Guns and the politics of the possible

Somebody finally is trying doing something about guns and the carnage they regularly inflict.

President Barack Obama is proposing a plan aimed at reducing the huge toll gun violence wreaks in this society and this society alone among the developed nations of the world.

The plan (details later) is necessarily modest in light of the magnitude of the problem because anything more ambitious would be impossible to implement given the political realities (more about that later too).

Despite that, the usual suspects nonetheless are frothing at the mouth, ranting and raving, about to have a constriction.

You read it right. Gun huggers are people, mostly men, so attached to their firearms they make so-called “tree huggers” (environmentalists) look like loggers. Freud would have had a field day with them.

What makes the United States, year in and year out, the runaway winner in the death by gun contest?

That’s a complex and controversial question about which there are many theories. But what there is no question about is this country’s leadership in gun madness. In 2013, to cite the most recent year for which statistics are available, the gun death rate in the United States was 3.55 per 100,000. It sounds like a small number until you compare it with other countries and do the math. In the same year, guns took 0.49 lives per 100,000 in Canada, a wealthy country like the United States with British roots and democratic traditions. That means that proportionally guns kill seven times more here than there.

The story is not much different if you look at Western Europe. U.S. per capita gun deaths are almost six times higher compared to the highest country in Western Europe. Tragic. Awful. Shameful.

So if the data shows a distinction that could not be more evident, the question again becomes why.

The obvious answer implicates the considerable resources, relentlessness, sophistry, and truculence of the National Rifle Association (NRA). That indeed is a big part of the problem. The NRA makes American politicians quake in their boots. It’s arguably the most powerful lobby in Washington, where the completion for that title is really tough.

There is more to the story than the NRA, but let’s focus on them for the moment since they are the fiercest beast in the zoo. What exactly is the NRA? If you deconstruct it you uncover a web of finance, friends, fiction, and fear.

The NRA has plenty of money. A big chunk of the finances come from the gun manufacturers. Here is a difference with the countries we have been discussing. Money translates into policy on issues of major public significance more efficiently here than almost anywhere.

The friends are the gun huggers who proudly belong to the organization, provide some of the money, lobby the politicians, and cast their vote on this single issue.

The entire narrative of the NRA is fiction. Owning a gun seldom protects you or your family. Guns in the house are more likely to kill you than a burglar. The next most likely victim is a member of your family. Here the keys are accidents (many involving children), arguments, and alcohol. Having a gun in the house, in sum, is like having a cobra to guard against the bad guys.

Fear comes in because every member of Congress knows that the NRA is a vindictive organization that will aim all their political guns at you if you cross them, even a little bit, and you will soon be out of Congress.

Then there are other factors, including the fact this continent was wrested from its original owners through the gun, the frontier tradition, and peskiest of all, the Second Amendment, unique to the United States.

For decades, courts ruled that the Second Amendment did not confer an individual constitutional right to bear arms and but applied only in the context of collective defense as part of “a well-regulated militia.” Our current right-leaning Supreme Court has distorted the meaning of the Second Amendment and thereby precluded tough gun control laws.

Here’s a summary of Obama’s gun control proposals as explained by the National Conference of State Legislatures:

·         Requires background checks for all gun sales and strengthens the background check system. This would include removing barriers under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act so that states may more freely share information about mental health issues involving potential gun purchasers.

·         Provides states with monetary incentives—$20 million in fiscal year FY 2013 and a proposed $50 million in FY 2014—to share information so that records on criminal history and people prohibited from gun ownership due to mental health reasons are more available.

·         Bans military-style assault weapons and limits magazines to a capacity of 10 rounds.

·         Provides additional tools to law enforcement. The plan proposes a crackdown on gun trafficking by asking Congress to pass legislation that closes “loopholes” in gun trafficking laws and establishes strict penalties for “straw purchasers” who pass a background check and then pass guns on to prohibited people.

·         Urges Congress to pass the administration’s $4 billion proposal to keep 15,000 state and local police officers on the street to help deter gun crime.

·         Maximizes efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime. The president calls upon the attorney general to work with U.S. attorneys across the country to determine gaps occurring in this area and where supplemental resources are appropriate.

·         Provides training for “active shooter” situations to 14,000 law enforcement, first responders and school officials.

·         Directs the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to issue a statement to health care providers that they are not prohibited by federal law from reporting threats of violence to the proper authorities.

·         Launches a national gun safety campaign to encourage responsible gun ownership and authorizes the Consumer Product Safety Commission to examine issues relating to gun safety locks.

·          Helps schools invest in safety. The president’s plan calls for more school resource officers and counselors in all schools through the Community Oriented Policing Services hiring program. The plan also calls for the federal government to assist schools in developing emergency management plans.

·         Improves mental health awareness through enhanced teacher training and referrals for treatment. The plan calls for the training of 5,000 additional mental health professionals nationwide. The plan also calls for coverage of mental health treatment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008.

Although this plan is far shorter than the gun control rules in most other Western countries, if enacted it would save lives. Obama deserves kudos for the courage to get in the face of the gun zealots and their self-interested corporate helpers.

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