Watch out! Millions of angry, impulsive Americans with guns

Another day, another shooting.

While it’s hard to construct a profile of the typical American shooter who engages in random killing, there are a few generalizations that can be made with reasonable confidence:

1. The shooter will be male,
2. his weapon(s) will much more often than not have been acquired legally, and
3. he’ll probably be white.

Whether a demographically disproportionate number of homicidal, gun-wielding Americans are white, I have no idea. But the latest shooting — this time the gunman, at 59-years-old, was probably above average age — illustrates the fundamental problem with the idea that carrying a gun is the best way to defend yourself against another gun owner who’s on the rampage: By the time you’ve figured out who the crazy guy is, it’s too late. Why? Because the crazy guy looks just like the regular guy.

The gun lobby would have everyone believe that guns are really only dangerous if they get in the wrong hands and thus when gun ownership turns deadly we are encouraged to overlook the central fact: guns are designed to kill.

There are lots of things that can be deadly — cars, alcohol, cigarettes, passenger aircraft, and so forth — but when these become instruments of fatality, they are not performing the function for which they were designed.

But when a gun owner goes on the rampage, unless his weapon malfunctions, each time he kills or injures someone, his gun and its ammunition were functioning exactly in accordance with specifications.

Although guns can be used to pop holes in paper targets or shatter bottles, what they’re really meant to do is rip flesh apart and end lives. This is machine tooled, high precision, state of the art, carnage.

Lisa Wade writes:

While it seems that much of the discourse around curbing gun violence focuses on the need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, these two issues — gun violence and mental illness — “intersect only at their edges.” These are the words of Jeffrey Swanson and his colleagues in their new article examining the personality characteristics of American gun owners.

To think otherwise, they argue, is to fall prey to the narrative of gun rights advocates, who want us to think that “controlling people with serious mental illness instead of controlling firearms is the key policy answer.” Since the majority of people with mental illnesses are never violent, this is unlikely to be an effective strategy while, at the same time, further stigmatizing people with mental illness.

What is a good strategy, then, short of the unlikely event that we take America’s guns away?

Swanson and colleagues argue that a better policy would be to look for signs of impulsive, angry, and aggressive behavior and limit gun rights based on that. Evidence of such behavior, they believe, “conveys inherent risk of aggressive or violent acts” substantial enough to justify limiting gun ownership.

By Wade’s estimate, based on an unspecified national data set, there are several million American gun owners who pose a risk.

Political realism may dictate that America’s gun owners can’t be deprived of their cherished weapons, but civil libertarians would just as surely guarantee that no screening process would ever be put in place (if such a process could even be devised) that would keep guns out of the hands of impulsive, angry, and aggressive Americans.

The remedy, it seems to me, will have to come from the other end by making legally available weapons less deadly and by holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for the effects of their products.

No other industry enjoys impunity from product liability yet in 2005, Congress, under pressure from the NRA, conspired with the gun makers to protect their profits at the expense of American lives.

The authors of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act have blood on their hands. Each time the families of victims of yet another mass shooting attempt to sue the gun makers, this law provides them with protection.

The Washington Post reported in 2013 on those stymied efforts.

Marc Bern, a New York trial lawyer representing family members of Aurora victims, said the gun law severely limited his clients’ options. He is pursuing a case against the movie theater company, although some of his clients had expressed interest in trying to pursue companies that provided guns or ammunition to the shooter.

“We looked at the gun industry, but they were able to insulate themselves with this law,” Bern said. “It is absolutely outrageous that the gun industry is not accountable when virtually every other industry in this country is accountable.”

President Obama bemoans the fact that the U.S. does not have “sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws — even in the face of repeated mass killings,” and the chances of new legislation being crafted during what remains of is term are slim.

He could, however, push for the repeal of the 2005 law.

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1 thought on “Watch out! Millions of angry, impulsive Americans with guns

  1. Richard Talley

    Cars are not designed to kill people, but the automotive system as a whole is. That is, the mindset of traffic engineers and the resulting infrastructure emphasizes efficiency and traffic flow over safety, especially the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.

    At the turn of the twentieth century there were no jaywalking laws. Urban street users were expected to share the road and proceed cautiously. We’ll see if the ‘Vision Zero’ movement changes anything, but in the meantime we have a built infrastructure that places pedestrians and cyclists in near proximity to high speed vehicles. The result is carnage.

    I don’t know if much of anything can be done about gun violence in the U.S. except at the margins. When the first federal gun law was passed in the 1930s, Congress considered including handguns but rejected that idea for reasons I have not been able to determine. We live in an industrial society where individuals have access to extremely powerful machines, whether they’re sober or competent or not. We accept the resulting carnage as a price of individual freedom. (ER admissions for home workshop injuries from power tools are several times that of ER admissions for gunshot wounds, but we don’t hold the manufacturers liable.)

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