By Curtis Krock
Peter Tomaras' guest commentary on Sunday, April 7, deserves a response; difficult issues deserve a dialog in which alternative views can be compared. I personally became a supporter of gun control after my gentle 80-year-old uncle was shot to death on his front porch in the 1970s in Baltimore by three boys, ages 14-16, equipped with a handgun.
Gun violence in the U.S. comprises several different categories which no doubt require different approaches. There are 10,000 gun homicides per year — a toll which since World War II has killed more Americans than all our wars of the 20th and 21st century. There are 600 accidental gun deaths per year, and 20,000 gun suicides per year. Gun violence is remarkably low in countries that maintain their freedom with a minimum of citizen-owned guns. Among all the developed nations, the U.S. has by far the highest rate of gun deaths. By comparison, Germany has 269 gun homicides per year, the United Kingdom 14 and Japan 47!
Guns were invented for a single purpose — to kill. They have been improved through the centuries to increase markedly their rate of fire, range and accuracy — all of which increase their lethality. Yes, bats and knives can be used to kill — but not quickly and at a distance from the victim. Yes, there are more motor vehicle deaths than gun deaths — but the car was not designed to kill and has many positive uses.
Tomaras is mistaken in his belief that government efforts to control human behavior by regulating tobacco, and alcohol, have consistently failed. Prohibition actually decreased deaths from alcoholism and cirrhosis in the U.S. Through government measures, not industry activities, smoking has decreased from about 54 percent of adults to about 22 percent since 1964; government-mandated seat-belt use had climbed from negligible in the 1970s to almost universal use today.
I was disappointed to see Tomaras advance two favorite NRA arguments. 1) "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." The limits of this line of thought are well-shown by the murder of Chris Kyle, the "American Sniper" author — an armed and highly experienced warrior — by a young man with a gun and severe mental problems. The second NRA contention is that the size of the gun magazine is immaterial due to the ease of rapid change. The ability to change magazines rapidly in a nonstressful practice situation is quite different from the performance of this act by a highly stressed and agitated mass killer; in fact, the Tucson killer was stopped because his magazine jammed and he was not able to change it.
The creators of the Second Amendment did not contemplate semi-automatic weapons with a firing rate of one to two rounds per second; when the Second Amendment was passed, the guns of that era had a maximum rate of fire of three to four rounds per minute. No one could walk into a school in the 1790s and kill 26 people in a few minutes. If you are suicidal, the availability of guns makes successful suicide attempts easier and much more likely.
One critique of gun control laws is that states such as Illinois and California still have high gun homicide rates in their big cities. It does no good to have restrictive laws if the adjacent state — Nevada, for example — has very lax gun laws. Also, I have read that it is very easy to steal guns because so many households have them in nonsecured locations. Most negative studies of the impact of gun regulation have been imperfect due to design and statistical limitations, and far too short a time span of assessment.
What can and should be done? Both Colorado and Connecticut have passed a series of common sense laws, with the most important being universal background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines. A federal law standardizing these rules would be desirable. Here I would agree with Tomaras that we must greatly broaden the list of psychiatric diagnoses that are a bar to gun purchase. Gun crimes and purchase of guns for another individual who is ineligible to own a gun should be severely punished. All gun owners should maintain their guns in secure fashion to reduce the risk of accident or theft. There is no justification for mass purchases of ammunition or of multiple guns in a short time by any individual.
The answer to gun violence is not more guns; it is a multifaceted approach that will take 50 to 100 years to achieve major improvement. In addition to gun regulation, it will require successful approaches to inner-city poverty, radical changes in the "war on drugs," availability of jobs, and community activism. It will not begin until we alter the status quo with sensible restrictions on guns along with social changes in our big cities.
Curtis Krock is a physician who is retired from clinical practice. He lives in Champaign and teaches at the University of Illinois Medical School.