According to a 2007 survey, the United States leads the world in gun ownership: 90 guns per 100 people. We are a country with five percent of the world's people and between 35 and 50 percent of its civilian-owned guns. That's something like 270 million weapons.
Repeated studies have shown that the United States is far and away the leader among the world's developed countries in gun violence and gun deaths. There is no other developed country that is even close. Over 30,000 Americans die every year from gun violence. Most of these are suicides but in excess of 12,000 a year are homicides. Another 200,000 Americans are estimated to be injured each year due to guns.
In 2009, Bob Herbert of the New York Times wrote a compelling column noting that since 9/11 over 120,000 people have died in the United States as a result of gun violence. By now, the number is in excess of 140,000.
For those in the world who are mystified by this, the legal explanation associated with it by gun rights defenders is that the right to own guns is protected by the U.S. Constitution. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
This statement has taken on quasi-theological importance for many in the United States even though it is clearly being misinterpreted by those who believe it provides every individual the right to own such guns -- including advanced, highly-destructive automatic weapons. The misinterpretation begins with the deliberate ignoring of the first half of the sentence associating the right with the need for a "well-regulated militia." This is a clear qualifier associated with the so-called right to bear arms and had it not been important to the sentence, one can only conclude it would not have been included in the famously sparely written document. If militias don't exist, one can therefore conclude this "right" should be reconsidered if not eliminated.
Further, of course, there have been many elements of the Constitution that have required amending because the views, values, and circumstances of the nation have evolved since the country's founding. Strangely, many of those who consider the Second Amendment sacrosanct would vigorously support those subsequent adjustments to the document.
Congresswoman Giffords, the targeted victim of this attack, was a supporter of "Second Amendment rights." This is a tragic irony, but it does not suggest this case should not reopen the discussion on this important issue. Consider the case of the shooter, a drug-using, clearly unhinged loser who responded to a requirement from his community college to seek a mental evaluation due to troubling behavior not by seeking help but by going out and buying a weapon … legally.
The attack also rightfully raises a question about the tenor of political discourse in the United States. This was not an attack by the venom-tongued and reckless political extremists and hate-mongers who have become so common in recent years. But it was certainly a consequence of the culture of disrespect and violence they have fomented. With some luck this attack my cause all parties to be more circumspect and embrace civility.
But in a global context we have to ask as dispassionately as we can: What do these events say about America's culture, and what are their impact on America's ability to lead? Many will reflexively note that other societies also have similar shortcomings. That is no doubt the case. But no society that holds itself up as an example to the world should, as the United States does, brazenly shrug off what are clearly deep national character flaws when it comes to our love of guns or our celebration of hate politics. Tragedies like that which unfolded in Arizona this weekend not only wound the victims, but also America's ability to lead and to advance our interests and values worldwide. Think, to take just one example, how the shadow of events like this and the patterns and history they reveal impact America's ability to advance its human rights agenda internationally -- as it will no doubt attempt to do during the upcoming visit of China's president next week.
The problem is that we are not talking about the aberrant behavior of a lone gunman here. Instead we should see that what we are discussing are grossly uncivilized aspects of American society, aspects of ourselves that we ought to change not because we fall below international norms, but because we fall so short of doing what is right, moral, or sensible.
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