Cover of Blown Away: American Women and Guns
Here are some facts about gun use in the United States.
I hope they are helpful as you try to make sense of the latest massacre, in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman yesterday killed 2o children and eight adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
I spent two years — 2002 to 2004 — studying how Americans think and feel and behave, how they lobby and legislate — about gun use in this country.
The result is my 2004 book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books). I’m now considered an expert on the subject.
The book was acquired by every Ivy League school and their law schools, by the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and I was invited to address senior Canadian government officials in Ottawa. It includes women who enjoy gun use and those whose lives have been traumatized by it, whether they were shot, or lost loved ones to suicide and homicide.
Fifty percent of American gun deaths are suicide.
Neither an academic nor gun-owner, I took a three-day course in handgun use and shot a wide variety of guns, from a .22 rifle to a .357 magnum, in the course of my research. I spoke to 104 men, women and teens about their use of — and hatred of — guns. I interviewed politicians and lobbyists and hunters and Olympic shooters and cops.
Here are some of the reasons that “gun control” is an issue that often seems unmanageable:
— The health care system in the United States, which unlike many other nations, has no single-payer structure, makes it difficult, if not impossible, to spot, track and dis-arm someone who is mentally ill and/or sociopathic with access to a firearm before they commit mass murder. Unlike STDs, for example, there is no requirement to publicly report their existence as a matter of public health.
— Americans believe, more than anything, in their individual rights and their right to privacy. Asking a patient about their ownership or use of firearms can be seen as deeply invasive.
— Americans’ dominant ethos is self-reliance and freedom from government restriction. Any effort to limit access to guns and ammunition runs counter to this deeply held belief.
— American physicians and health-care professionals have no way to report their fears, (should they even be aware of such a threat, which is highly unlikely), to law enforcement. They fear being sued. They are reluctant to ask their patients if there is a firearm in the home and, if so, where and how it is stored and and if it (they) is kept loaded.
— It has been said that 25 percent of Americans will suffer from mental illness during their lifetime. On any given day, then, there is a percentage of the population for whom ready access to a weapon and ammunition is deeply unwise. Co-relate this statistic with the number of Americans whose home contains a gun.
— Forty-seven percent of Americans own a gun. This is the highest rate of gun ownership since 1993. (source: Gallup poll.) There is no way to know when or how these two factors intersect.
— Politicians who call for, let alone fight hard for, “gun control” may well risk their re-election. Not so for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose term soon expires, and who is leading this charge. But New York City has had the nation’s toughest gun laws for more than a century, since the enactment of the Sullivan Law and popular sentiment here is behind him.
The same cannot be said for many other regions, such as those that allow concealed carry — like Missouri, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Utah. (CC, for those outside the U.S., means the legal right to carry a loaded gun on your person or in your vehicle.)
— Legislators must work “across the aisle”, with men and women of opposing political views who represent areas with widely divergent views on gun ownership. These views can vary widely even within a state; downstate New York is much less sympathetic to the issue than upstate, where hunting is popular.
— Opposition to the powerful and well-funded National Rifle Association remains weak and splintered. In 2003, the NRA had a budget of $20 million — 10 times larger than that of the Brady Campaign.
— Law-abiding gun-owners feel beleaguered by cries for “gun control.” They have chosen to own and use firearms responsibly and feel that any restriction on their legitimate, legal use of them is unfair. Politicians are very aware of this.
— In many areas of the United States, hunting is a lucrative and popular sport.
— The federal government profits from gun sales, by collecting an excise tax. In 1998, that came to $126,620,000 from long guns and ammunition and an additional $35,528,000 from the sale of handguns.
— Even those politicians deeply and personally sympathetic to the terrible violence inflicted by killers such as these face their own limitations when enacting legislation. Carolyn McCarthy, a former ER nurse whose husband was shot and killed and whose son was shot on a Long Island, NY commuter train, is now a Congresswoman, in office 14 years. When I spoke to her for my book, she told me that her challenge is working effectively with other legislators, whose own constituents may have views diametrically opposed to those of her own.
The challenge of regulating gun use in the United States is daunting.