An advanced democracy can’t shrug at mass deaths, especially kid killings
Experts fear the country is veering dangerously into a widespread acceptance of mass death as just a regular part of life — not only by moving on with little more than faint acknowledgement of more than 1 million coronavirus pandemic fatalities but also with a tragic resignation about fatal shootings at schools, groceries, movie theaters, and other public places.
It has been chilling to watch the “new normal” of the public reactions to a racist shooting that killed 10 in a Buffalo, N.Y., grocery, and the slaughter of 19 children and two adults at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas with destructive disinformation spreading, public officials fatally bungling, and political partisanship calcifying apace.
Most Americans recognized that the coronavirus was the worst health threat to the global community in a century. Most of us listened to experienced, evidence-based experts and followed their recommendations to quell the disease. But Republicans, with their White House running a shambolic, counter factual pandemic response, quickly politicized the efforts to battle the disease, experts say, and that helped bring about hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths.
Now, as many Americans reel at repeated mass shootings occurring within a week of each other and soaring rates of gun violence, GOP leaders are staying mum, offering only condolences and prayers, propounding hard to fathom theories about public safety, or staying steadfast in the party’s decades of staunch support of purported protection of Second Amendment rights — meaning fighting to the nth degree even modest efforts at gun control.
Pollsters say most Americans disagree with the Republicans, and commentators have assailed the party politicians who have argued for forcing schools to have just one entry or exit or arming teachers — all while opposing efforts to bar sales of assault weapons, high-volume ammunition clips, and weapons purchases by those younger than 21.
Tackling gun violence as a public health issue
The policy arguments rage, deepening anger and underscoring another major failure of U.S. governance — allowing partisanship for too long to block the funding for rigorous, independent research that would treat ever rising gun violence as a public health calamity and subject this menace to the kind of study that once helped to slash road deaths, disease-causing smoking, and other societal hazards.
As the Washington Post reported, Republicans in Congress since 1996 have made an annual ritual of renewing the Dickey Amendment, named after a GOP Arkansas congressman. With Jay Dickey’s assistance, the National Rifle Association jawed the lawmakers to whom it has contributed tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions, persuading them that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was biased against guns. The Dickey Amendment ever since has barred federal funding for gun-related research. It also cowed other research funders and institutions from tackling a crucial public policy concern.
In 2019, Congress finally agreed to permit a trickle of federal money to be split by the CDC and the National Institutes of Health for gun research, which also has become a matter of publicly and privately funded study at institutions like the RAND Corporation, as well as at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, the University of Chicago, Rutgers, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.
Though experts are racing to provide factual evidence as to the causes and best preventative measures against gun violence, they are already far behind in providing concrete answers to a major menace to Americans’ health and well-being. As New York Times columnist Nick Kristof reported in his recent Opinion piece:
“[W]e’re paralyzed in ways that threaten our democracy and our well-being. American children and teenagers are 57% more likely to die young compared with children and teenagers in other advanced countries, and guns are one important reason. One study found that Americans ages 15 to 19 are 82 times more likely to be shot dead than similarly aged teenagers in our peer countries.”
To be blunter, Time magazine recently reported this [see chart above, courtesy New England Journal of Medicine]:
“Firearms became the leading cause of death for American children and teenagers in 2020, according to researchers who analyzed [CDC] data. This sad fact represents a major shift in risks for young people in the U.S. For over 60 years, car accidents were the leading cause of death for kids and teens. Car accidents are now No. 2, while drug overdoses are No. 3.”
The statistical evidence is grim
The New York Times, in a news article about the Uvalde shooting, reported grim numbers on this country’s challenges with guns:
“The United States has many more guns than citizens, about 400 million firearms, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the nonpartisan Small Arms Survey, and 331 million people. For more than a decade now, semiautomatic handguns, bought for personal protection, outsell rifles, which have been typically used in hunting. And the coronavirus pandemic stirred an even greater gun-buying craze. Annual domestic gun production increased from 3.9 million in 2000 to 11.3 million in 2020, according to a report released this month by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A vast majority of those firearms stayed in the United States.”
The newspaper also reported the frequency with which mass shootings are occurring:
“Mass shootings have become so common in the United States that only a small fraction rise to attract widespread attention beyond the communities directly affected. On the same weekend as the Buffalo killings, more than a dozen people were wounded by gunfire in downtown Milwaukee, near the arena where an NBA playoff game ended hours earlier, the authorities said. Two weeks earlier, the owner and two employees of the Broadway Inn Express motel in Biloxi, Miss., were fatally shot, and another person was also shot dead during a carjacking. Less than four weeks before that, a barrage of gunfire in Sacramento killed six people and wounded 12 in a shooting that the authorities said involved at least five gunmen … the FBI [has] released data showing a rapidly escalating pattern of public shootings in the United States. The bureau identified 61 ‘active shooter’ attacks in 2021 that killed 103 people and injured 130 others. That was the highest annual total since 2017, when 143 people were killed, and hundreds more were wounded, numbers inflated by the sniper attack on the Las Vegas Strip. The 2021 total represented a 52% increase from the tally of such shootings in 2020, and a 97% increase from 2017, according to the FBI’s Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2021 report.”
Kristof, who has delved into this issue before, offers a thought-provoking panoply of policy steps on guns that, taken together, might dent what too many, in nihilistic fashion, may regard as a problem without solutions:
“The truth is that we’re not going to ban guns in the United States any more than we ban alcohol, motorcycles, hunting knives, cigarettes, or other products that can be deadly. Screaming, maximalist fights about ‘gun control’ versus the ‘Second Amendment’ have created a political stalemate as we continue to lose 45,000 lives a year to guns. That’s 123 lives lost a day.”
Many policy paths to explore
He argues that Americans successfully have reduced road carnage (until recently, at least) through regulations, including safety standards for vehicles and drivers, including now uncontested licensing requirements. Similar safety efforts have addressed problems with ladders, swimming pools, and kids’ toys, he says, adding:
“Addressing gun violence must also include a strong mental health component, as the military recognizes in its strategy to reduce suicides. Likewise, social programs like Cure Violence and Becoming a Man aren’t specifically about guns but do appear to reduce gun violence. There are many other steps we can take. Safe storage requirements for firearms keep guns from children and thieves (some 380,000 guns are stolen annually from private owners). We need to crack down on ‘ghost guns’ assembled by the purchaser from parts without a serial number or any background check. We must curb the next technology: firearms made by 3-D printers. Let’s be driven by evidence, which means more research. What about voluntary gun buybacks, to reduce the pool of 400 million guns in America? What about warning labels on guns, cautioning that a firearm in the house increases the risk of a gun death? What about a tax on guns to cover some of the external costs of their misuse, just as we tax cigarettes? What about universal background checks to buy ammunition? How about waiting periods or a limit of two gun purchases a month per person? How about a crackdown on straw purchasers who equip gangs?”
He makes this powerful suggestion, too:
“[S]pare us the pious calls to avoid politics. Rather, let’s supplement thoughts and prayers with concrete steps, based on nerdy evidence-gathering, based on hard conversations with people we disagree with, to reduce gun deaths so that elementary schools need not be graveyards.”
Yes, sir. In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by defective and dangerous products, which in too many cases these days would include guns of many different sorts.
Doctors and other staff in health care don’t only treat the horrific, lasting injuries that gun violence causes, they have grown more and more angry, frustrated, and politically outspoken against those whose inaction allows this calamity to persist. Extremists about gun rights, open carry, stand your ground, and free and easy licensing and sales of weapons should spend time in hospital units handling the gruesome injuries of victims of gunshots. It was heart breaking and sickening for most people to hear news reports that parents of Uvale fourth graders had to supply DNA swabs to identify their dead children because of the horrific damage done to the youngsters by the madman’s weaponry — rifles designed by the military for the explicit purpose of killing.
Perhaps, legally speaking, it is time to add to Kristof’s list of ideas others, including a tough scrutiny of the tax-exempt status of the NRA, including the lavish, scandalous perks it accords to its leaders. Lawmakers also should take a hard look at the insulation — which is not absolute — that gunmakers, sellers, and distributors have against those seeking justice with claims of wrong done against them in the civil system (translation: Is it time to stop making these parties so bullet proof against liability lawsuits?)
We have much work to do, yes, to protect the legitimate rights of those wanting guns and to safeguard society against increasing gun violence.