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

Mon, Sep 23, 2013 - Page 9

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).

Plainly, there is no equivalent effort in the area of privately owned firearms. Indeed, most politicians do everything they can to make the country less safe. Recently, Democrat US Senator Mark Pryor ran a TV ad against the gun-control campaign funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — one of the few politicians to stand up to the National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby — explaining why he was against enhanced background checks on gun owners, yet was committed to “finding real solutions to violence.”

About their own safety, Americans often have an unusual ability to hold two utterly opposed ideas in their heads simultaneously. That can only explain the past decade in which the fear of terror has cost the country hundreds of billions of dollars in wars, surveillance and intelligence programs and homeland security. Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, homeland security spending doubled to US$69 billion. The total bill since the attacks is more than US$649 billion.

One more figure. There have been more than 3,000 terror-related deaths on US soil between 1999 and 2010, including the Sept. 11 attacks, and about 364,000 deaths caused by privately owned firearms. If any European nation had such a record and persisted in addressing only the first figure, while ignoring the second, which is 100 times larger, you can bet your last dollar that the US Department of State would be warning against travel to that country and no American would set foot in it without body armor.

However, no nation sees itself as outsiders do. Half the country is sane and rational, while the other half simply does not grasp the inconsistencies and historic lunacy of its position, which springs from the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms and is derived from English common law and England’s 1689 Bill of Rights.

The UK dispensed with these rights long ago, but US gun owners cleave to them with the tenacity that previous generations fought to continue slavery. Astonishingly, owning a gun is mostly seen as a matter of personal safety, like the airbag in the new Ford pick-up or avoiding secondary smoke, despite conclusive evidence that people become less safe as gun ownership rises.

I happened to be in New York for the Sept. 11, 2001, anniversary: It occurs to me now that the city that suffered most dreadfully in the attacks and has the greatest reason for jumpiness is also among the places where you find most sense on the gun issue in the US. New Yorkers understand that fear breeds peril and, regardless of tragedies such as Sandy Hook and the Washington Naval Yard, the NRA, the US gun manufacturers, conservative-inclined politicians and parts of the media will continue to advocate a right, which, at base, is as archaic as a witch trial.