Gun policy

Nicholas Kristof | Looking for lessons in Newtown

December 22, 2012 

After my recent column urging tighter gun control, I faced incoming salvos from firearm enthusiasts. Let me respond to some of their arguments:

Don’t politicize the tragedy in Connecticut. This is a time for mourning, not for demonizing gun-owners.

Oh, come on! The president and Congress are supposed to address national problems – and every two months, we lose more Americans to gun violence than we did in the 9/11 attacks, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A study by the Children’s Defense Fund found that we lose some 2,800 children and teenagers to guns annually.

That’s more than the number of U.S. troops who have died in any year in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. More than twice as many preschoolers die annually from gun violence in America as law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty.

So this is a time for mourning, yes, but it’s time for President Barack Obama to display leadership as well as grief.

What happened in Newtown, Conn., was heartbreaking, but gun laws are feel-good measures that don’t make a difference. Norway has very restrictive gun laws, but it had its own massacre of 77 people.

It’s true that the 1994 assault weapons ban was not very effective, even before it expired (partly because it had trouble defining assault weapons, and partly because handguns kill more people than assault rifles). But if that law’s ban on the sale of high-capacity magazines had still been in effect, Adam Lanza, the gunman in Newtown, might have had to reload three times as often.

As for Norway, its laws did not prevent the massacre there last year. But, in a typical year, Norway has 10 or fewer gun murders. The U.S. has more than that in eight hours.

If people want to kill, you can’t stop them. Even a fork can be deadly. On the same day as the Connecticut tragedy, a man attacked 23 schoolchildren in China with a knife.

But, in the attack in China, not one of those children died. What makes guns different is their lethality. That’s why the military doesn’t arm our troops with forks.

Gun suicides (nearly 19,000 a year in the U.S.) outnumber gun murders (more than 11,000), and a gun in the home increases the risk that someone in the home will commit suicide. The reason is that suicide attempts with pills or razors often fail; with guns, they succeed. When Israel moved to have many soldiers store guns on base rather than at home, its military suicide rates plunged.

We have the Second Amendment, which protects our right to bear arms. So don’t talk about gun control!

There’s a reasonable argument that the Second Amendment confers an individual right – to bear a musket. Beyond that, it’s more complicated. Everybody agrees on a ban on fully automatic machine guns. The question isn’t whether to limit the right to bear arms, but where to draw the line.

I’d like to see us take a public health approach that reduces the harm that guns cause. We could limit gun purchases to one a month to impede traffickers, make serial numbers harder to file off, ban high-capacity magazines, finance gun buybacks, require solid background checks even for private gun sales, require microstamping so that bullet casings can be traced back to a particular gun and mandate that guns be stored in gun safes or with trigger locks.

And if you need to enter a code to operate your cellphone, why not to fire your gun?

If you were at home at night and heard creaking downstairs, wouldn’t you want a Glock in your night stand?

Frankly, at that moment, I might. And then I might creep downstairs and fire at a furtive figure in the darkened kitchen – perhaps my son returning from college to surprise the family. Or, God forbid, somebody who lives in the house might use the Glock to commit suicide.

The gun lobby often cites the work of John Lott, who argued that more guns mean less crime, but scholars have since thoroughly debunked Lott’s arguments. Published research makes it clear that having a gun in the home simply makes it more likely that you will be shot – by your partner or by yourself. Americans are safer if they rely on 911 for protection rather than on a gun.

Nancy Lanza is a case in point. She perhaps thought that her guns would keep her safe. But they were used to kill her and then schoolchildren.

As children were being rushed out of Sandy Hook Elementary School, they were told to cover their eyes. I hope we don’t do the same and blind ourselves to the lessons of this tragedy.

Contact Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, at Facebook.com/Kristof.

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