KRISTOF: Do we have the courage to stop this?
Published: Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 7:44 p.m.
In the harrowing aftermath of the school shooting in Connecticut, one thought wells in my mind: Why can't we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars? The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals — all countries have them — but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns.
Children ages 5 to 14 in the United States are 13 times as likely to be killed with guns as children in other industrialized countries, according to David Hemenway, a public health specialist at Harvard who has written an excellent book on gun violence.
So let's treat firearms rationally as the center of a public health crisis that claims one life every 20 minutes. The U.S. realistically isn't going to ban guns, but we can take steps to reduce the carnage.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has five pages of regulations about ladders, while federal authorities shrug at serious curbs on firearms. Ladders kill around 300 Americans a year, and guns 30,000.
Look, I grew up on an Oregon farm where guns were a part of life; and my dad gave me a .22 rifle for my 12th birthday. I understand: Shooting is fun! But so is driving, and we accept that we must wear seat belts, use headlights at night and fill out forms to buy a car. Why can't we be equally adult about regulating guns? And don't say that it won't make a difference because crazies will always be able to get a gun. We're not going to eliminate gun deaths, any more than we have eliminated auto accidents. But if we could reduce gun deaths by one-third, that would be 10,000 lives saved annually.
Likewise, don't bother with the argument that if more people carried guns, they would deter shooters or interrupt them. Mass shooters typically kill themselves or are promptly caught, so it's hard to see what deterrence would be added by having more people pack heat. There have been few if any cases in the United States in which an ordinary citizen with a gun stopped a mass shooting.
So what can we do? A starting point would be to limit gun purchases to one a month, to curb gun traffickers. Likewise, we should restrict the sale of high-capacity magazines so that a shooter can't kill as many people without reloading.
We should impose a universal background check for gun buyers, even with private sales. Let's make serial numbers more difficult to erase, and back California in its effort to require that new handguns imprint a microstamp on each shell so that it can be traced back to a particular gun.
“We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years,” President Barack Obama noted in a tearful statement on television. He's right, but the solution isn't just to mourn the victims — it's to change our policies. Let's see leadership on this issue, not just moving speeches.
Other countries offer a road map. In Australia in 1996, a mass killing of 35 people galvanized the nation's conservative prime minister to ban certain rapid-fire long guns. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands.
For that matter, we can look for inspiration at our own history on auto safety. As with guns, some auto deaths are caused by people who break laws or behave irresponsibly. But we don't shrug and say, “Cars don't kill people, drunks do.”
Instead, we have required seat belts, air bags, child seats and crash safety standards. We have introduced limited licenses for young drivers and tried to curb the use of mobile phones while driving. All this has reduced the U.S. traffic fatality rate per mile driven by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.
Some of you are alive today because of those auto safety regulations. And if we don't treat guns in the same serious way, some of you and some of your children will die because of our failure.
Nicholas D. K
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