America is a country-size arsenal.
There are 20% more guns in the U.S. than people. Americans are estimated to own 393 million of the 857 million guns in the world, or almost half — 46% — of all civilian guns.
And the obscene ubiquity of firearms in the U.S. explains much about why the country is a killing field without parallel in the developed world. Anyone who has studied the matter arrives at a simple conclusion: More guns means more death.
“Most countries do not have a problem with fatal mass shootings,” Daniel Webster, the co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, told a Fox affiliate last year after the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. “It’s because we have decided to make guns readily available to almost anyone and our interests seem to be more protecting those who sell weapons and want to own them as opposed to the broader public.”
This choice has disfigured American society.
Reform is thwarted by cowardice, corruption and craziness. As young children are slaughtered in their classrooms, conservative officials desecrate their memory by suggesting their deaths are the price of freedom. As mass shootings become a daily occurance, gun-rights zealots double down on the bloodthirsty fantasy that more guns is the answer.
Exasperation with record levels of gun violence has reinvigorated some efforts to enact regulation at the federal and state levels. Legislative remedies are an encouraging development, and several bills promise to make a meaningful difference.
But in a country so awash in deadly weapons and so steeped in the mythology of firearms, regulatory tweaks can protect Americans only so much. True reform will be achieved only through a transformation of culture. This is a generation-scale project, but at a time when guns are involved in almost 49,000 annual deaths and are now the leading cause of death among America’s youth, few national initiatives could be more worth undertaking.
The project must start with a shift away from tolerance of gun extremists. Acceptance must cease of these murder-mongers in the media, government, public gatherings and the home next door. No longer can their fanaticism be indulged or their rigidity accommodated. Society must stigmatize them, and they must be rendered culturally odious. Only when gun absolutists become social pariahs can the nation start to establish comprehensive reform, allowing community members to attend schools, shop at grocery stores and visit nightclubs without fear of being torn to shreds in a blast of bullets.
President Joe Biden has provided welcome leadership in calling for specific new laws, such as an assault weapons ban, which he mentioned in his State of the Union address.
Some states are advancing their own new laws. Last week, Colorado Democrats in the Legislature introduced a historic set of gun violence prevention bills. The bills would raise the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, require a three-day waiting period for firearm sales, remove immunity protections for gun-makers, and expand who can file a “red flag” petition to confiscate guns from potentially unsafe people. It’s a demoralizing sign of the pervasiveness of gun violence that two of the lawmakers behind the bills have lost children in shootings.
These lawmakers are on the right track. Gun violence prevention advocates generally recommend the kinds of regulation they’ve proposed, as well as laws previously adopted in Colorado, such as universal background checks, a high-capacity magazine ban, and a safe storage mandate.
“In states where elected officials have taken action to pass gun safety laws, fewer people die by gun violence,” says Everytown, a gun safety advocacy group.
While that might be true — and though lawmakers should adopt every prevention law that evidence shows can save lives — these measures are up against the armory-like practice of gun stockpiling that takes place in America and the play-militia approach to citizenship preferred by gun fundamentalists.
On Wednesday, a sophomore at Denver East High school died after being shot outside the school last month. It was only the latest gun-related trauma experienced by students at the school. As The Denver Post reported, “Students at East … described school days interrupted by lockdowns and other alerts in the weeks since their classmate was shot on Feb. 13. Those who spoke to The Denver Post said they no longer feel safe on campus.”
One day last week, just as the trial for the alleged Club Q mass shooter opened, law enforcement responded to shooting threats at multiple schools across Colorado, from Aspen to Aurora. The reports turned out to be “swatting” hoaxes. Students made it home physically safe, but school shootings are so common in America that the mental toll caused by the event is incalculable.
“I really hate this,” the mother of a student at one of the targeted schools in Boulder told The Denver Post. “I don’t know what the answer is. I would like to keep him home and stay safe hunkered in our house but that’s not an option.”
That’s the damage guns have done to society — for many parents, sending kids to school is a harrowing act of courage, and no red-flag petition can mend such a deep wound.
The Founding Fathers got it profoundly wrong on slavery and discrimination against women. Their next biggest mistake was the Second Amendment. But unlike other errors that the country has tried to come to terms with, society has only compounded the harm that came from the Constitution’s misfire concerning arms. The amendment should be repealed, yet Americans have so romanticized guns, and the judicial branch has imposed so permissive an interpretation of the law, that the country seems consigned to unthinkable bloodshed.
The Second Amendment won’t be repealed anytime soon, but Americans can at least begin a cultural shift and re-imagine what the law means. Society should no longer tolerate the kind of depraved fanaticism that allows someone like Rep. Lauren Boebert to tweet a Christmas greeting with her young sons brandishing weapons of war. It should dismiss from the public conversation anyone who advocates the hell-summoning lie that the presence of more guns will prevent gun violence. It should humiliate without restraint those costume-wearing soldier wannabes who show up with their shooters at rallies. It should elevate judges — unlike the present conservative majority justices of the U.S. Supreme Court — who don’t view the Second Amendment as a national suicide pact.
Castigation must befall anyone who obstructs gun violence prevention. Lawmakers should continue to enact measures to protect constituents from the daily massacres their communities suffer. But members of those communities can participate in the greater reform project by shaming gun proponents wherever they show themselves.
Quentin Young is the editor of Colorado Newsline, which first published this commentary.