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Senseless sacrilege of Senate gun control vote

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor

In a week where one senseless, horrendous act of violence claimed the lives of three and maimed or injured more than 170 others, the U.S. Senate’s vote Wednesday against sensible gun control measures felt like sacrilege.

There are differences to be sure. Bombs, like those that ripped through the sideline of spectators at Monday’s Boston Marathon, are not guns. Their use in domestic killings in this country is rare, and they are most often employed to make political or ideological points. Think Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombings of 1995 or Eric Rudolph and the Centennial Olympic Park bombings in Atlanta in 1996 or Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Mohammed and the 1993 World Trade Center bombings in New York.

Guns, though, are the domestic killing instrument of choice. And though their reach in numbers isn’t likely to be as high as bombs in a single incident – 168 were killed and 680 injured in Oklahoma City, six were killed and more than 1,000 injured in the New York, two people died and 111 were injured in Atlanta – the violence is horrific nonetheless.

Slate Magazine compiled data showing 3,513 U.S. gun deaths as of April 17 since the Dec. 14 killings of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Sandy Hook followed a spate of public mass shootings nationwide, including last July’s killings of 12 (58 were injured) in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, last August’s Sikh temple shootings where seven were killed, the 2011 Tucson shootings where former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was injured and six died, and the 2007 Virginia Tech rampage where 33 were killed.

The image of first-graders cowering in the elementary school classrooms, hiding from a crazed gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle he used to riddle kid after kid with bullets, was thought to be the spur at last to move Washington politicians to act. Coming on the heels of the Boston Marathon bombings, an event magnifying our helplessness in the face of some kinds of violence, a vote for these gun control measures would have been a powerful display of Congress’s resolve to act on violence where it can.

Shamefully, instead, enough U.S. senators voted to stop reasonable gun control measures in their tracks – or seemingly so – when measure after measure came up short of the needed 60 votes for passage. Even a compromise, bipartisan-sponsored expanded background check amendment got just 54 votes though a Washington Post/ABC News Poll this week showed overwhelming public support for such checks – 86 percent of Americans including 84 percent of those who call themselves Republicans favored it.

Thankfully, North Carolina’s Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat targeted by the National Rifle Association and conservatives salivating for her seat, voted for the background checks. She was joined by four courageous Republicans who also supported the measure, including amendment co-sponsor Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois.

On the other side, four cowardly Democrats from gun-friendly states joined the Republican majority to defeat expanded background checks. Three – Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mark Begich of Alaska and Max Baucus of Montana – face re-election next year. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota also voted against the measure.

There are undoubtedly ideological beliefs behind the votes of many senators but the political calculations of some are also clear. Hagan, who faces re-election in 2014, lost her courage and voted with Republican Richard Burr, N.C.’s other U.S. senator, on the two more incendiary gun issues, regulating assault weapons and limits on ammunition clips. They both voted against those measures.

These measures are reasonable. Why would the average citizen need a weapon or ammunition clip that can fire 15 to 30 rounds? For sport? For safety? Hardly.

This is not the Old West or Revolutionary days. Times have changed and so have weapons. It’s wrong and dangerous to interpret the constitutional right to own a gun as meaning any person can own any kind of gun.

On Thursday, the Senate did tackle another issue involved in gun deaths – mental health. Senators voted 95-2 for a bill co-sponsored by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa. It would boost resources, increase the emphasis on identifying mentally troubled students in schools and encourage studies and treatment on adult mental illness and violence and suicide.

The two voting against even this reasoned move? Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Pro-gun control lawmakers say the Senate vote against the other measures won’t kill the efforts for changes. It shouldn’t. The statistics tell the story:

Firearms were the third-leading cause of injury-related deaths nationwide in 2010, following poisoning and motor vehicle accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that by 2015, firearm deaths will climb past motor vehicle deaths which are on the decline unless trends change or something is done.

In 2010, guns were used in 11,078 homicides in the United States, 68 percent of all homicides. That same year, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. That number is the equivalent of more than 85 deaths each day and more than three deaths each hour.

Deaths aren’t the only consequence of gun violence. More than 73,000 Americans were treated in hospital emergency departments for non-fatal gunshot wounds in 2010. The Violence Prevention Research Program reported that more than 200 people go to U.S. emergency rooms everyday with gunshot wounds.

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s gun vote, politicians and pundits are playing the blame game. The president is to blame. The NRA and other special interests are to blame.

In the end, the people to blame are the people who voted – and those of us who voted them into office. Unlike with the Boston Marathon bombings, we are not helpless. If we don’t like this result, we know how to change it.

Fannie Flono is an Observer associate editor. Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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