Guns and Gear

Liberally yours: Americans have a right to safety with more gun control

Thom Hartmann Host, the Thom Hartmann Program
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Liberally Yours is a regular column at the Daily Caller featuring Thom Hartmann, the nation’s number one progressive radio host, in conversation with conservative and libertarian commentators. This week, he’s joined by Lawrence Keane, Senior Vice President and General Council with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, to debate gun control.

This week, just a few blocks from where I live, a shooter with a history of mental illness killed 12 innocent people. A couple of “good guys with guns” – police officers and security guards – fired back, and one was murdered and the other ended up in the hospital. Despite having sought psychiatric help a little over a month ago – the shooter – 34 year-old Aaron Alexis – was somehow able to get enough firepower to commit one of the worst mass murders in recent memory.

Wayne LaPierre of the NRA will soon, no doubt, come out from under his rock to once again defend the total and unrestricted use of firearms, but his shtick is getting old. More and more Americans are realizing that it’s time to stop listening to his clown show, and that LaPierre is just trying to protect the profits of the multibillion-dollar a year weapons of death industry.

The gun manufacturing lobby and its front group, the NRA, go on and on about how the Second Amendment — which in the North was designed to prevent a standing army and in the South was designed to protect the slave patrols, should give every American the right to own anything from a .38 revolver to an AR- 15 assault weapon. But lost amid all their talk about rights and liberty, is the right of the rest of us – the majority of Americans – to live our lives safely and without the fear of gun violence.

I’ve used guns since I was a kid.  They have their place in society. One of my brothers is an avid target shooter and owns several guns. When I go back home to Michigan, one of the things I like to do is to share time with my brother Steve and my nephews shooting targets in the range he has in his rural backyard. But my brother — like 90 percent of Americans — supports the assault weapons ban and universal background checks. And for good reason: it’s utterly and absolutely insane that weapons of war should be in the hands of crazed civilians, in a developed nation like the U.S.

Other countries with gun cultures just as ingrained as ours understand this. That’s why after a brutal massacre in 1996 — Australia said “enough” and banned semi-automatic and automatic weapons altogether. The ban was successful. Australia had “13 gun massacres in the 18 years before the 1996 gun reforms, but has not suffered any mass shootings since.” That’s right – Australia banned the most dangerous kinds of guns and the country is safer now. Australia also – by the way – has universal background checks for all gun purchases.

We, the United States, have instead, at the behest of the multibillion-dollar weapons industry, chosen to go the other route — the route of Somalia and South Sudan. Just this past weekend two guys were arrested after waltzing into a farmers market in Wisconsin with high-powered semiautomatic rifles strapped across their backs. They’re now thinking of suing the cops who stopped them. Where else would that happen except right here in the U.S. or in a war zone like South Sudan?

I was actually in South Sudan recently, a country that’s been embroiled in civil war for a generation, and I suppose that you can build a case for publicly carrying semi-automatic weapons in a country like that. There are, after all, rebel groups that still periodically shoot up villages. But this is America, not South Sudan. We live in a developed country, not a war zone – and there is absolutely no reason to own an AR-15 or any other killing machine, and even less of a reason to strap it on your back and strut around in public.

The basic fact is that more guns – especially the most powerful ones — means more murders. A new study from the American Journal of Public Health looked at gun deaths in all 50 states between 1981 and 2010 and found that — even when you factor in all other mitigating factors like race and poverty — “…states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.”

Speaking in front of reporters earlier this week – Janis Orlowski – the trauma surgeon who treated some of the victims of the Navy Yard shooting – said that there is an “evil in our society.” She’s right: there is an evil in our society. And that evil is the gun industry and its lobbying arm – the NRA – that continues to push for looser gun laws in the face of mounting evidence that lax firearm regulations and easy access to guns contributes to the deaths of thousands of innocent people each year.


The firearms industry, or as Thom Hartmann would have it, “the gun manufacturing lobby,” is not the enemy of public safety in this country, no matter how many times fact-deprived writers and pundits attempt to set us up as such. Another convenient canard is that the National Rifle Association, which represents individual gun owners, is an industry “front group.”

Unfortunately, as is most often the case with opinion pieces from the side he has chosen to take in our ongoing national debate, he has not advanced meaningful discussion.

Mass shootings are tragic. Such horrific events, while riveting to the national media and seized upon by those who promote gun control, are also rare. We all grieve for the families of the victims. But as the distinguished criminologist James Alan Fox has shown, mass shootings are not on an upward trajectory.

The use of firearms in violent crimes overall has been on a downward trend for the last 20 years, with homicides involving firearms falling 39 percent and nonfatal victimizations falling 69 percent since 1993, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. At the same time, firearms ownership has been on the increase. Nearly half of American households now report having a firearm in them, according to the Gallup organization.

Hartmann points to Australia, where semi-automatic firearms were banned after a mass shooting in 1996, as a model for what we should do here. Let’s look a little deeper. University of Sydney researcher Samara McPhedran has pointed out that homicides involving firearms in that country were declining before 1996 and the decline continued at the same rate since. With its small population and mass shootings being extremely rare to begin with, no conclusion can be drawn about the Australian experience, McPhedran has said. Lest the reader think Australia has become a haven of domestic tranquility, there has been a more than a 40 percent increase in assaults and a 20 percent increase in sexual assaults there since 1996. Lastly, while guns were taken out of the hands of the law-abiding, Australian law enforcement is increasingly concerned with criminal trafficking.

No gun of whatever kind, caliber or magazine capacity can wield a shooter. That’s true whether that shooter is a gang member protecting their illegal drug trade or turf against rivals in a Chicago neighborhood or a mentally deranged individual who sought to victimize the defenseless in Newtown or at the Navy Yard in Washington.

Dealing with the latter cases, we have to face the fact that our nation’s mental health care system is broken. In America today, families must struggle against a fractured system to get real help for their loved ones suffering from severe mental illness. In addition to services being stretched thin, laws written three decades ago intended to help protect individuals from arbitrary involuntary commitments now too often work against their families, sometimes even endangering them as well as the wider community, as Dr. Miguel Faria has persuasively shown.

As for the industry he castigates, it is we – not the gun control organizations – who lead the effort to ensure that the states enter all appropriate records into the National Instant Criminal Background Check system used by all firearms retailers. We call that effort Fix NICS.  You can call for universal background checks and make claims they would accomplish, but any system is only as good as the records in it. The idea for the NICS system, by the way, came from the Firearms industry.

We are also on the front line every day to prevent illegal purchases of firearms through straw purchases with our Don’t Lie for the Other Guy program.

Lastly, this year we re-launched and increased funding for our Project ChildSafe initiative to help prevent access to firearms by unauthorized individuals, especially children.  This program has distributed 36 million gun locks.

Critics play the emotional cards and castigate, attempting to block us out of the serious policy discussion. In so doing, they cast aside the expertise the firearms industry brings to the table and ignore what we do on a daily basis to contribute to public safety. After all, this doesn’t fit their preferred narrative.

As for the real enemies of public safety, Hartmann’s essay never mentioned criminals and “a shooter with a history of mental illness” was mentioned once. Instead it’s the NRA, guns themselves, and the firearms industry.