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Gun Violence in the US: Why do We Cling to Our Guns?

Illustration by Dave Whamond on Cagle Cartoons.

In the U.S., our country’s passion for guns can be summarized by former actor Charlton Heston’s words at the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) annual convention in 2000:

“So, as we set out this year to defeat the divisive forces that would take freedom away, I want to say those fighting words for everyone within the sound of my voice to hear and to heed, and especially for you, Mr. Gore: 'From my cold, dead hands!”

Let’s be clear, the function of a gun is to kill; not to maim or to wound, but to take the life away from a living being. What would the point be for the deer hunter to take aim with the intent of only breaking a leg, or piercing an ear?

There is a direct correlation between the number of guns in a society, and the number of gun-related deaths. In the U.S. there are approximately 120 guns for every 100 residents of our country; subsequently, we average nearly 40,000 gun deaths a year - or one about every 15 minutes.

Until we end our love affair with guns, no amount of legislation or education will shatter the myth that our society is safer with more guns.

The pain and suffering that these losses cause families is spread throughout the nation. In my small town, in the few months since January 2021, we have seen a dramatic spike in gun violence, totaling 18 shootings. One of the most horrifying was the drive-by shooting that seriously wounded a 10 year-old as he played in the front yard of his home.

He ultimately spent a month in the hospital and recovered from his injuries. A GoFundMe effort has raised over $47,000 to help his family pay for his medical bills.

This is the price that we pay for the unmatched freedom to own and use firearms: children shot playing in a place that should be safe. The resulting medical bills to repair torn bodies is in the billions each year in the U.S. And the psychological damage is just as staggering!

Imagine being a young child wondering when the next shooting might occur, or whether or not you should ever play in your front yard again. Sadly, this has become the reality many children must battle with.

Curiously, the U.S. consists of only about 4.5% of the world’s population and yet we possess approximately 45% of the guns owned in private hands around the globe. At a recent community meeting, one of the police commanders stated that his team had removed 88 guns from the street so far this year. When considering that there are nearly 393 million guns owned by private citizens around the country, this seems like a minuscule accomplishment in the effort to prevent guns from being used in acts of violence.

So how did we reach this saturation point for gun ownership in our nation? And, what does that say about us as a society? Why is it so difficult to shift the public narrative away from owning guns at any cost, to protection of life at any cost?

Why are we so in love with our guns?

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Historically, this nation was built on violence, whether the initial settlers from England or the wagon loads of internal migrants who ventured westward seeking land and opportunity. Creating a foothold on the east coast and then expansion to the west involved the violent subjugation of the Indigenous Peoples, as well as animals like Buffalo, because they stood in the way of that process. The perspective of subjugation at any cost, i.e. manifest destiny, still resides in our nation’s psyche.

Combine that opinion of cultural superiority with Heston’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution and the result is the ‘until death do we part’ attitude about gun ownership. Why is it so relentless in its effort to protect itself? Why is every piece of proposed gun control legislation met with an avalanche of criticism by those who own guns and the politicians they support? 

Obviously, the gun lobby, which includes the National Rifle Association and numerous gun manufacturers and vendors, is extremely vociferous and aggressive, stating that politicians who propose smart gun laws are ‘soft on crime’. In addition, it uses news media outlets, particularly conservative ones, to raise fear that the government is attempting to take your guns away with these new laws. And, if that were to happen, you would be less safe from crime, completely unable to defend yourself and, worst of all, be vulnerable to an authoritarian government.

What can we do to combat this persistent infection of our societal psyche that states that a gun is the best tool to maintain public safety and prevent authoritarianism?

Firstly, let’s listen to one of the most conservative voices in Congress, Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) who suggested recently that we regulate gun ownership as we do drunk drivers. Automobile drivers are required to study traffic laws, pass a written and driving test, possess insurance coverage, register their vehicles, pay fees for registration and are seriously punished for moving vehicle violations, especially driving under the influence.

Applying similar standards to gun ownership would be a positive step in the right direction. Numerous studies have shown that in countries where gun ownership is regulated, gun violence decreases

Another area to invest our energy is to dedicate our efforts to creating a truly equitable society. Many conservatives feel that the main cause for gun violence is a breakdown in moral values in our country. They claim that an increase in the divorce rate, a rise in LGBTQ activism, the fight for the rights of people of color (BIPOC) and other dynamic social shifts are the cause of our persistent gun violence problem.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Almost two-thirds of our deaths by firearms are suicides, which are generally caused by feelings of hopelessness and the inability to cope with an overwhelming life situation, not by changes in social values or traditions. Again reminding us that their purpose is to kill efficiently, guns make suicide attempts easier and sadly, more successful. Suicide by firearm accounted for 61% of all gun deaths from 2008 through 2017. During that period, the US had a rate eight times higher than the gun suicide rates of other developed nations.

According to psychologists, suicide is preventable in most cases. Using the same analytic tools, homicide should be preventable as well. The second step in our effort to reimagine our love for guns is raising awareness about the causes of gun violence, as well as the levels at which we experience gun injuries/death, and the methods for prevention.

In nations where there are reliable social, political and economic structures that provide their people with access to services and resources, there is less crime. In societies where people care for one another, crime is not only minimized, but governments are more stable. In a place that considers you to be of value to the greater whole, people are less likely to commit suicide or shoot 8 year olds as they play in their front yards.

brian biery 2020

Even so, until we end our love affair with guns and return to our love and respect of life, no level of legislation nor education will shatter the myth that our society is safer the more guns we have in circulation. Remember that the function of a gun is to kill, period. At some point we must ask ourselves whether our lives are truly more important than our guns.

Brian Biery