It’s no surprise Americans can’t find a solution to gun violence. Like an onion, this issue has many layers.
Layers include police shootings, race, mental health, suicide and urban vs. rural gun ownership. No one policy can possibly fit all scenarios. Instead of pointing fingers (or worse) and shouting hateful rhetoric, we must consider all sides with an open mind. Here’s one shot across the bow. (Pun intended.)
First, some perspective. The number of Americans who died from gunshot wounds in the past decade – more than 300,000 – exceeds the nation’s total combat fatalities in World War II, according to BuzzFeed News. And for every gun murder, there are almost two gun suicides, BuzzFeed notes. More on that in a minute.
And there are upwards of 310 million guns in circulation, nearly one for every U.S. resident – so banning guns isn’t going to happen.
In the Cleveland area, the November 2014 fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was holding a pellet gun at a playground, by a city police officer continues to make headlines.
Reports from two outside experts who examined the use of deadly force in the Tamir Rice case concluded that the shooting was “reasonable,” the county prosecutor announced last weekend.
Cleveland prosecutors hired the experts. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said a grand jury will decide whether Officer Timothy Loehmann – who fired the fatal shot – and his partner, Frank Garmback, will face charges in the now 11-month-old case.
One report is by S. Lamar Sims, senior chief deputy district attorney in the office of Denver District Attorney Mitchell R. Morrissey, who has worked on other officer-involved shootings. “The issue is, in short, could a reasonable police officer have believed Rice’s gun was a real firearm,” Sims wrote.
Sims concluded, “Officer Loehmann’s belief that Rice posed a threat of serious physical harm or death was objectively reasonable, as was his response to that perceived threat.”
The other report is from former FBI agent Kimberly A. Crawford, who has taught classes in the use of deadly force. “The question is not whether every officer would have reacted the same way,” Crawford wrote in her report, which noted that Officer Loehmann had no way of knowing Tamir’s gun was fake. “Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions, could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.”
She concluded that it was.
Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, 78, an African-American, has represented Omaha’s 11th District for 42 years – the longest-serving state senator in Nebraska history. He grew up and still lives in North Omaha, which is home to about 40,000 people and has an unemployment rate of about 25 percent – far above the statewide rate of 2.7 percent, the nation’s lowest.
Chambers discussed urban gun violence with The Trace, which formed earlier this year and calls itself a news outlet devoted to the prevention of violence:
“Not that long ago, there was a rash of underage drinking at various parties around Nebraska, so they put together a task force to find the adults who were sponsoring these keg parties. You know why? Because these parties involved white kids … But when shootings occur in the black community, all of the agencies turn a blind eye to it. I’ve been railing against it for a decade, and nothing is done.
“They talk about black-on-black crime. I say, communities commit crime among the people they live around.
“The media are of, by and for white people. Everything is done to titillate white people, to please them, to provoke them, but other groups are the subject matter: They are studied, dissected, analyzed and synthesized. And when the white people are done with them, they move on. But the problems remain.
“Not long ago they wanted to pass laws allowing guns in bars. I said, ‘Why do you white people need these guns anyway? Nobody is shooting you. Nobody is coming into your community. You want to carry from your car to your pickup truck? From your house to the mailbox? What are you afraid of?’ ”
Alissa Skelton, 26, a crime enterprise reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, told The Trace that gang members frequently get their guns through burglaries.
“Houses will get hit after they see someone going out to hunt, or if they know there are guns inside,” Skelton said. “People in west Omaha, which is a richer part of town, complain more about it, but I’ve seen reports, even in North Omaha, of people getting their guns stolen.”
The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent with others. But far too many are violent with themselves. “If we were to cure mental illness, the suicide rate would go down by 50 to 75 percent,” Jeffrey Swanson, a gun violence researcher at Duke University, told BuzzFeed News.
The federal Gun Control Act, passed in 1968, prohibits gun ownership by people involuntarily committed for treatment for psychiatric illness, and those judged “mentally defective.” BuzzFeed notes two problems with the act:
- Many people at high risk of harming themselves are not committed involuntarily for treatment.
2. Federal mental health restrictions are lifelong. But the threat of suicide comes and goes – and usually passes, if it’s not acted upon.
Swanson suggests that we should temporarily restrict access to guns for people at immediate risk of harming themselves or others, until they have recovered.
The demographics of gun homicides vs. gun suicides is striking. Young black men are disproportionately likely to be both victims and perpetrators of gun murder, BuzzFeed News reports. But those who kill themselves with a gun are most likely older white men.
“Firearm violence is increasingly becoming an old white guy problem,” Garen Wintemute, an emergency room doctor at the University of California at Davis, told BuzzFeed.
Another note: The fatality rate for suicide attempts overall is about 9 percent; when a gun is used, that rises to 85 percent, BuzzFeed reports.
Urban vs. rural
“The gun rights climate is very interesting in Nebraska because there are a lot of hunters here, and the hunters want to keep the gun rights the way they are. They don’t view gun violence the way those in Omaha do,” said Skelton, the Omaha World-Herald reporter.
This is another reason why we can’t remove guns from homes. According to Gallup polls, rural Americans – about one-sixth of the population – are more than twice as likely to have a gun in their homes than those living in large cities. They also are six times more likely to hunt.
According to a USA Today article from February 2013, hunters and sport shooters say shooting is a way to get children out of sedentary lifestyles while teaching them responsibility, safety and respect for guns – the opposite of what they learn from violent movies and video games.
“I don’t think people like us are the problem,” said Louise Terry, a National Scholastic Shooting Sports Foundation board member who grew up near Ithaca, N.Y.
“Guns are very safe,” agreed Jim Bowers, a retired Air Force veteran who teaches gun safety classes to youths near Fairmont, W.Va. “It’s the people that make them unsafe.”
Steve Sanetti, president and CEO of the Newtown, Conn.- based National Shooting Sports Foundation, said rural and urban Americans have different experiences around guns.
“If you are in a city environment, where all you see are the anti-personnel uses of firearms, you think guns are anti-personnel,” he said. “If you grow up in rural areas where guns are accepted, are part of life, used for recreation, sports, family gatherings – you see that there is nothing wrong” with owning a gun.
So, what’s the answer to “gun control?” Many feel that expanding background checks to include all gun sales can help reduce gun violence.
Under federal law, a background check is required each time a registered dealer sells a gun. But a background check is not required for private sales, which account for up to 40 percent of gun sales.
Because many gun deaths are suicides, arming “good guys” won’t keep the “bad guys” at bay. And guns are rarely used in self-defense anyway: Analyzing 14,000 incidents involving personal contact between perpetrator and victim from the National Crime Victimization Survey, a Harvard professor and an economist found that a gun was brandished in self-defense on only 127 occasions, BuzzFeed reported.
Finding ways to keep guns out of the hands of people who might hurt themselves or someone else is the answer. This involves understanding triggers, and acting quickly when those triggers are tripped.