U.S. refuses to tackle gun threat

The Observer editorial board

Kennedy Honors, 12, gets help placing one of nine crosses in memory of the Charleston victims at a Houston church.
Kennedy Honors, 12, gets help placing one of nine crosses in memory of the Charleston victims at a Houston church. AP

We’re appalled. We grieve. We come together, blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats. We denounce the violence. We vow to do something about it.

We dare to think: This time – maybe this time! – America will come to its senses and act.

We let time pass. We let the anger subside. We go back to our lives. We forget.

This familiar cycle started again in Charleston last week. It will play out as it always does.

After 20 young children and six adults were shot dead at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, it seemed the line had finally been crossed, and Congress would pass the common-sense restrictions on gun sales supported by a strong majority of Americans.

“Maybe now,” this editorial board said that day. Maybe “we can finally muster the grief or outrage or fear that the phone might someday ring in our kitchen. Maybe now, finally.”

We don’t allow ourselves to say “Maybe now” after Charleston. After Newtown, members of Congress considered two steps that the public strongly supported: Banning assault weapons and imposing universal background checks. They passed neither. With the National Rifle Association as powerful as ever, there is no reason to think they will pass such laws now.

There are, no doubt, multiple factors that contribute to any shooting, mass or not. One is easy access to guns.

Questions abound about the gun that Charleston suspect Dylann Roof used and how he got it. We certainly don’t know that stricter gun control laws would have prevented Roof’s evil act.

We do know that we should be doing everything we can to make it difficult for criminals and mentally ill people to obtain guns. All of us, including responsible gun owners, can agree to that.

Many people do not realize the uniquely American nature of gun violence. Look at the accompanying chart from Max Fisher with Vox. The United States leads the developed world (other than Mexico, not included on the chart) in gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, and it’s not even close. Our rate is 10 to 20 times higher than much of the developed world.

That’s in part because guns are so prevalent here. The Guardian showed that in 2012 there were 88.8 guns per 100 people in the U.S., by far the highest in the world.

Gun control opponents argue that stricter laws will not necessarily stop determined people like Roof was said to be. While that is true, research shows that targeted restrictions on gun ownership can save lives.

In a study released last week, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Cal-Berkeley analyzed a 1995 Connecticut law that required gun purchases to pass a background check and take a gun safety course to get a permit to buy a handgun. They found the law cut gun homicides by 40 percent in the 10 years from 1996 to 2005. That’s nearly 300 lives saved. At the same time, Missouri removed a similar system and researchers found that led to a 23 percent increase in annual gun homicides.

Relatively few people want to deny responsible gun owners what the Supreme Court has ruled are their Second Amendment rights. But a strong majority of Americans support common-sense regulations, like universal background checks, preventing those with mental illness from buying guns and a federal database to track gun sales.

Despite the popularity of such moves, we doubt we’ll see them soon. The NRA is too powerful, Congress is too weak-kneed, and gun ownership is rooted too deeply in American culture.

The Economist, a British publication, put it depressingly well last week: “Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard (mass killings) the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.”