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Is it time to pull the trigger on gun control?

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Moving from a culture of fear to a culture of love cannot take place without changes to our national policy on gun control.

By Sister Marge Clark, B.V.M, domestic human needs lobbyist, and Rachael Travis, lobby associate for NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby in Washington, D.C.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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In 2002, Frederick Booker called his mother Charlene in tears, saying, “Mommy, somebody shot Charlie and he’s dead.” Booker was referring to his 19-year-old brother, who had been killed by a bullet to the head in Washington, D.C. This past May, Charlene Booker received another call, this time telling her that Frederick, now 29, had also been killed in a shooting. Both of her children had been lost to gun violence--something no mother should ever need to endure.

Legislators, faith groups, pundits, and the general public are grappling with how to reduce gun violence in this nation, and a number of possible solutions have been proposed: universal background checks, laws to curtail gun trafficking, and a ban on assault weapons and large magazine clips. All of these proposals receive much opposition; the divide on what to do is a serious dilemma. Most people agree that better support for mental health would be acceptable. However, there is controversy surrounding how this would be implemented.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us to love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself, and to do unto others as you would have others do unto you. These words portray a reality different from much that we witness in our society. Violent language and actions are now always present in the media--movies, television shows, and video games are filled with them. Just count the number of guns you see any evening on TV.

Opponents of gun control argue that guns don’t kill; people kill people. That is true. However, guns increase the capacity for the kill. And frequently in cases of gun deaths, there would not have been a death had there not been a gun. A gun left loaded and unlocked, a heated argument, an incident of stalking, a domestic dispute, a suicide attempt, a crime–each of these situations becomes more lethal with the presence of a gun.

We are horrified that 20 children and 6 adults were murdered last year by a young man in Newtown, Connecticut who should never have had access to a gun. Yet we are oblivious to the fact that an average of eight children are killed by guns each day in our nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the five months following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, 71 children under the age of 17 were killed by the use of a gun left unlocked and loaded where a child had access to it. Nearly half of homes with guns and children have an unlocked, loaded gun.

Gun violence in the United States far exceeds that of other industrialized nations. A recent study by the CDC found that: 

  • 87 percent of the children under age 15 killed by guns lived in the United States.
  • The gun homicide rate in the United States for teens and young adults ages 15 to 24 was 42.7 times higher than the combined rate for the other nations.
  • A child or teen dies or is injured by guns every 30 minutes (18,270 in 2010).
  • 34,387 children and teens were injured by guns in 2008 and 2009. They would fill more than 1,375 public school classrooms of 25 students each. This is more than the number of U.S. military personnel wounded in action in Iraq (32,223) and more than double the number wounded in action in Afghanistan (15,438) as of March 2012.

​Children are not the only ones who are victims of escalating gun violence. According to reports this spring from the Center for American Progress, homicide by gun in the United States is approximately seven times the rate in 22 other high-income countries. Further, 85 percent of suicide attempts with a firearm are fatal, whereas other means of attempting suicide have only a 5 percent fatality rate.

Just as factors contributing to gun violence are multi-faceted in nature, a complex set of actions is required to reduce the effects of this violence. The first step—and one which 90 percent of Americans polled since the Sandy Hook tragedy agree on—is to implement universal background checks. It is critically important that background checks do more to keep guns from criminals, stalkers, and those with a history of domestic violence or mental illnesses with violent tendencies. Unfortunately, large loopholes in current law result in only 60 percent of gun sales requiring checks. Those who have less than responsible reasons for obtaining a gun know how to escape a background check. Methods include obtaining them through gun shows, independent sales, and from traffickers.

Legislation has played a significant role in mandating more comprehensive background checks. Seven states—California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York—currently require fingerprints to be run as a part of their background checks. Not surprisingly, some of these states are among those with the lowest instances of gun violence. This provides evidence that restricting access to firearms reduces gun violence, and with stricter background check laws on a federal level we would see a decrease in gun violence across the country.

Of course, many people keep guns in order to protect themselves or their property—the argument that the best protection against a “bad guy” with a gun is a “good guy” with a gun. However, according to the Center for American Progress, in the past 10 years more than 90 percent of police officer deaths resulted from assaults involving firearms. 

However, restricting access to firearms alone won’t solve our nation’s gun problem. Across the states there are many different laws about who can buy what kind of guns and where they can purchase them. It should not be surprising that these laws are broken frequently despite the fact that they are just as essential to keeping the public safe as are background checks. Gun traffickers knowingly violate laws by bringing guns into an area and selling them to persons who would likely have been denied access by a background check.

Another reason for relatively easy access to guns is the lack of resources available to many law enforcement agents. Police forces in many states are terribly underfunded, which reduces their ability to track illegal guns. Better funding of police forces is needed to enable them to better track down these guns and those who sell and possess them.

We must also ask why we permit civilian ownership of high-capacity, semiautomatic firearms similar to those used by the military. A Gallup poll found that most guns are obtained for protection, target shooting, and hunting. Assault weapons, which make up less than 2 percent of guns in the United States, are too visible to carry, too unwieldy to have handy in the home for protection, and too inaccurate for hunting or target shooting. Legitimate ownership of assault weapons and large magazines seems inappropriate in light of most gun owners’ stated uses. They are, however, very useful to those engaged in criminal behavior.

They also increase the chances of accidental shootings. High-capacity ammunition clips and assault weapons are designed to increase speed. Large magazines allow for rapid shooting that becomes less accurate with each shot. This makes it more difficult to ensure that the person moving through your home is an intruder and not a member of the family coming home late.

Assault weapons and high capacity magazines have no place in civilian life and should be banned. Bans on assault weapons, such as the one that was in place from 1994 to 2004 (a time in which we saw a 45 percent reduction in crimes committed nationally with traced assault weapons), combined with the use of smaller ammunition clips could reduce deaths and injuries related to both crimes and accidents.

While it may never be possible to guarantee 100 percent safety in gun use, there are ways to make gun ownership safer. Gun safety classes and training sessions should be required for everyone who wants to buy a gun before they make a purchase. This would reduce the risk of accidents.

Still, some contributing factors to gun violence are beyond the scope safety classes and even new laws. Additional funding needs to be provided so mental health professionals can be available to those struggling with a tendency toward anger, fear, and violent outbursts. This is particularly true for children and young adults as they try to come to grips with emotions.

Our nation has become mired in a culture of violence as a way of solving problems nationally as well as internationally. Much of this violence comes from fear: fear of uncertainty, fear of not being in control. Trust in neighbors and trust in government have been eroded. When people want to protect themselves, their families, and their fortunes, too many turn to guns.

There is no policy to prevent fear. But we can take it upon ourselves to live out the message of loving our neighbors with a newfound intention. If we as a society were to live every day exhibiting the universal love and concern we now only show for victims of catastrophes, the culture of fear that has become the accepted normal might start to erode, transforming us into a culture who loves our neighbors. This is the time where we must live the gospel.

Image: Wikimedia Commons