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Gun Violence: Ending Its Terrible Toll and Valuing Everyone

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Gun violence is a window into the dark side of our society. Through that window we see a lack of appreciation for life and the tragic – and often preventable – circumstances that lead to devaluing life. It is also a window into how we value one another – or fail to value some of us, including people with mental illness, particularly those whose demons lead them to suicide.

Imagine a Newtown school shooting every month. Sadly, we do not have to imagine it, because in a certain sense, that is today’s reality.

I was struck by a front page article last month in the Washington Post on the first anniversary of the Newtown school shooting. The article spoke of the 71 other children aged 10 and under killed by deliberate shootings. But why not include, I wondered, the children killed by accidental shootings? And what of the young children who use guns to take their own lives? Last year, our nation lost a classroom of very young children in Newtown, and another three classrooms to gun murders and stray bullets. Add to this the children up to age 14 who lost their lives through other forms of gun violence – suicides and accidental shootings – and each and every month, a full classroom of children are falling victim to gun violence, the promise of hundreds of pre-schoolers, elementary school children, middle schoolers extinguished. (In 2010, 163 children up to the age of 14 were killed in accidental shootings and suicides [page 40].)

The public silence surrounding these deaths – the suicides, the homicides that don’t make the headlines, the accidental shootings – is wrong. Perhaps you follow the issue of gun violence closely and already have a sense of the overall immediate, lethal toll of guns, with 11,101 gun homicides, 19,766 gun suicides, and 851 deaths form accidental firearm discharges in 2011 (pages 18-19). But how many people among the general American populace appreciate the scope of all forms of firearm fatalities?

Where is the outrage at how the availability of guns surely leads to thousands of suicides that, had guns been less readily available, would have been averted, these lives saved and hope still alive that these would-be suicide victims will receive treatment for their mental anguish? Don’t we care about these people too, and see the tragedy not only in the murders that make the headlines, but in the people (so many of whom are in our inner cities) killed in the daily barrage of gun homicide, and the life and death of people whose despair leads them to choose to face that “undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns” (Hamlet)?

In the halls of power in Washington, there is growing appreciation of the need to improve mental health systems in our country to reduce the chances of more Newtowns, Columbines, Virginia Techs. But what of those other 11 Newtowns every year, these collective massacres of our country’s children? And beyond this, what about the 87 people who die each day in the United States (based on 2011 statistics) at the hands of guns? What will prevent these gun deaths of all sorts, one every 16 or 17 minutes, around the clock, every day of the year?

Improving our system of mental health care is vital. In terms of where it might ward off gun violence, the primary importance in terms of numbers of lives that could be saved, though, is not in preventing gun homicide – the mass shootings we hear most about – as it is in helping prevent the far greater number of suicides linked to mental illness. And beyond gun violence, more effective systems of mental health care could reduce suffering of tens of millions of Americans. Why does it seem to take mass killings to focus our attention on the plight of people suffering from mental illness?

But the most effective thing we can do to reduce gun deaths of all forms is make it much harder for people to access guns. Requirements for safety measures such as storing guns and bullets separately, and in locked locations, and having safety devices to protect accidental discharge would help cut down the number of non-homicide gun deaths. Sadly, in the current political environment, I wonder, could even that be achieved?

Hearing more about the lives of the individuals who lost their lives through suicide – if, of course, families are willing to share their private grief and stories to contribute this public crusade – may help in changing the political environment, at least a bit. The media would have to play its part, providing the appropriate sensitivity for those who still suffer the pain of loss, while bringing this aspect of gun violence to public attention with the sense of purpose that represents the best of journalism. As a political strategy, greater attention to not only the plethora of evidence on the effectiveness of gun control in reducing homicides but also the individual stories of guns and suicide, and a second body of evidence on how gun control could reduce these deaths, can only help.

For evidence there is. Plenty of evidence. If you are interested in learning more about gun control’s overall effectiveness, and successes in reducing homicides especially, have a look at this Atlantic Monthly article (comparing U.S. states, with fewer guns deaths in states with stricter gun control laws), and even more powerfully, this Washington Post piece comparing the U.S. murder rate to gun homicide rates in countries with far tougher gun laws. As that and another Washington Post article discuss, Australia and the United Kingdom saw dramatic reductions in gun violence after enacting strong gun control legislation and ensuring strong police enforcement. Meanwhile, as discussed here and here, gun homicides in Japan are in the single digits each year.

As for gun suicides, powerful evidence of the importance of gun control measures to reduce access to guns is described here, in this Harvard study of suicide and firearm ownership in the United States, and in an associated powerful graphic mapping. In short, many gun suicides would be prevented if in their darkest moments, people did not have ready access to such effective instruments of death.

Where we really need to go in this arena – along with improving our mental health care system – is universal background checks and, beyond this basic yet critical step, a full array of strong gun control measures.

Some, like the NRA, argue that such measures could impede people’s freedom, in particular, the controversial individual right to bear arms, recognized by the Supreme Court in 2008. Yet what about the right to live, to be free from fear? What about the right to health? These are freedoms too, freedoms effectively denied to the people who die from gun violence, whether by someone else’s hands or their own. All, ultimately, are victims of guns along with related social ills, from inner city poverty and lack of opportunity to mental illness.

The freedoms we all deserve, and to which we are entitled, will come not from being able to own a gun, but from giving equal weight to the rights of the victims of gun violence, and to their family and friends. We can only ensure their freedoms through more effective gun control, addressing mental illness, investing in inner cities, strengthening the social safety net, and more. However ambitious and politically fraught, this is an agenda that urgently calls out for action. (You might be interested in an almost daily blog by New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and his colleague Jennifer Mascia on gun homicides and other shootings that have made the news, often with introductory commentary on gun control and other issues pertaining to gun violence. Here is today’s blog.)

It is true that from a domestic legal perspective, the Supreme Court has set an outer limit on the scope of gun control legislation – though much is still permitted. And from an international legal perspective, the right we all have to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is a critical element in the body of human rights law. We have a long-standing obligation under the United Nations Charter to “promote…universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms” (article. 55). More recently we have pledged, along with most of the world’s other nations, “[t]o strive for the full protection and promotion…of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights for all” (Millennium Declaration, 2000, para. 25). Our nation has agreed that “[t]he universal nature of these rights and freedoms is beyond question” and that “their protection and promotion is the first responsibility of Governments” (Vienna Declaration, 1993, para. 1).

In essence, we have agreed to promote the essential human right to health. Meeting this responsibility will encompass implementing the gun control measures that collectively stand to save thousands of lives every year – suicides, homicides, and accidental shootings. I leave you with this song — What If, No Matter — from folksinger Tom Paxton, written in response to the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords that left 6 dead in Tuscon, Arizona. It asks, what if no matter how angry or outraged a would-be killer might be, he couldn’t get his hands on a gun?

We know the answers. Now it’s time to act on them, to honor the lives and memory of those classrooms of children being lost every year and the often invisible victims of gun violence every day, and to end this unnecessary and inexcusable form of American exceptionalism. Too many lives are at stake to let the status quo continue to reign.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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