The U.S. death toll from gun violence since Newtown is more than 33,000. When will we wake up?
One year ago this week, a seemingly unimaginable event took place in Newtown, Connecticut. Adam Lanza, a disturbed and isolated young man took the guns that were legally purchased and kept in his home and drove to the Sandy Hook elementary school. He shot his way inside with an AR-15 assault rifle and proceeded to kill 26 people – 20 of them young children.
It was a crime that spoke, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, to America’s deadly and debilitating fascination with guns. Here was the sickness of this nation’s gun culture on vivid display.
But a year later what is even more unimaginable, more difficult to comprehend and more shocking than this horrible act of violence – is that the carnage continues with seemingly no end in sight.
Soon after Newtown, Slate.com began assembling an extraordinary (and deeply depressing) database of every media mention of a gun death in America. The stories are often short crime blotter articles. The victims are frequently unidentified and the motive unclear, but the senselessness was all too evident.
Just take the past two weeks: a three-year old in Indianapolis pulled his parents’ loaded gun off a kitchen counter and shot himself in the head. Neighbors were surprised because even though the little boy’s parents frequently carried their arms in public, they always seemed “responsible” enough not to leave a gun where their child could get it. A 16-year girl in Noblesville, Indiana was shot and killed when her friend pointed a gun at her chest and pulled the trigger. He thought the weapon was not loaded. In Arkansas, a grandfather with a gun killed himself and three others including his two grandchildren – one was 4 years old, the other only 4 months.
In Chickamauga, Georgia a 34-year old man heard a prowler outside and rather than wait for police, he went outside with his .40 caliber handgun and fired four shots at the silhouette of a man behind his house. It turned to be a 72-year old suffering from Alzheimer’s who had wandered away from his house. And there was the 21-year old San Diego man whose “long-time friend” was showing him a gun. He dropped the weapon and it went off, striking the man in the chest – and ending his life.
These are just a few of the more than 11,000 gun deaths that Slate has compiled in the year since Newtown. Assembling gun statistics is quite difficult – largely because the NRA and its congressional allies have pushed for legislation to make it harder for the federal government to collect such data. So the actual number is likely much higher. In fact, researchers at Slate believe the death toll from gun violence since Newtown is more than 33,000 people.
Of course, what made Newtown so uniquely awful was that the victims were young children. But, in the year since Newtown, children continue to die from gun violence at a terrifying clip. According to a recent report from Mother Jones, 194 kids have been gunned down since last year. It’s an appalling number, but it may actually underestimate the problem. Two Boston-based researchers believe that as many as 500 children and teenagers die every year (and 7,500 are hospitalized) at the hands of a firearm.
As if to add insult to unspeakable tragedy, rarely is anyone punished when a child dies in this manner. Justin Peters at Slate.com has done yeoman’s work in addressing this issue. He points out that when children find a gun in their home and harm themselves or someone else that the parent, guardian or the friend is almost never held responsible. In fact, in 23 states there are no child gun-access prevention laws on the books. In the states where the laws do exist they are rarely enforced. Take, for example, the aforementioned case of the three-year old Indianapolis boy who found his parents gun and killed himself. The police are still not sure if a crime was committed.
But it seems almost impossible to understand how a three-year old being able to procure a loaded gun is anything but a crime of negligence. It’s even more difficult to understand how there can even be an affirmative defense for parents who are so careless.
At some point, someone left a loaded gun where they clearly shouldn’t have – and a child died as a result. With tougher punishments would a parent think twice about bringing a gun into their home? Would they take greater precaution to make sure that a gun in the home was locked and unloaded? Would they install gun safes in their home or gun locks on their weapons?
We’re unlikely to find out any time soon. One might think that such unceasing bloodshed and the shock of Newtown would lead to not just national outcry but reform of America’s lax gun laws. And it has. Ironically, they’ve been further weakened.
As the New York Times reported earlier this week there have been 109 gun laws passed in state legislatures since Newtown – 39 of them tightened gun restrictions and 70 loosened them. On the federal level, a bill to expand background checks for potential gun buyers was defeated by a Republican filibuster. In Colorado, which is one of the few states to toughen its gun laws in the last year, two state legislators who supported the bill were defeated in recall elections. The NRA’s power to thwart public opinion and to uphold the narcissistic belief among gun advocates that their “freedom” must outweigh the costs to society of practically unfettered access to guns remains as strong as ever.
At the same time, gun manufacturers are seeing higher profits and gun sales, at least in the first quarter of the year, appeared to increase dramatically. Of course, this will mean even more gun deaths. A 2010 meta study by a researcher at the Harvard Injury Control Center lays out the sobering consequences of expanded gun ownership:
The evidence is overwhelming … that a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide and that gun accidents are most likely to occur in homes with guns.
Ah, but what about protection say gun advocates? How will I ever keep my family safe from the hordes of home invaders? As the study says, “There is no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in.”
If there is one thing that we do know about gun ownership in America, it is that buying a gun and keeping it one’s home for “protection” dramatically increases the possibility of dying (or having a family member or friend die) from gun violence.
It’s even worse for children. By one estimate, more than 75% of guns used in suicide attempts and unintentional injuries in those between birth and age 19 were kept in the home of the victim, at relatives or with friends. Imagine if Americans were told that every time they went to the gun store to buy a weapon.
It begs the question if the United States can’t protect its own kids from gun violence is there any hope for the rest of us? In the end, this is what makes Newtown such an enduring tragedy. An event this devastating should have woken Americans up to the horror of gun violence – a horror that is all around them and that not only takes tens of thousands of lives but destroys families and communities in its wake.
But alas a year later nothing has changed – and the death toll from America’s gun culture continues to rise.