Weapons of mass destruction

When everyone has a gun, the body count soars

(Image credit: Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

This is the editor's letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

A motorcyclist was roaring in and out of highway lanes on I-35 in Fort Worth when he decided that an SUV changed lanes to block him. The enraged biker, 19, raced past other vehicles, stopped the bike to block all lanes of traffic, and approached the SUV with a drawn handgun. The SUV driver jumped out and said he had kids in his vehicle. But when the motorcyclist didn't lower his gun, he raised his own and fired multiple shots, leaving the biker dying on the road. This was just one of hundreds of gun deaths last week, as our nation continues to devolve into a heavily armed Wild West. In 2020, with the pandemic, protests, and a divisive election further weakening frayed social bonds, Americans purchased more than 23 million guns — a 66 percent increase over 2019. Up to 40 percent of new gun sales, the firearm industry estimates, went to first-time buyers — with sales jumping 50 percent among Black customers and 47 percent among Hispanics.

Jabril Battle, 28, an African-American account representative in Los Angeles, was one of the first-time buyers. He told The Washington Post he'd always hated "gun nuts" but was deeply unsettled by the pandemic's apocalyptic, "Mad Max" feeling of anarchy. "I was like, do I want to be a person who has a gun or doesn't have a gun?" He bought two. The fear of being outgunned feeds on itself: Americans now own an estimated 390 million guns — a per capita rate more than double that of any other country. Deadly weapons may make people feel safer, but they also serve as impulse amplifiers, transforming arguments into homicides, gang turf battles into firefights, disaffected young men into mass killers, depression into easy suicide, and police stops into tragic deaths. As we celebrated our nation's birth on the Fourth of July weekend, more than 230 Americans died by gun violence and 618 were wounded. And so it goes.

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