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KRISTOF: Do we have the courage to stop this?

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.<WC> <WC1><WC>

<WC1>American schoolchildren are protected by building codes that govern stairways and windows. School buses must meet safety standards, and the bus drivers have to pass tests. Cafeteria food is regulated for safety. The only things we seem lax about are the things most likely to kill.

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.<WC> <WC1><WC>

<WC1>We even regulate toy guns, by requiring orange tips — but lawmakers don't have the gumption to stand up to National Rifle Association extremists and regulate real guns as carefully as we do toys. What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and craven, feckless politicians who won't stand up to the NRA? As one of my Facebook followers wrote after I posted about the shooting, "It is more difficult to adopt a pet than it is to buy a gun."

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.<WC> <WC1><WC>

<WC1>The tragedy isn't one school shooting, it's the unceasing toll across our country. More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

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.


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