Why more guns won't make us safer
People may think firearms will protect them, but statistics show otherwise
IN HIS ARTICLE on gun control in the last issue of The Week, author Sam Harris argued that firearms serve as a great equalizer, enabling good men and women to defend themselves against stronger and more aggressive attackers. I respect Sam, but he failed to address the two most important pieces of evidence related to this issue: how frequently guns are used in domestic violence against women; and the data confirming the success of gun control in other countries.
It will come as no surprise to most people that men commit homicide 10 times as often as women. Their victims are often women. Two thirds of women killed by spouses are killed with guns. Firearm assaults on female family members and intimate acquaintances are approximately 12 times more likely to result in death than are assaults using other weapons. This is not some minor secondary issue. It is the heart of the matter — a form of chronic and pervasive domestic terrorism. It is impossible to claim to address gun violence in America while failing to address domestic violence against women.
The vast majority of gun owners are not maniacs. The vast majority are not planning on shooting their girlfriends, wives, or partners. But in a fit of anger or jealousy or some other overwhelming emotion, a gun can become a convenient way of lashing out. The decision to shoot can take a second, and then can't be undone. It happens every day in this country. These are the sad facts of life.
The many thousands of people who bought guns after the Connecticut massacre deem themselves to be just as responsible as gun enthusiast Harris. Most are — but take a step back. As the Harvard School of Public Health found, "guns in the home are used more often to frighten intimates than to thwart crime."
This is why Harris's guns-protect-women argument doesn't withstand practical scrutiny. In a sane world, getting a gun would be treated more rigorously than buying a car, and government-mandated safety training and psychological screening would be required before purchase. Yet most gun advocates would object to even these steps. And these safeguards would do nothing to protect women, particularly low-income women, who live in an ocean of guns, but simply choose not, or cannot afford, to buy guns and get properly trained. Should we require women to own guns, to protect themselves from gun-owning partners?
Second, Harris fails to delve into the data comparing U.S. gun violence with that of other developed nations. America's rate of homicide with guns is dramatically higher than that of most countries that have strict gun-control policies. There are gangs in Europe. They kill each other less frequently — because they have less access to guns. Sadly, men engage in domestic violence in other developed countries, but they have less access to guns than do American men.
The neglect of the data regarding these critically important topics means that the most important two aspects of gun violence in America are not really analyzed in Harris's piece. He instead offers that it is reasonable that he judges himself to be "psychologically stable" and "committed to safe handling" of firearms. I worked briefly as a prosecutor before serving in elective office. Harris's statement about himself is ironic given the stark realities law enforcement faces when dealing with vast numbers of people. Does Sam — or Joe or Jim — think he's "stable" when he buys a gun? Of course. We all think that. But in the real world — it's later that the gun gets drawn. Men, often drunk, get in fights. Men, often drunk, become jealous or want to control women. As anger or jealousy boils, "stability" and "commitment to safe handling" can change and do change — often, and often very quickly — into a dangerous and often lethal rage.
HARRIS DEVOTES SPACE to discussing his positive experience at target practice. This fails to capture the drunken rages that — in America distinctly — are supercharged by guns. (And, though more rare, let's consider: Do maniacs who engage in mass shootings deem themselves "stable"? It's a silly question of course. They can get guns in this country just as easily as intellectual authors or an otherwise normal man, who, sparked by circumstance or predisposition or both, flies into a blind range.)
Harris drags out the Swimming Pool Canard. You've heard this: Children are more likely to die in pools than by getting shot. Therefore children dying by gun violence should be dismissed as…just one of those things. Similar reasoning works like this: "Women are about eight times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than by breast cancer, so all that concern about breast cancer is overblown." Please. It is entirely reasonable that society can, and should, work to address breast cancer — and cardiovascular disease, hospital hygiene safety (Harris raises this chestnut too), and handguns. The either/or choice is a rhetorical trick, not a reasoned argument.
In fact, we can and must in public policy balance issues not by comparing swimming pools to handguns but by considering the pluses and minuses unique to each. What are the advantages and disadvantages of pools? How many Michael Phelps are produced? Very few. How many people live healthier, more pleasurable lives? Millions upon millions. How many save themselves from drowning because they learned to swim in a pool? Many, myself included. Swimming pools, you will concede, have positive attributes, indeed healthful attributes, that benefit millions.
What positive is offered by guns? The pleasure of target practice? Perhaps…but the risk of death and the widespread terrorizing of women, I would submit, far outweigh the pleasure of shooting at a paper body on a target. As the data make clear, the mythological self-defense argument is outweighed by domestic violence, accidents, and suicides that exist in much smaller percentages in other developed nations.
HARRIS OFFERS THAT some people will kill people with hunting rifles, which are more accurate than handguns, but that's a side issue. Most people aren't Oswald-style killers. Far more common are the angry situations with handguns that Harris does so little to confront. The handgun is easily the most convenient and most common choice for the loaded man wanting a loaded gun — the combination that causes so much terror in America every single day. It is the crux of the issue. Regardless of our position on the issue, we must squarely acknowledge that America would dramatically reduce killing in general and fatal domestic violence in particular if we dramatically reduced access to handguns.
Harris dismisses a reduction of access to handguns (and automatic and semiautomatic weapons) with the Gun Flood argument. This argument allows one to shrug one's shoulders and conclude, well, America's flooded with guns, especially handguns, so we'll just have to tell everyone to, well, buy even more guns. Will the NRA's "tell everyone to buy more guns" argument make women safer? Harris does not answer this question — because the answer is most certainly no. The proposed new Gun Flood will in the real world mean more women killed in domestic violence.
This is indeed the best NRA argument (however cynical). They say implicitly: (1) We flooded America with guns quite successfully, so it's now too late; and therefore explicitly (2) be afraid and buy more guns.
Toward the end of his piece, Harris slips in that he favors strict gun licensing and background checks. I commend him. But on two critical remedies, he backs up his NRA rhetoric with NRA policy positions. Both are wrong. Those two are handgun buybacks and legislation removing the handgun from its prevalent place in the American way of life, a prevalence that does not exist in so many other entirely productive, more safe, and more healthy developed countries.
Gun buybacks were successful in Australia after a mass shooting in the 1990s. They worked. Gun violence is down Down Under. Will they work here? Who knows, but they would work a lot better than Gun Flood Part Two, on top of the massive Gun Flood Part One. That is certain. Better to emulate Australia's success than to guarantee more domestic terrorizing of women.
I'm glad Harris and I agree that a "well-regulated militia" does not include every Tom, Dick, and drunk or angry Harry. However, he quickly offers a second argument against handgun buybacks and restrictions: He says it's not politically feasible in 2012. Assuming that conclusion is true, it is irrelevant. In 1955, it would have been reasonable to conclude that a civil rights bill was not going to pass. Opponents falsely claimed that a civil rights law was unconstitutional. I suppose civil rights organizers and sympathetic politicians could have dusted their hands and had cocktails instead.
That a sound policy may not become law today says nothing about whether a movement can be built to address a horrible injustice, an injustice that falls especially harshly on women and the poor, an injustice that would only be made far worse by flooding this country with even more guns, particularly more handguns.
LET ME MAKE two predictions, one melancholy, one optimistic. First, given the makeup of the current Congress, transformational action in the next two years is unlikely, and there will be more massacres and even more horrific (and increasing) deaths in America day in and day out, often victims of domestic violence and mostly with the use of handguns. And second, a movement can and will arise that will capitalize on changing demographics and eventually reverse this gun-flood policy, thus allowing people and rationality to survive and prevail. But there will be many unnecessary, horrible deaths before America finally does the right thing.
I was told less than 10 years ago that a black president was a political impossibility in my lifetime. Many had heard similar statements from smart people. This nation is changing demographically every day. We cannot predict all the trends, but the path of continuing gun violence is the path of death, carnage, and policy disaster. The path of removing non-hunting guns (including handguns) combined with strong regulation is a path of practical promise and a path of life — a path worth the investment of serious organized effort.
It is entirely possible that we can work successfully for legislation that removes handguns and assault weapons — which have no sporting use — and can create a strong buyback program to counteract the NRA-orchestrated gun flood. Given the carnage guaranteed by the alternative, we have no ethical choice but to organize. We have no ethical choice but to give this cause our best.
Enraged men with loaded guns are the most dangerous and pervasive part of this problem. Very frequently those killed will be terrorized family members who deserve much more respect than the NRA has offered them so far.
©2013 by Sean Faircloth. A longer version of this article was originally published at RichardDawkins.net. Reprinted with permission. Sean Faircloth is the author of Attack of the Theocrats! How the Religious Right Harms Us All — and What We Can Do About It.