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Americas / Gun Violence

America’s Fatal Fixation on Guns

There are many people who can attest to the brutality and horror of the shooting two months ago in Parkland, Florida. No account is more chilling than those of the medical professionals who worked to save the young victims, but in the end could not. When a body is struck by a bullet from a high-powered, semi-automatic rifle, there is not much that any doctor could do.

“Even as a physician trained in trauma situations, there was nothing he could do at the scene to help save the victims who had been shot with the AR-15. Most of them died on the spot; they had no fighting chance at life.” These are the words of Florida radiologist Heather Sher, who tried to treat the Parkland victims mauled by the bullets of an AR-15, the most popular gun in America.

Touted as “America’s Rifle” by the National Rifle Association, the AR-15 appeals to the strong-man, the patriot. It also appeals to school shooters hellbent on delivering the most damage in the shortest amount of time. With the AR-15’s semi-automatic firing power, one pull of the trigger can inflict a wound that will obliterate a victim’s organs entirely. According to Sher, the aforementioned radiologist, the bullet will then leave the body through an exit wound the size of an orange.

How is it that such a high-powered, lethal rifle came to be mass-marketed to and beloved by Americans? Arguably for the same reason the same guns are impossible to ban today: a deadly combination of high consumer demand, interest group money, and congressional support, all operating in the context of a violent society.

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, the media extensively covered the outcries and outrage that poured from all corners of the US. Now almost three months later, the coverage has subsided and the protests have died down. Efforts were made and bills were proposed with the aim of restricting the sale of assault weapons, now redefined to include guns like the AR-15s and other high-velocity semi-automatics. These efforts were met with fierce opposition from the Right’s loudest voices, which condemned any possible restrictions on gun sales as a complete assault on freedom.

This–all of this, the violence, the resistance, the polarization that forms when talking about critical issues–does not happen in other countries that have dealt with mass shootings. In Norway, a country often compared to the US for its high rates of gun ownership, legislation banning the sale of all semi-automatics recently passed in a conservative-led parliament. The legislation’s enforcement date of 2021 will mark ten years since far-right extremist Anders Breivik killed sixty-nine people at a youth camp with two weapons, one a pistol and the other a semi-automatic rifle.

The decision in Norway reflects what the US is incapable of doing–reaching a consensus over guns in the wake of catastrophe. It took ten years and only one major shooting for the Norwegian state and its people to say enough is enough. What will it take for the US to do the same?

I believe nothing can bring the US to a similar decision. Bestowed onto us by the Constitution is the right to bear arms, a right many gun owners arguably view as akin to the freedom of speech in its sanctity. Nonetheless, if one is to employ the the second Second Amendment to argue in favor of all guns, then they must also address all parts of our founding document, including the right of the courts to interpret the constitution. Changes in both time and technology necessitate constant reexamination of the Constitution.

Though his advice was not heeded by his fellow founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson famously said that “Each generation” should have the “solemn opportunity” to update the constitution “every nineteen or twenty years.”

Reflected in Thomas Jefferson’s words is his understanding that new historical epochs would usher in new problems far removed from the ones considered when the Constitution was drafted. While commentators often raise this point, it is still very salient: semi-automatic guns that leave baseball-sized wounds in the body of a gunshot victim were not around at the time of the constitutional convention. It is time that we change the laws to confront the question of guns, a question that has taken on new dimensions. Guns now are more lethal than they ever have been. Doctors can attest to the severity of the wounds caused by these weapons. It is time we as a public acknowledge the public health risks these high-velocity weapons cause.

Confronting this issue can take many forms, some of which already have been attempted in the private sector. Sporting goods stores such as Dicks have announced they no longer will be selling semi-automatic rifles. This is a step in the right direction, of course, but it is a miniscule one, especially considering the same corporation made the same promise after Sandy Hook, then failed to follow through. One store deciding not to sell semi-automatics will not reduce semi-automatic gun sales, but states taking the lead on banning them will.

Currently the Oregon and Delaware state legislatures have proposed bills restricting the sale of semi-automatics under the auspice of an assault weapons ban. The law also include harsh penalties for violations of these proposed laws.

Of course, restricting semi-automatic sales will not solve the problem of mass-shootings. There are many approaches the public and our policy makers can take that address the various issues of a fatal phenomena unique to the US. Nonetheless, close attention needs to be payed to the real public health concern caused by, among several less addressable factors, high-velocity rifles.