When — and why — did the U.S. become so gun-crazy?

Another weekend — another mass killing, this one in California on a college campus. A no-doubt mentally ill young man stabs and kills his three roommates, then goes on a shooting spree, killing three others and injuring 13 before finally turning the gun on himself. His motivation, according to videos he made and page after page he posted online, was that girls were shutting him out.

The families of the victims, the students at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the rest of us are left to pick up the pieces. But most people just go on with their lives.

When did we become so numb to this violence? When did our politicians become slaves to the National Rifle Association?

For most of this country’s history, the 27 words of the Second Amendment were interpreted to mean just what the words said — a “well-regulated militia.” It wasn’t until 1977, when the new NRA leadership, made up of staunch conservatives, decided to push for a novel interpretation of the Second Amendment, to give all individuals, not just militias, the right to bear arms. The view was first mocked, but by 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out legal precedent and said the right to own a handgun could not be abridged, ruling against the District of Columbia’s law on handgun restriction. Justice Antonin Scalia used some legal obfuscation in writing his decision, saying that some weapons bans, such as those on assault rifles, would still be constitutional. But to hear the NRA talk these days, every weapon is off limits.

Since 2006, there have been more than 200 mass killings in the U.S., according to research by USA Today. A mass killing is defined as killing four or more people at one time. The overwhelming majority are by shooting. And the biggest reason is that there are so many guns.

There is no national gun registry, so there’s no definitive way to count how many guns people own in the U.S. But according to a wide-ranging study by the Pew Research Center, there are between 270 million and 310 million guns in the United States. That’s close to one firearm for every man, woman, and child in America. Thirty-seven percent of Americans said they or someone in their family owned a gun. So it’s an actual minority of Americans; it’s just that so many gun owners own multiple guns. A gun owner like Elliot Rodger, the shooter in Isla Vista, Calif. The percentage of people who are gun owners actually has gone down — the same survey gave the figure as 49% in 1973.

Hunting and recreation used to be biggest reasons for gun ownership. Now people claim that it’s safety and protection. Yet nearly 60% of people in the same study said they would be uncomfortable with a gun in the home. They are concerned — correctly — about the chances of gun accidents.

The differences in attitudes about guns and gun ownership go along political, gender, and racial lines. The vast majority of gun owners are male (74%) and white (82%). Fewer than 30% of Republicans think stricter gun laws would cut down on mass shootings, while more than 70% of Democrats think so. Thirty-one percent of whites own a gun, while that figure is 15% for blacks and 11% for Hispanics.

The numbers are the most startling when we compare gun ownership in the U.S with gun ownership worldwide. Outside the U.S., there is roughly one gun for every 10 people. The U.S. sees 3.3 homicides by firearm for every 100,000 citizens. By comparison, Canada’s rate is 0.5 homicides, and in the United Kingdom, that rate is 0.1.

So no wonder there are so many shootings, when there are this many guns. According to the most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 16,000 homicides in the U.S. each year. Out of those, more than 11,000 are gun-related.

No one is trying to remove guns from people’s homes, no matter what propaganda the NRA pushes. Some members of my extended family hunt, and I have enjoyed venison at their tables.

But when the lead story on the nightly news is a shooting; when so many candidates shoot guns in their campaign ads; when they wave guns around at political conventions — I can’t help but think we’ve gone off the deep end.

The father of one of the victims of the Isla Vista shootings has made emotional pleas in recent days about gun laws.

“Have we learned nothing?” Richard Martinez, father of 20-year-old Christopher, the last of shooter Elliot Rodger’s victims, said during an interview on CNN. “These things are going to continue until somebody does something. So where the hell is the leadership? Where the hell are these people we elect to Congress that we spend so much money on? These people are getting rich sitting in Congress, and what do they do? They don’t take care of our kids. My kid died because nobody responded to what happened at Sandy Hook.”

Many people in the country — gun safety advocates, many politicians, and a majority of the populace — thought that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adult staff members were killed, would be a turning point. Many hoped for passage of common-sense gun measures, like enhanced background checks to make sure the mentally ill don’t have access to weapons. Measures like closing loopholes at gun shows, which really have no rules at all. Proposed changes in ammunition, to limit the size of high-capacity ammunition clips. All of these measures still have majority support throughout the country, many even from NRA members.

So why don’t they pass? The measures had bipartisan support in the Senate, yet they failed in the face of a GOP filibuster. Some states, like Colorado, passed some gun restrictions after the Sandy Hook shootings. Yet in a recall election heavily financed by the NRA on one side and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on another, at which gun-supporting shooters turned out while gun-safety voters didn’t, two state senators who had voted for the measures lost their seats. The nominee for U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy, is being held up in the Senate, even though by all accounts he is well qualified and says he will spend most of his time fighting child obesity. He supports limited gun-safety measures, and too many senators are afraid of pressure from the NRA.

Samuel Wurzelbacher, aka “Joe the Plumber,” who enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame during the 2008 presidential election, wrote his own letter of condolence, if you can call it that, to families of the Isla Vista victims, but it rung pretty hollow. “As harsh as this sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” Well, I guess if your career has failed as a country singer, would-be politician, and just about everything else you’ve tried (because he was never a plumber to begin with), you might as well try to squeeze some publicity out of making outrageous comments.

Maybe he’s trying for a new gig as an NRA spokesman.

 

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