The cover of the recent Children’s Defense Fund report (pdf) on gun violence in the United States carries a single statistic:
The number of children and teens killed by guns in one year would fill 134 classrooms of 20 students each.
That’s just a more dramatic way of stating an already staggering figure – 2,694 in 2010. Most of the report’s 73 following pages are devoted to restating it. Sometimes, this done to illustrate the chilling frequency of such deaths:
• One child or teen died every 3 hours and 15 minutes• Seven children and teens died every day, more than 20 every three days• Fifty-one children and teens died every week
Other times, the same set of statistics (all from the Centers for Disease Control) is used to drive home the magnitude of the tragedy, relating it to the kinds of violence we think we understand:
Nearly three times more children and teens were injured by guns in 2010 than the number of US soldiers wounded in action that year in the war in Afghanistan; 82 children under five died from guns in 2010, compared to 55 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
And then, there’s the shameful comparison to other countries:
US children and teens are 17 times more likely to die from a gun than their peers in 25 other high-income countries combined.
Put it slightly differently:
US children and teens made up 43% of all children and teens in these 26 countries but were 93% of all children and teens killed by guns.
The report is an exercise in word problem reformatting, a hideous nightmare of a standardized test in which every answer is both “all of the above” and wrong. We have failed. The numbers in the examples change, but the fact they illustrate is big and ugly and refuses cosmetic adjustment: the United States, despite a meekly gratifying downward trend, continues to kill its young people with guns at rate more in line with war-torn nations than the prosperous, peaceful countries we presume to lead. In a different, but equally upsetting report, the World Health Organization observed (pdf):
With the notable exception of the United States, most countries with youth homicide rates above 10 per 100,000 are either developing countries or countries caught up in the turmoil of social and economic change.
The repetitiveness of the statistics reflects desperation, I think. One can picture the authors’ frantic oneupmanship in coming up with ways to make the truth as vivid as possible: compare it to war! Compare it to Sandy Hook! And, of course, show us the victims – not via pictures of the violence itself, thank God, but in descriptions of who they were: post-Sandy Hook stories salt the wound:
Steven Curtis, 12, dead after accidentally shooting himself in the head with his father’s gun. Caroline Sparks, 2, shot in the chest and killed by her five-year-old brother. Tayloni Mazyck, 11, caught in gang crossfire and paralyzed for life. The list goes unrelentingly on. (As of July, the New York Daily News found 120 children had been killed by gunfire since Sandy Hook; they relied only on news reports, not CDC surveys. The end number will be undoubtedly, horrifyingly larger.)
The report wallops us over the head with statistics because its authors can’t reach through the pages and throttle us. The frustration is as understandable as it is evident, for as gruesome as the statistics about violence are, the recounting of what legislation has and has not passed is even more dispiriting. Over and over, the public’s willingness (even eagerness) to tighten gun laws has been outmatched by the cowardice of politicians in mysterious thrall to the National Rifle Association.
The whimpering death of the Toomey-Manchin bill has been examined at length; the CDF notes further that, beyond the Senate voting against regulations, a majority of Americans were for (assault weapons ban, background checks):
Several proposals to weaken existing gun violence prevention measures received more ‘Yes’ votes than the background checks provision. They included a concealed-carry reciprocity proposal and a provision to prevent veterans who are mentally incapacitated from losing their right to own a gun without a court hearing.
The news gets worse as we get closer to home, where state legislatures reacted to Sandy Hook primarily by widening access to firearms and weakening regulation. You read that right: more states passed pro-gun legislation in the wake of Sandy Hook than there were states that passed stricter gun control. Maryland, Connecticut and New York and New Jersey all tightened gun laws; Utah, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, North Carolina, Indiana, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Kansas all somehow relaxed their gun laws – by extending the number of places one can carry a concealed weapon, by allowing guns in schools, by instituting “stand your ground” laws, or adding the right to own a firearm to the state constitution.
Colorado reigned in some gun rights after the Aurora massacre in July 2012; today, it is at the center of an NRA-sponsored recall, to be decided this week. Another state legislature, Missouri, both liberalized conceal carry and took unprecedented step of nullifying all federal gun laws – outlawing the federal government from enforcing its gun restrictions within the state. The bill was passed and then vetoed. This week, the legislature will meet in a special session to override the veto.
The Missouri proposal goes beyond the kind of passive quasi-civil disobedience of, say, medical marijuana laws, or even those rebellious legislatures that have sought to nullify Obamacare. The Missouri law would punish federal enforcement of legally enacted statutes by setting criminal penalties for federal agents, and prohibiting state officials from co-operating with federal efforts.
This is insanity.
Conservatives and liberals alike can use the tragedy of children’s deaths as evidence of the need for their favored policies. After all, gun rights advocates want more guns in schools, they argue, for the greater safety of the children. They might even deny the relevance of concealed-carry laws and stand-your-ground provisions to the issue at hand. What does banning raids from the federal government’s “jackbooted thugs” (in NRA president Wayne LaPierre’s famous formulation) have to do with those classrooms full of dead kids?
There is only a shuddering half-step between between the general availability of firearms, their lax regulation, and the death of children. States with background checks have 16% lower gun fatality rates. Child access prevention laws reduce accidental shootings by as much as 23%. Australia passed a strict assault weapons ban and mandatory buy-back program (the US law once on the books had no such program) in 1996 – and hasn’t had a single mass shooting since.
I’m not even sure the CDF believed this report would change that many minds: to anyone disinclined to believe that strict gun laws work, the report is just a recitation of bad things happening because of bad guys (even if a lot of those “bad guys” are other children). Perhaps the point of the report was more modest: just to let people know what is happening, what violence is going on beneath surface, as politicians and lobbyists posture. Though, who knows: Missouri has the fourth most gun deaths in the nation, the sixth most deaths by firearm for children under 18 and is a favorite transit point for gun-traffickers (in a July raid that may be deemed illegal next week, federal agents seized 267 illegal weapons) and look what’s happening there.
We’re beyond the point of “what will it take” when it comes to sane gun laws. The tragedies that should spur protests and marches and petitions happen quietly every day.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013