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International context shines a light on numbing U.S. gun violence: Are we OK with this?

We are an extreme outlier in the trauma, pain and loss from bullets lodged in human beings.

REUTERS/Joshua Lott
Reading the news these days brings to mind the saying, “Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.” Essential as they are to many issues, impersonal data reports can be emotionally and intellectually numbing. This time of year, however, offers an opportunity to add clarifying context to numbing data for one such issue: gun violence.

For the past many years, in the first week in February, U.S. year-to-date gun deaths have exceeded comparable countries’ gun deaths — for the entire year. Aggregating World Health Organization data from the 31 populous (greater than 1 million) countries considered “high-income,” the U.S. accounts for a third of the population but 84 percent of all firearm deaths, 92 percent of women killed by guns and 97 percent of children 4 years and under killed by guns.

Homicide rates are 7.5 times higher in the U.S. than in the other countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that is 25 times higher, and 49 times higher for 15- to 24-year-olds. (“Violent death rates in the U.S. compared to those of the other high-income countries,” Grinshteyn and Hemenway, University of San Francisco).

Numbing, for sure, yet the data screech for attention. They undeniably show that gun violence is integral to America’s brand on the world stage. We are an extreme outlier in the trauma, pain and loss from bullets lodged in human beings.

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Out of sync

Are we OK with this? Regardless how much freedom you believe the Second Amendment affords, our laws and gun culture are out of sync with the rest of the civilized world. The way we interpret and carry out the right to bear arms has prioritized it over the fundamental right to life. For children, who have no say in this. For women, who are five times more likely to be killed when an abusive partner has access to a gun. For everyone.

As other countries’ data show, it doesn’t have to be this way. David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health explains: “It’s not that they [other developed countries] have fewer mental health problems or fewer violent video games or less moral decay. It’s not that they are less violent or less crime-prone. It’s that with stronger gun laws — with universal background checks and waiting periods and sometimes even notifying a spouse or ex-spouse that someone is planning to get a gun — they’ve made it much harder for the wrong people to gain access to guns.”

Rich Cowles
Rich Cowles
Extreme gun rights activists will push back and say that other countries don’t have a Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms, and point to its “shall not infringe” language. Never mind the other countervailing language and context, the fact is that the current (since 2008) interpretation of the Second Amendment — by far the most permissive of individual gun rights of any interpretation in U.S. history — provides for gun regulation. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Antonin Scalia (no flaming liberal) wrote:

“Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues.”

From numbness to action

Let’s not let our numbness from unfathomable, relentless statistics on a seemingly intractable issue prevent action. Author and grief expert David Kessler said of the debilitating effect of emotional numbness, “When I visited the death camps at Auschwitz … it made me numb. But when I left, I said to my numbness, ‘What can I do to prevent this?’”

Contact your state and national legislators and urge them to pass broadly supported common-sense gun measures that don’t violate the Second Amendment, like requiring background checks on all gun sales and “red-flag” laws (these two laws alone have cut gun deaths almost in half in states that have enacted them). Join groups working toward sensible gun reform, like Moms Demand Action (text “join” to 344-33) or Protect Minnesota ( Talk to friends and relatives. And, if you own guns, statistics show that storing them locked, unloaded and separate from ammunition significantly reduces injury and death.

As Kessler says, “Numbness should not let us off the hook.”

Rich Cowles, retired, volunteers for a variety of nonprofits, including Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and Protect Minnesota.

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