Archived Opinion

Death, violence and too many guns

Death, violence and too many guns

By John Beckman • Guest Columnist

It is time that we honestly faced up to the basic issues concerning gun violence. For too long people on both sides have skirted around the core of the issue with worn out platitudes, specious arguments, and canned sound-bite justifications. 

The latest shootings in El Paso and Dayton raised our unbelievable tally of mass shootings to 251 in the last 216 days. They are commonplace in the U.S.; a daily occurrence.

Why is this so?

Some say that it is caused by guns in the hands of criminals. But are we the most criminal society in the world? Do we breed criminals at such rates? Also, the plague of mass shootings cannot be traced to people with criminal histories.

Others say that the mass shooters are crazies. If this were the root cause, the U.S. would have to be breeding crazies at a rate many times higher other countries. If mental health was the issue and the U.S. had no more problem with deranged people than other countries, then the numbers of mass shootings would be equivalent.

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Others say we should harden soft targets and allow more people to carry guns. However, numerous people in the El Paso Walmart were armed, and in Dayton police had killed the gunman within 30 seconds of the first shot. Yet 31 are dead and over 50 wounded.

Every other excuse for our epidemic of mass shootings goes down in flames just as criminality and mental health. Do we have more political discord? Are we more racist? Are we more hate filled? More homophobic? More xenophobic? Even if we add together contributions from all such sources, it still does not explain our scourge of mass shootings.

In offering all such “explanations” we duck our responsibility to address the root cause. But why do we do this? Is it because it has not affected our families? Do we care so little about our fellow citizens? Do we assuage our consciences with piously offering our prayers and thoughts, by flying flags at half-staff, and myriad other feeble gestures that allow us avoid the issues.

One of the tragedies of the Dayton shooting is that the gunman unintentionally killed his own sister after dropping her and a friend off earlier that evening. But for the chance of being at the wrong night spot, the wrong Walmart, the wrong mall, the wrong school, it could have been your sister, your child. It is not someone else’s problem; it is your problem.

But Trump is back at it again. Amid his pious platitudes about gun measures he declared: “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger. Not the gun.” After last year’s mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas Hugh School in Florida, Trump similarly made a pro forma call for background checks and other half measures, but since then — after meeting with NRA leadership — he has threatened to veto legislation that would enact them. This time he callously called for melding such measures into a bill with his immigration policies. This is crass insensitivity at monumental levels. These tragedies have nothing to do with immigrants. Immigrants too often are the targets. White Americans are the standard perpetrators. 

Explanations based on mental illness, hate, criminality and other such factors simply do not get at the root cause — we have far too many guns. Americans constitute about 4.4 percent of the world’s population but own 42 percent of the world’s guns. Adjusted for population, only Yemen has a higher rate of mass shootings among countries with more than 10 million people. Yemen has the world’s second-highest rate of gun ownership after the United States. The U.S. has 120.5 guns per 100 people. Yemen as 52.8 guns per 100 people.

Let’s not try to fall back on the baseless argument that ownership of guns in all forms and by all is a protected Constitutional right. All our Constitutional rights are limited. Free speech is a good example. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes wrote: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” This decision in Schenck v. United States, as reinforced and modified in Brandenburg v. Ohio, permits free speech to be limited in many ways that subject citizens to criminal and civil prosecution.

You are not free to lie. Lying in court is perjury. Lying to federal investigators is a criminal offense. Dishonest advertising is a crime, conspiracy to commit a crime is a crime, and published and spoken lies expose one to civil prosecution under libel and slander laws.

Obscenity is not protected by the Constitution (Miller v. California). This limitation runs from prohibiting child pornography to banning the broadcasting of offensive sound and images and of language deemed inappropriate for children.

You can’t threaten others with violence or make remarks that would lead to violence. And in Dennis v. United States the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not protect free speech rights of people plotting the overthrow of the government.

You are not free to say what you want even in other’s homes and similar private settings. You have almost no free speech rights in employment as is demonstrated by the continuous terminations of employees for what they say and what they post both on and off the job.

Protesters can be confined to Free Speech Zones and you can be arrested for protesting the proximity of the President or Vice President. This authority of the Secret Service has been extended to what have been dubbed National Special Security Events which can include the Super Bowls, the Academy Awards, and the like.

If free speech can be limited in so many ways without amending the Constitution, so too can gun rights.

If we really wanted to reduce mass shootings and gun violence while permitting hunting, marksmanship and similar sporting uses of guns, we would treat guns as we treat automobiles.

• All guns must be registered.

• All gun sales and transfers must be reported, including private as well as commercial and theft.

• Background checks must be made on all sales and transfers regardless of the venue — private, gun shows and internet included.

• All gun owners must be licensed including written and use tests analogous to the written and driving tests for cars — including suitable license renewal schedules.

• All gun owners must be insured against damage to people and property.

• Just as certain vehicles are not street-legal, ownership and possession certain types of guns and gun accessories should be illegal, including automatic and semiautomatic weapons. For sporting and recreational use bolt and pump actions are just fine in long guns and revolvers are just fine in handguns. And accessories like large capacity magazines and bump stocks are unnecessary.

Because of the unique nature of guns, to these we can add:

• At manufacture, ballistic samples of bullets and spent casings (or electronic copies of them) should be filed with law enforcement to better trace gun use in crimes.

• A buy-back program at fair prices should be implemented to remove from ownership and circulation all illegal guns and gun accessories.

Will we enact an effective package of gun violence measures? I don’t think so. Not enough families have been torn apart by gun violence. It is a faded headline within 48 hours and, because it is reported nightly in the evening news, it dwindles into the background. With remarkable lack of caring for our fellow citizens, we continue to see it as “their” problem. 

(John Beckman is a farmer and builder who lives in Jackson County.)

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