Photo: A public firearms notice posted in the window of a Starbucks in downtown Sacramento, CA.
By: Laura Fitzgerald
Fem Dems Contributing Writer
From the moment European settlers stepped foot on North America, guns have been part of the fabric of American society. During the Revolutionary War against Great Britain, Americans used the flintlock musket, a firearm that requires the use of a flint striking ignition system to fire. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified, granting Americans the right to keep and bear arms through the second amendment.
Now in 2017, over the course of the last month and a half 58 people were killed in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 1st, another 26 lost their lives in Sutherland Springs, Texas on November 5th, and 5 others were killed in Rancho Tehama, California on November 14th. In fact, the last shooting mentioned occurred as this piece was being written. Semi-automatic rifles were utilized in all these massacres. These mass shootings rocked Americans nationwide and prompted hefty media coverage and conversations about gun violence in our communities. These instances have forced Americans to consider what would happen if they were to encounter an active shooter in the mall, movie theater, their college campus, their workplace, their child’s elementary school, a concert, all of which places have seen mass shootings in our nation’s recent memory. Since then we’ve seen this issue start to slip back into the background of day-to-day American life, until it inevitably happens once again. Because after all, it’s a constitutional right to bear arms.
Leaders, including the President, have been quick to table the debate on increasing gun control with the argument that it is simply too soon to talk about potential solutions in light of the hefty number of innocent lives lost. Democrats are crying out for stricter gun control laws while Republicans claim that lack of attention towards mental health issues is to blame. With each mass shooting, the same debate resurfaces.
But when it comes to gun violence, mass shootings are a relatively small piece of the pie. According to data from the Congressional Research Service in 2015, the rate of mass shooting murder victims is 1 per 10 million people. The rate for firearms murder victims is 355 per 10 million. Many more Americans are losing their lives to gun homicides that are not in mass public shooting situations. That being said, the frequency of mass shootings is increasing and has been since 2011.
The catalysts for these mass shootings vary, yet mental health is the factor that most point to during the aftermath. What many do not talk about is the role that domestic violence plays in gun homicides in the United States. Only until after the shooting in Sutherland Springs did domestic violence get the spotlight after it became known that the perpetrator had physically assaulted his wife and stepson. The reality is that 54% of the mass shootings between 2009 and 2016 were situations where the shooter killed an intimate partner or family member, according to Everytown Research.
Millions of Americans have permits to carry concealed handguns. In past Gallup polls, a majority of Americans are shown to believe that America is safer when more individuals carry concealed firearms. The idea of self-defense, that one will be able to better protect his or herself with a gun in hand, dominates the conversation about gun violence and policy. While many citizens choose to keep guns in the home for recreational purposes such as hunting, citizens that carry concealed weapons in public represent a more serious situation: if they feel threatened, they may decide to pull the trigger. This argument paints the picture of a society where citizens are policing each other, defending themselves, and safely eliminating threats in their communities. However, it is not clear whether having a gun actually creates a safer community. Guns often escalate situations that could be diffused through other means. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed. Additionally, many who carry concealed weapons are not sufficiently trained to deal with active shooter situations. According to Mike Weisser, an NRA member and firearms instructor, an individual would require more training than what 50% of the sworn active law enforcement officers in the US ever receive in order to have an adequate skillset to be helpful in the event of a shooting. Those who decide to shoot for the purpose of self-defense often live with complicated mental aftermath of injuring or killing another individual.
Since the mass shootings we’ve seen this fall, gun advocates have illustrated this problem as inevitable, arguing that those who have a desire to kill will find the means to do so regardless. Perhaps they will take a knife or drive a truck into a group of civilians. Many have called out for our political representatives to focus on our nation’s mental illness and domestic violence crises, suggesting that these instances are not direct results from the accessibility of guns. But the loopholes in our nation’s current gun policy indicate otherwise. Federal law only requires background checks for gun purchases made through licensed dealers. 19 states and Washington, D.C. require background checks on all handgun sales, but in all other states individuals can avoid background checks by making purchases from unlicensed sellers that they may find online or at gun shows. When it comes to the linkage of domestic violence to gun homicide, the Lautenberg Amendment of 1996 prohibited misdemeanor domestic violence offenders from purchasing firearms. This being said, the definition of a domestic abuser is very limiting, requiring that the victim and abuser have to have been married, had a child together, or lived together. Hence the policy does not account for individuals who are dating, despite the fact that more women are shot and killed by dating partners than by spouses. Given these loopholes in existing policies, our nation is essentially providing tools to those who have the desire to do harm.
Ultimately, the issue of gun violence can be viewed through a philosophical lens that has been used for centuries to solve problems facing societies worldwide: self-interest versus the common good. This idea describes the conflict between two important components of any society – an individual’s interest in his/her own welfare and happiness on one side and what is in the best interest for the overall well being of the society on the other. While individuals may believe they have the right to use or own certain things for their own happiness or wellbeing, it is possible that widespread ownership or use of these things has a negative impact on our communities. We’ve seen our government act in favor of the common good for American society when the tobacco age was set to 18 and when the law requiring the use of seatbelts was enacted. Even the fact that citizens are required to pay taxes despite their desire to keep the entirety of their earnings demonstrates our nation’s need to invest in the common good. The public health crisis of gun violence is no different, apart from the fact that it is a constitutional right to bear arms, hence making it more difficult to regulate. Those who choose to carry weapons for self-defense are looking out for their own self-interest, but ironically enough, the more Americans that own guns the more likely we are to lose our lives to them.
Our constitution grants all American citizens the right to keep and bear arms through the second amendment of the Bill of Rights, but the preamble of our Constitution also declares that one of its purposes is to “promote the general welfare”. When over 11,000 Americans are dying from gun homicides each year, it would appear that our nation’s leaders have the responsibility to implement more comprehensive policies that will act for the common good of our people, promoting the general welfare of our communities currently riddled with wounds created by gun violence.
*I’ve written this piece as a reflection of my own opinion. It is not affiliated with my work for the California State Legislature.