Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality
By David G. Young
WASHINGTON, DC, August 10, 1999 --
With three mass shootings in the past two weeks, the American public's screams for greater firearm controls have settled in at a moderate roar. The events in Los Angeles, Alabama, Atlanta and Colorado leave little to the imagination -- they occurred in suburban places very similar to those where most Americans live. The victims were typical-looking, white, middle-class Americans. It is no wonder then, that massive news coverage has captured the attention of the American middle class -- the events require virtually no imagination to comprehend.
Lack of imagination and ignorance are at the very center of America's standoff over gun control. The current fervor stems from a few high profile incidents in white, middle class America. For years, seemingly nobody cared as the non-white death toll mounted from drug wars in America's inner cities. These places were far removed and altogether too different to capture the imagination of most Americans.
In reality, not much as changed. Despite the spate of high profile cases, gun deaths have been declining for years, and killings remain concentrated far from the mainstream. In 1997, most of the 10,369 firearm murder victims were black males, many of whom were killed in disputes over narcotics-related activities.1
While this is indeed a pressing issue, it certainly is not the same problem that has seized the imagination of soccer moms. For this, we must look at death rates in white, middle class America. Here, death by gunfire is relatively rare. Kids are far more likely to be killed in auto accidents than by firearms. In 1997, 43,200 people died in auto accidents, compared with less than 2,000 in firearms accidents.2 Even including murders, Americans are over four times more likely to be killed in their car as at the barrel of a gun 3 These statistics hold true for young Americans, where in 1997, 13,000 people under 24 were killed in auto accidents, but just over 3,000 people under 22 were killed by guns. 4
Why, then, are people not screaming for new laws to control much more deadly motor vehicles? The simple answer is because they don't stimulate the imagination. Guns are scary. Cars aren't. People use cars to buy groceries and drop Billy off at piano lessons. Middle America needs cars, and it can't imagine any reason it could ever need a gun.
What a pity. Centuries of peaceful, democratic rule have made Americans so complacent and unimaginative that they cannot conceive of living under a repressive regime, despite the fact that this has been the norm for most of the world throughout recorded history.
I have never owned a gun. I have never felt the need to, precisely because the U.S. Constitution gives me such freedoms. Take those freedoms away, and such a need appears literally overnight.
It is this theoretical legal ability to purchase firearms that is so immensely important. A government that does not trust its own people to keep firearms cannot be trusted. If the price of the right to own arms is that 15,000 Americans -- some of them children -- die each year from firearms-related killings and accidents, then so be it. Though it may sound cold to accept that children will die, let us not forget that children die every day. Many thousands more die each year from auto accidents than from firearms. There is no reason why people willing to accept the former should not be willing to accept the latter. If people lack the imagination necessary to appreciate this conclusion, then we will have to agree to disagree.
Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution provides some protection from the masses' lack of imagination. It takes a relatively difficult to achieve two-thirds majority vote in Congress to overturn part of the Bill of Rights. It was exactly this sort of popular movement, inspired by knee-jerk responses to the events of the day, from which Constitution was intended to protect us.
Activists who seek to reform the system short of overturning the Bill of Rights are wasting their time. Criminals want guns, and they are willing to break the law to get them. Even if it were possible to eliminate all new firearms purchases, there are hundreds of millions of guns currently on America's streets. Nothing short of massive confiscation will make a difference.
This is the simple choice that faces Americans as they struggle to deal with ever more reports of mass shootings. Ban private ownership of firearms, or be willing to accept a certain number of deaths. The unimaginative and ignorant will always choose the former. Let us hope that there aren't quite so many as to impose their will on the rest of us.