This summer, from June to August, cable stations picked up stories of mass killings from across America. From rural Colorado to the doorstep of the Empire State Building, pervasive violence left no community unscathed. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered words of condolences but few proposals to rein in this violence. Neither candidate mentioned the issue in his speech at their party’s convention; neither has any plans to change the status quo. In a nation with more guns than any other, now is the time to consider this country’s most taboo political issue.
Our nation has a history of famous shootings. Progressive leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated by men who held their beliefs in contempt. John F. Kennedy ’40 wasn’t the only President to be gunned down; six occupants of the Oval Office have been shot. Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot Kennedy, mailed off a twenty-dollar bill and in returned received the weapon he used to kill his President. Rep. Gabrielle D. Giffords (D-Arizona) was severely wounded 18 months ago in a shooting spree that killed six and injured 13.
Mass shootings are not a trend unique to the summer of 2012. According to Craig R. Whitney, writing in the New York Times, 30,000 Americans die each year from gun violence, and an additional 200,000 are injured by weapons. For every 100 Americans, there are 90 guns available for purchase on the open market. While the Second Amendment allows citizens to bear arms, the ready availability of an AR-15—the civilian equivalent of the standard military assault rifle and the weapon used in the Aurora shootings—goes beyond our Founders’ intent. Claiming weapons like these are needed for hunting is intellectually dishonest, and claiming that they are needed for protection is even less believable.
What we need is not a complete ban on weaponry but a discussion on the merits of gun control in a country where nobody will talk about it. The nature of an election-based political system in which third-party lobbying interests hold disproportionate influence has made this impossible. To curry his party’s favor, Mitt Romney has transformed from a man who passed a permanent assault weapons ban in Massachusetts to one whose website claims “he will fight the battle on all fronts to protect and promote the Second Amendment.” Obama went from supporting renewal of the Clinton ban on semiautomatic weapons as a candidate to a President who in office has expanded the rights of gun carriers—allowing guns on Amtrak trains and in national parks. With the National Rifle Association the leading Washington lobbying organization, controlling assets worth well north of $250 million dollars, politicians are wary to bring up the issue of gun control.
Pro-gun rights activists argue that increased carrying of weapons would have stopped killings like Aurora. They suppose that people in the theater could have shot the attacker before so many were killed. However, in a dark space with minimal visibility, who is to say a second attacker would not have caused more carnage? How many more would have been caught in the crossfire? How would people distinguish between a man trying to save them and an accomplice of the killer? The idea that Americans should carry their weapons everywhere for protection—even to watch a midnight premiere of a movie—instead of discussing the merits of gun control is irrational. The Associated Press reported that the weapons used in the Aurora shootings, the aforementioned assault rifle, a shotgun, a bulletproof vest, and 6,000 rounds of ammunition, required no licenses on the part of the buyer. Only the weapons required a background check, one that does not even require a waiting period for the purchase.
I don’t mean to say that there is no merit to owning a weapon, because self-protection is a serious issue and the Second Amendment is a strong part of American history. Hunting and catching game are, as Obama says, “part of a cherished national heritage”. But the argument that pistols don’t offer enough stopping power for protection, and that those without licenses should be able to purchase assault rifles, goes beyond discussing self-protection and creates issues of civilian safety. That gun manufacturers don’t always check for mental competency and criminal records is a public safety risk.
Sensationalist media reporting on some killings is not enough. The same day as the Empire State Building Massacre, 19 citizens were killed in Chicago, many of them youths. The time is now to discuss gun violence in this country. It is a discussion that isn’t about the Second Amendment; it’s a discussion about public safety. It is a discussion with tremendous social implications; it is a discussion we cannot push off. To stay quiet here is, quite appropriately, silent but deadly.
David P. Freed ’16 lives in Wigglesworth Hall.
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