The recent killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Florida has reignited the controversy over gun violence in America.
Whether the shooting was an act of self-defense, as Zimmerman's lawyer claims, or murder plain and simple has been left to a jury to decide. But clearly it never would have happened if the possession of handguns were illegal, or severely restricted, as it is in Europe, where per-capita gun deaths are only one seventh of what they are in the U.S.
Gun fatalities have been on the rise, slowly but steadily every year since 2002, according to a National Institute of Justice survey. In 1975, 60 percent of the homicides in the U.S. were committed using a handgun. By 2005 that number had shot up to nearly 80 percent, with the rise in gang related gun killings even steeper.
This trend gives the lie to the NRA claim that easy access to guns does not pose a danger to Americans. It does. The more handguns there are out there, the more likely they will be used to commit a violent crime. In 2008, 31,593 Americans were killed by handguns. In addition, over 40,000 were injured in nonlethal gun attacks, leaving some victims crippled for life.
Compare these appalling casualty figures to the slightly over 1,000 U.S. Armed Service personnel and private contractors who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. Clearly we gun-toting Americans are our own worst enemies. The violence that we perpetrate on one another with handguns is more than 30 times as deadly as the attacks of Al Qaeda and the Taliban on U.S. service personnel combined!
Not only that, but in ten states (Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington) you are more likely to be killed by a gun than in a car accident, according to an analysis just released by the advocacy group, the Violence Policy Center (VPC).
This is surprising given that 90 percent of U.S. households have cars, whereas fewer than a third own guns, VPC's Legislative Director Kristen Rand points out.
"Motor vehicles -- unlike guns -- are essential to the functioning of the entire U.S. economy," Rand says, adding, "It is time to end firearms' status as the last unregulated consumer product."
The reason that cars have been getting safer is precisely because they are regulated. And those regulations are getting stiffer every year.
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act passed in 1966 authorized the federal government to set standards for car safety, which have resulted in a whole slew of new mandatory life-saving features like head rests, energy-absorbing steering wheels and shatter-resistant windshields. Highways themselves are being designed better with clearer delineation of curves, use of breakaway sign and utility poles, enhanced illumination, more barriers separating oncoming traffic lanes, and more guardrails than in the past. And stricter enforcement of laws against drunk driving and mandating seat belt use have also gone a long way toward making our highways safer.
When it comes to guns, by contrast, it is still the wild west out there. In many states, there is no age or background check (at gun shows) for those who want to purchase a handgun. In some places, you can pack a concealed weapon anywhere you wish, including bars where alcohol is served. And there are few restrictions on the types or numbers of guns that one can buy. Sniper rifles, as well as military style assault and automatic weapons -- some powerful enough to shoot down a helicopter -- are sold openly on the internet.
Steve Barborini, a former supervisor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told MSNBC that the online sales loophole permits what he called "a weapons bazaar for criminals."
There's no background check, Anybody that has a murder conviction can simply log on, email someone, meet 'em in a parking lot, and buy a freaking AK-47.
A bill introduced in the Senate by New York's Chuck Schumer to stop this illicit internet traffic in guns has been tied up in committee for over a year now, thanks in part to the machinations of the NRA. The powerful gun lobby is also active in virtually every state of the union making sure that effective legislation never sees the light of day. Even law enforcement agencies have their hands tied in many states by legislation which prevents them from taking effective action to monitor and restrict handguns.
Florida, for example, where the Trayvon Martin shooting occurred, bans its cities and counties from regulating firearms without the state's permission, prevents police from collecting data on firearm sales at pawnshops and forbids adoption agencies from considering gun ownership when looking at placing children, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence says that Florida has some terrible gun laws -- but not the worst in the nation, by their reckoning. That dubious distinction goes jointly to Arizona, Alaska and Utah, where restrictions on gun purchases are virtually nonexistent.
What impact do gun laws have? Gun control opponents claim that limiting the availability of handguns does not make us safer, but more vulnerable to criminal gun violence. Their solution: arm ordinary citizens and the bad guys will be outgunned. But this is a prescription for escalating gun violence. The five states with the highest per-capita gun death rates -- Louisiana, Wyoming, Alabama, Montana and Mississippi -- all have extremely high rates of private handgun ownership, according to the Violence Policy Center. They also have conspicuously weak gun laws. By contrast, the five states with the lowest rates of gun-related deaths -- Massachusetts, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut -- have fewer handguns and the toughest gun control laws in the nation.