The cartoon above has made the rounds on the Internet in the last few days, alongside the argument that massacres such as the murder of 20 children in Newtown are not an issue of gun control, but an issue of access to mental health services. While I agree that mental health care should be more readily available for people suffering from mental illness, to me this issue IS about access to guns. Look at the cartoon again. What would happen if the gun store didn’t exist, or if it was up a steeper set of stairs than mental health care? Across the world, there are plenty of deranged people with serious mental health conditions, but they don’t all have access to semi-automatic or automatic weapons that make it possible to kill 20 people in a matter of moments.
One of my father’s friends suffered a terrible tragedy earlier this year when his brother was murdered in cold blood by a lunatic with an assault weapon in a cafe in Seattle.My family friend’s brother, a musician, was playing a gig with friends when the murderer walked into the cafe and started killing people. Why did this person have access to assault weapons and military-strength ammo? In the wake of the unspeakable acts in Newtown, my father’s friend took to Facebook to say that anyone who is getting his hands on military equipment – kevlar vests, massive amounts of ammo, etc – does not have good intentions. While this may be something of a generalization, there is some truth to the fact that nobody – no civilian – needs access to this type of equipment. It is simply unnecessary, and it is clearly dangerous.
How many more children need to accidentally discharge their families’ weapons? How many more times are we going to allow such disturbing, life-shattering events of violence to take place before we look deep into ourselves and acknowledge the problem: access to guns – and most especially deadly, military-strength, automatic and assault weapons, what Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls “weapons of war” – is creating opportunities for unstable people to commit insane acts of violence.
The statistics also speak for themselves. Compare the amount of people who die from gun violence in the States to similar statistics for any other industrialized nation. According to statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US ranks 28th in the world in terms of percentage of homicides by firearm (per 100K people). Ahead of the United States? Countries such as Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala…. The United States beats any other country in terms of firearm ownership (270,000,000 guns in the US; second highest is India, with 46,000,000). According to the CDC, in 2009, there were 16,799 homicides in the United States. Of those, 11,493 were firearm-related. Look at the graph below, which charts deaths due to assault (firearms and other weapons included( in OECD countries. The US is an outlier, no matter which way you want to look at this information.
The issue is clearly not just one of access to guns, but also a culture that glorifies gun ownership. Gun advocates tout their 2nd amendment rights – sure, when the founding fathers sat down to write the constitution, clearly, gun ownership to protect Americans from the British was a necessity. But we no longer live in those times. And gun ownership these days has absolutely nothing to do with the “well-regulated” militia cited in the 2nd amendment. There are of course plenty of people who own guns responsibly, but their hobby is not reason enough to continue to sell instruments of death widely across the country. A lot of the sick, crazy monsters who shot up crowds of people in the US in recent years obtained their weapons legally. In some cases, there is no history of mental health problems, nothing detectable at all – only their purchase of hundreds of rounds of ammo may have raised red flags.
Seriously, who *needs* a gun? The answer is no one. I don’t care if it’s your favorite weekend past time, I don’t care if your family spends its quality time shooting stuff up – it’s time to put them down and seriously reflect: is your selfish desire to own an assault weapon more important than the lives of 20 innocent children in a school? More important than the lives of countless innocents that are murdered in cold blood and for no reason whatsoever in malls, movie theaters, universities, high schools?
I get that guns don’t kill people – yes, people kill people. But the presence of dangerous assault weapons sure makes it a whole lot easier for lunatics to wreak havoc on communities. Yes, we need better access to mental health services, but it’s not because these services exist that a) they will be used; b) they will be effective. For me, it’s obvious that better mental health care services are needed, but that actually has very little to do with preventing mass murder. It has a lot more to do with being a civilized society where we care for one another, where the government is able to demonstrate that it is – at least! – attempting to prevent people from falling through the cracks, whether they are a potential murderer or simply living a difficult, lonely life because of a condition that isolates them from their family and community.
Look at other countries: there are plenty of mentally unstable people everywhere, but when they don’t have access to weapons of war, they don’t go – cannot go! – on shooting rampages.
I’ll conclude by quoting Barack Obama, who, I hope will live up to the promise of his words:
We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.
But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.
In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?