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‘Paranoia Strikes Deep’

Headline: A lone gunman opened fire today in (San Francisco, Aurora, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Oak Creek...) and shot _____ innocent people, killing _____ people and wounding ____ more. Politicians offered sympathy, but no solutions. Survivors were left to grieve without hope of change that might prevent more such tragedies.

That's the sad frustrating story, each time a mass shooting occurs. I drafted this list last Thursday, and the next day, Connecticut was added to the roster of towns where such slaughter occurred. One more madman with weapons of war, killing innocent people, mostly children, and then himself. And ironically, bizarrely, on the same day in China, a madman attacked 22 schoolchildren with a knife. Not one died.

Beyond the headlines about America's mass shootings lies an ongoing national epidemic: Thirty people are murdered via guns on the average day, in mostly individual cases adding up to almost 12,000 gun homicides each year. In addition, accidental shootings and suicides claim many more, many of those are kids too. Inevitable, or preventable?

The answer depends on who you ask. Some people think we should ask physicians. Years ago, the California Academy of Pediatrics asked me (perhaps because I was once a certified “junior marksman”?) to help develop policy and educational materials regarding having guns in the home, so that doctors could best advise parents on the safest practices on this topic. About one-third of American homes have guns, and half of those are not locked away, even with kids present. Thus, two-thirds of unintentional shooting deaths occur in the home.

Working with pediatricians, we developed some evidence-based advice and published it. We didn't say "ban guns" but offered seemingly obvious advice such as “Keep your guns locked away, unloaded, warn your kids about them,” and so on.

The guidelines were widely praised as sensible, even obvious. But soon I began hearing from gun owners who thought we were anti-American, and worse. One physician (?) told me he needed to draw his gun every time he came to San Francisco (!). This is a dominant paranoid mentality in the National Rifle Association, judging from their public comments and positions – even though violent crime has been declining in most American communities for a long time. Thus, perhaps the most ironic, craziest recent development in this realm is that politicians in Florida actually passed a law that would have made doctors who followed the guidelines criminals – it would be illegal to talk about guns with patients. This law was overturned, but indicates both the power and extremism of the “gun lobby.”

In San Francisco, the NRA recently challenged local ordinances requiring that guns be “safely stored” in homes and requiring trigger locks, and banning possession of “particularly dangerous ammunition” such as fragmenting bullets and expanding bullets with “no sporting purpose.” A judge just tossed out the challenge, but the NRA has vowed to keep fighting, and their members and followers have, true to form, labeled such minor, commonsense rules as some sort of "war on gun ownership." They also call a proposed new ban on assault weapons "California's worst gun confiscation threat in 20 years!" We've also seen an "open carry" movement where men demand their "right" to swagger around with their guns on display (a psychiatrist I know remarked on this trend "If you need a gun to feel powerful, that's a sad problem").

In a more perfect world, perhaps we could usefully ban guns. The United Kingdom does, and its homicide rate is about one quarter that of the United States. But that's politically impossible here, and nobody reasonably proposes it. Hunters and sport shooters use guns, of course, and while there are accidents there and the animals would likely vote against such "sport," again, that's not what real gun control proposals are about. "Banning guns" outright is not the issue. Still, that's the specter raised by the National Rifle Association, which calls any virtually change in the status quo "gun grabbing." The NRA's motto is "no compromise." Their solution to most any gun-related problem? More guns - they say this will deter crime. They propose this even for schools, universities, shopping malls - anywhere. But the Harvard Injury Control Research Center’s evidence is that the more guns, the higher the homicide rate. The NRA doesn't care for such facts, though, and any form of gun control is to them a step towards a total ban. They twist research to argue that guns are used in self defense much more than they really are - one of their much-cited surveys includes people like a woman who reported she uses her guns to protect herself every week, and they report such nonsense as fact.

For an illuminating, balanced examination of the protracted gun debate, anyone truly interested should read the 2011 book Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America by Adam Winkler, professor of constitutional law at UCLA. Winkler retells key legal battles and examines scandals regarding gun policy research on both sides. Historically, gun control was first proposed to disarm freed slaves and a century later, ironically, flaunted by the Black Panthers, who held that “the gun is the only thing that will free us.” He also shows how the NRA evolved from a sporting organization to a powerhouse lobby whose CEO, Wayne LaPierre, calls federal authorities “a jack-booted group of fascists.” Thus in elections, gun issues are rendered another form of "don’t ask, don’t tell” – even politicos known to favor more gun control have been afraid to advocate their beliefs.

Yet Winkler notes that “strong majorities of gun owners favor compromise when it comes to gun control,” and he would welcome mandated gun safety courses, background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases, and bans at places such as campuses. He reaches for optimism that we can have both a right to weapons and better controls. But he has to admit that’s not coming soon, as the NRA is the Tea Party, the Right-To-Lifers, the fanatic, paranoid, no-compromise wing of gun policy that dominates the debate.

The NRA's power may be waning in light of the recent national election and the Connecticut slaughter, which might come to be seen as a turning point, a straw on the camel, in modern gun policy. An "assault weapons" (for lack of a better term) ban will likely be reintroduced following this latest tragedy. Ther NRA will say "guns don't kill people, people do," arguing that mental illness is the real issue (they also have spread the argument that antidepressant medications are to blame, an epidemiological absurdity that won't be examined here). But the problem is too often both mental illness and guns. Mental illness is sadly prevalent in every nation, but only ours allows such easy access to weapons of war - that have no use in hunting or sport shooting. Of course we need much more services for mental problems - but those cost money, most often public money, and that means taxes, and those tend to be opposed by the sort of person who feels guns are integral to his safety and "rights." Just be clear - if you support the NRA, you in effect support the access to automatic weaponry by the insane.

Would better "gun control" have stopped the Connecticut shooter from getting his mother's weapons? Maybe - if the mother had been prevented from having them - but maybe not. But there is no doubt we can do better. A ban on assault weapons will likely be reintroduced in the wake of the Connecticut nightmare. It might pass this time. Then perhaps we can also require safer guns, limits on quantities sold, much more strict screening of buyers, mandated safety training, restrictions on deadly types of ammo, higher penalties for any violations, and more. National policy is required, not local or state, as guns respect few borders. Responsible, sane guns owners will be able to keep their guns, even though that tends to put them at higher risk of harm than not. Over generations, the paranoid gun-owning fringe will die off and the number of guns floating around will decline, and we will become more like other nations where our gun fetish and ongoing tragedies are rightly viewed as insanity.

Well, one can dream. In the meantime, until more sanity prevails, Gary Willis just wrote in the New York Review of Books "Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry."

And also pending sanity, here is what the American Academy of Pediatrics offers as practical advice:

American Academy of Pediatrics on Gun Safety & Keeping Children Safe

  • A gun kept in the home is many times more likely to kill someone known to the family than to kill someone in self-defense.
  • A gun kept in the home triples the risk of homicide.
  • The risk of suicide is 5 times more likely if a gun is kept in the home.
  • Advice to parents:
  • The best way to keep your children safe from injury or death from guns is to NEVER have a gun in the home.
  • Do not purchase a gun, especially a handgun.
  • Remove all guns present in the home.
  • Talk to your children about the dangers of guns, and tell them to stay away from guns.
  • Find out if there are guns in the homes where your children play. If so, talk to the adults in the house about the dangers of guns to their families.
  • For those who know of the dangers of guns but still keep a gun in the home:
  • Always keep the gun unloaded and locked up.
  • Lock and store the bullets in a separate place.
  • Make sure to hide the keys to the locked boxes.

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Does any of this sound like "gun-grabbing" or a threat to the American "right to bear arms" you? And if it does, have you considered that you might not be mentally fit enough to own a gun?

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