Commentary: All gun violence isn't created equal | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: All gun violence isn't created equal

Apr 11, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In her weekly letter, Editor Margaret Freivogel said that the Beacon will be reporting in depth on gun violence in the St. Louis area in coming weeks. The problem is certainly topical and worthy of thoughtful commentary. Unfortunately, I fear that as presently formulated, it is also too broadly defined to lend itself to productive analysis.

If by “gun violence” we mean injury or death caused to a human being by a firearm, three subcategories suggest themselves: accidental shootings (the result of carelessness), suicide (self-harm motivated by severe depression or other psychiatric disorder) and assault (the product of malice -- externalized aggression directed at another).

There is obviously a degree of overlap in the above typology. Mass murderers, for instance, frequently conclude their bloody sprees by ending their lives, thus making them both killer and victim. But it’s equally obvious that different pathologies generate different varieties of shootings. 

The stick-up man who panics and kills a shopkeeper during an armed robbery originally intended only to take the money and run. He’s a different animal than the psycho who coolly plots to shoot up a grade school but fails to plan for any method of escape.

The only one-size-fits-all solution to gun violence is to eliminate all guns. Given the Second Amendment and the sheer number of firearms in circulation, that’s not going to happen. If that’s the best proposal we can come up with, we might as well just encourage everybody to be nice and hope for the best.

The April 5 editor’s note referenced an informative article by Rob Koenig about gun deaths in Missouri. From 2001 through 2010, the Show-Me state recorded 7,525 such victims. That total puts Missouri as the eighth bloodiest state in the nation and is nearly 50 percent higher than American combat deaths for the period in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

But less than 40 percent of Missouri’s fatalities were homicides, over 55 percent were suicides, with the remainder presumably classified as accidental. As each type of shooting is prompted by different motives, different remedies would seem to be needed to address them.

Simple ignorance is the culprit in most accidental shootings.  In these cases, an individual who doesn’t understand how a weapon functions or who is unschooled in proper gun-handling techniques inadvertently fires a round with tragic consequences.

The cure for ignorance is education. Gun-safety campaigns stressing the need to keep firearms from the hands of children, teaching people how to properly handle and store guns and ammunition as well as buy-back programs to take unwanted weapons out of circulation can all help to limit accidents. But none of these feel-good efforts figure to do much to reduce the other kinds of shootings.

Suicide is normally a contemplated action. It is the sad conclusion of a lengthy process of self-destructive introspection. Blaming the gun for the suicide is a bit like crediting the rooster for the dawn — the firearm is merely a convenient and effective means of reaching a bad end.

Admittedly, an available gun can make an impulsive decision easier to carry out. The jilted lover who gets drunk to drown his sorrows, for instance, might do something he would have never done had he been forced to reflect soberly before acting. 

Similarly, it is unknown how many one-car or crossover “accidents” are actually intentionally perpetrated during fleeting episodes of despair. And anybody with access to a functioning automobile and an enclosed garage has the makings of a do-it-yourself gas chamber. Should we also outlaw cars?

Besides, considering the various infringements on our vanishing privacy rights we’ve endured on behalf of the war on terror, it’s not at all clear that it’s desirable for the state to try now to protect us from ourselves. What most people want is protection from hostile others — and the news on that front isn’t all bad.

The passage of “truth in sentencing” laws and of “habitual offender” statutes has inflated the national prison population by keeping more convicts confined longer. As the incarceration rate rose, the murder rate fell. In Missouri, there were 11.1 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in 1980. By 2010, that number had fallen to 7.0.

What has returned the issue of gun regulation to the political center stage is the alarming incidence of mass shootings. In these cases, the usual remedies meet the limits of their utility.

Lack of training clearly isn’t the problem — these psychos know how to employ their weapons only too well. The threat of criminal sanctions won’t deter this breed of killer because most don’t plan to live through their crimes. Psychiatric intervention has proven to be ineffectual for the few offenders who had undergone treatment before their rampages.

There is a reason, however, that these homicidal maniacs never use machine guns: They can’t get their hands on them because unlicensed civilians are barred from owning these weapons. Reformers advocate treating the high-capacity assault rifle magazines favored by mass killers in the same manner.

Unfortunately, simply barring future sales of these devices will have minimal impact because so many of them are already in circulation. The Newtown atrocity coming on the heels of the president’s re-election last fall has set off a fire storm of panic buying in gun shops across the nation.

Last week, Beretta sent me an email advertising a 17-round pistol magazine. It was headlined, GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST. It might have read, GET ‘EM BEFORE OBAMA DOES. In fact, it can be fairly argued that Barack Obama has now sold more guns than Sam Colt ever dreamt of.

Because we enjoy the best government that money can buy and the NRA has a lot of money, I don’t look for meaningful legislative relief. All it would take to restrict possession of the deadly high-capacity magazines to law enforcement and the military is a measure of common sense and political courage on Capitol Hill.  Either that or some fairy dust and magic beans.