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   H3'ed 8/25/15

Preventing Gun Violence

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I received my first gun when I was eight years old, and carried guns for many years during a 45-year career in the justice system. As a police officer, three of my friends were murdered in the line of duty; I saw two armed men shot to death during a bank robbery; I was almost shot by fellow officers as I (wearing plain clothes) exited another bank that was being robbed; and I faced down--without killing him--an armed man with a gun who had just shot his girlfriend. I know and respect guns, but what I fear are the myths surrounding the value of their ownership and the contribution they make to our safety.

Reality. When the men of Concord assembled at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775 to confront the British Army, it was not so much that they possessed firearms that carried the day. Rather, it was their discipline from having been drilled as a militia that provided the victory. Later, when the Bill of Rights was enacted, the Second Amendment was included to ensure that the People--fearful of a standing army--retained the power to organize in resistance to tyranny and to preserve their new republic. Moreover, the southern states demanded the right to maintain state militias to control their slaves.

Initially, in most states, and excepting a few officials, all white men were required to join the militia and equip themselves with a musket. Records were kept and officials knew who had firearms and how well they were trained to perform their public duty. Later, in the Wild West--contrary to movie images--cowboys had to deposit their guns at the sheriff's office on entering most towns.

As America evolved to become a more urban and industrialized society, militias were replaced by National Guards in every state, and the percentage of Americans who personally owned firearms dropped. States began to legislate against the possession of dangerous weapons, such as sawed-off shotguns and machine guns, and prohibited carrying concealed handguns. Regarding these laws, the courts consistently ruled that the Second Amendment preserved the right of states to organize National Guards, rather than an unlimited personal right of gun ownership.

In 2009, the Congressional Research Service estimated there were more than 310 million firearms in America. In the absence of reliable records and based on background checks made on those who purchase from licensed dealers, it appears the total number of guns in America has been increasing by almost ten percent each year. Today, there could be as many as 350 million privately-owned guns, far in excess of the current population of 319 million.

Polls show that only 32 percent of all Americans own a firearm, including half of all Republicans and a quarter of Democrats. At 47 percent, southern whites have the highest percentage of guns, and less than 16 percent of all households keeping guns are occupied by a hunter.

While the overall rate of violent crime has also been decreasing in the United States, the vast increase in the total number of guns may be driven by a residual fear of crime; the consequences of the wars on drugs and terrorism; criminal gangs; glorified violence in movies and video games; and disquiet about growing governmental power and the loss of freedoms.

Legal restrictions on the purchase of guns are largely ineffective for a number of reasons. The process imposed by law on purchases from licensed dealers is unwieldy, and there are statutory limitations on the maintenance of records by law enforcement. Individuals who would otherwise be denied the right to purchase guns can easily use "straw men" to make purchases on their behalf. Many corrupt licensed gun dealers are involved in the illicit trafficking of weapons. It is not difficult to purchase firearms at gun shows and from private individuals. Finally, the hundreds of thousands of guns which are stolen each year during burglaries and other property crimes become readily available on the streets. Astoundingly, more than a quarter of the guns purchased from federally-licensed gun dealers end up seized by law enforcement in connection with crimes committed within two years of the original purchase.

Police officers undergo rigorous training in the use of the firearms they carry, including the law and policy; alternatives to gun deployment; awareness of the background of targets; and self control of physical and mental faculties during highly stressful situations. Even so, viral videos of contagion shootings--wherein multiple officers fire off a fuselage of shots at unarmed or mentally impaired individuals--and other out-of-policy and illegal shootings by officers regularly appear on the Internet and television. With the proliferation of open-carry laws and the authorization of concealed weapons for untrained people, the United States is also experiencing a vast increase in accidental and unjustifiable deliberate shootings by untrained civilians armed with the same weapons carried by law enforcement officers.

Insanity. With the highest level of gun ownership in the developed world, the U.S. also suffers the greatest gun violence--by far. Americans are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than the citizens in all other developed nations. We recognize the names and stories of the most violent and senseless incidents--Columbine, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Binghamton, Killeen, Tucson, Charleston, and now Lafayette; however, these media sideshows represent only a small percentage of the mind-boggling totals. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were a total of 33,636 firearms deaths and 84,258 firearm injuries in 2013, the last year for which complete statistics are available.

As horrible as these numbers are, the insanity of a modern urban society allowing itself to become saturated with deadly firearms is demonstrated by the harm done to children. Almost 75 percent of all children murdered each year in the entire developed world are killed in the United States--American children have a 17 times greater chance of dying of gunshot wounds. Children between the ages of five and fourteen in the U.S. commit suicide at twice the average of other developed countries, with firearm-related suicides being ten times the average. About one-third of all American children live in a household with a gun, and one in five have witnessed a shooting.

In addition to the murder of children is the horrific rate they suffer from accidental deaths and serious injuries in the United States as a result of the prevalence of firearms. Children younger than 15 years are nine times more likely to die from gun accidents than in other developed nations--mostly at the hands of friends and relatives. Guns are now killing three thousand American children and injuring seven thousand each year.

Just one of these cases demonstrates the craziness of allowing deadly weapons in the hands of children. Small .22-caliber "Crickett" rifles--as many as 60,000 per year--are marketed with colorful stocks as "my first rifle," and a Kentucky family presented one to their five-year-old son. Believing the weapon was unloaded, the boy's mother left him in the house playing with his gun. Unsurprisingly, the boy shot and killed his two-year-old sister--the children's grandmother said it was "God's will."

Added to the tragedy suffered by these families in the increasingly punitive American society is the prosecution of grieving parents for having failed to prevent the deaths of their own loved ones. The greater crime is the one committed by society as a whole--which shares the responsibility for allowing the grave risk of danger to little children to continue unabated.

The insanity of the murder and mayhem inflicted on the children of America is easily verifiable--a more difficult question is the effect high levels of actual gun violence and imaginary gun violence seen on television and played out in computer games will have on future generations. It may be that, as a republic, America is sowing the seeds of its own destruction as gun violence overwhelms its ability to protect public safety in a manner consistent with the values of a free and democratic society.

Fantasy. Following the Civil War, the National Rifle Association (NRA) was organized by former Union generals to improve rifle marksmanship, since only one-in-a-thousand shots fired by Union soldiers hit their targets. The NRA organized rifle clubs and advised state National Guards on how to improve marksmanship. It supported the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, and the Gun Control Act of 1968--which collectively regulated machine guns and other "gangster" weapons and established a system of federally-licensed manufacturers and dealers. Since that time, however, the leadership of the NRA has become increasingly radicalized, and it has become one of the most powerful political lobbies in the nation. It obstructs all gun control measures and defends the right of individuals to possess the weapons of their choice, including assault rifles, high capacity magazines, and armor-piercing bullets. Financially contributing to more than half of all members of Congress, the NRA opposes regulation. Instead, it promotes gun-safety education and increased sentences for gun-related offenses--since "people, not guns, commit crimes." The NRA believes society would be safer if more, better-trained people owned more firearms to defend themselves against gun attacks. To this end, the NRA encourages children as young as five years to own firearms and participate in gun sports.

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William John Cox authored the Policy Manual of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Role of the Police in America for a National Advisory Commission during the Nixon administration. As a public interest, pro bono, attorney, he filed a class action lawsuit in 1979 petitioning the Supreme Court to order a National Policy Referendum; he investigated and successfully sued a group of radical (more...)
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