A gunman killed 27 today at a Connecticut elementary school, most of the victims young children. This tragedy is the latest in a sad history of high-profile massacres, which have recently included shootings at the Aurora movie theater and Oak Creek Sikh temple. Gun violence in America is an issue where the numbers are actually even more depressing than the occasional attention-grabbing headlines. Per the CDC there are more than 11,000 deaths from firearm homicides in the U.S. per year. Even accounting for our large population, our ratio of firearm-related death rates (9.00 per 100,000 people) is astronomically higher than the rest of the developed world -- more than double neighboring Canada's (4.78), 40 times the United Kingdom's (0.22), and 128 times Japan's (0.07)!
Yet no major national-level political leaders (NYC's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg comes closest) have asked Americans to challenge the gun lobby's sick fetish for unfettered gun access, more guns, more powerful guns, and carrying guns in more locations.1 In increasingly vocal terms, the American public is fed up with inaction. Highlighting the absurd is a post I saw on Facebook: "ONE jackass tries to light his shoe on fire, and every air traveler has to remove their shoes at airport. A gunman, like many before him, shoots up a ton of innocent people and there's nothing that can be done?" (For all the hype that terrorism gets, keep in mind that in the 10 years after 9/11, only 16 Americans were killed from terrorist attacks in the U.S.)
I'm aware that many gun crimes are carried out with illegal or unregistered weapons. To suggest that is an argument against gun control laws is akin to arguing against, say, nuclear non-proliferation laws! (And, in most mass shootings in the U.S. over the past 30 years, the weapon was acquired legally.) Numbers don't lie: in the UK, where gun laws are very restrictive and even many police don't carry guns, there were 0.03 intentional firearm homicides per 100,000 of the population -- the U.S.' rate is over 99 times higher! Our overly permissive attitude toward guns has led to their pervasive, pernicious influence over our society, with devastating consequences everywhere from quiet New England suburbs to overlooked poverty-racked inner-city neighborhoods.
Don't get me wrong: I respect the right to bear arms. I have fired guns and enjoyed their use in a safe and responsible manner at a shooting range. I defend hunters' rights (though I don't think military-grade weaponry is needed to take down Bambi) and believe as a meat-eater that hunting is even a morally superior alternative to most people's detachment from mass-production slaughterhouses. And I believe the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding and responsible.
That's why we need to treat gun ownership as a serious endeavor, not as idle recreation. In addition to a background check which is currently conducted for some classes of firearm (and is riddled with loopholes), gun owners should be required to obtain certification based on safety training, watch a video on gun violence, and undergo a psychological and mental health evaluation. It's really not much to ask -- there's a higher burden required to get a job stocking shelves at Target!
These regulatory measures would not prevent every future tragedy from occurring, but they would go a long way toward greatly reducing such incidents. For guns to have a place in America, they can't be such a casually destructive and easily excused element.
1. SNL's spoof of the Romney-Obama presidential debate included this memorable and sadly spot-on impression of both candidates' avoidance of tackling gun control issues: "I would also do nothing."