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12/14/2012

Gun Violence and Rights

Craig M. Klugman, Ph.D.

Like most of the rest of the United States, we join in mourning with the families who lost a child during the Connecticut school shooting. And just a few days before that, we mourned the people killed in a mall shooting in Oregon. Such news is tragic and ironically both events occurred in the same week that the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the state of Illinois’ ban on carrying concealed weapons. In the last month a Texas legislator filed a bill to reduce the number of hours of training required to get a concealed weapons permit from 10 to 4 and filed another bill that would allow school board members to carry guns at school board meetings. Ohio is considering a bill to allow guns to be carried in the Capitol parking lot and Michigan passed a bill that would allow people to carry guns at schools and churches.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were about 11,500 firearm related deaths in 2009. Other sources place the rate between 14,000 and 15,000 per year. According to the LA Times, the number of mass casualty shootings has increased dramatically in recent years. The irony of strong efforts to loosen gun control laws at the same time that mass shootings make their way onto the news does not go unnoticed. The Pew Research organization says that American’s are evenly split on whether there need to be more efforts to protect gun rights or to control gun ownership.   Gun control has become the new third rail of American politics. The National Rifle Association (NRA) keeps track of politicians vote on gun issues. In certain states believing anything other than full gun freedom means you will not have a political career.

Homicide by intentional firearm is only the 107th most common cause of death in the United States according to the CDC (2012). This number does not include suicide by firearm. The NRA says, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This may be partially true, but without guns it would be harder to kill so many people so quickly and so easily. Swinging a broadsword is unlikely to kill 30 people in a matter of minutes. The NRA also argues that gun control only keeps the guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens while “criminals” still have access. True or not, if there are fewer guns around, statistically there will be fewer gun-related deaths.

Gun violence is a social justice issue. No other country has so many deaths by firearm. Florida passed a law forbidding physicians from asking if a patient had a gun in the home. The reason to ask is that having a gun in the home dramatically increases a person’s risk of being shot. And being shot is certainly bad for a person’s health. This law is currently under an injunction but the state of Florida is appealing.

If there were an infectious disease that could be prevented with a side-effect-free vaccine, we would look askance at anyone who did not get the inoculation. In fact if that disease could lead to the death of other people, then under public health law, one might be required to be vaccinated.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” has been interpreted to mean either that individuals have a right to guns or that a militia has the right to bear arms. This difference is key since under the first view, attempts to curtail guns is a violation of Constitutional rights. However, one must consider that rights are not absolute. When your right poses a threat or harm to another, authorities are justified, even required to take action.

Gun-related violence is not an epidemic, but it is a tragedy especially when the number of mass shootings has increased. More guns in the hands of more people are unlikely to solve this problem. A serious conversation about the limits of gun rights and about sensible control needs to take center stage in public policy to protect the health and well-being of all people.

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