The shooting yesterday in Arizona was tragic. There are many people who are trying to place blame in several places. The shooter is clearly the one who should be blamed. It appears (from what has been published so far) that he may have some mental problems. And there may well be some blame to assign to those who stoked his hate and fears.
A few people have been quick to claim that the fault is that the shooter had a handgun.
I agree that guns, used carelessly or in the hands of idiots and criminals are a bad idea. But I am equally convinced, after a lifetime of working with law enforcement, the military, and the others, that the problem is not ownership or regulation of guns per se. So long as there is a minimum standard of competency and criminal background check made on those who purchase a weapon, it is probably not a problem. People who buy diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate (to make ANFO) are also dangerous, as are those who buy axes! Yet there are many, many legitimate purchases and uses of those every day.
The shooter in this recent case was determined and attacked at short range. Without a handgun he might have used a suicide bomb (to worse effect), or run his car into the crowd. Someone with strong intent will make use of whatever means may be available.
Currently, there are about 200 million firearms in private possession in the US, of which about 65 million are handguns. There were about 12,600 criminal gun-related deaths in the US in 2007 ( most recent detailed cdc.gov numbers) (and 2/3 of those are felon on felon). Let’s see that’s…. 12,600/200,000,000 == .000063, is .0063% percent of guns in the US involved in criminal deaths (actually, less than that because some guns accounted for multiple deaths).
From those same CDC figures, there were 41,000 drunk driving fatalities recorded, all of which were criminal (by definition). There may have been more as hit-and-runs and where the driver was not tested for alcohol, but we’ll stick with that number. The US DOT estimates there are 254 million registered vehicles in the US and we’ll assume the same number in 2007. Thus, 41,000/254,000,000 == .000161 … that’s at least 2.5 times the number of gunshot deaths! Holy Pinto, Batman! We should ban alcohol and automobiles right away! They’re a menace! It’s not guns you should worry about, but drunk people on the road — especially if you’re not a felon!
Or, let’s look at tobacco. In 2007, 438,000 people died from the effects of tobacco, including exposure to second-hand smoke. That’s 35 times as many fatalities as all firearms deaths in the US, yet the pressures to ban tobacco are hardly as strong.
The argument is that firearms are primarily used to threaten or hurt others, but that isn’t the case with tobacco or cars. That isn’t really accurate. Firearms are used by many for hunting, for sport (target shooting), and as a means of providing protection against animals. Many guns kept for self protection are never used to threaten another person, and are never used to hurt another, either, as seen by the figures above. Meanwhile, people know that tobacco is dangerous, and that drinking while driving can harm others. The nature of intent is thus not quite so clear.
People who aren’t around responsible users of firearms, and who haven’t been trained in their use tend to be skittish about them. That is understandable. The same is true about other things, such as corrosive chemicals, poisons, and explosives. Firearms aren’t toys. Neither is HCl nor cyanide nor C4 nor dynamite. They have their uses. They should be handed with care. Users should be trained. Their misuse should be punished. And there will be people who misuse them, especially people with mental problems. But as with many things in our society that are dangerous, controversial, or challenging, the temptation to ban that which we don’t understand because we fear it should be resisted — whether it is a firearm, the Koran, or somebody’s pink vibrating love toy. 🙂 Especially when the incidence of abuse is low, and there are identifiable positive uses (which I am not convinced is the case with tobacco, btw).