American gun debate stifled by myth, dogma, and resistance to crucial information

American gun debate stifled by myth, dogma, and resistance to crucial information

December 17, 2012

During Barack Obama’s presidency, 3,000 American children and teenagers were murdered by violence inflicted by their parents and caretakers—a toll equal to last Friday’s gun massacre at Newtown, Connecticut’s, Sandy Hook Elementary School every 10 days. An equal number of children were killed by parents too addicted, mentally ill, or uncaring to provide vital care.

Has Obama eulogized these thousands of young victims—far more than are murdered in schools, colleges, theaters, and malls—as “our… beautiful children” deserving of “meaningful action” because “we can’t tolerate this any more”? Barely. Every year, the White House posts a perfunctory, unpublicized statement for National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

These hidden young murder victims are important to consider—three days after the horrendous slaughter at Sandy Hook left 20 children and 8 adults dead—as interests from the White House on down coalesce to confine the discussion to comfortable points and frustrate meaningful action on yet another social crisis.

If “we must change” our attitudes toward guns and violence, as Obama urges, then new information and arguments must be introduced. Fortunately, there’s lots of startling, highly relevant information and perspectives that could be brought into the debate.

Some examples: Americans have, by far, the most guns with the most firepower and the most gun murders of any Western country. So, even more guns, including automatic and assault weapons, obtained by Americans over the last 20 years has accompanied skyrocketing gun violence–right?

Wrong. In fact, Americans’ odds—including those of grade-school children—of being murdered by a firearm are much lower today than at any time in at least 40 years. Instead of perpetual panic by all sides, the seemingly contradictory factors that reduced gun murders as well as those keeping the level high need to be examined.

Many more Americans ages 40-49 commit murder than do children and teenagers under age 18. Five in six murdered children are are killed by adults, not by “children.”

Most mass shootings are by men age 35 and older, according to a Mother Jones tabulation (unfortunately incomplete because it omitted family killings). Minority men under age 30 have more gun homicides; white men over age 30, more mass shootings and gun suicides. But the relevant fact is this: shootings, especially large-scale ones, are so rare that fixating on demographics is not just useless, but destructive.

What about policies? Switzerland and Israel have lots of guns in public hands and very low levels of citizen violence. England and Japan have strict gun controls and very low levels of citizen violence. Montana has tons of guns and very few gun murders per capita; Massachusetts has the toughest gun regulation and also suffers very few gun murders compared to other states. There are many unwelcome complexities.

Unfortunately, new perspectives that challenge entrenched dogmas are threatening. So, politicians, interests, and media commentators from all sides are conducting business as usual, steadily narrowing gun discourse to make violence just another problem of “young people”—their “youth violence,” their murderous “impulses,” their “adolescent depression,” their “violent video games and movies,” their “bullying,” their “access to guns.”

President Obama and a host of interests united in dispensing a seemingly heartfelt but small-minded message: clutch your own children close, but blame and fear other people’s children.

Shortly after the Newtown shootings, Obama grieved the loss of “our… beautiful children” and demanded “meaningful action” to protect them. But, as already noted, the same president, after July’s movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado, stood before the Urban League and, to loud applause, blamed American gun violence on “children”—a myth he repeated in the second presidential debate

The president and other interest tacitly perpetuate America’s tradition of limiting concern only to certain tragedies, grief only for certain victims, and blame only toward powerless scapegoats. Their fixation on the small number of American teenagers and 20-aged young adults who shoot up schools, shopping malls, or street corners must yield to a broader grownup humility.

American 30-aged gunmen have murdered scores in skyscrapers, temples, and schools. American 40-agers have slaughtered en masse in churches, homes, and offices. Fifty-agers have blown away hate-crime targets and entire families in their beds. Senior-citizen gunners have left neighbors and retirement-home residents bullet-riddled.

Unfortunately, Obama and media commentators only seem capable of addressing the sliver of American violence, from bullying to campus rape to gunfire, that can safely be pinned on young people. Senators’ sudden proposal to study gun violence specifies video games and movies as the only cultural factor permitted for scrutiny—why not include all cultural factors, from religious texts to news shows?

At the other end of the economic scale from affluent Newtown, political and media elites deplore violence “on the streets of Chicago” in the same ambivalent tone of sadness and scapegoating. That in Chicago every year, 30 to 40 youths under age 17 and 400 to 500 adults, the vast majority of them African American, are murdered represents unspeakable tragedy.

But at the same time, we’ve seen baseless accusations, including from Obama, that Chicago’s black youth (and, by implication, all youth) are ever-more murderous. In fact, Chicago Police Department figures show today’s children and youth are much less likely to kill, account for a greatly decreased share of the city’s murderers and victims, and are safer from being gunned down than at any time in at least 40 years, and perhaps ever.

If sorrow knows no statistics, then why do politician and media commentators insist on peddling their inflamed, blame-game lies alleging ever-rising youthful violence and endangerment? Why spread the same fear that leads millions to buy guns for self-protection, and, in occasional “stand your ground” panics, to preemptively shoot black teenagers?

And yet, even as guns and firepower have proliferated, gun murders have plummeted over the last 20 years—but still remain epidemic in the United States, which, with just 30% of the population of the 24 affluent Western nations, accounts for 80% of the West’s gun homicides.

Are we going to “change,” then, as the president demanded? If so, then:

No more scapegoating masked as “concern.” Americans of all ages wearing every kind of attire and consuming every kind of popular culture have perpetrated massacre, in every venue, decade after decade. If you want to blame a single demographic for perpetrating gun massacres, blame white men ages 30 and older… unfair, but at least accurate.

No more blaming “children.” The FBI’s latest, 2011, report shows youths under age 18 account for just 4 percent of all murders in the country; only 1 percent of all murders involve “children killing children.”

No more exonerating the past. Older generations had worse rates of firearms murder than today’s.

No more selective concern.We need leadership that talks about 100 percent of murders, not just the fraction committed by young people or that endanger children beloved by parents. A child murdered by parents is just as deserving of concern.

No more dogma worship. Activists on both sides have to embrace contradictory realities and complexities.

No more simplistic self-flattery.Other countries harbor disturbed, angry citizens, but they rarely inflict individual or mass slaughters as our troubled countrymen do again and again.

Our long-term failure to produce effective solutions or even reasoned analysis is a devastating “American exceptionalism” mired in seeking futile “common ground” and meaningless “consensus.” The president’s imprecation that “we must change” begins with the White House. Let our chief lead by telling us how he has changed and what new information and ideas he’s willing to broach–because there is too much that so far is being left out.

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