In a nation with a history of racial violence, a high crime rate and prevalent ownership of firearms, critics of lax gun laws claim that paranoia among whites is at the root of the problem. And yet they have found that threatening to take away people’s guns is not an effective way of defusing paranoia.
The nation is South Africa, which has been caught up in a furor over guns and violence following the killing of his girlfriend by Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius, who is known as the “Blade Runner” because he runs on two prosthetic legs, shot his girlfriend in the middle of the night at his home, claiming later that he mistook her for an intruder. He faces a charge of first-degree murder; last week a judge freed him on bail.
To become acquainted with South Africa’s history of racial strife and violence is to view the United States in a mirror. It is incontestable that racial violence has been woven into the history of the United States since the beginning, both in the decimation of American Indian populations and the violence of slavery. From an early date, white Americans lived in fear of their slaves and of the Indians who might have been lurking in the woods beyond the clearing.
Some of the overheated rhetoric by people defending their Second Amendment rights suggests they fear violence in a variety of forms. Yet the fear of violence is itself a major cause of violence. In the United States the presence of firearms in a household is more likely to lead to the kind of death that occurred in Oscar Pistorius’ townhouse than to an act of self-defense. The odds say that the chance that a family member will die from a firearm homicide increases by almost 300 percent when there is a gun in the house. Whichever story about the death of Reeva Steenkamp is true, it depended on ready access to a handgun.
There is another form of death that is hastened by firearms: suicide. Over the past two years, there have been 130 deaths in Vermont by firearms. Suicide accounted for 124 of those. Guns are used in more than half of the suicides in Vermont, and a member of the Vermont House, Dr. George Till, believes a waiting period for the purchase of guns would prevent some of those suicide deaths. He has introduced a bill creating a 48-hour waiting period. Research shows that the odds of a family member committing suicide goes up nearly five-fold if there is a gun in the home.
The array of gun regulations receiving attention in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., massacre has incited fierce opposition among die-hard advocates of gun rights. They oppose new regulations on ideological grounds, believing that the Second Amendment protects their individual right to bear arms. But their opposition is also visceral — a reaction against the idea of government reaching out to grab a weapon or weapons that are believed to be a birthright. If skepticism about the heavy hand of government is combined with paranoia about criminal mobs or jack-booted government agents, then each proposed regulation can be counted on only to fan the fear.
With an estimated 200 million privately owned weapons now circulating around the country and people, urban and rural, attached to them emotionally and ideologically, it is not even remotely possible that the government is going to seize them. The most sensible ideas now under discussion, in Montpelier and Washington, have to do with creating opportunities to inject a modest degree of oversight.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has spoken favorably of improving background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill. Large ammunition clips may be banned as unnecessary for any legitimate purposes of self-defense. Rep. Till’s proposed waiting period could help some distraught people not to follow through on a terrible impulse.
These are simple measures of self-defense being contemplated by a people living in a nation bristling with guns. They need not provoke panic among gun owners. We are at a time when measures to diminish fear are in order. In this country there are Reeva Steenkamps killed every day. They need not die.
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