When an outbreak of food poisoning occurs, nobody says that dying from one's dinner is the inevitable price of eating. We try to trace the tainted food to its source and fix the problem so it doesn't happen again. This is known as protecting public safety.
Of course, there is no "right to bear bacteria" in the U.S. Constitution, no National Germ Association insisting that E. coli doesn't kill people, spinach kills people, or that the best defense against food poisoning is to ingest more poison to build up a resistance. There's no lobby issuing dire warnings that the government's real goal is to starve us to death. Or accusing concerned authorities of "exploiting" the victims, or spending millions to defeat politicians who disagree.
When the subject is gun violence, though, the National Rifle Association has been feeding the country a similarly poisonous line for decades: that if mass murder is the inevitable price of the Second Amendment, then so be it; that the only permissible answer to gun killings is more guns; that any effective clamp-down on firearms would undermine freedom -- including limits on assault-style weapons that can mow down multiple victims in one clip -- and that anyone who advocates such a thing in the wake of the latest massacre is "politicizing" tragedy.
The gun lobby likes to blame gun violence on everything but guns. Parents, schools, a broken mental health system, movies, video games, the nightly news, you name it. All these factors should be addressed, gun advocates say, except for the weapons themselves. Meanwhile, of 12,664 murders in the United States in 2011, 8,583 were from firearms, according to the FBI uniform crime reports.
If it were true that the answer to gun violence is more guns, this would be the safest country on Earth. But the United States has the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world -- 89 guns per 100 people -- and the highest rate of shooting deaths per capita by far.
There's no denying the complexity of our gun-violence problem. This is a brutal culture in many ways, founded in revolution, venerating the lone cowboy who shoots his way out of every fix. Add family dysfunction, social displacement and isolation, a cyberworld where the most twisted ideas find a following and a mental health system that often fails those who need it most. Street crime, gang wars, road rage, domestic abuse, paranoid separatism -- we've got it all. Arsenals aren't the only factor, but they are a big one.
We have gone over this territory again and again, always with the same conclusion -- that nothing more can be done because the NRA is too powerful. Finally, though, an American president is willing to stare down the barrel of Wayne LaPierre's rifle without flinching, and the American public is standing with him. It's just a damn shame that it took a massacre at an elementary school to do it.
When a deranged young man, armed to the teeth, slaughtered 20 first-graders and six school staffers in Newtown, Conn., last month, the hideousness of the assault finally broke through the nation's learned helplessness on gun control. A visibly shaken Barack Obama directed Vice President Joe Biden to convene a task force of interested parties on all sides and come up with recommendations for comprehensive gun-violence legislation.
It was heartening to hear Mr. Biden say at the outset: "We're not going to get caught up in the notion that unless we can do everything, we're going to do nothing." A sane approach at last.
His recommendations, to be delivered Tuesday, are likely to include a ban on assault weapons and extended magazines, universal background checks for firearms buyers, a national database to track the movement and sale of weapons, changes to federal mental health programs, stronger mental health checks and penalties for carrying guns near schools or giving them to minors.
Mr. Biden also raised the possibility of executive action in some areas -- fighting words to government-hating conspiracy theorists and Second Amendment nuts who like to ignore the amendment's language on "a well regulated militia."
At least one initiative should make the NRA happy: a possible $50 million plan to fund hundreds of police officers and surveillance equipment for pubic schools. It doesn't go as far as Mr. LaPierre's call for armed guards in every school in the nation -- presumably to defend children from the very weapons he has helped supply. But what better way for the industry to make a killing than by arming both sides?
On Thursday, the NRA swore to block any movement away from its own nihilistic orthodoxy, but the president is forging ahead anyway at no small risk. Now we'll see if the gun lobby's congressional clout is still absolute in the wake of Newtown. Will battle-weary constituents raise a groundswell of support for tougher laws? Will they reject the NRA's scare tactics and convince their elected officials that sane curbs must prevail?
One new study released last week should help inform the debate. It found that young people in America are in worse health and dying earlier than are the young in other developed countries. The culprits: gun violence, car accidents and drug addiction, all fueling a three-decade decline in American life expectancy. So said a panel of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, which looked at health and longevity in 16 other countries, including Canada, Australia and Germany.
The administration doesn't want to ban guns outright, any more than it wants to ban cars (we'll leave our failed national drug policy for another day). It does want to break the paralysis surrounding common-sense controls that other civilized societies take for granted. Public safety demands it. We should, too.sallykalson
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1610).