Commentary: Our deadly love affair with guns

The Rock Hill HeraldFebruary 22, 2013 

20080402 School violence


President Barack Obama received a vigorous ovation when he declared during his State of the Union address last week that the parents of Hadiya Pendleton deserved a vote on bills before Congress that would stem gun violence.

Hadiya was the 15-year-old Chicago student shot to death days after performing as a majorette in the president’s inauguration parade. Nate and Cleo Pendleton were among several individuals sitting in the balcony that Obama singled out.

Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, D-Ariz, who was seriously injured by a lone gunman during a campaign stop, also stood up. So did parents of children slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month.

Whether reaction to the president’s emotional appeal translates into action remains to be seen. Consensus among many Congress watchers is that while some proposals, such as tighter background checks, may pass, others will never come to a vote. Included among the latter are bans on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

Indeed, the president can’t count on some members of his own party going to the wall for him. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, a gun rights supporter, reportedly is lukewarm on the more stringent measures.

Proposals to close loopholes that allow mentally ill people and felons to purchase guns stand a better chance. Many gun-rights advocates agree it’s important to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people.

Just who are the wrong people?

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., points to a woman who tried to shoot two staff members at a private school in Charleston but failed because she had not chambered a round. Graham is incensed that the system let her buy the gun even though earlier charges against her for allegedly threatening to kill President George W. Bush were dropped after she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Fix the system; leave guns alone, Graham insisted.

Even if government could keep guns from people found legally insane, it would be impossible to protect society from millions of disturbed individuals whose actions have not yet come to the attention of authorities.

Are psychiatrists and other professionals going to be required to disclose names of all patients they believe are unfit to own a gun? Can family members be arrested for failing to report that Uncle Willie is hearing voices again?

Here’s a thought: Let’s require that gun buyers be certified as emotionally stable by a panel of mental health experts. That might exclude NRA chief Wayne LaPierre, whose declared last week that the Second Amendment was the only thing standing between decent folk, such as himself, and hurricane-inspired rioters from South Brooklyn and Latin American drug gangs.

Sadly, both sides of the debate are paying too little attention to the most tragic aspect of America’s love affair with firearms. The New York Times reported last week that nearly two-thirds of the 30,000 gun deaths in this country in 2010 were self-inflicted. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, the national suicide rate has risen 12 percent since 2003, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for teenagers.

For those who would argue that guns don’t cause suicides, here’s a sobering statistic: Self-inflicted gun wounds are fatal 85 percent of the time, while people who try to kill themselves with pills fail 98 percent of the time.

And, oh yes, the states with the highest suicide rates (Wyoming, Montana and Alaska) also enjoy the highest rates of gun ownership.

In other words, despite the gun lobby’s fervent fear-mongering, the biggest threat to personal safety isn’t from armed thugs or jack-booted UN troopers. Statistically, we are several times more likely to shoot ourselves than be taken out by bad guys.

Suicidal acts, the article stated, often are prompted by temporary rage or despair. Moreover, according to the CDC, the time between when people decide to kill themselves and when they take action, often is an hour or less.

There are plenty of ways to commit suicide, but none is more efficient than using a gun.

The Times article on suicide by gun appeared on Valentine’s Day.

Quite a love story.

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