Continuing to Miss the Point on Gun Violence

The Senate has passed a gun control bill that contains a provision for background checks but omits the highly visible and highly controversial ban on “military style assault weapons” and “large capacity magazines” championed by Senator Dianne Feinstein. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chose not to bring the provision to the floor, citing insufficient votes. According to Reid, the Democratic majority could not produce forty votes in support of Feinstein’s amendment. “Right now, her amendment, using the most optimistic numbers, has less than 40 votes. That’s not 60,” Reid said, acknowledging the filibuster threat by Republican senators.

Senator Feinstein, expressing a sense of betrayal, promised to continue to fight for the amendment. Liberal/progressive critics have expressed outrage at Reid and the Senate Democrats who failed to support the assault weapons ban. The main conclusion to be drawn from the gun bill debacle is that Senate Democrats lack the courage to challenge the NRA or to provide leadership for their constituents on the issue of firearms regulation.

However, the more important lesson to be learned from the whole debate is that our nation’s leaders are determined to distract the public by focusing our attention (with our willing suspension of disbelief and the complicity of the media) on the issue of assault weapons and away from the primary source of gun violence and gun deaths: handguns. The massacre at Newtown, CT, continues to be the touchstone of national demands for firearms regulation. It is this event and the killings in Aurora, CO, that fixed the nation’s attention on mass killers armed with military-style weapons. The horrific nature of these crimes should not be minimized. But since the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings in December, 2012, shooting deaths have continued apace in the US.  According to The Huffington Post, as of March 24, 2013, 2244 people have been killed by firearms since the massacre at Newtown. There are no firm statistics on the number of these killings that were committed with handguns. However, a CNN report posted on January 29, 2013, provides some useful information. The report indicates that more the 6000 personas are killed in the US each year by handguns. In 20ll, 72% of firearm deaths resulted from the use of handguns. This report also implied that the focus of federal legislation on military-style assault weapons is misplaced.

The sad irony of the misplaced emphasis on assault weapons is highlighted by recent killings that have gained national attention and reinforced the call for stricter gun regulation. Two of these murders occurred in Chicago. On January 30, Hadiya Pendleton, a promising fifteen-year-old high school student was gunned down, apparently  by a gang member “aiming” for someone else. This killing drew national attention because Hadiya was a member of her high school’s cheerleading squad, who performed at President Obama’s second inauguration.  In fact, First Lady Michelle Obama attended Hadiya’s funeral, and Hadiya’s parents sat next to her at the President’s State of The Union address, where Mr. Obama called for strong measures to regulate firearms. Also in Chicago, on March 12, six-month-old Jonylah Watkins was shot to death as she sat on the lap of her father, who was also shot. This murder sent shockwaves through the city and occasioned the customary demands for action to reduce the level of violence. The nation was again shocked when thirteen-month old Antonio Santiago was shot in the head in Brunswick , GA, on March 21, in what his mother (who was also wounded) said was a reaction to a failed robbery. What is common to all of these murders is the fact that they were committed with handguns. These are the kinds of firearms that fit in a coat pocket or can be concealed in a waistband under a shirt; the kind commonly used by members of criminal gangs; the kind used in armed robberies; your workaday revolvers, 9mm’s, Smith & Wessons, Glocks, and Berettas. The kind that no one in Washington is talking about.

Perhaps lawmakers are smarting from the defeats handed out to local governments, like Chicago and the District of Columbia, by the Supreme Court when it invalidated bans on the ownership and possession of handguns. In Illinois, legislators are scrambling to meet a court-mandated deadline to establish guidelines for “concealed carry” of firearms. The NRA has succeeded in drowning out any discussion of handguns (about which it can already claim victory) with the outrageous statements of its leaders and its campaign of opposition to limitations on the ownership of any type of firearms. At the same time, the NRA’s antics cause otherwise thoughtful people to ignore the few valid points made by the organization. Most gun crimes are not committed with assault weapons. Idolatry of the Second Amendment has not resulted in armed insurrection against the federal government, regardless of the crackpot rhetoric circulating around right-wing radio. And criminals are not going to be caught through background checks and waiting periods; they don’t obtain their guns legally.

At their same time, the NRA’s attempts to shift our attention to the mentally ill and the Hollywood culture of violent movies, video games, and rap music has generated far too much static, defensiveness, and handwringing and far too little insight. We have no data that indicate that potential mass murderers will have had contact with any component of the mental health system prior to attempting to purchase weapons. The accused Aurora theatre killer notwithstanding, it is more likely that the (often suicidal) perpetrators of multiple murders are unwilling to entertain the idea that they are mentally unstable and choose not to seek professional help.

Furthermore, while large doses of violence on screen and in song lyrics can desensitize their audience to violence, and both violent and non-violent competitive video games increase players’ aggressiveness, there are no conclusive data that suggest that any of these predispose their fans to commit acts of violence.

We are confronted with a national problem of huge magnitude. Solutions elude our legislators and government officials. But the appropriate response is not to retreat into defeatism. The problem of gun violence is only partially the result of our national fascination with firearms. It is also a reflection of the despair that accompanies the poverty, unemployment, and withdrawal of community-sustaining resources from many areas of our nation – urban, suburban, and rural. It reflects an absurd “War on Drugs” that has fuelled the creation of competing criminal mini-states, while using the massive prison system to abort the futures of thousands of potential workers and providers.

But the solution will also not be found by pretending that fighting over a highly visible and emotionally charged symbol of gun violence can take the place of systematic, determined action that addresses the most fundamental sources of gun crime. The political and media establishment in Washington, DC, is notoriously out of touch with the realities that the rest of us experience. The battle over assault weapons and large magazines is their reality. Thousands of people killed with handguns is ours.


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