January 3, 2013

Stemming the violence

Wounds remain raw after the horrific tragedy that struck Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. As President Obama said at the memorial service, we have been through this too many times as a nation. We have to change. We have to protect our children.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof asked a very telling question in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy: Why can’t we regulate guns as seriously as we do cars?

“The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals — all countries have them — but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns,” he wrote.

The National Rifle Association asked for an armed guard at every school in the nation, but there was an armed guard on duty at Columbine High School during that tragedy, and the armed guards that abounded at Ford Hood were unable to avert the mass murder that occurred there a few short years ago as well.

For the sake of our children, people from all parts of our society are now asking for reasonable restrictions on assault weapons, and better controls on who has access to ownership.

Wrote former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough, an ardent gun supporter: “… The ideologies of my past career are no longer relevant to the future that I want for my children. Friday changed everything ... We all must demand that Washington’s old way of doing business is no longer acceptable. Entertainment moguls don’t have an absolute right to glorify murder while spreading mayhem in young minds across America. And our Bill of Rights does not guarantee gun manufacturers the absolute right to sell military-style, high-caliber, semi-automatic combat assault rifles with high-capacity magazines to whoever … they want. It is time for Congress to put children before deadly dogmas,” he said.

Kristof urged that we treat firearms as the center of a public health crisis that claims one life every 20 minutes.

He pointed out that in school buildings nationwide building codes govern stairways and windows. School buses have to pass safety standards and those who drive them need to pass tests. We regulate school cafeteria food for safety. “The only thing we seem lax about are the things most likely to kill,” he said. There are five pages of regulations regarding ladders, which kill about 300 people each year in this country. Guns kill 30,000 Americans each year.

“What do we make of the contrast between heroic teachers who stand up to a gunman and … politicians who won’t stand up to the N.R.A.?” he asked.

Kristof wrote that as a life-long gun owner he knows that guns are fun. But so are cars, and we accept that we have to wear seatbelts, use headlights at night, and fill out registration forms. Our driving backgrounds are checked when we seek a license, and we mandate air bags, child seats, and crash safety standards. We have limited licenses for young drivers and curbed the use of cell phones while driving. In doing so, we have reduced traffic fatality rates by nearly 90 percent since the 1950s.

Some argue that restrictions won’t make a difference because crazy people or criminals will always be able to get a gun. And they will. We won’t ever be able to eliminate gun deaths all together, just like laws governing cars will never eliminate car accidents. But reducing gun deaths even by one-third would mean 10,000 lives saved each year.

Here’s another sobering statistic Kristof cites: “More Americans die in gun homicides and suicides in six months than have died in the last 25 years in every terrorist attack and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.” Read that one again.

Kristof said that many of us are alive today because of sensible auto safety laws. “If we don’t treat guns in the same serious way, some of you and some of your children will die because of our failure,” he wrote.

Now is the time to take a stand for the safety of our children and our families. We need to initiate discussions that lead to serious policy changes. As another famous quote dictates: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” As a new year begins, it is a good time to turn a new page on this wrenching problem.