and toys are more scrutinized for danger than guns. In effect, gun manufacturers have carte blanche to sell whatever highly militarized products they want regardless of how inappropriate they are for a civilian market.

Part of the power of the gun rights proponents has been their success in framing the issue. They present all gun matters as a question of individual constitutional rights. They would argue that regulating at all infringes on their fundamental rights. What they are not acknowledging is that no constitutional right is an absolute trump card. All constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment, are subject to some regulation. Non-lawyers might not know it but that is not contested in the legal world.

Nothing I propose here interferes with the Second Amendment rights of citizens who want to deer hunt or do any other lawful hunting. I just think that as demonstrated in frequent mass shooting like Charleston the Unites States has a terrible public health problem with firearms that demands attention.

While gun-related legislative efforts at both the federal and state level have been disappointing, I would encourage advocates to be in it for the long haul. Anyone familiar with legislatures knows that legislative success often only comes after a lengthy history of repeated failures. Nothing stays the same. I believe persistence and rationality will ultimately win out on reducing gun violence.

  1. paul2eaglin
    July 4, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    You did not mention what is attainable. Most of what you suggest is unattainable due to the power of the NRA and the Gun Owners of America, whom you did not mention but which is in many respects far worse than the NRA. (difficult to believe but it’s true)
    What is attainable is for media to cease paying regard to the NRA and the GOA as if they are entitled to have a say when there is a gun incident. Instead, media should not interview or air the purported “views” or “perspective” of the NRA and/or GOA when there is another shooting incident. That would be fair since they purport to speak for gun owners but data show that gun owners are indeed willing to accept far more controls than these organizations will permit their politicians to enact. Gun owners would readily accept your measures but the organizations of which they are members will not conform their policies to their members’ positions.
    The media’s inexplicable compulsion to air the NRA and/or GOA as though their views matter was on display after Charleston, to utterly sickening effect. NRA and the GOA agreed that the Rev. Pinckney shared responsibility for his own death and the deaths of his church members. They contended that, as permitted by S. C. law, Rev. Pinckney forbade guns in Mother Emanuel. Had he permitted them–these two organizations contended WITHOUT CHALLENGE FROM THE MEDIA to this counterfactual supposition–then the armed Bible study goers could have defended themselves, and so could have Rev. Pinckney himself.
    There are way too many levels of just how sickening and depraved is that view. Most immediately, however, I’ll go to the timing of the airing of that depraved perspective by the media as though it deserved respect. I saw that on TV by the first weekend, and often it was the “piece” that media chose to “balance” the forgiveness uttered by family members who spoke at the Initial Appearance of the killer. No media seemed to appreciate that a church–and its pastor, their leader–for whom forgiveness at that level is part of the fabric of their being is NOT deserving of being criticized for banning guns in church. The views of the NRA and the GOA should not have been sought out nor should they have been aired for they were truly and utterly offensive in the context of the humanity of the people who were murdered by that racist killer. When I saw those interviews and thought of how obviously important forgiveness was to the life and being of those survivors of the dead, I was reminded of the gunning down of the Amish children in their elementary school, which is a shooting that is rarely mentioned but happened not long ago. Like the Mother Emanuel families, the Amish surviving families forgave the killer, who had killed himself, and displayed their forgiveness by visiting the killer’s family and by attending his funeral. It would have been equally offensive if anyone had suggested that the Amish begin to arm themselves and to arm their teachers in the one room schoolhouses. It would be equivalent to asking them to stop being Amish, just as it amounted to saying Rev. Pinckney and his church members should stop being who they are as magnificent human beings.
    That is a principal step by the media that could go a long way toward achieving what you say. Another step that is immediately within the control of media, and beyond the control of the NRA and GOA to control through their politicians, is to deny focus and attention to killers. I saw only one TV program–The Rachel Maddow Show–that blurred his face and would not say his name. She is to be admired for that even though it is presently somewhat hopeless especially the more high profile is the shooting incident. The demented killers and racists like him have such distorted psyches that the pursuit of notoriety means a lot to them. Examine how many of them have researched other shootings, who have paid close attention to the “body count,” and have as an objective to exceed the record of deaths. Denying notoriety and minimizing display of the killers is well within the media’s ability and cannot be denied or blunted by the NRA or the GOA. Plainly, the identity will come out to some extent, given the open court system but media can downplay that and pay far more attention to the victims and the depravity of gun availability each time there is a mass shooting.

    Paul Eaglin
    Syracuse NY

  2. steveacherry
    July 6, 2015 at 10:05 am

    Great piece Bro. The statistics are shocking. Nice to see you and Deb and your giant dog🐕

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Jay Bute
    July 11, 2015 at 7:44 pm

    Your commentary is formulaic. Gun violence is a big, daily problem in urban Africa-America. About six or seven young black men are shot dead by other young black men each day.

    This ongoing slaughter is ignored or excused by white liberals because any possibly workable solution would be seen as racist or politically incorrect, such as “stop and frisk” which did a great job of getting guns off NYC streets becuase it was such a strong deterrent to habitually carrying a handgun, as so many “ganstas” were wont to do.

    As far as I know, Hollywood has never glorified the urban African-Amerian gangsta’ gun culture. Hemenway’s proposed program would have no effect on the urban African-American gansta’ gun culture any more than such PR and public health programs have had on the use of drugs, cigarettes, or booze within the urban African-American gangsta’ gun culture.

    Mass shootings by white European Americans are no more common than by white Europeans: 2011-Liege, 2011 Florence; 2001 Switzwerland (14 killed); 2002 France (8 killed); 2002 Germany (16 killed); 2007 Finland (8 killed); 2008 Finland (11 killed); 2009 Germany (15 killed); 2010 England (12 killed); 2011 Netherlands (6 killed); 2011 Norway (69 killed); 2011 Belgium (4 killed). This data if thru 2011, I cannot find more recent data.

    Do you notice anything odd about this? Do you know why this surprises you? The liberal legacy media in the USA do not report mass shootings in Europe. They fear exposing the fact that strict gun control has no effect on reducing mass shootings.

    • July 14, 2015 at 8:48 am

      Mr Bute – Guns are an issue everywhere, not just for African America youth. I guess you are not a reader of my blog because I just wrote about this issue in reviewing Ghettoland. I think what you are missing is the disparity between gun violence in the USA and gun violence in Europe and other places. The problem is much worse in the US and Europeans are generally aghast at how bad the gun problem is here. It is not unrelated to the fact that there are between 200-3oo million guns in the US population.

      As was true in Charleston, the gun issue is not a Black/white thing. That was a white racist youth who pulled the trigger and killed nine people. Focusing on white liberals is a bad joke.

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