Monday, December 31, 2012

Gun Violence: Keeping Public Focus on Solutions

December 31, 2012, 10:20 a.m.

Newtown a "Routine Episode" or Catalyst to Real Change?
Recalling the shooting rampage that killed 20 first graders as the worst day of his presidency, President Barack Obama pledged to put his "full weight" behind legislation aimed at preventing gun violence. . . .

The president said he intends to press the issue with the public.

"The question then becomes whether we are actually shook up enough by what happened here that it does not just become another one of these routine episodes where it gets a lot of attention for a couple of weeks and then it drifts away," Obama said. "It certainly won't feel like that to me. This is something that -- you know, that was the worst day of my presidency. And it's not something that I want to see repeated."

-- Jim Kuhnhenn, "Obama wants gun violence measures passed in 2013," Associated Press/Yahoo!News, December 30, 2012
What now? [Photo credit: multiple sources.]

The Newtown Massacre understandably produced cries of grief and outrage, politicians' speeches for constituents and prayers by and for all, demands for solutions and a number of suggestions as to what those solutions might be.

Suggestions have included, as they have in the past, bans on sale of assault weapons and multi-round magazines, trigger locks, background checks, restrictions on permits and gun show sales, and especially this year, expanded mental health services. The NRA argues more good guys with guns, especially in schools, will decrease random attacks by armed bad guys. It also emphasizes education and training of new gun owners. I don't, now, express an opinion about these and other ideas. Rational, data-driven public policy proposals are almost always an essential element of progressive change -- and almost never, alone, enough to bring it about.

In a democracy, a prerequisite to change is that the political stars be properly aligned, whether the issue be the "fiscal cliff," immigration policy -- or gun violence. That alignment is, admittedly, disproportionately influenced by the "special interests" and their campaign contributions. But it is also, in no small measure, driven by public opinion.

President Obama, in the quotes at the top of this blog entry, says "he intends to press the [gun violence] issue with the public." He can be commended for his hope that the Newtown Massacre "does not just become another one of these routine episodes where it gets a lot of attention for a couple of weeks and then it drifts away."

The President is less clear as to how he will prevent that from happening. He will have a lot on his plate during 2013. There's a limit to how many speeches, on how many occasions, he can make about gun violence, or how effective they would be if he could.

Public opinion is also driven by media coverage -- news, opinionated discussions, TV shows and feature films. And the media, like the President, will have a great many things to talk about during 2013 besides gun violence.

So here's an idea, suggested by something television has already shown its willingness to do.

We are regularly shown pictures of the members of our military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan -- ABC's "This Week" on Sunday mornings, PBS' "Evening News Hour" every evening, and probably others as well, once names are released and pictures are available.

Many Americans have questioned the wisdom of the Iraq War from the get-go; others have been urging for months and years that we should get out of Afghanistan. But no one in my acquaintance questions the patriotism and courage, and the debt we owe, to those willing to say "Yes, Sir," salute smartly, and march off to war when asked to do so. Putting a face, their faces, on their sacrifice keeps those wars from "drifting away" from our consciousness.

One source puts the number of U.S. military killed in Afghanistan from 2001 to December of 2012 at 2173. "Operation Enduring Freedom," Watching their pictures, along with their names, ranks, ages and hometowns on our television screen has always been a solemn moment in our house. All multi-tasking and conversation ceases as we concentrate on the seriousness of what we're watching, as if at a funeral service.

Those 2173 deaths are 2173 deaths too many. But at an average of 181 military killed outside of our country each year, it is but a small fraction of the 32,000 who die from firearms inside our country each year.

"Firearm injury in the United States has averaged 32,300 deaths annually between 1980 and 2006 . . .. An estimated two nonfatal injuries occur for every firearm death. The 2006 age adjusted [per capita] death rate from firearm injury is 10.2/100,000 with an estimated nonfatal injury rate of 23. Firearms are involved in 68% of homicides, 52% of suicides, 43% of robberies, and 21% of aggravated assaults. Deaths peaked in 1993 at 40,000 in the early 1990s . . .. [F]irearm injury represents a significant public health impact, accounting for 6.6% of premature death in this country.
"Firearm Injury in the U.S. (Version 2009)," Firearm & Injury Center at Penn.

Imagine the impact it could have in preventing public concern regarding gun violence from "drifting away" if we could put a face on these 32,000 faces.

And putting a face on domestic gun deaths need not be any more argumentative than displaying the names and faces of those killed in Afghanistan. Pacifists undoubtedly see them as evidence of the folly of war; hawks see them as a necessary cost of national defense and glory. Similarly, the NRA could view the domestic deceased as evidence of the need for more "good guys with guns." It could point out how many were killed with guns that did not have multi-round magazines, or that were brought about by killers who needed mental health services.

Why should we not be as reminded of the 75 to 100 people killed with guns throughout the United States each day as we were of the 26 who were killed in one town (Newtown) on one day (December 14, 2012)? They are all just as dead. They were all killed with firearms. Aren't they all entitled to the same respect, and the same calls for solutions?

Of course, 32,000 deaths a year would average 88 a day. Even if an entire 20-minute network newscast were devoted to nothing but these 88 individuals they would only get about 13 seconds each. So showing them all may not be practical. Maybe only a few could be selected. Maybe it would prove to be impossible to get the names and photos of everyone anyway. Maybe they could be streamed fast, at a second or two each.

Of course, there is no way, and should not be any way, that television stations could be forced to adopt a feature like this. But if we as a caring people, and the President as our leader, are ever to be able to make a real and successful effort at reducing these 32,000 deaths, something like this proposal will have to be a part of doing so.

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The main area where the U.S. exceeds the firearm violence of other nations is in comparison to other affluent nations. Using the U.N. data, European nations -- even former eastern bloc countries -- typically have rates well below 1 per 100,000, or far less than one-third the frequency seen in the U.S. The pattern is similar in other advanced industrialized nations, such as Canada, Taiwan, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

One study published in 2011 confirms this finding. The study, published in the Journal of Trauma -- Injury Infection & Critical Care, found that firearm homicide rates were 19.5 times higher in the U.S. than in 23 other "high income" countries studied, using 2003 data. Rates for other types of gun deaths were also higher in the U.S., but by somewhat smaller margins: 5.8 times higher for firearm suicides (even though overall suicide rates were 30 percent lower in the U.S.) and 5.2 times higher for unintentional firearm deaths.
"Facebook post says the U.S. is No. 1 in gun violence. Is it?"

America ranks number one in the world for the number of guns per 100 individuals: 88.8. Virtually all the other countries are less than one-half our rate; over 100 countries are one-tenth or less. "Number of Guns Per Capita by Country,"

We are only marginally better when measured by the annual number of firearm deaths per 100,000 population -- at 10.2, the rough equivalent of Mexico (11.14). "List of Countries by Firearm-Related Death Rate",

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