The US has an obvious problem with gun violence. Yesterdays attack on Sikhs at worship in Wisconsin, last months massacre at the Batman premiere in Colorado, and the attempt to assassinate Representative Gabby Giffords (Dem, AZ), are cases in point. Yet we all know these incidents are only the tip of the iceberg. This epidemic of gun violence represents a profound ethical challenge to the country, not only in terms of the criminals who use these guns and the people they harm, but also for the policy actors that resist or promote reasonable gun regulation.
Lets begin with a few facts.
Of the nearly 100,000 American shot by a gun, about 31,600 people die and 67,000 survive. Murder, assault, and suicide are the primary causes of these deaths and injuries. The US is far and away the nation with the most guns per capita, and transfers untold numbers of guns into criminal enterprises and overseas markets.
That said, there is no simple relationship between gun ownership and violence. There are other countries such as Canada where high rates of gun ownership are not correlated with our level of gun violence, and murders using guns are almost 20 times higher in the United States, than in comparable countries like Canada. There are also very high rates of inter-personal violence where gun ownership is low, such as in Brazil and South Africa.
While members of the gun lobby like to cherry pick facts to deflect criticism, this should not divert us from acknowledging the well-understood contexts and causes that contribute to gun violence. These have to do with the sheer availability of weapons, permissive policies and regulations, poverty and inequality, political conflict and incitement, psychological predispositions, and cultures that promote violent responses to conflict resolution. All these contexts and causes can be directly influenced by public policy. Whether we do so or not is an ethical decision of governance.
The US political landscape has particularly weak gun regulations, a huge stockpile of weapons, and a well developed culture of violence. It is also characterized by the use of firearms in political violence and hate crimes, something that is overwhelmingly an activity of the far right. The image I chose for this blog conveys this fact well.
A central ethics and public policy concern should be the influence of lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council. Taken together, the NRA and ALEC have for years opposed assault weapons bans and limits on large ammunition clips. They have also advocated for ineffective background checks, online and gun-show loopholes, stand your ground laws, and concealed or open carry laws, amongst other things.
Perhaps most egregiously the NRA has flogged bizarre far right conspiracy theories about the government taking away a our right to bear arms. This resonates with the authoritarian and libertarian factions of the right, cozies up to the gun culture of hate groups like the Patriot Movement, and politically intimidates lawmakers at both the federal and state levels. These are hardly the folks one wants armed to the teeth. To the contrary, the irrationality of their worldviews actually strengthens the case for substantive background checks, extensive training, and appropriate limits on weapons, ammunition and other gear.
There is nothing wrong with lobbying per se. It is an important means of conveying concerns to lawmakers and regulators. When lobbying is combined with disinformation campaigns directed at the public, one has crossed an ethical line. If this goes further, combining lobbying, disinformation, and campaign donations (in cash or in kind) that may effectively buy politicians, it crosses into political corruption. While there may not be a direct line of legal culpability for this, there is certainly one of moral responsibility.
I ardently hope that the recent incidents of horrific and unwarranted violence will finally move politicians and the public to a more sensible debate and policy reform. One ray of hope is that gun owners and hunters are beginning to speak out against the NRA. As Lily Raff McCaulou so eloquently wrote in the NY Times recently,
I’m a hunter and a sportswoman. I own guns, but not for self-defense. I support gun control laws. I would happily vote to repeal the Stand Your Ground law in my home state of Oregon. In other words, the N.R.A. does not represent me.
To learn more about gun violence and reasonable gun regulation, visit the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Both the NY Times and The Guardian newspapers have good backgrounders on gun violence. The maps and charts at The Guardian are especially interesting. To learn about the connection between right wing politics, hate crimes and the gun culture, visit the Southern Poverty Law Center.