The United States is flooded with guns. With an estimated 280 million firearms in civilian hands, there are enough guns to arm nearly every man, woman and child in our country making us the most heavily armed nation on earth.
While we can thank the gun lobby for this dubious honor, the politicians who cave into their demands should be held accountable as well.
With over 30,000 gun deaths in the U.S. each year -- including the 4 police officers shot and killed in Oakland, California on March 21st -- an appropriate response to this carnage should be bold and comprehensive policies to prevent further homicides, suicides and unintentional injuries. However, what typically happens in the wake of high-profile shootings is meager attempts to promote gun-lobby "palatable" remedies such as harsher penalties for criminals caught with guns.
Meanwhile, little is being done to address the elephant in the room: the 280 million guns already in circulation and how to reduce this staggering number. Although there are some good gun laws in place, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of gun violence prevention advocates and survivors, there has been little success in addressing the sheer volume of guns.
Although the percentage of American households reporting gun ownership has declined significantly in recent years to 34.5%, according to the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), the total number of guns in private hands has dramatically increased in the past 40 years. In other words, there is an incredible and unequal distribution of firearms: most gun owners own multiple firearms and some have huge stockpiles and arsenals.
While it would be nice to believe that all of these weapons are safely tucked away in responsible gun owners' homes, there are lost and stolen guns, as well as an untold number of illegal guns in criminal hands to take into account. Also, because only two states have bans on carrying concealed weapons, there's a good chance the next time you go grocery shopping or visit a museum with your family someone in line next to you could be carrying a weapon.
Guns Rarely Die
280 million guns, in a nation of 306 million people, is a very big number. In fact, it is more than a third of all the guns owned worldwide. And, unlike other consumer products-such as toasters or hair dryers-guns rarely break, are durable, and endure very little wear and tear. They also rarely get thrown away. Even Gary Kleck, a criminologist who supports the gun lobby agenda, admitted in his book Point Blank, that the average gun is only fired 24 times each year and can last over 400 years.
Additionally, it is estimated that only a small fraction of the 280 million guns in civilian hands are taken out of circulation each year through buybacks, meltdowns or confiscation by law enforcement authorities. In fact, some law enforcement agencies actually re-sell confiscated crime guns at auctions thereby putting them back in circulation. In appears that comparatively few guns are ever destroyed or permanently taken out of circulation. To top it off, firearms are virtually the only consumer product exempt from health and safety standards despite their inherent lethality.
Thanks to the gun industry's mass production and mass marketing of firearms, approximately 4.5 million new guns are bought in the United States annually -- more than half of the 8 million manufactured worldwide. Clearly we have an urgent problem that is not going away anytime soon.
How to Address the Elephant
Although it is the sheer number of guns in circulation and easy access to these weapons that are among the leading causes of gun deaths in our country, thanks to the gun lobby, no one in a position of power dares suggest "unpopular" remedies that would actually get to the root of the problem-the guns themselves.
To make meaningful progress on reducing America's stockpile of guns would mean putting some politically unpopular options on the table such as: incentives and measures that reduce the large quantities of guns in circulation; banning a broader range of the most deadly high-capacity firearms; and/or limiting the number of guns manufactured and sold in the U.S. each year.
In the meantime, it would behoove our leaders to support a comprehensive host of policies that could still have a dramatic impact. Such policies include: limiting handgun purchases to one per month; requiring criminal background checks on all gun sales, especially at gun shows; requiring gun owners to report lost and stolen firearms to the police; banning the manufacture and sale of assault weapons; and ending the Tiahrt restrictions passed by Congress to allow ATF to release gun crime trace data to local authorities and help shut down gun trafficking.
In addition to saving lives, these policies, working in concert, would undoubtedly reduce overall gun ownership and create a sea change in our perceptions of guns and America's gun culture.
Fewer Guns Equal Fewer Guns Deaths
Japan is a good case in point as to why fewer guns make a difference. With a population of 128 million people, it is estimated that Japan has fewer than 400,000 legally owned guns resulting in a total of 22 gun murders in 2007 according to Japan's National Police Agency.
The United States on the other hand has a population of 306 million, 280 million guns and over 12,000 gun homicides each year. Even if, for arguments sake, we were to more than double Japan's population to match the U.S. population, that would leave Japan with just over 50 gun homicides compared to America's over 12,000 gun murders. It's shameful.
America needs to decide what kind of country it wants to be. Do we want to be a nation willing to be bullied by an extremist lobby and misguided in our way of thinking about our nation's gun problem? Or, do we want to create meaningful change and stand up for the safety of our citizens? If the latter, as a beginning step, we will need to allow for a well informed and honest debate about what it will really take to reduce gun deaths.
Directly addressing the quarter of a billion guns owned by Americans is an unpopular topic. It's easier and politically safer for policymakers to skirt the issue and avoid discussion about the 280 million guns flooding our homes, streets and communities.
Until legislators, the media, activists and citizens are willing to engage in this discussion, the United States will remain the most deadly and well-armed industrialized nation on earth.
It's important to note that this is not a hopeless cause, it's just one that is going to require tenacity, courage and commitment from our leaders and from our citizens.
Read the Opposing View debate, Does Owning a Gun Make You Safer?