New Urban Cowboy, movie cover
Guns When I first went into Cracktown to face drug dealers and begin rebuilding the neighborhood, I had a meeting with the local police. One cop said I should get a gun. I took his advice and got myself three guns – a nail gun, a brad nail gun, and a staple gun. The staple gun fit nicely in my belt. I had no intention of carrying a real gun and challenging a potentially armed gangbanger who was young, dumb, possibly intoxicated, and had little to lose. To be sure, I was in danger, but if I had armed myself, I would have vastly increased my chances of being killed. Even if I survived a gunfight, I would have been set up for retaliation. It was a no win situation, and this is what we have all over the country with our national gun culture.

A national Gallup Poll done in 2004 indicated there are an average of 1.7 guns for every American.* The National Firearms Survey in the same year estimated 283 million privately owned firearms in the U.S. No one knows the true figure, partly because guns are so easy to get and there are so many unreported weapons. The same Gallup Poll also reported that 40% of the sample group keep a gun somewhere on their property. The average (predominately male) gun owner had 4.4 guns in his household.

Every year, around 30,000 Americans die from firearm–related deaths. This rivals the 33,651 death toll for the entire Korean War. There are also as many as 400,000 gun–related assaults, including about 70,000 people who end up injured and maimed. These casualties have greatly increased our health care costs. Criminals have purchased millions of guns from legal gun dealers. Each year, thousands of these guns stream across the border to fuel the Mexican Drug War. The guns end up in the hands of drug cartels that now have tentacles connecting with equally well–armed drug gangs operating in over 200 American cities. These statistics are some of the most obvious and controversial symbols of our failed gun policy. How did this happen?

Gun ownership in the U.S. is a leftover from the days when most people lived in rural areas and men had to hunt to feed their families. They defended themselves against wild animals, Native Americans, foreign invaders, and each other. Today, almost all of these reasons for owning guns have disappeared. Sport shooting and hunting has replaced the necessity of hunting for food. Many gun owners today still act like cowboys but they are all hat and no cattle. Ironically, buying guns for protection and other purposes has resulted in many more gun–related deaths. Privately owned guns do not protect us as much as they threaten our health and safety.

The correlation between the prevalence of guns and deaths by firearms is undeniable and startling. People in the U.S. are murdered with firearms at a rate 26.5 times higher than England and 199 times higher than Japan in 2001–2002.* Some might argue that in the absence of guns, people just kill each other by other means. To some extent that is true. But the overall homicide rate, in 2008, was still more than 4 times higher in the U.S. than England, and 9 times higher in the U.S. than in Japan.

The government has the duty to keep law and order; and guarantee the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This constitutional guarantee has been compromised by more recent interpretations of the Second Amendment – an amendment that was written when firearms were primitive muskets and militias consisted of citizen volunteers. The Second Amendment may give militias and individuals the right to bear arms, but it is generally accepted there should be reasonable limits on individual ownership. Ideally, the issue would be resolved in a constitutional amendment with uniform federal regulations replacing the more than 20,000 gun laws on the books in 50 states.

Politicians have allowed our country's gun policy to be hijacked by a vocal minority that has organized itself into a campaign cash machine that functions both as a carrot and a stick. The NRA announced in 2008 that it would spend $40 million to defeat Barack Obama. This was despite Obama's gun proposals being quite minimal. (He proposed licensing handguns and bringing back the assault weapon ban.)

Instead of giving in to this blackmail we should confront the three major factors that perpetuate the problem:

  • 1. The gun lobby and our corrupt campaign finance system.
  • 2. The War on Drugs, which draws large numbers of young, underemployed young males into drug gangs.
  • 3. The number of guns and dealers, including the easy availability of guns and the lack of effective regulation or enforcement.

If someone insists on owning a gun, he should really own it. That is, the gun should be unable to function in the hands of anyone but the registered owner. Within ten years, inexpensive bio–metric devices could render any firearm useless in the hands of anyone but its owner. The device could also record when and where bullets were fired. A tiny transmitter would also allow it to be tracked if stolen. If any of these devices are tampered with, a signal would be sent to law enforcement agencies. Assault weapons and other powerful firearms that have nothing to do with personal protection or hunting should be banned. We should also develop programs to take old firearms out of circulation. This is done already on a small scale with confiscated weapons.

In the meantime the least we can do in Florida is follow the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence recommendations:

  • 1. Strengthen law enforcement tools to crack down on corrupt gun dealers and curb illegal gun trafficking.
  • 2. Extend Brady Background checks to all gun sales.
  • 3. Stop large–volume gun sales that supply traffickers.

Level FOUR is Justice, a chapter in the first volume of my book, which deals with this issue in greater depth.

*(Cukier and Sidel, The Global Gun Epidemic. Praeger Security International. 2006. Westport.)
L Hepburn, M Miller, D Hemenway, “The U. S. Gun Stock: Results from the 2004 National Firearms Survey,” Injury Prevention 13 (2007): 15–19.