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Reframing the gun conversation

REUTERS/John Gress
Although informed debate about the origins and intent of the Second Amendment is good and necessary, a preoccupation with the Second Amendment all but ensures the demise of a productive national conversation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

– American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

Today in America we continue to define, weigh, and measure these three “unalienable Rights.”

Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

No matter whether the Declaration’s principal author, Thomas Jefferson, and the Committee of Five of the Second Continental Congress assumed these three rights to be mutually compatible or whether they saw them in tension with each other, today in America there is little agreement about the meaning of, or the relations among “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Instead we are locked in a heated debate about one of the three – Liberty – focused on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1791.

Lost in the debate is the more reflective philosophical, moral and religious pondering of the “unalienable Rights,” which in the eyes of Jefferson and the Congress were essential virtues of a new republic. Then, as now, the way we understand “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” is shaped, to some extent, by different cultural experiences.

A new cultural landscape

At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the differences were often between northern and southern colonies. Today the differences are still sectional, but perhaps even more, they are between rural and small town, urban, and suburban cultures and settings.

  • Rural and small-town populations, especially those who plow the fields and grow our food, tend to view guns as instruments that support life and the pursuit of happiness. A gun is used for hunting, protecting the animals from coyotes, or for skeet shooting. The rifle by the back door is part of rural life, not meant to be used on another human being, except in the unlikely event of a burglary. The right to own and use a gun is a matter not only of liberty but also of life and the ability to pursue happiness. The gun is a family friend.
  • Urban populations, especially those living in densely populated centers with the high crime rates that accompany economic deprivation, see guns differently. Guns in their neighborhoods are not for hunting, protecting animals, or shooting coyotes. They are threats to Life and the pursuit of Happiness. The cities are divided between very wealthy, middle class, and the economically impoverished neighborhoods where gunshots are heard while putting children to bed. Residents who can afford to leave for the suburbs to pursue Happiness sometimes do.
  • Suburban populations are a blend of former rural and urban dwellers with native suburbanites. Some grew up on the farm or in small towns where there was little or no tension among the three unalienable rights. Some left the city in pursuit of happiness or in search of a safe place to live. Some, born and raised in the suburb, can imagine neither the farm, small town, nor the city as a preferred place to live. In the suburbs it is a matter of some confusion and debate whether Liberty, as in gun rights, supports or conflicts with, Life and the pursuit of Happiness.

The National Sheriffs Association, serving rural and small-town America, takes a conservative position on gun rights and gun control, while the National Association Chiefs of Police and International Association of Chiefs of Police, serving urban, small cities, and large suburban communities, call for improved gun-control legislation.

Looking for a productive conversation

Although informed debate about the origins and intent of the Second Amendment is good and necessary, a preoccupation with the Second Amendment all but ensures the demise of a productive national conversation. We would do better to look earlier in our history to the Declaration of Independence, which defined the goals of a soon-to-be-born American republic. To this writer’s knowledge, there has been little if any discussion of gun rights and regulation in the context of the three unalienable rights explicitly lifted up in the document we all celebrate on July 4.

Those who declared American independence from Great Britain in 1776 could not have imagined that one of the three named unalienable Rights — Liberty — would stand as the sole Right without reference to Life and the pursuit of Happiness.

Few venues lend themselves to a mature discussion among rural/small town, urban, and suburban American experiences. In theory, the 50 state legislatures and the United States Congress provide the forums for thoughtful discussion and the search for solutions by representatives of rural, urban and suburban constituents. But in today’s America, where representative government itself is often viewed with distrust and even fear, the likelihood of success is far less than the Founders might have hoped.

Time to explore the creative tension among rights

Where and how, then, do we, the people — rural and small town, urban, and suburban — citizens of the diverse country we all love, come together to discuss our life in light of the creative tension of the rights to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness in 2015?

In 2015 one could hardly say we in America are happy. In the light of current tragedies of gun violence and our socio-political history, we might do well to remember the wisdom of Aristotle (384—322 B.C.E) to help guide citizens of a constitutional republic:

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

Gordon C. Stewart, the retired pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, is a social commentator, writer and radio commentator on Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.” 


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (60)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smith on 10/22/2015 - 10:53 am.

    As one of those rural folks who keeps a rifle by the door to shoot predators trying to eat dogs, chickens and other animals we are raising, I find the arguments to protect the inner city where guns are used to deny folks their liberty, threatening to me. I buy all my guns legally and am for background checks, if proven guns bought at gun shows are used to commit crimes at a high rate i am for addressing the gun show laws. Where you lose me is with the argument that even though criminals will get guns, even if guns are outlawed, you need to pass more and more laws that do nothing to stop crooks from getting guns and justify it as “do we take down speed limit signs because folks speed daily”. My response to that is we set up speed traps to stop and ticket speeders on bad stretches of roads but stop and frisk in bad neighborhoods with gun problems is racist and profiling. More useless laws that don’t stop criminals from getting guns is plain stupid, doing something in the areas where guns are killing kids (mostly children of color) makes sense. Try some of that logic and us “dumb country folks” may come on board.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/22/2015 - 12:33 pm.

      Reply to Joe

      Joe, Thanks for taking the time and energy to reply to this piece. So far I know, we’ve never met, but I want to assure you that I do not view you or others as “dumb country folks”. The demeaning of people who live in less congested areas has to stop, which is part of what lies behind this essay calling for a better, more civil, and more productive conversation. You and I, and most everyone else, are deeply troubled by kids killing kids accidentally. Gun rights and gun control advocates alike weep when a child climbs on up on the refrigerator, comes down with a loaded pistol, and kills his brother. There is no way to do much with respect to the firearms that are already in circulation, but there are ways to decrease the likelihood of weapons sold from this point on being used by those who don’t own them. For example, requiring that all new guns produced and sold have mechanisms that restrict their use to the firearm’s owner. It’s that kind of discussion we need to have across America – rural, urban, and suburban. The conversation is now stuck on one of the three “rights” in the Declaration of Independence – Liberty – to the exclusion of the other two rights: Life (how to protect it), and the pursuit of Happiness. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. Submitted by David Beidler on 10/22/2015 - 04:28 pm.

    Gun Rights

    The Founders viewed individual rights as having been granted by God, not the government. The Bill of Rights was “belt and suspenders” to make sure the new central government did not abrogate those rights. That’s why you won’t see gun rights per se discussed in the Declaration, they were a given.

    Your depiction of the issue as urban v rural, is your supposition. The plaintiffs in both USSC 2d Amendment cases, Heller and McDonald were urban dwellers who wanted to be allowed to defend themselves with firearms against the thugs roaming their neighborhoods. The literature about the Second Amendment is full of references to defense of life and property, AND a bulwark against tyranny.

    The law abiding gun owner isn’t the problem. Criminals are. It’s isn’t rural v urban, it’s law abiding v criminal. Limiting the law abiding citizen’s rights in no way addresses the problem, and is anathema to our Constitutional history.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/22/2015 - 04:25 pm.

      More than law-abiding vs. criminal

      The Greek and Roman classics were the bread and butter of the Jefferson and Adams, the primary writers of the Declaration of Independence. They read Cicero in Latin. They read Aristotle and the NT in their original Greek and debated the meanings of what they read. For the likes of Aristotle and Cicero, the highest good, an end in itself. The word εὐδαιμονία’ (eudaemonia) expressed the Greek philosopher’s understanding of what Jefferson and Adams called Happiness. There’s a reason why it’s listed as last of the three named Rights – it was the summer bonus, the fulfillment of what it means to be human.

      Happiness (i.e., eudaemonia), elaborately described by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, a masterpiece that informed every philosopher who came after him, is more appropriately translated as “the full human flourishing” which is the highest of all good according to Nature. It was that kind of Happiness that was meant then and hat is worth discussing now.

      Your response, David, is interesting and worthy of consideration. The rural, urban, suburban descriptions are my own attempt to describe with a very broad brush the differences the shape our views in American society. Like all such generalizations, they fail the test when it comes to the individual views of Americans who live in each of three settings.

      Can we agree, however, that the issue before us now is not just law-abiding versus non-law-abiding? Can we agree that we have a problem with guns themselves and the matter of who owns them and what kinds of weapons are available to individuals? Can we agree that every child should be protected from playing cops and robbers with real guns, and that, though those own the firearms are responsible for locking them away, there have been and will be times when a parent will forget or act irresponsibly, and that, when they do, something better should be in place to be sure a child doesn’t pull the trigger? That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment. It has to do with the right to “the pursuit of Happiness.”

      That the Supreme Court has interpreted the Second Amendment to guarantee individuals “the right to bear arms” is as much a part of our history as the Amendment’s sad origins in guaranteeing Southern slave states the right to keep state militias for the preservation of order, i.e. put down slave rebellions.

      What saddens me is how quickly any attempt to have a larger discussion quickly sinks into the quick sands of entrenched positions on one amendment. We’re stuck there and will continue to be polarized and helpless against the violence that is ripping us apart until we find the grounds for a common discussion that brings gun-rights and gun control advocates to the table to discuss their different and shared experiences in search of practical solutions. The third “unalienable Right” of the Declaration of Independence – the right to human flourishing – has the potential to bring us together.

      • Submitted by David Beidler on 10/24/2015 - 12:37 pm.

        Reply to your reply

        Thank you for writing back. Yes we can agree on some of those issues. But first let me say that no one among the population of law abiding gun owners wants criminals, violent mentally ill people or underage children to have guns. No one… not even the NRA. To suggest otherwise as some politicians have ( Secy Clinton for example) is slander . I raise that point not because you suggested those things, but because, from my perspective the sort of conversation we should have, like the ones you suggest, is very difficult because there are many people on the anti-gun rights side who seek to demonize even lawful gun owners, or “guns themselves” with the aim of eliminating them form the general population. Hence calls for things like ammunition taxes which seek to eliminate affordable ammunition for the law abiding. If people on the anti side acted in good faith the conversation would be easier, much easier. Since they often aren’t, gun rights people jealously guard their rights. The USSC has found the 2d Amendment to be a fundamental right, like speech, religion, voting etc. look at how jealously those rights are guarded against encroachment. As they should be.

        To have a good faith conversation, people need to stop trying to disarm the law abiding. There also needs to be a real connection between the proposed restriction and the desired goal. Often there isn’t. More restrictions are imposed that only the law abiding follow, and nothing changes.

        Want to eliminate the most gun crime? Aggressively pursue inner city gangs. They are responsible for the vast majority of illegal gun possession and gun crimes. The rest is marginal, statistically speaking.

        For example, Mrs. Clinton keeps talking about the “gun show loophole” and that 40% of sales are without background checks. It’s a lie. The study that produced the 40% number included the period before the Brady Law (establishing the NICs system) was effective. Today the number is less than 10%. Still a worthy goal, but marginal at best. It’s a disingenuous claim, and those who proffer it know that. Things like that make the conversation all but impossible over the shouting that ensues.

        I hope this helps to explain why the conversation you propose, undoubtedly in good faith, is so difficult today.

  3. Submitted by gary severson on 10/22/2015 - 03:00 pm.


    “Technicization is what produces loss of memory, as was already the case in Plato’s Phaedrus”. (Bernard Stiegler- 1994-Technics & Time,1). The gun is a projection of the mind due to the “mind/body split”, & therefore, is loaded with emotions. Emotions that are about ‘Life, Liberty & The Pursuit of Happiness”. Technicization is another word for science becoming the ideology of “scientism”. When we externalized the meaning of “being”(Heidegger’s “dasein”) through the quantifying of it by symbols we set out on the road to forgetting what the meaning of ‘Life, Liberty, & Pursuit of Happiness”, aka as “LLPH”, is. Considering that the “Founding Fathers” were products of the European Enlightenment but especially of Spinoza’s explication of the problem with DesCartes’ separation of mind & body we are now unable to remember what the founding fathers meant by LLPH. Our minds, being separate from our bodies are searching for a way to reunite the two. According to Spinosa, the most important part of life was to “be happy”. We cannot pursue LLPH with our present obsession with external modes of seeking happiness through the use of technics. For us inanimate objects appear to have the means to provide happiness and therefore actually have a life of their own imbued with our emotions. Some take the form of weapons that allow power to be achieved as a shortcut to LLPH.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/22/2015 - 05:02 pm.

      Techicization and human flourishing

      Gary, thank you for the reminder of Plato. Your comment on Spinoza and Descartes remind me of the difference between Robert Oppenheimer, “father of the bomb”, and those who loathed his later lament about creating it. When he saw what the mushroom cloud his brilliant mind had created and the physical devastation it caused, he lapsed into self-loathing. “I am become death itself,” he said. Oppenheimer knew that the bomb killed. He knew that guns kill. He knew it wasn’t enough to say “Bombs don’t kill; people do.” The “tools” we produce are projections of the mind (and the heart), and, increasingly, the instruments of power and death have become the idols of a people who forget that we are Nature and Nature is us. Cartesianism was and is a curse that leaves each of us locked in separate bubbles, a far cry from the kind of community in which humanity flourishes.

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 10/22/2015 - 05:00 pm.

    Seeing the problem

    I agree with Rev. Stewart that the debate needs to be reframed away from the Second Amendment. Whatever one thinks about that provision or any other provisions of the Bill of Rights, none of these are absolutes. We cannot live in an ordered society without reasonable regulation and firearms. Firearm ownership and possession above all cannot be exempt.

    Part of the problem lies in the myopia of those who are stuck in not seeing the problem. Saying that the the problem is “law-abiding versus criminals” (or “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”) is simply circular, fallacious logic. Regulation of firearms or anything else is a matter of regulating human and human behavior. Just as we all have to remove our shoes and tur in our nail files when we enter an aircraft because a few terrorists bombed the World Trade Center, so do we have to impose reasonable regulations of the sale, purchase, transfer, ownership and possession of firearms. Of course “people kill people” but it’s the worst form of denialism to ignore that firearms are used most often and to the deadliest and most effect with firearms. Especially handguns and assault weapons, which are designed primarily for homicide. The fact homicides are sometimes “justifiable” because committed in self-defense is incidental to the purpose for their use and beside the point. A justifiable homicide committed in self defense is still homicide.

    While I am personally in favor of making possession of handguns and assault rifles illegal, leaving other firearms exempt from regulation, I’m also realistic that this type of regulation is highly improbable until there has been a major change in public opinion. But the more recent phenomenon of mass shootings in schools and other public places requires a public response. Most, if not all, of these crimes have been committed by people who have literally amassed firearms for purposes of carrying out these massacres. How is it that individuals can “amass” weapons, like the young man from Wauseca was recently found to have done, and the authorities could find no law he had broken, even though there was plenty of evidence that he intended to massacre his schoolmates as well as his parents and sister? This is a recurring pattern. The shooters in the Columbine massacre and other massacres also “amassed weapons” and it was impossible for the authorities to notice such action, let alone do anything about because of the weakness of our laws.

    I sense however that public opinion is shifting against the laissez faire approach to gun ownership, possession and use. There must be background checks, waiting periods and such controls need to apply to all forms of sales including “gun shows”. And just like we have laws and rules against unchecked transfers of cash that trigger red flags about drug deals or money laundering, there needs to be some laws regulating or prohibiting the “amassing of firearms” to allow authorities more tools to interdict individuals bent on mass murder.

    One elementary school massacre or even one mass shooting is one too many. It’s time for gun owners to check their defensive posture about “Second Amendment rights” and get real about recognizing and solving the gun possession crisis in this country. The epidemic of mass murders is not just a function of more criminals; it’s a function of the surfeit of firearms freely available to any nutjob that wants as many as they can lay their hands on. People do not buy the answer of “more guns” to this crisis nor do they accept the notion that they, their children or their teachers or others need to be armed for “self defense”. The majority should not have to bend to the demands of the few who are so jealous of their guns that they cannot even see it for the problem it is, let alone meet the rest of us halfway on a solution to the problem.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 10/22/2015 - 08:34 pm.

    “They are threats to Life and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    I disagree. In the urban populations it appears that that citizens possess firearms for protection or to help them enforce their will upon others. The gentleman that stored his gun on top of the refrigerator purchased the weapon not because it was a threat to his life, but because he was afraid for his life. The persons he viewed as a threat to his life view their weapons not as a threat to Happiness, but as a means to enforce their will upon the weak.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/23/2015 - 11:15 am.

      Reply to Tom Anderson comment

      Though I’m not clear with what you disagree, I agree with you that “in urban populations it appears that citizens possess firearms for protection or to help them enforce their will upon others,” and that the owner of the gun on top of his refrigerator had put it there because he feared for his life. He was a former gang member with good reason for fear.

      The issue beneath all of this is what to do. Having lived in all three areas – rural/small town, large city (Chicago, Cincinnati, and Minneapolis) – I’ve experienced the differences in experiences of all three populations. In all three settings people were willing to engage in civil conversations about crime, violence, and weapons.

      As a former pastor of large churches in Cincinnati and Minneapolis and a small church in Chaska, MN, I can say with great confidence that the members of these churches saw what is happening with guns as a threat to their lives, their liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many, if not most, had never owned a gun and didn’t want one. Some owned firearms for hunting or shooting at a shooting range for sport, but they did not see their guns as their protection. They were and are appalled by the heavy-handed ways of the NRA, and have hoped for a saner approach to gun safety, sales, and registration. In other words, those who do NOT own a gun – and many who do – see the exclusive focus on Liberty (“no government can tell me whether I can have a gun!,” as was shouted out at a public forum I attempted to moderate) as a threat to both Life itself and the pursuit of Happiness.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/26/2015 - 03:50 pm.

        ” I can say with great confidence that the members …”

        “I can say with great confidence that the members of these churches saw what is happening with guns as a threat to their lives …”

        Really? Large or small, these congregations all walked in lock-step on this issue, they all felt the same way? How do you know this?

        As a member of a medium sized church in Minneapolis, I can say with great confidence that the membership of the church ranges greatly on the gun issue, and I have no idea what views many of them hold. This is not a central issue that brings people to church; teachings and talk tend more toward spiritual matters, while there is a diversity of thought regarding social matters.

        • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/26/2015 - 07:52 pm.

          Response to Mr. Rose

          Yes, really. Did the members of the churches I’ve served walk “in lock step” on this issue and feel exactly the same? Of course not. But it’s not unusual that a religious leader has his/her finger on the pulse of the congregation. We make it our business to know the culture and views of congregants on important matters of faith and society.

          The Presbyterian-Reformed Christian tradition holds that there is an intrinsic connection between Jesus’s summary of the Law and the prophets (“You shall love the Lord your God….and your neighbor as yourself”) and what happens in society. It’s this faith that brings people to worship, and we hold as a matter of first principle that “God alone is Lord of the conscience”. In that context violence, hatred, and injustice are faith issues, love commandment issues, and efforts to stop the spread of gun violence is something that runs in our blood. As a pastor who listened and spoke in counseling situations, small groups, congregational meetings, and adult study groups, I can say with great confidence the the members of these congregations saw what was happening with guns as a threat. They supported reasonable approaches to stopping the tidal wave of gun violence.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/27/2015 - 09:56 am.

            “Despite the Rhetoric, Research Shows Decline …”

            The title of the Christian Post article linked below is “Despite the Rhetoric, Research Shows Decline in Gun Culture, Gun Violence”


            Your statement, “They supported reasonable approaches to stopping the tidal wave of gun violence.” may reframe the conversation a way that favors your world view, but it does so at the expense of honesty. If you have evidence of a tidal wave, by all means, bring it to the conversation.

            • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/27/2015 - 01:34 pm.

              Response to Steve Rose

              Steve, You’ve chosen the last phrase of the last sentence of my reply to your comment about the church, spiritual matters and social matters. In that reply I expressed as best I could that the way of Jesus, as I understand it, sees violence as a spiritual issue. I don’t know anything of you except for what you’ve written in reply to what was meant to be a thoughtful, conversation-enhancing essay. The link to the Christian Post article is from 3 and a half years ago, July of 2012. Whether my use of the term “tidal wave” is true in terms of the statistics I don’t know. I do know that the continuing news of injuries and deaths from firearms, whether intentional or unintended, is an assault of human conscience. Death and injury of one person by the hand of another person is a spiritual matter, a moral matter, an ethical matter. I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere. In my Christian tradition one does not profess one thing in church on Sunday morning and go on about business as usual Monday through Saturday. The good news of the Kingdom present and yet to come in fullness throws us back into the world as ambassadors of love, justice, and mercy.

              • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/27/2015 - 04:00 pm.


                As you know, or should if you are commenting about it, crime has continued its decline since 2012. The link below is from the FBI website, the quote below that is an excerpt.


                “In 2014, the estimated number of murders in the nation was 14,249. This was a 0.5 percent decrease from the 2013 estimate, a 3.2 percent decrease from the 2010 figure, and a 14.9 percent drop from the number in 2005.”

                From your comment, “Whether my use of the term “tidal wave” is true in terms of the statistics I don’t know. I do know that the continuing news of injuries and deaths from firearms, whether intentional or unintended, is an assault of human conscience.”

                Yes to listen to the news, one might think there is a tidal wave of violence and murder. The FBI statistics paints a very different picture. Facts are friendly and should underpin our conversation.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 10/24/2015 - 09:04 am.

    Good article,

    good quality thread. Thank you all.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/25/2015 - 09:03 pm.

    Good Article

    Impossible to have a conversation with a closed mind. A similar notion, used in a different context held by Hamilton #1 “the stale bait for popularity at the expense of public good”

  8. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/26/2015 - 08:38 pm.

    Call of Health Professional Organizations and the ABA

    Today my physician shared a policy statement on “Firearm-Related Injury and Death in the United States: A Call to Action from 8 Health Professional Organizations and the American Bar Association” pertaining indirectly to this discussion.

    It begins with an Abstract that reads, in part, “Deaths and injuries related to firearms constitute a major public health problem in the United States.” The document of seven (7) pages of size 9 type font provides findings and recommendations based on the separate policies of the 7 health professional societies that represent most physicians in the United States – American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics American College of Emergency Physicians, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians, American College of Surgeons, and American Psychiatric Association – and the AMA.

    “The specific recommendations include universal background checks on gun purchases, elimination of physician ‘gag laws’, restricting the manufacturing and sale of military-style assault weapons and large capacity magazines for civilian use, and research to support strategies for reducing firearm-related injuries and deaths. … The American Bar Association through its Standing Committee on Gun Violence, confirms that none of these recommendations conflict with the Second Amendment or the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.

    “Across the United States, physicians have first-hand experience with the effects of firearm injuries and deaths and the impact of such events on their patients and families. Many physicians and other health professionals recognize that this is not just a criminal violence issue but also a public health problem.”

    This year’s annual physical enlightened more than my own state of health. Like clergy, physicians hear stories that confidentiality keeps between sealed lips, but the doctors know the sorrow from the inside out in ways to which most do not have access.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/27/2015 - 12:40 pm.

      Physicians & Their Professional Organizations

      Perhaps physicians and their organizations should be more concerned with addressing the suicide problem, since six in ten gun homicides are suicides.

      .. via Pew Research:

      “Suicides by gun accounted for about six of every 10 firearm deaths in 2010 and just over half of all suicides, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
      Since the CDC began publishing data in 1981, gun suicides have outnumbered gun homicides. But as gun homicides have declined sharply in recent years, suicides have become a greater share of all firearm deaths: the 61% share in 2010 was the highest on record. That year there were 19,392 suicides by firearm compared to 11,078 homicides by gun (35% of all firearm deaths). The rest were accidents, police shootings and unknown causes.”

      Collect all the guns, and problem solved! Right?

      With nearly no civilian gun ownership, Japan achieves a suicide rate nearly twice that of the U.S. (The leading cause of death for men 20-44 and for women 15-34). How do they do it? One popular method involves producing a gas from common household liquids. Banning those materials would not address the root cause of suicide, and until you address the root cause of any problem, you have not addressed the problem at all.

      • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/27/2015 - 02:39 pm.

        Improper comparison, telling omission

        Comparing two wildly different cultures based on suicide rates alone does not account for all possible variances between those societies. So the suicide rates alone doesn’t tell you a darn thing, other than guns are not used to kill one’s self in Japan. If Japan had equally unrestricted gun laws, THEN comparing the rate would be apt.
        That being said, you omitted Japan’s current gun homicide rate, which is virtually nil (about six in 2009). The U.S. has roughly 11,000 annually.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/27/2015 - 03:24 pm.

          Yes the cultures are different; that seemed obvious

          Those making the anti-gun arguments like to include suicide in their homicide numbers and lump it in like it is a gun problem. By looking a countries with low rates of gun homicide and nearly no civilian gun ownership, we can see that people can in large numbers kill themselves.

          This Washington Post link leads to a table of suicide rate by country. South Korea has the highest suicide rate and very restrictive gun laws.

          Many countries in this tabulation have higher suicides rates that the United States. Even Canada, with far more restrictive gun laws, has a slightly higher rate of suicide.

          As a society, we should seek to save people, not just save people from guns.

          • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 10/27/2015 - 03:52 pm.

            And ‘suicides’ and ‘murders’ obviously are subsets of ‘deaths’. No one is trying to trick anyone here by “lumping” statistics within relevant categories. You continue to dance around the actual issue with obfuscations (people still commit suicides without guns!) and polarized identity politics (anti gun crowd!). The reality is that the growing chorus of voices who want to the endless parade of mass shootings in the USA hold nuanced and differing opinions on guns- we are not some evil monolith, and some of us own guns. We also don’t even think that all gun owners are some evil monolith- See Ms Kahler’s response below.

            • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/27/2015 - 06:37 pm.

              Thank you Jonathan

              for lifting up the need and opportunity to move beyond the stereotypes. As a child whose formative years included the McCarthy hearings, the echo of the search for enemies is still fresh. As Joe Biden said on 60 Minutes the other night, we have to stop viewing people of differing opinions as the enemy. This who hold power now should instead refer to them respectfully as “the opposition.” The polarized politics of our time reminds me all to much of the early 50s.

            • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/28/2015 - 07:20 am.

              Endless Parade of Mass Shootings

              “Tricking”, “anti gun crowd”, are you reading someone else’s comments or merely applying the usual stereotypes?

              It is the rhetoric like “endless parade of mass shootings” that will prevent the reframing of the conversation that this column claims to call for.

              From the article link below, “t’s clear that there is no major upward trend. And slicing the data differently doesn’t make a difference”


  9. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/27/2015 - 01:57 pm.

    Reply to Physicians and their Professional Organizations

    In other words, physicians, psychiatrists, psychologist, and other mental health professionals should stay in their offices and be quiet about what they perceive as a public health crisis? That’s what you seem to be saying, and it’s being said, again and again – or so it seems – in ways that divert the exchanges away from the conversation we should be having across all sectors of American society.

    No one I know is arguing that the government “collect all the guns” or that collecting them all, if that were possible, would solve the problem. No one. That kind of mischaracterization is not helpful. And, as you’ve stated so well with reference to the suicide rate in Japan, taking away the means of suicide does not address the root cause of suicide.

    The position paper of the health professionals and the American Bar Association discusses mental health, suicide, removing physician “gag laws” that forbid a physician from discussing a patient’s gun ownership, even when the patient gives strong evidence of being suicidal.

    I suspect after all these exchanges, Steve, it’s best to sign off for awhile and wish each other well.

  10. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/27/2015 - 02:06 pm.

    The NRA

    …ruining it for everyone.

    I am one who grew up in a rural area. I own guns. It may surprise some, but not others, that it wasn’t uncommon to find student vehicles (pickups, mostly) with guns openly stored in them. That has probably changed…it’s been a while. But I would venture to guess that guns can still be found in the vehicles of students, just not so openly.

    My dad was a member of the NRA. One day, I realized (or maybe Dad mentioned it) that there was a junior membership. Well, being a daddy’s girl, I considered it. I enjoyed hunting, I enjoyed spending time with Dad, I respected what Dad thought and did. So, I read some of the NRA literature. Being somewhat precocious, I realized that the NRA wasn’t about hunting or hanging out with Dad. It was about guns. Guns Guns Guns Guns. Even back then (as I said, it’s been a while), it wasn’t about freedom or happiness, the NRA was about guns. I realized that I didn’t want to join the NRA because my gun ownership wasn’t about guns. I didn’t love guns. I loved being an American kid who had the freedom to be happy doing things like hunting with my dad. There were better organizations that more perfectly captured that feeling for me.

    As I’ve aged, I am still a defender of Second Amendment rights. But not the NRA way, which seems to be the dominant position among the loudest gun rights advocates. We need to think practically about the problem. Sure, we law abiding gun owners are doing the right thing. Right? I own 3 guns and have never sold those 3 guns. However, only 1 of those guns was new when I got it. The others were purchased…well…without any safeguard at all. Friends of friends type of deal. Yeah, it’s been a while, but I guarantee you that those types of sales haven’t stopped and they are certainly not subject to background checks. How do you suppose people who commit crimes with guns get them? All of those guns were likely sold legally at some point, but eventually ended up in the wrong hands. How do we stop that?

    I agree that certain restrictions will have absolutely no effect. But I also submit that many legitimate gun owners are failing to see how they contribute to the problem. What do you do with a gun you no longer want? How about this: in 2010, about 4 million babies were born in the US…but 5.5 million new guns were manufactured in the US and another nearly 3 million were imported. How many guns does each baby need? Seriously, the pace of gun manufacture has outstripped the growth of the country, which means that there are a significant number of people who are buying multiple new guns and either accumulating them (most gun collectors are harmless) or selling some. Once a gun leaves the hands of the original owner, it is harder and harder to make sure that the next owner is not one of those “inner city criminals.” That is, if you’ve ever sold a gun, you’ve contributed to the problem.

    Further, I submit that keeping a gun in such a way that results in harm to someone else, particularly children, is a criminal act. Which suggests that even some law abiding gun owners are actually not law abiding. At the very least, every gun owner should be properly trained in gun use and storage. And, if gun owners oppose that measure, then for the sake of their unfortunate children, laws should be allowed to physically restrict who can use the gun. A dead child isn’t a good way to learn that lesson.

    Finally, not everyone is a hero. No, not everyone should have a gun on them to “protect themselves.” Half of all people are of average intelligence or less. Combine that with the fact that common sense isn’t so common, and disaster is waiting to happen. Case in point: the woman who decided to fire upon a SHOPLIFTER leaving a home improvements store while they were driving away in a parking lot that had other people in it. She had not been threatened and none of the stolen items were hers. That woman showed all the intelligence and common sense of a dead slug. Fortunately, her Second Amendment right didn’t kill anyone, but not for lack of trying.

    Can we agree that we should consider applying real common sense to the problem?

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/27/2015 - 05:02 pm.

      Reply to Rachel Kahler

      “Can we agree that we should consider applying real common sense to the problem?” Thank you for posting here your personal history and the development of your view current view. It’s just the kind of sharing of experience that can move us out of entrenched positions and stereotypes of each other toward practical solutions in everyone’s interest.

      “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” seem to me a great place to start discussing the issue within the larger framework of quality of life. Imagine the American population represented by 12 people in a single room, each representing VERY different rural, urban, and suburban experiences, speaking and listening with respect. There would be no “other” in the room. There would just be a “We” we the people, working to produce common sense approaches to make life safer, freer, and happier.

      The question at the end is as valuable as your story itself. Thank you for putting the question.

  11. Submitted by Mike martin on 10/28/2015 - 03:53 am.

    What type of gun

    Rural hunters and livestock owners in my limited experience mostly own long guns (rifles & shotguns) for sport. Hand guns are used for personal protection in the home and to finish killing a wounded animal.

    Outside of mass shootings most urban killings are by hand guns, not long guns.

    To me it seems obvious that we could have 2 sets of guns laws. One for long guns that is much less strict. A more strict set of laws for hand guns.

    There are 2 parts to reducing gun homicides.

    One source of gun violence is gang. That is organized groups of teenage boys and young men. Frequently without good male role models in there daily lives especially in minority communities. One part of the solution to this part of the problems is to increase mentoring programs and traditional activities (boy scouts, athletic leagues, church groups etc/ for teenagers.
    Another piece of the solution to this part of the gun problem is do something about the sale of illegal drugs. Many guns are used in robberies to get money to buy drugs. Guns are also used by drug dealers to protect or expand their territory.

    A 3rd piece is better tracing of the ownership of hand guns. The goal is to punish people who knowing sell guns to know criminals and gang members. That is registration of hand guns. No need to for registration of long guns. The data base of hand gun ownership would not be available on a normal basis to anyone. Only after a gun is used in a crime could the police request a warrant to search the data base to find the owner.

    The lack of registration of long guns will appease many/some in the”gun lobby”

    The 2nd source of gun violence is killing of relatives and friends as a part of an argument. I’m not sure there can be much done about this,. except more classes on anger management and conflict resolution. Maybe make them required classes in post secondary education; required to get a marriage license: all businesses over 1,000 employee are required to off them in addition to diversity and sexual harassment training.

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/28/2015 - 03:19 pm.

      Reply to Mike Martin’s “What type of gun?”

      This is just the kind of thoughtful approach we need to move past the impasse on gun control, the Second Amendment, and the search for common sense solutions. Thank you for taking the time to contribute. It’s fitting that yours would be the last (except for yours truly) in the long series of comments and replies.

  12. Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/28/2015 - 04:16 pm.

    What can be done?

    The author, and the commenters he praises, like the sound of a call to reframe the conversation, but continue with the old sky-is-falling rhetoric of “the tidal wave of gun violence” and “endless parade of mass shootings”. Fine and well for preaching to the choir, but you will not reframe the conversation with that approach, nor hold sway with anyone you might hope to persuade from a differing position. Let’s not add another layer of mortar to the entrenched conversation.

    Let’s expand the conversation to what can be done and what has worked to reduce gun violence. Two excerpts from the link below regarding the success of Project Exile:

    “Project Exile was successful when implemented in Richmond. “Even the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, then called Handgun Control, Inc., agreed with the NRA. In a letter to U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey, Handgun Control Chairwoman Sarah Brady wrote “Your work is succeeding in getting guns out of the hands of criminals….the results in Richmond are impressive.”

    “Project Exile was, by most accounts, one of the most successful violent crime reduction strategies in the United States. The initiative started in February 1997 and was a coordinated effort between the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Richmond Police Department (RPD), the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), to target felons carrying firearms and prosecute them in federal court where they would receive stiffer sentences, no bail, and no early release. As a result, at the end of 1998, firearms-related homicides had decreased almost 40 percent in Richmond, Virginia.”

    • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/28/2015 - 07:16 pm.

      Reply to Steve Rose: “What can be done?”

      Steve, perhaps this will be the last of these exchanges, although I have good reason doubt it. Reading your cryptic opening paragraph, I was going to ask you a simple question:

      “Putting aside the metaphors to which you object – ‘the tidal wave of gun violence, and the “endless parade of mass shootings – do you believe there is a problem worth discussing?”

      So, I was glad to see your reference to the Police Magazine article on Project Exile, and thank you for posting it. The article is fact-based and balanced.

      I would ask you to consider one additional factor. The shooters in the massacres in this country have not been convicted criminals, the focus of the Project Exile program. A few would not have qualified for a license to possess a firearm; others would have. They were armed with multiple weapons.

      I would invite you to consider two other posts. The first is the text of a Call to Action issued jointly by the health professional organizations that represent the vast majority of American physicians and the American Bar Association: The second is a commentary “A funny thing happened at the doctor’s office:

      I would suggest that few people know the problem better than Emergency Room Physicians who see the carnage in ways the rest of us do not. Whether or not there’s a tidal wave or endless parade of mass shootings makes little difference. The injuries and deaths, no matter the number, call for answers beyond dealing with criminals.

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/29/2015 - 08:30 am.

        Why would be this be the last exchange?

        You won’t reframe the conversation by repeatedly attempting to end it.

        I agree that there is a problem worth discussing, otherwise I would not be discussing it. Regarding massacres, I would prefer to discuss first what can be done about the 99+% of the people killed, but not killed in a mass killing. While not as sensational, I would argue that it is the first order of business. It is akin to the fear-mongering regarding assault rifles, even though FBI numbers indicate that more people are killed with hammers.

        The excerpt below is from a USAToday article regarding the recent history of mass shootings.

        “More than 900 people died in mass shootings during the past seven years, and a majority of them were killed by people they knew, according to a USA TODAY analysis of gun-related slayings.

        The 934 deaths account for less than 1% of all gun-related homicides, and nearly half involve a suspect slaying his or her family members”

        Yes, ER physicians see a lot of carnage; they would see a lot less if we would implement common sense laws, including the outlawing of motorcycles and a 25 MPH speed limit for cars and trucks. In Minnesota alone, we suffered 200 road deaths by July; that is more than one each day, up 21% from 2014. Any outrage? No. It is simply the price we willingly pay to move swiftly from point A to point B.

        • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/29/2015 - 03:11 pm.

          Response to Why would this be the last exchange?

          Steve, You wrote, “Regarding massacres, I would prefer to discuss first what can be done about the 99+% of the people killed, but not killed in a mass killing. While not as sensational, I would argue that it is the first order of business.”

          The latest example of why the last exchange might be our last is your new statement about ER physicians. “Yes, ER physicians see a lot of carnage; they would see a lot less if we would implement common sense laws….” So, I’m thinking you agree that society should implement common sense laws, which is what the discussion about firearms is about. But, no sooner do you call for common sense laws than the sentence goes on to say why common sense laws do no good, or implying that gun control laws would be like “outlawing of motorcycles” or setting the speed limit for cars and trucks at 25 mph.

          What DO you propose be done? What solutions to you recommend or endorse? Otherwise there is little reason for further exchanges. I’d be glad to meet you over coffee at a place of your choice to discuss.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/29/2015 - 03:53 pm.

            What I propose …

            is contained above in a comment I titled “What can be done?”

            Here it is again,

            “Project Exile was successful when implemented in Richmond. “Even the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, then called Handgun Control, Inc., agreed with the NRA. In a letter to U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey, Handgun Control Chairwoman Sarah Brady wrote “Your work is succeeding in getting guns out of the hands of criminals….the results in Richmond are impressive.”

            “Project Exile was, by most accounts, one of the most successful violent crime reduction strategies in the United States. The initiative started in February 1997 and was a coordinated effort between the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Richmond Police Department (RPD), the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), to target felons carrying firearms and prosecute them in federal court where they would receive stiffer sentences, no bail, and no early release. As a result, at the end of 1998, firearms-related homicides had decreased almost 40 percent in Richmond, Virginia.”


            You objected to this because most mass murderers have no criminal record; to which I responded, that mass murders account for less than 1% of people murdered.

            What do you propose?

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/28/2015 - 06:43 pm.


      Frame it on a more global scale and relative to industrialized nations similar to the US:
      Canada, UK, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, etc. Now what do the gun related deaths/100,000 look like? That’s how folks like me relate to the situation, if our neighbors and economic and governmental peer groups are not a good reference what is?

      • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/29/2015 - 09:30 am.

        Just Guns?

        I realize that folks like you like to isolate guns from intentional homicides, as if other forms of murder are somehow superior. Do you really believe that all homicides perpetrated with guns would not be homicides but for the gun?

        The link below has a graph of the homicide rates (per 100K) for developed countries. The U.S. has a higher rate than the majority of its peer countries, but as I indicated in previous comments, it is moving in the right direction. Because 6 in 10 of the homicides are suicides, the reduction of self-inflicted death provides the biggest opportunity for improvement.

        • Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/29/2015 - 03:18 pm.

          “People like you…”


          This is troubling: “I realize that FOLKS LIKE YOU like you….” It’s not helpful. It divides. It categorizes. It stigmatizes.

          Sorry to say, but it’s true. There’s too much talk in this country about “you people”, “those people”. We need less of it, not more.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/29/2015 - 03:45 pm.

            Did you read the comment to which I responded?

            The words of Dennis, “That’s how folks like me relate ..,”

            He divided himself. He said, “that’s how folks like me”, and in turn, I said, “that’s how folks like you”.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 10/29/2015 - 07:20 pm.

          What is all the misdirection about?

          The statistic inferred was deaths/100000 from guns, “period”. If the conversation changes to watermelon suicide deaths per 100,000 fine, different topic.
          Moving in the right direction? The suggestion appears, that no matter what, folks that want to commit suicide will, by any means possible, i.e the availability of an easy trigger to pull has nothing to do with a gun suicide rate?
          Sorry but we disagree: The suggestion that the number of guns and availability has little if anything to do with death rates is akin to making an argument that the number and intensity of rain clouds has little if anything to do with the the incidence of rain. Tough one to swallow.

          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/29/2015 - 09:17 pm.

            “number of guns and availability has little if anything …”

            “The suggestion that the number of guns and availability has little if anything to do with death rates is akin to making an argument that the number and intensity of rain clouds has little if anything to do with the the incidence of rain. Tough one to swallow.”

            Thanks for inviting Norway to the conversation in a previous comment. They aren’t familiar with your rain clouds analogy, at least according to this column from the L.A. Times.

            “In Norway gun ownership is common; violence and homicide are not. The nation of about 4.9 million residents reports one of the lowest per-capita homicide rates in Europe.”


          • Submitted by Steve Rose on 10/30/2015 - 10:01 am.

            Rain Clouds

            Guns are like rain clouds; they are going to go off, it is merely a matter of time. If they have to load themselves to do it, they will.

            That rain cloud story is a very revealing analogy about how some view guns. Are rain clouds evil because you can drown in the water they drop?

  13. Submitted by Everett Flynn on 10/29/2015 - 02:17 pm.

    In response to Joe and the speeding – stop and frisk comparison

    I’m late to this conversation and I suspect few will see my addition to this very interesting conversation in the comments to this column. However, I think it’s extremely important to challenge the myth that Joe offers during the part of the conversation above in response to his comparing police catching speeders in speed traps on the highway to police using stop and frisk strategies in an effort to reduce crime in so-called bad neighborhoods.

    Joe said, “Stop and frisk has been proven to work every where it has been done…” This statement is often offered as a defense to the strategy, by both conservatives and by police agencies defending the practice from criticism. And it is flatly untrue. What we know from the statistics compiled by police agencies themselves is that the failure rate of stop and frisk encounters is in the area of 90%. That’s right: a ninety percent rate of failure when considered as a measure of how many stop and frisk encounters actually uncover some kind of criminal activity. The overwhelming majority of these encounters when police employ them result in no arrests, no citations, no weapons seized. In other words, for all the time and manpower resources police dedicate this so-called successful tactic, it produces results only 10% of the time!

    I’d like to see the conversation about stop and frisk take place in the sunlight where an immediate acknowledgment is given to the fact that where police use it, they are engaged in an activity that amounts to a 90% waste of their time and needless harassment of law-abiding citizens. That is the one thing we can all agree is true as demonstrated by police agencies own data. Is stop and frisk “effective” anyway because, as some say, criminals avoid areas where they know they are likely to be stopped and frisked is a different question. But we do have data on this practice and it reflects a failure of profiling theories and a waste of police resources.

    We should all stop falling for the con that “stop and frisk has been proven to work every where it has been done.” Aside from it’s application being racist and unconstitutional, 90% of the time, it is an utter failure in rooting out criminal activity and an enormous waste of law enforcement’s resources.

  14. Submitted by Gordon Stewart on 10/29/2015 - 03:33 pm.

    Not just a theoretical question

    The question of how to discuss gun ownership and regulation within the context of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” is an existential one for this writer. It’s not a parlor game. It rises out of years of experience as a pastor.

    Scene 1: Years ago now, a professor’s 15 year-old son calls to tell me that his father has shot killed himself. I go to the home. What happened? His father went out and bought a pistol, came home, went down to the basement family room, called his son downstairs, put the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. As the pastor, I was brought into the center of an enormous tragedy. Had the laws been such as to require a week’s waiting period before buying a firearm, things might not have happened so quickly. Who knows? But the fact is that he was able to walk in and buy the pistol no questions asked.

    Scene 2: A member of the church I was serving as pastor called the office. She was in tears because her husband was threatening to kill himself. He had a gun. She left in fear for him and for himself. She asked if I would go to their home to talk her husband down from suicide. I did. I went to the home. He let me in. He had the gun in his hand. We sat and talked. The gun stayed in his hand. Finally, after much listening, he agreed to give me the gun. There was no suicide that day.

    Life itself is at stake in this discussion. The pursuit of Happiness is at stake in this discussion. The relation between Liberty (freedom) to the quality of life and to the safe pursuit of happiness is what this discussion is about. Thanks for chiming in.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/02/2015 - 04:43 pm.

      I too have known people who’ve committed suicide

      But in my experience, none of them have used a gun.

      Considering countries with low rates of gun homicide and nearly no civilian gun ownership, we can see that people can in large numbers kill themselves.

      This Washington Post link leads to a table of suicide rate by country. South Korea has the highest suicide rate and very restrictive gun laws.

      As the Washington Post graphic clearly shows, many countries have higher suicides rates that the United States, even Canada.

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