Divided and Threatened: America at gunpoint
Today, Americans face law enforcement/civilian violence at home and terrorism abroad. Gun
violence underlies both, and has become a part of our lives with a routine-like normality. Reform
is necessary, but standing in the way are not Second Amendment supporters or NRA members
who are activists for legal and safe gun use. Nor is it simply the quantity of guns in circulation
that is to blame. A recent study published in the Summer 2016 issue of Regulation, “Researcher
Perceptions of Lawful, Concealed Carry of Handguns,” analyzed the relationship between gun
ownership and crime, surveying both economists and criminologists. The study found that both
economists and criminologists view gun-free zones as a magnet for criminals by a margin of 2:1,
that permitted concealed handguns are more likely to reduce than increase murder rates by a
margin of 5:1, and permit holders are more law-abiding than average Americans.
This is not the only study of its kind. In a 2015 Gallup survey, a representative group of
Americans were asked if they thought residents are safer with a gun in the home and answered
“Yes” by a margin of 63 to 30 percent. Another Gallup survey found that 60 percent of gun
owners listed “Personal Safety/Protection” as the reason they own a gun. A 2014 Pew Research
Center survey found that 57 percent of Americans believe gun ownership “protects people from
becoming victims of crime,” whereas 37 percent believe that it “puts people’s safety at risk.”
Findings from these polls and surveys suggest that not only is a complete prohibition of guns
impossible, but that it would not stop terrorism abroad or domestic violence. Without guns,
individuals determined to use violence will use, as they did in Nice, France, trucks. They will use knives,
as they did on 19 disabled people in Tokyo. They will use stones and their bare hands. The root
of evil is not within the instrument, but within the wielder.
Moreover, to restrict guns for everyone encourages purchase from black markets which further
disadvantages law abiding citizens. The recent shooting in Munich, Germany is just the latest example.
According to German police, the 18-year-old Iranian-German shooter, who killed 10 people
including himself, purchased the 9mm Glock handgun online. A report from the Wall Street
Journal on the shooting warns that online arms-trafficking sites combined with cryptocurrencies
such as Bitcoin, “put guns within reach of people with no connection to criminals, and who
otherwise would struggle to buy illicit weapons.” According to Col. Nicolas Duvinage, head of
the cybercrime unit at France’s Gendarmerie Nationale, “for someone without any links to the
criminal world, the dark web is sadly a wide open door.”
What, then, can and should the U.S. government do? Constitutional rights should be upheld and
balanced with reform. Rights granted in the Bill of Rights, rights to do or possess something,
only extend as far as the consequences of those actions or possessions upon other individuals. As
the saying goes, you may only swing your arm as far as the tip of my nose. The plain truth is we
should not wait, as has been our method, until we get hit in the nose to reform our ways.
First, the US government can and should increase background checks. Rather than an
encroachment on privacy, constitutional rights and civil liberties, background checks are a
proactive way to allow law abiding citizens to purchase and use guns while keeping them out of
the hands of not just bad guys, but mentally and behaviorally compromised individuals as well.
If extensive background checks are needed for passports and the lowest level of security
clearances, it is not a ludicrous abridgment of privacy or liberty to have the same requirement
for the purchase of weapons.
Second, the government can and should ask, “for what activities are assault rifles necessary?”
The Second Amendment was written at the time of muskets and a predominantly rural, sparsely
populated and naturally wild America. Neither the Framers of the Constitution nor the
amendment they penned anticipated citizens, who no longer form the ranks of militias, having
access to semi-automatic rifles or the ability to build personal arsenals. And if they did anticipate
a future of advanced weaponry coupled with a professionalized military that has been without a
draft for over 40 years, they would support passing laws that appropriately reflect the
relationship of our citizenry and military.
Yet the government continues to be inactive or inefficient on gun reform. Rather than the
quantity of guns, their availability or their owners, there is a detrimentally overlooked obstacle
which affects our attitude as citizens toward guns and stands in the way of competent
government action: how gun violence has been portrayed by the American entertainment
Romanticizing gun violence is so integrated in popular culture that its prevalence is easily
overlooked. Today, Hollywood movies are made for an international, rather than strictly an
American, audience. This means that not only is the dialogue exportable, limited and simple for
easier dubbing, but that American movies export violence as well.
How many movie posters feature a very attractive gun wielding hero or heroine? How many
movie trailers automatically play on our Facebook timelines that are a minute and twenty
seconds of explosions, gun fire and brutality? In how many movies do nameless characters,
never introduced, get mowed down to create a visual effect? The anonymity and the multitude of
deaths per movie makes the act common and sterile. Without a moment of pause, or a thought of
remorse, it sends a signal that our society has picked up on: killing is easy.
Liam Neeson is one of the most outspoken anti-gun celebrities, and has been criticized given the
nature of his movies such as Taken (1, 2 and 3). He says we the audience members should be
able to discern the difference between the character and the actor; the reality and the romance.
But while that argument can certainly be applied to characters like Captain America or
Deadpool, Liam Neeson plays an ordinary man in Taken. We idolize the roles we see on screen
whether superhero or not, and sadly, violence sells. As consumers we perpetuate the demand and
believe the moral of many movies that guns solve problems. They stop the bad guy and his
schemes, and the good guy prevails. But in ordinary life guns don’t solve problems, and in real
life killing doesn’t make us heroes.
America must find a balance. There does need to be constitutional gun reform, but also a serious
conversation about what and who sets the gun violence example. The simple answer is how
many there are, and how easy it is to get one, but this is not the sufficient answer. There are
deeper, subtler and more dangerous messages that affect our attitude as citizens to gun violence
and our government’s ability to curtail it. I see an elite political and celebrity class that
transcends party, race and creed. These wealthy insiders can afford to protect themselves while
everyday Americans are left feeling divided from each other and threatened by each other. The
ability of celebrities to make million dollar violent movies, set an example, profit from that
example, and then blame activists for legal and safe gun use, or politicians to surround
themselves on Capitol Hill with armed guards while deciding to kick the can of gun reform down
the road, is unacceptable. I fear not the licensed gun owner, but the person who has guaranteed
protection, reform or no reform.
When it comes to American lives we shouldn’t be tallying the number of black to white deaths,
civilian to law enforcement deaths. Our government should be working now, together, on
preventative and proactive measures such as background checks, stricter militarized weapon
access, and age requirements, that are realistic, and don’t punish law abiding citizens. And as
Americans we should seriously consider how the popular culture of gun violence we accept and
reward with our attention and money aggregates into a cultural example and norm. Not doing so
not only wastes time, it wastes lives.