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Can We Talk About Guns?

Timothy Egan at the NY Times opined yesterday about the instant attack that rains down on anyone who dares ask whether more control of certain types of weapons is a good idea for the US. As he puts it, "The gun gag rules." He details the immediate hostile response to sportscaster Bob Costas when he speculated that Kassandra Perkins and/or her murderer, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, might be alive if guns were not so readily available. We tolerate a staggering level of gun violence in the US. According to the CDC' 2009 data, something like 104,000 people get shot every year, and more than 31,000 killed. (That figure includes nearly 19,000 suicides.) In my city of Oakland, CA, more than 2000 people were shot in 2011. There was an increase of 17% in reported incidents of gun violence from 2010, and that was up from the prior year. Part of what OPD used to do more of before harsh staffing cuts was to get guns off the streets.OK, let me draw some distinctions. First, most of the guns used in street violence aren't legal--however, a PBS Frontline report links street guns to various kinds of shenanigans in the under-regulated legal gun market, with straw purchases leading the list. How we deal with legal guns affects the availability of illegal guns. Even states with tough gun laws like CA are easily flooded with available weaponry from nearby states. Second, there's a place for guns in the world. For example, a rifle or shotgun is, I think, a reasonable tool on a farm. But on the street in Oakland?Third, let's not ignore other aspects of violence. Kassandra Perkins was a victim of domestic abuse--but having a gun handy made that a deadly situation. Here's some data posted at the New Yorker by Amy Davidson:

According to the Justice Departments National Institute of Justice, The data are clear: More incidents of murder-suicide occur with guns than with any other weapon. In 591 murder-suicides, 92 percent were committed with a gun. States with less restrictive gun control laws have as much as eight times the rate of murder-suicides as those with the most restrictive gun control laws. Another study found that the mere presence of a gun in the house increased the chance that domestic violence would escalate to murder six fold.

But finally, this is, I think a cultural issue. The US is not the most homicidal nation on earth, (as of 2011, El Salvador leads that sad list, followed by iraq and Jamaica,) but we lead the pack among wealthy nations. Shouldn't this be an issue the churches lead on? Some, indeed, are stepping up, especially those in cities decimated by gun violence. The Catholic Church's leadership HAS spoken against private ownership of guns and for better gun regulation, including the USCCB as recently as 2000. Perhaps now is a good time for a reminder that the flood of guns onto our streets and in our homes is a hazard to all of us. Our cultural tolerance of ubiquitous guns is killing us. If nothing else, perhaps one memorial we might offer for the memory of Kassandra Perkins is to begin to talk about guns in our culture, and what we can do to change things.

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What is so terribly sad is that Americans have become an extremely fearful people. Gone is the optimism of my childhood and adolescence. Oh, ;the wisdom of Roosevelt shdn hd said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself"!I really hate to think of Americanas as being so chicken they have to literally live with guns. What caused the people to change like this?

And just today, another school shooting in which something like 27 died, 18 of them kids. At least one shooter dead. We are a gun-soaked culture. Indeed, not every effort at weapons control makes sense--what is needed (as I mentioned in the original post,) in part is a cultural shift in which we no longer look to guns to solve our problems or (as seems to be the case for the disturbed but well-armed who go on shooting sprees,) to express ourselves. But in the meantime, anything we can do to limit access to the more lethal weapons (regulating sales in a realistic way, e.g., instead of the "wink and nod" that allow so many shadow sales now,) might make incidents like this less deadly. And to those who demand data AND insist that more guns would make us safer, you can't have it both ways. Privately owned guns have been shown to make us less safe, not more safe. So--more guns or more safety? There's a link to some numbers in the original post. And I find labeling the CDC "anti-gun" an absurdity. In fact-based reality, folks like those at the CDC do the math and generate their recommendations therefrom. We can all have our own opinions, but we can't all have our own facts. Why isn't gun control and the cultural shifts I have described a life issue?

It's now been 7 days since Lisa Fullam posted her original piece on guns, calling forth the wrath of the NRA's people. How many of those days have been without a public shooting, either attempted or actually carried out? None, I think, but there may have been one. The original report of today's shooting in Connecticut talked of three people taken to the hospital; but now the Washington Post reports the appalling figures cited above. It also says that the President has expressed his "enormous sympathy" for those with losses. Frankly, I think he should drop everything and make a trip to Connecticut, not just to express sympathy but to talk some home truths about such massacres, actual and attempted.

After what happened in Connecticut today, Josh Marshall, editor of TPM, wrote this:Dont mistake me: Im not making the argument that gun control wouldnt be effective or the standard arguments that the guns were bought legally or by people with no history mental illness, whatever. Id be ready to support pretty much all the things that normally go under the heading of gun control. But Im hearing a lot of people saying we need to talk about guns, [need to] restart that conversation. And I agree, at least in the abstract. But what exactly are we talking about? And how we propose to get from here to there? How do we make our country less of a moral embarrassment?I dont want to hear about these tragedies being rooted in evil or the human heart. We know the human heart is a substandard product. The brain frequently malfunctions. Its offensive to put this forward as part of a discussion about policy as opposed to theodicy and meditation. We know that the vast, vast proportion of gun owners use them legally and safely. We also know that gun deaths are rare in many other countries quite similar to the USA for the simple reason they dont have so many friggin guns all over the place. This is obvious. And guns just make it easy to kill a lot of people really quickly. Freely available body armor helps too. Im not trying to stop the discussion. I want to start it. But Im looking for some guidance on how it can be about more than words. There's more at http://talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2012/12/how_do_we_fix_this.php?ref...

Thanks for that post from Lexington, in the Economist. The most telling figure: 39 homicides by guns in the UK, 12,000 in the US, which has six times the population. 6x39=234, which should be our quota, by UK standards. Why is our figure 51.28 times higher than that quota? The lack of gun control may explain much of it, but it can't explain all of it. What else is going on, and why are we afraid to look for it?The news reports that Pres. Obama is traveling to Newtown, CT tomorrow (Sunday). Good for him. Maybe he can shock some people into waking up, and maybe he can shock our elected representatives into courage.

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About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).