Opening shots: Gun violence in America, part 1 of 2

Examining the history of gun violence in this country, there appears to be a number of key turning points. The first was in 1977 when, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, the National Rifle Association was taken over by hard-line conservatives who opposed any and all forms of gun control laws. The NRA became much more politically active, establishing a political action committee to support gun-rights politicians and oppose members of the Senate and House of Representatives who did not support its views.

In 2012 the NRA gave money to the campaigns of 236 Republicans and 26 Democrats. Direct campaign contributions to a candidate are limited by law to $2,700 per election cycle. However, the NRA has its own PAC and 501(c)4 political organization, which can also legally run campaigns. According to NBC News, in 2014 these two groups spent more than $27 million to elect Senate and congressional candidates favorable to its agenda.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics estimates that during the 2016 election the NRA and its affiliates spent $54 million to help Republicans gain control of the Congress and the White House, including at least $30.3 million to help elect Donald Trump.

The NRA’s big money support of candidates who advance its lax gun control laws agenda is a major factor in the proliferation of guns in this country, from approximately 151 million in 1977 to an estimated 320 million to 347 million guns in 2018.

According to Business Insider, since 2005 the gun industry and its corporate allies have given between $20 million and $52.6 million to the NRA through that organization’s “Ring of Freedom” sponsor program. As of late February, the NRA and its affiliates have outspent gun control groups by a factor of 40 to 1.

The second important year was 1994, when President Clinton signed into law the Federal Assault Weapons Ban following a close 52-48 vote in the Senate. The bill prohibited manufacturing for civilian use a category of semi-automatic weapons and “large capacity” magazines. This assault weapons ban expired in 2004. Efforts to renew it were unsuccessful.

That the assault weapons ban had little impact on reducing this form of gun violence is hardly surprising. The Violence Policy Center notes that soon after the law was passed, the gun industry began manufacturing “post-ban” assault rifles “with only slight differences from their banned counter parts.” This successful circumvention of the law resulted in the manufacture of more than 1 million assault weapons between 1994 and the law’s expiration. Post-2004 shooters who murdered men, women and children in Newtown, Orlando, San Bernardino, Las Vegas and, as of late, Parkland, Florida, all used assault-style weapons. In most states, anyone legally allowed to purchase a handgun can legally buy an assault rifle.

In a 2009 article, the New York Times reported that individuals on the government’s terrorist watch list attempted to buy guns nearly 1,000 times since 2005, and they were successful 90 percent of the time because there was no legal way to stop them.

Gun rights advocates stated that showing up on a terrorist list should not be grounds for being denied the right to purchase guns. Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesperson for the NRA, stated: “There have been numerous studies and reports questioning the integrity [of the list], and we believe law abiding people who are on the list by error should not be arbitrarily denied their civil rights” under the Second Amendment. (To my knowledge, no studies were cited.)

We have been involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for well over 10 years. Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent, thousands of American military men and women have been killed, tens of thousands more wounded, and the NRA has no problem with potential terrorists in this country buying weapons. What could be more absurd?

While the majority of gun-related mass murders in this country have occurred in workplaces, restaurants, bars, parks and other public spaces, school shootings are the most gut-wrenching. Schools — which should be a safe haven for learning — have become killing grounds.

In an ongoing analysis, the Washington Post reports that as of Feb. 15, more than 150,000 students attending 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting at their place of learning since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.

Children in this country are the victims of all manner of gun violence. A recent study by the World Health Organization concluded that among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 years of age who were killed by guns reside in the United States.

Although Americans comprise 4.4 percent of the world’s population, we account for 42 percent of all guns in private hands globally. Adam Lankford, professor of criminology at the University of Alabama, found that a country’s rate of gun ownership correlates with the odds that it will experience a mass shooting. Even when he controlled for homicide rates, this relationship held. This suggests that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline (homicide rate) level of violence.

It’s not that other countries don’t experience mass murder shootings. They do. However, in those societies the killings are an anomaly while in the U.S. they’re a routine event.

The first thing the NRA (and its bought-and-paid-for politicians) state after a gun-related mass murder is that the shooter was mentally ill. Since we have so many more mass killings than other societies, one would surmise most of the world’s mentally ill people reside in the U.S. Adam Lankford reports the rate of severe mental disorders in this country are in line with those of other wealthy countries.

Numerous studies have concluded the vast majority of people with severe mental illness are never violent, and those with violent tendencies are at an increased risk of inward aggression (suicide, for example) rather than outward aggression. In this country some of the relatively few severely mentally ill people who direct their violence toward others are likely to have access to guns, whereas in other societies they do not. This is why strict background checks prior to purchasing firearms is so important.

The third significant date in gun-related mass murders was 2012 and the slaughter of 20 six- and seven-year olds and six teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. There was an outcry on the part of parents, friends and relatives of these victims as well as gun laws advocates across the country to stringently control or ban the sale of assault weapons. Not only was this push for an assault weapons ban ignored, but in some states it became easier to purchase these weapons.

George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale, retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego. A list of sources will accompany part 2 of this commentary tomorrow.

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