The nation has turned its collective attention to the issue of gun violence in the wake of the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty children and six staff members were gunned down in cold blood. The past several weeks have been dominated by headlines involving gun violence: five more shootings have occurred on campuses across the country since Newtown. While mass shootings receive a bulk of the media's attention, over one-thousand Americans unnoticed by cameras have lost their lives in a month's time.
We are becoming all too accustomed to these tragedies. Whether it is the unrelenting bloodshed in the streets of Chicago or the mass shooting in Tucson where Congresswoman Giffords miraculously survived a gunshot to the head but where six others lost their lives, including a nine year old, gun violence continues. The horrific mass shooting in Aurora where a man armed with body armor set off tear gas grenades and unloaded an assault rifle, brutally murdering twelve and shooting fifty-eight others who were simply waiting to watch the latest Batman movie, is tragic. It seems that there is a new event every week.
To be sure, our country has a proud tradition of gun ownership dating back to before the American Revolution. I come from a gun state, Indiana, where law-abiding citizens use guns for recreational use and self-defense. However, just as we have adapted our laws to reflect the changing times on other issues, such as the threats of global terrorism, we also must modernize our gun laws to reflect the realities on the ground today. We cannot ignore the vast technological advancements that have taken place since the 1700s. Back then a one-shot musket was no guarantee of a kill, even with a precise aim. In the time of our founders, it would have taken well over ten seconds just to reload a single round, even for a well-trained member of the Continental Army.
Today, we find ourselves with weapons that are truly awe-inspiring — and not in a good way. The Bushmaster assault weapon used at Sandy Hook Elementary is capable of firing hundreds of rounds in a minute. It was designed for the battlefields of Afghanistan, not for the hallways of an elementary school.
We should not pretend that military-style weapons should be in the hands of civilians. These are machines of death, not of play or self-defense. The only civilian who truly needs these weapons is someone who means to do a great deal of harm in a fast, efficient manner without regard for life.
While there are plenty of common sense approaches that we can take to reduce gun violence, it will be an undoubtedly difficult political pursuit. Some powerful organizations with vested financial interests in selling these highly destructive weapons have attempted to sensationalize the issue by claiming that gun safety advocates support taking away all guns and abolishing the Second Amendment as we know it. Conspiracy theorists, with millions of views on YouTube, have even gone to the extreme of claiming that Sandy Hook was a hoax designed by the government to take away people’s guns. This could not be further from the truth. We can and should protect the Second Amendment while also coming to the realization that this is not the 1780s. The founders never intended for us to unleash firepower onto our streets that frankly would be more lethal than any weapons they could have ever imagined.
Assault weapons are not the only issues at hand. There were over 30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. in 2010 of which there were 11,078 murders. We cannot simply turn a blind eye to this fact. Some would rather pretend that things like violent video games are the culprit or as some have rather comically argued, that America does not have enough guns. Contrary to these claims, the high gun ownership rate in the United States, surpassed by no one else in the world, enables not only violent criminals to wantonly murder, but contributes to a staggeringly high suicide count.
The proof is in the numbers. Slovenia and Norway had only 2 gun murders. Two! Before you say, “Well, that’s because they’re so small” in terms of population, Norway only has .05 gun murders per 100,000 people compared to nearly 3 per 100,000 in the U.S. And it’s not a difference due to culture, except perhaps gun culture. England and Wales have fewer than 50 gun murders per year at a rate of .07 per 100,000 people. The British have the same movies, music and video games that we do in the United States, leaving the violent media blame game without a basis in reality.
There’s only one logical conclusion: lax gun laws and easily accessible firearms enable mass shootings and allow for an inextricably high murder rate to take place in the United States.
So what do we do about it? Responsible gun ownership should be a requisite for owning a gun. Proper gun training should be mandatory. Likewise, one cannot expect a person with a felony to be a responsible gun owner. Felons, criminals and terrorists should never have access to any weapons whatsoever. And while we cannot completely dry up the black market of gun sales to these groups, we can certainly make it more difficult and expensive by properly funding vigorous law enforcement efforts, saving countless lives in the process.
The only way that we can fully prevent these transactions from occurring is by instituting universal background checks. In the same way that a teacher has to undergo a background check to be around children, purchasing a gun should be contingent upon a clean criminal record. Under current law, a person even with a violent felony can purchase any gun of their choosing at a gun show or through a private sale. It is estimated that up to forty percent of gun sales occur through these means. This loophole is simply not acceptable. It puts the lives of our citizens at risk. Closing it should be a top priority of Congress.
Finally, the issue of mental illness has been given scant attention in recent years. Congress has an obligation to examine America’s mental health system in a serious, thoughtful and thorough fashion. Just walk the streets of some of our biggest cities and you will see how poorly we have neglected to treat mental illness. Many people suffering from mental illness find themselves homeless, including tens of thousands of veterans. Not only will better funding for mental health prevent future gun violence, it will also help individuals with mental illness live more fulfilling lives.
All of these approaches are enormously popular with the American people. According to a Washington Post poll taken on January 10-13, which mirrors other recent polls taken on the subject, 88 percent of Americans support requiring background checks at gun shows; 76 percent support requiring a background check on anyone purchasing ammunition; 71 percent support creating a federal database to track the sale of all guns; 65 percent support banning high-capacity clips; and 58 percent support banning assault weapons. These are all measures that would enhance public safety with wide support from voters, not only protecting the lives of children, but also police officers, firefighters and others who put their lives on the line for us every day.
America needs a comprehensive approach to solving this critical issue. It is incomprehensible to think that we would allow violent criminals to purchase a gun thanks to a lack of universal background checks. It is equally appalling that assault weapons, such as the Bushmaster and others like it, are allowed on the streets of Newtown, Chicago or any other city. And of course the lack of mental health funding is not only a safety issue, but a moral one as well. To simply throw our hands up and pretend that we cannot solve this issue in a responsible way is ludicrous. We have the solutions right in front of us. Let's bring an end to this violent chapter in our nation’s history. Smart gun safety laws not only protect our most vulnerable, they protect our rights as responsible citizens.
Kyle W. Bell is an author and blogger with a B.A. in Political Science from Indiana University South Bend. He is the author of Operation Bald Eagle and other works of both fiction and non-fiction sold through major online retailers. His political commentary can be found at Kylebell.com.