In April 1999, two teenagers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorad0, went on a killing spree at their suburban high school, leaving 12 students and a teacher dead before turning the guns on themselves.
The nation was aghast. There was much wringing of hands about alienated teens, mental illness, guns and their availability. But it all faded, chalked up to an unfortunate, isolated incident
Now in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut killings — this time of 20 elementary children and six teachers—there appears to be a stronger impetus for action.
Vice President Joseph Biden, tasked by President Barack Obama, plans Wednesday to outline how the nation can control the spread of assault weapons.
Whatever combination of solutions emerge—restrictions on assault weapons, bullets, new regulations on who can buy guns, etc., it will surely be a patchwork that will barely cover the problem.
After Littleton, Jim Myers, a wonderful writer and friend, was nonplussed by the outcry since teenage killings were a regular occurrence in his predominantly black Capitol Hill neighborhood. In his 2000 Atlantic magazine article, “Notes on the Murder of Thirty of My Neighbors, he wrote: “Killing sprees in suburban schools are rare and shocking events. Imagine, then, living in a neighborhood where a sign in a Laundromat asks patrons to be sure, before putting their clothes in the wash, to empty all pockets of bullets.”
As a reporter I’m all too familiar with the disconnect between what happens in poor, urban areas, and affluent , white communities like Newtown or Littleton.
Interviewees in the latter invariably say, “This isn’t the kind of neighborhood where these things happen,” or “He wasn’t that kind of kid.”
Residents of neighborhoods like Jim’s – even though only 10 blocks from the Capitol in Washington, D.C.—are much more likely to not only hear gunshots regularly, but to recognize a murder victim as someone they’ve seen around the neighborhood.
It’s time for Americans to give up their NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) mentality that any of us are safe—in the mall, the ‘hood, the upscale cinema, at a suburban school, in our offices, etc, –and grapple with the real question: Cui bono?
The Latin adage means “who benefits?” Who benefits from a nation being awash in guns?
And make no mistake, we are a nation swimming in an ocean of handguns and assault weapons.
A 2007 survey by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime found that the United States, which has 5 percent of the world’s population, owns 50 percent of the world’s guns. That works out to about 90 guns per 100 citizens, making the United States the most heavily armed society in the world, according to the Small Arms Survey 2007 by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies.
And about 4.5 million of the 8 million new guns manufactured worldwide each year are purchased in the United States.
The average man or woman on the street will explain this state of affairs by pointing to the National Rifle Association and the interpretation that the individual has the right to bear arms traced to the Second Amendment protections.
Certainly, the National Rifle Association portrays itself as the major advocate for gun rights in the American political arena with the claim of a membership of 4.3 million members.
But that number is only a tiny portion of the nation’s 90 million gun owners –a number that is actually declining, with the majority, including NRA members , in favor of some form of gun control.
But the NRA opposes any rollback, arguing that any restriction on guns violates the Second Amendment.
Why? Certainly not for the safety and security of the average American.
The Newtown victims’ legal options are limited by a controversial law Congress passed seven years ago that was pushed by the NRA. The law protects gun manufacturers who had been faced with growing litigation alleging that the companies failed to force dealers of their products to abide by existing gun laws.
Today, thanks to the NRA, gun manufacturers are explicitly protected from lawsuits that would hold them liable for crimes committed with weapons they sold. NRA spokespeople have pointed at video games and maintained the any gun regulation wouldn’t have prevented tragedies where people are mentally ill. It has suggested arming teachers, everything except restrict gun usage. The sole reason for its argument against any kind of ban is to allow gun manufacturers and dealers to continue to sell guns and bullets.
Fifty years ago, the nation faced a similar situation with tobacco.
Evidence was mounting up that the nation’s addiction to nicotine was taking its toll.
Yet, the tobacco industry cloaked its profit motives and its opposition to any regulation in the constitutional right of Americans to smoke cigarettes. It fought restrictions on smoking in public places and warnings on packages. It hired consultants to propose that ventilation could allow smokers and non-smokers in the same venues. It funded research to undermine scientific and epidemiological evidence of the adverse health effects of tobacco use and tobacco smoke. It partnered with the restaurant and bar industry maintaining that banning smoking in these places would adversely affect these businesses.
But in 1966, the U.S. became the first nation in the world to require cigarette packages to carry warnings about the dangers of smoking.
Let us hope that it doesn’t take 50 years to put some restrictions on guns in the United States. We can’t afford it.