On the Complex Issue of Gun Violence

By JOHN BUTERBAUGH

I’ll admit. I don’t care for guns. I don’t hunt, and I don’t play violent video games. However, my distaste for guns has little influence on my gun policy views. I used to base my opinion on personal opposition to gun ownership, but I’ve realized gun violence is complicated and polarizing. Many argue that we should ban assault weapons, and many argue that we should arm teachers to protect children. How do we reconcile these two stances? Yes, we could theoretically have an assault weapons ban and arm our teachers. Yet, even if we could reconcile the two sides of the gun debate, the compromise can have flaws. We need to pick the best ideas from each party not just choose one party’s solution. In other words, we must select our gun policies a la carte.

Gun control advocates call for banning certain types of firearms, restricting concealed carry, and/or requiring background checks on criminal record or violent mental illness. These solutions have some flaws. With background checks, a firearms seller can check a potential buyer’s criminal or mental health record. 93% of Americans support background checks for criminal or mental health records. However, only about 5% of the guns used in gun homicides in the U.S. were obtained legally. About 14% were stolen, and that number could easily be higher seeing as that 80% of stolen guns are never recovered. Some criminals still buy guns on the black market but less often than expected. Most of the remaining guns were obtained through straw purchases, a transaction in which one person buys on behalf on someone who is legally unable to obtain a gun (age, criminal record, old friend, etc.) So, even if you implement background checks, a bad guy can easily have a buddy with a clean record buy a gun. However, because many mass murderers are loners, they might have difficulty finding a friend willing to buy them a gun. In addition, many mass shooters were or are suspected of being mentally ill. We must be very conscientious of the different varieties of mental disorders. A psychiatrist must determine if a mentally ill individual shows violent enough tendencies to preclude them from buying a gun. Otherwise, individuals with mild mental disorders are labeled as a threat when they shouldn’t be.

Another policy is to restrict concealed carry of firearms. If someone carries a gun on them where no one can see it, he or she is breaking the law. Up until a 2012 Supreme Court case, many states banned concealed carry of firearms. Now, however, all states allow individuals to carry guns on them, sometimes for a fee and sometimes for no fee. This recent change in laws shows a great deal of progress in understanding how gun crimes arise and how they don’t. Law-abiding citizens will obey the concealed carry ban and have no gun to protect themselves; criminals will disobey the law and create mayhem. Many instances have occurred in which law-abiding citizens could have stopped a shooter from taking lives, but we can’t always guarantee that someone will take on the role of the hero. In fact, only 3% of shootings were stopped by a “good guy” with a gun.

You may continue to argue the constitutionality of gun control, but we should consider violent consequences as opposed to constitutional implications. We must consider which types of guns to ban. The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 banned semi-automatic weapons that merely look like machine guns. In other words, the gun appears to fire multiple rounds in one pull of the trigger but it only fires one round with each pull of the trigger. Machine guns are already essentially illegal; so, the Assault Weapons Ban was a watered-down policy that simply banned guns that look especially dangerous. In any case, shotguns and handguns are the most commonly used guns in gun deaths, not “assault weapons.”

In Japan, civilians may not own handguns. A Japanese civilian can still legally obtain a shotgun, but he or she has to pass rigorous classes and tests. Those with a documented mental illness or a criminal record may not own a gun in Japan. The implementation of tight gun control in Japan has largely been successful. In 1994, Japan had 0.07 gun deaths per 100,000 people, most of which were due to gang violence. In 2010, the U.S. had 10 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Because Japan not only banned assault weapons but also handguns, the government was able to effectively decrease gun violence. In 1996, Australia implemented a similar policy after a long string of mass shootings.

Many Americans are staunchly opposed to the gun control policies that Japan implemented. Instead of restricting gun purchases or gun use, they offer to enhance security and toughen enforcement of laws. Schools could install bulletproof windows, lock doors from the inside, install metal detectors in entrances, hire school resource officers (SROs), and arm staff to protect the kids. SROs have been unreliable in stopping mass shooters. While the school resource officer was eating lunch in the Columbine High School cafeteria, the two Columbine shooters were running around shooting people. Even when an officer spotted one of the shooters outside the high school, the officer failed to hit the shooter every time he shot at him. Having only one SRO is a very ineffective way of protecting every classroom.

By arming teachers, you have the equivalent of an SRO for every classroom. If a shooter aims at innocent children, teachers can simply pull out their gun, shoot the shooter, and reduce the number of deaths from 20 or 30 to 1 or 2. As an educator, I would have a few issues with having to pull out a gun and shoot somebody. American soldiers often return home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because they kill people after all, and teachers are no more immune to PTSD. Also, the perpetrators can easily conceal a handgun, shoot the teachers when they aren’t looking and now the students are dead meat. To make this policy work, doors must be lockable, and teachers must have guns available to them. Still, the shooters aren’t stupid. The Aurora theater shooter was very deadly but also very methodical. Because the Aurora shooter released some irritant or smoke at the crowd, aiming a gun at him would have been difficult. If anything, you should probably buy your kids a bulletproof vest and bulletproof backpack, but the idea is rather unsettling.

One issue with much of the gun violence debate is its focus on mass shootings, which often occur in suburban areas.  However, if you compare the number of mass shootings to single shootings, you’ll see that single shootings are much more common, and they largely exist outside mainstream media interest. I’d hate to sound cynical, but most Americans are more engrossed by mass shootings because they can be sensationalized due to their rarity. The murder of a young African-American child in the inner city will not make headlines because the average American already expects it. It’s not news. How can the media sensationalize if it so commonplace in the inner-city world?
That’s not to say that we don’t have a duty to protect our brothers and sisters in our inner cities because we do. Since the mid-20th century, middle-class Americans have moved out of cities into safer suburbs, leaving behind low-income individuals who cannot afford the infrastructure and services that their middle-class and upper-class introduced in the first place. The means of acquiring wealth legally are slim when service jobs at restaurants and retail establishments are commonly in suburbs. Why open business in a low-income, dangerous neighborhood when you can open business for a community that can afford to buy the products and feel safe doing it?
As such, inner-city youths will turn to drugs because it’s the quickest way to make a lot of money. One part of a city will sell; the other part will buy. Not all drug transactions are violent, but they can become violent because of high stakes involving their secrecy and the big money involved. Still,  urban youths are willing to take the risk because the options are so scarce. Many expect to die before they can even rent a car. A drug dealer will attract these youths by claiming these kids can afford the high-ankle Air Jordans or a new SUV if they sell drugs. It’s hard not to say, especially when many of the kids don’t have a father figure to guide them. Their dads may be serving long prison sentences for non-violent drug charges. By the time an inner-city dad has learned his lesson, he’s still in prison and can’t redirect his son from the wrongs of his past. The whole family hurts because now mom has lost a provider and many moms have had to sleep in cars because they couldn’t afford housing. Dating and relationships are based on supply and demand — women have to choose from fewer men, and these men have more power over women as a result.
The long prison sentences on drug crimes seem to be creating more problems than they solve. According to Ed Burns, co-creator of HBO police drama series The Wire, the War on Drugs has taken the energy from the civil rights movement and made it all go away. This and the rise of crack cocaine in the 1980s haven’t helped. Songs of hope, love, and change during the Civil Rights Movement have devolved to songs of cynicism, sexual desire, and anger today. Examine a photo of singers in the 1960s; you’ll see joy and love on their faces. Do so for a photo of hip-hop musicians today, and you’ll see how much the energy in the black community has changed. Even with the first African American president, there are still a number of wounds in the black community that will take a long time to heal.
In any case, if you implement gun control or security enhancement, a deranged individual is capable of getting around it. Such an individual will see sensationalized mass shootings on TV and want to prove to the world they are capable of doing something. There are no laws on the sensationalism of violence in the media. We must not only weigh the intentions of our policies but also their consequences. We must consult the evidence and not simply rely on sweeping generalizations. America deserves better.
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