The Newtown massacre and musings on guns, morality, and public health

The brutal massacre of 20 young children and six public school employees in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, brought to mind one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history, President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. On March 4, 1865, well into the fifth year of the bloodiest U.S. conflict, to resolve the criminal institution of slavery, Lincoln evoked unusually strong biblical and moral language that he normally avoided.

This FaceBook Post generated comments that said, this is why this country is so great and also why it is is so “f’d up” (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=314047015290064&set=o.113895238664965&type=1&theater)
This facebook post generated comments that said, this is why this country is so great and also why it is so “f’d up” (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=314047015290064&set=o.113895238664965&type=1&theater)

He first stated that the continuing expansion of slavery was the goal of the South. “All knew that [slavery] was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union … .” Then Lincoln, in language well understood by his countrymen, further noted the sins and injustice of slavery had brought the wrath of an Old Testament God upon the nation: “Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

A moral issue?

In short, Lincoln held his country morally accountable for that “peculiar institution.” He used moral language, much the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a century later, used similar language to address the injustices of discrimination and racism in the Jim Crow South and throughout the country. Such language by elected officials, however, has been mostly absent from the national debate over firearms violence that is involved in the death of more than 11,000 U.S. residents annually (homicides alone).

But the debate over the regulation or expansion of guns and automatic weaponry on the open market may have turned a page with Newtown shooter Adam Lanza’s killing spree. He used at least three guns (Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm handguns and a Bushmaster .223-caliber) that were first obtained legally. He stole all of them from his well-to-do mother after killing her.

This Bushmaster .223, as of Dec. 16, was being advertised for sale on the Internet.
This Bushmaster .223, as of Dec. 16, was being advertised for sale on the Internet.

The availability of such lethal weaponry is far from an aberration. The Bushmaster .223 can easily be purchased now. Here’s one ad I found on Dec. 16; the weapon is described as intended for military combat.

In response to this mass murder of mostly kids, Peter Drier, professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College, posted a piece on Dec. 15, on the Alternet web site titled “The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre Has Blood on His Hands: The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has a 62-page list of mass shootings in America since 2005. It is Wayne LaPierre’s resume.” Drier asserts that “the long list of killings is due in large measure to the political influence of the [National Rifle Association] NRA—and the campaign finance system that allows the gun lobby to exercise so much power.” In short, the NRA, the gun industry it lobbies for,  the NRA’s alleged 4 million members, and officials in elected office are all morally accountable for downstream effects of firearms proliferation.

Who is morally accountable for mass gun shootings like Newtown's? Just the shooter or weapons industry promoters like NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre,
Who is morally accountable for mass gun shootings like Newtown’s? Just the shooter or weapons industry promoters like NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre.

The NRA’s influence

The NRA, of course, alleges that the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights gives individual Americans the right to possess guns, even combat weapons designed for the mass killing of people. The NRA also, in my opinion, falsely alleges that regulating gun sales and ownership is an attack on our constitutional freedoms–even our “civil rights.” Such language is devoid of both logic and rationality, and absent any moral foundation. I continue to find “literalist” interpretations of the U.S. Constitution, which also legitimized slavery for decades, as irrelevant to the complexities of a public health crisis that weapons-related violence has become in this country.

But, the NRA is more than a gun lobby. Its annual budget exceeds more than $250 million. It donates generously to political campaigns. It runs a non-profit foundation that boasts having raised $160 million. It runs a multimedia operation to promote its extremist views. It is, at the state level, aggressively promoting gun rights such as “stand your ground” laws. In the U.S. Senate, John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced a measure that would force all states that issue concealed carry permits to recognize the permits from other states. More importantly, the NRA promotes both the culture of weapons proliferation and a social media ecosystem that enables extremist views to proliferate, both inside its ecosystem and in the blogosphere, where many NRA talking points pepper the comments section of news stories on gun violence.

Using a public health lens to debate gun violence

In addition to embracing moral language, the national debate should also use a public health lens and the widely available data at all times to bury the completely false NRA propaganda that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” For example, the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Injury Control Research Center examined peer-reviewed research and reported three main findings that point to the association between gun proliferation and homicides, including in the United States:

1. Where there are more guns there is more homicide.
2. Across high-income nations, more guns = more homicide.
3. Across states, more guns = more homicide.

A public health approach involves looking at the data, having a population focus (rather than focusing on the motives of a mentally disturbed killer), examining the policies and systems that enable guns to continue impacting the public’s health, and focusing on forces that develop dangerous personal behaviors—even the embracing of ideas that promote harmful activities such as owning guns. The conservative-leaning Seattle Times, which has not called for any legislative action to address firearms violence this past week (following two mass killings), pulled together some data from public sources on Dec. 15, regarding mass murders involving firearms (my comments in italics):

  • Shooting sprees are not rare in the United States.
  • Eleven of the 20 worst mass shootings in the past 50 years took place in the United States.
  • Of the 12 deadliest shootings in the United States, six have happened from 2007 onward.
  • America is an unusually violent country. But we’re not as violent as we used to be. (See the graph below.)
  • The South is the most violent region in the United States.
  • Gun ownership in the United States is declining overall. (However, we have more than 300 million guns in the U.S.–a staggering figure.)
  • States with stricter gun-control laws have fewer deaths from gun-related violence.
  • Gun control, in general, has not been politically popular. (This fact  overlooks how campaign funding impacts local and national races.)
  • But particular policies to control guns often are.
  • Shootings don’t tend to substantially affect views on gun control.
Duke University sociology professor Kieran Healy complied OECD data on violence in developed countries (excluding Estonia and Mexico) and concluded “America is a violent country.” Such data points to both a pathology toward violence and how aassults in the U.S. end up with lethal consequences (his data does not distinguish cause of death from say guns to knives.) Go to: http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2012/07/20/america-is-a-violent-country/
Duke University sociology professor Kieran Healy compiled OECD data on violence in developed countries (excluding Estonia and Mexico) and concluded “America is a violent country.” Such data points to both a pathology toward violence and how assaults in the U.S. end up with lethal consequences (his data do not distinguish cause of death from say guns to knives). Go to: http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2012/07/20/america-is-a-violent-country/

A 2003 study by EG Richardson and D Hemenway  (called “Homicide, suicide, and unintentional firearm fatality: comparing the United States with other high-income countries, 2003”) found that he United States has “far higher rates of firearm deaths-firearm homicides, firearm suicides, and unintentional firearm deaths compared with other high-income countries” and that the “United States is an outlier in terms of our overall homicide rate.”

Referencing this study, the Brady Campaign concludes that “the United States has more firearms per capita than the other countries, more handguns per capita, and has the most permissive gun control laws of all the countries.” The Brady Campaign further notes that “of the 23 countries studied, 80% of all firearm deaths occurred in the United States; 86% of women killed by firearms were U.S. women, and 87% of all children aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms were U.S. children.”

More blood from the sword … for the lash?

What remains to be seen is if the preponderance of data and the moral outrage that may have been generated by the Newtown shootings will create change.

President Obama, the day of the shootings, held a press conference and said, “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” Gun control advocate and billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dismissed such talk immediately:  “Not enough,” Bloomberg said. “We have heard all the rhetoric before. What we have not seen is leadership — not from the White House and not from Congress. That must end today.” To date Obama has not used his office to promote any national legislation or even national dialogue on gun policy.

One thing is certain: there will be more mass murders in the United States involving legally obtained and legally sold firearms. And I am left paraphrasing Lincoln and wondering: how much more blood from such gun-related killings will have to be spilled to atone for our nation’s continued shortcomings to control what other developed nations have managed to do, and do for decades?

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