A year ago, America was shocked by the murder of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But momentum to take action has faded, and we still lose that many lives to gun violence every eight hours on average.
The price of our gun policy can be seen in this breathtaking statistic: More Americans have died from guns here in the United States since 1970 (nearly 1.4 million) than American soldiers have died in all the wars in our country’s history over more than 200 years (about 1.2 million).
Those gun killings have been committed by people like John Lennon (his real name, but no relation to the Beatles star), who, in 2001, used an assault rifle to shoot an acquaintance dead in a quarrel over drugs. Lennon is now locked up at Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, N.Y., and he underscores that while people kill people, so do guns.
“I do take responsibility for the murder; I’m sorry for taking his life, and all the life he could have had,” Lennon writes in an essay that he sent me out of the blue and that I’ve published on my blog. “But without a gun, I would not have killed.”
Lennon says that only “that perfect killing machine” of a gun assured that the murder would succeed.
“Could I have stabbed him?” he adds. “Strangled him? Bludgeoned him? If I had done so and he hadn’t died, why would that have made me less culpable than I am now, a man who swiftly and cowardly shot another man to death? A killer nonetheless, I hash these things out, in my head, in my cell, in Attica serving 28 years to life.”
Lennon does not deny that people will still try to kill each other without guns. Indeed, he knows that firsthand, for he writes about being the target of a revenge attack:
“He sneaked upon me in the prison yard like I sneaked upon his friend in a Brooklyn street. When I turned, I saw his arm swing for my neck. I weaved. Then I felt the piercing blows, as he gripped my shirt and dug into my side. Pressured by the blood-thirsty crowd, he stabbed me six times because I shot his friend to death. The ice pick didn’t do the job, though. He got away with it because we were in a blind spot of the yard, and I never told on him. Prison ethics. While my assailant’s intent was clear, the weapon he had access to was insufficient. Therefore I lived.”
“It’s clear that the only reason I’m alive is because my assailant didn’t have his weapon of choice,” he adds. “Can you imagine if we had access to guns in prison?”
Lennon says that he has been tempted to commit suicide but that hanging himself — the best option in prison — is grim and difficult. So he settles for living. Indeed, he notes the irony that it is only because he is in a safe refuge without guns that he has not been murdered or killed himself; at large, he believes he would be dead.
In quoting a murderer and publishing an essay by him on my blog, I’m not diminishing his crime or romanticizing it. But Lennon speaks a blunt truth that Washington politicians too often avoid.
“I’m all for the market system,” Lennon says, “but when the products are killing machines, why shouldn’t we tighten measures to keep guns out of the hands of people like me?”
He’s right. Take cars, which are also potentially lethal instruments ubiquitous in America. We’ve undertaken a remarkable half-century effort to make automobiles far, far safer — and that is precisely the model for what we should do with guns. We’ve introduced seat belts, air bags, prominent brake lights and padded dashboards. We’ve cracked down on drunken drivers, improved road layouts and railings, introduced graduated licenses for young drivers and required insurance for drivers.
The upshot is that we have reduced the vehicle fatality rate per 100 million miles driven by more than 80 percent — so that firearms now claim more American lives each year than vehicles.
We need to approach gun safety in the same meticulous way we approach safety in motor vehicles and so many other aspects of life: It’s ridiculous that a cellphone can require a code to use, but a gun doesn’t.
One of the heroes at Sandy Hook was Victoria Soto, a 27-year-old teacher who was killed while trying to hide and protect her students. It would be nice if Washington could show a fraction of that courage, but instead, on this issue of guns, politicians display paralysis and fecklessness.
So, as Lennon writes, and he should know: “We parade through life to the relentless drumbeat of death.”
Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.