Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - Page 9 News List

US gun violence is out of control

The death toll from firearms in the US suggests that the country is gripped by civil war, killing 213,000 more Americans than have been killed in all wars in just the past 45 years, and may require international intervention before thousands more die

By Henry Porter  /  The Observer

Illustration: Yusha

Last week, Starbucks asked its US customers to please not bring their guns into the coffee shop. This is part of the company’s concern about customer safety and follows a ban in the summer on smoking within 7.6m of a coffee shop entrance and an earlier ruling about scalding hot coffee. After the celebrated Liebeck v McDonald’s case in 1994, involving a woman who suffered third-degree burns to her thighs, Starbucks complies with the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s recommendation that drinks should be served at a maximum temperature of 82oC.

Although it was brave of Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz to go even this far in a country where people are better armed and only slightly less nervy than rebel fighters in Syria, we should note that dealing with the risks of scalding and secondary smoke came well before addressing the problem of people who go armed to buy a latte. There can be no weirder order of priorities on this planet.

That is the US, we say, as news of the latest massacre breaks — last week, it was the slaughter of 12 people by Aaron Alexis at Washington’s Naval Yard — and move on. However, what if we no longer thought of this as just a problem for the US and, instead, viewed it as an international humanitarian crisis — a quasi civil war, if you like, that calls for outside intervention?

As citizens of the world, perhaps we should demand an end to the unimaginable suffering of victims and their families — the maiming and killing of children — just as the US does in every new civil conflict around the globe.

The annual toll from firearms in the US is running at 32,000 deaths and climbing, even though the general crime rate is on a downward path (it is 40 percent lower than in 1980). If this perennial slaughter does not qualify for intercession by the UN and all relevant non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it is hard to know what does.

To absorb the scale of the mayhem, it is worth trying to guess the death toll of all the wars in US history since the War of Independence began in 1775, and follow that by estimating the number killed by firearms in the US since the day that then-US senator Robert Edward Kennedy was shot in 1968 by a .22 Iver-Johnson handgun, wielded by Sirhan Sirhan. The figures from US Congressional Research Service, plus recent statistics from icasualties.org, tell us that from the first casualties in the battle of Lexington to recent operations in Afghanistan, the toll is 1,171,177. By contrast, the number killed by firearms, including suicides, since 1968, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI, is 1,384,171.

That 212,994 more Americans lost their lives from firearms in the past 45 years than in all wars involving the US is a staggering fact, particularly when you place it in the context of the safety-conscious, “secondary smoke” obsessions that characterize so much of US life.

Everywhere you look in the US, people are trying to make life safer. On roads, for example, there has been a huge effort in the past 50 years to enforce speed limits, crack down on drunk driving and build safety features into highways, as well as vehicles. The result is a steadily improving record; by 2015, forecasters predict that for first time, road deaths will be fewer than those caused by firearms (32,036 to 32,929).

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