Thursday, December 3, 2015
On Guns, We’re Not Even Trying
Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, DEC. 2, 2015
Another day, another ghastly shooting in America.
So far this year, the United States has averaged more than one mass
shooting a day, according to the ShootingTracker website, counting cases of
four or more people shot. And now we have the attack on Wednesday in San
Bernardino, Calif., that killed at least 14 people.
It’s too soon to know exactly what happened in San Bernardino, but just
in the last four years, more people have died in the United States from guns
(including suicides and accidents) than Americans have died in the wars in
Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined. When one person dies in
America every 16 minutes from a gun, we urgently need to talk about
Democrats, including President Obama, emphasize the need to address
America’s problems with guns. Republicans talk about the need to address
mental health. Both are right.
First, guns, the central issue: We need a new public health approach based
not on eliminating guns (that simply won’t happen in a land awash with 300
million guns) but on reducing the carnage they cause.
We routinely construct policies that reduce the toll of deadly products
around us. That’s what we do with cars (driver’s licenses, seatbelts,
guardrails). It’s what we do with swimming pools (fences, childproof gates,
pool covers). It’s what we do with toy guns (orange tips).
It’s what we should do with real guns.
We can improve public safety without eliminating guns. Switzerland has
guns everywhere because nearly all men spend many years as parttime
members of the armed forces (it’s said that Switzerland doesn’t have an army;
it is an army). Yet while military weapons are ubiquitous, crime is low.
What we should focus on is curbing access to guns among people who
present the greatest risk. An imperative first step is universal background
checks to acquire a gun. New Harvard research suggests that about 40 percent
of guns in America are acquired without a background check — which is just
Astonishingly, it’s perfectly legal even for people on the terrorism watch
list to buy guns in the United States. More than 2,000 terrorism suspects did
indeed purchase guns in the United States between 2004 and 2014, according
to the Government Accountability Office and The Washington Post’s
Wonkblog. Democrats have repeatedly proposed closing that loophole, but the
National Rifle Association and its Republican allies have blocked those efforts,
so it’s still legal.
While Republicans in Congress resist the most basic steps to curb gun
access by violent offenders, the public is much more reasonable. Even among
gun owners, 85 percent approve of universal background checks, according to
a poll this year.
Likewise, an overwhelming share of gun owners support cracking down
on firearms dealers who are careless or lose track of guns. Majorities of gun
owners also favor banning people under 21 from having a handgun and
requiring that guns be locked up at home.
These are reasonable steps that are, tragically, blocked by the N.R.A. and
its allies. The N.R.A. used to be a reasonable organization. It supported the
first major federal gun law in 1934 and ultimately backed the 1968 Gun
Control Act. As a farm kid growing up in rural Oregon, I received a .22 rifle for
my 12th birthday and took an N.R.A. safety course that, as I recall, came with a
oneyear membership. But the N.R.A. has turned into an extremist lobby that
vehemently opposes even steps overwhelmingly backed by gun owners.
As for mental health, Republicans are right that it is sometimes related to
gun violence. But it’s also true that in some cases their budget cuts have
reduced mental health services. To his credit, Representative Tim Murphy, a
Pennsylvania Republican, has introduced a bill that would improve our
disastrous mental health system, perhaps reducing the number of people who
snap and turn to violence. Yet some Democrats are wary of the bill because
Republicans like it. That’s absurd: We need better mental health services just
as we need universal background checks.
It’s not clear what policy, if any, could have prevented the killings in San
Bernardino. Not every shooting is preventable. But we’re not even trying.
When we tackled drunken driving, we took steps like raising the drinking
age to 21 and cracking down on offenders. That didn’t eliminate drunken
driving, but it saved thousands of lives.
For similar reasons, Ronald Reagan, hailed by Republicans in every other
context, favored gun regulations, including mandatory waiting periods for
“Every year, an average of 9,200 Americans are murdered by handguns,”
Reagan wrote in a New York Times oped in 1991 backing gun restrictions.
“This level of violence must be stopped.”
He added that if tighter gun regulations “were to result in a reduction of
only 10 or 15 percent of those numbers (and it could be a good deal greater), it
would be well worth making it the law of the land.”
Republicans, listen to your sainted leader,