11:45 a.m. September 17, 2013

The Commando In The Mirror

If the term "news" is defined, in part, as information that's new, then it is amazing that gun violence in America even generates headlines anymore.

That may sound caustic after yesterday's most recent shooting spree, but, then, gun violence now claims 87 American lives each day, and has killed or wounded almost a million Americans between 2001 and 2010. In historical terms, more people have died from gun violence in America since 1968 than have died in all U.S. wars combined.

The tragic mass murder at the Washington Navy Yard was just the latest spectacular - and spectacularly horrific - example of an all-too-mundane status quo. Indeed, in the context of overall gun homicide statistics, the only thing truly out of the ordinary in Washington yesterday was a U.S. Senate that refuses to pass the most minimal gun regulations suddenly citing gun violence in southeast D.C. as a rationale for an emergency siesta.

That macabre absurdity was topped only by the insanity from my home state of Colorado last week. Here, just days before the Navy Yard killings, the same state that hosted two of the most famous gun massacres in American history saw the gun lobby successfully depose two state senators who dared vote for embarrassingly modest gun regulations. Despite those recall elections being marred by voting chaos, the national press corps predictably swooped in to stage a public celebration of the NRA once the results were tallied from Pueblo and Colorado Springs. Following the tried and true formula of genuflecting to whatever interest group happens to seem most powerful at any given moment, reporters and pundits almost universally portrayed low-turnout elections decided by a few thousand votes as nothing less than a resounding national mandate to end the push for minimal gun control.

To the NRA's likely delight, this orgy of exaggeration and gun triumphalism didn't just frighten lawmakers all over the nation, it also drowned out the far more important piece of gun-related news in the last few days - the news of yet more indisputable evidence that the gun lobby's election-winning "more guns, less crime" shibboleth is a blatant lie.

"Yet more" is the operative phrase here. Though you wouldn't know it from the firearms discourse in American politics, and though you certainly wouldn't know it from the entertainment industry's steady stream of musclebound Gun Heroes, there has been plenty of definitive proof that in America, where there are more guns and fewer gun regulations, there is more gun violence. Take a moment and just behold the breadth of the data:

  • In 2000, University of Pennsylvania economist Mark Duggan published a study entitled "More Guns, More Crime" in which he proved that “changes in homicide and gun ownership are significantly positively related." As Forbes noted, the documented correlation between gun ownership and homicide "comes about because guns lead to more homicides" not because "an increase in homicides leads more people to buy guns." Forbes also pointed out that Duggan's study was one of many that thoroughly obliterated the propaganda of gun extremists' favorite pseudo academic, "More Guns, Less Crime" author John Lott. Duggan's results were subsequently corroborated by Harvard University researchers.

  • In 2009, the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine published a study showing that "individuals in possession of a gun were 4.46 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not in possession" and that "among gun assaults where the victim had at least some chance to resist, this adjusted odds ratio increased to 5.45 times."

  • In 2011, Harvard University researchers reported that "the evidence is overwhelming (that) a gun in the home is a risk factor for completed suicide (and) killing women in their homes." Meanwhile, the same report found "no credible evidence of a deterrent effect of firearms or that a gun in the home reduces the likelihood or severity of injury during an altercation or break-in."

  • In 2012, Mother Jones analyzed 30-years worth of mass shootings and discovered that "the rate of mass shootings has increased in recent years—at a time when America has been flooded with millions of additional firearms and a barrage of new laws has made it easier than ever to carry them in public places, including bars, parks, and schools." At the same time, the magazine reported that "in not a single case was the killing stopped by a civilian using a gun" while "in other recent but less lethal rampages in which armed civilians attempted to intervene, those civilians not only failed to stop the shooter but also were gravely wounded or killed."

  • In May of 2013, the Associated Press reported on a study from Boston Children's Hospital that proved "states with the most gun control laws have the fewest gun-related deaths." In total, AP noted that "states with the most laws had a 42 percent lower gun death rate than states with the least number of laws." Children's Hospital was likely interested in the topic since gun violence now kills twice as many American children as cancer kills.

That brings us to this week. While the national press corps was busy showering the NRA with reverential rhetoric about its political power in Colorado, relatively few noticed Boston University's landmark study documenting a “robust correlation” over 30 years between "estimated levels of gun ownership and actual gun homicides at the state level, even when controlling for factors typically associated with homicides." As an example of what a "robust correlation" means, look at the study's finding about Mississippi. In just that one state, if gun ownership were at the national average rather than higher than the average, the data trends suggest the state's homicide rate would be a whopping 17 percent lower. That means 80 fewer Mississippians losing their life every year.

Quite obviously, these fact run counter to the standard agitprop from anti-gun-control activists. They typically cite the murder rate in a place like Chicago as alleged proof that gun control doesn't work - somehow unquestioningly assuming that the murder rate in such places wouldn't be even higher without those gun laws. They then narcissistically depict themselves and Gun-Owning America as an army of SEAL-level citizen-soldiers possessing the same life-saving firearm expertise as Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Commando." In this cartoonish rendering, the more guns around, the safer everyone else is because, in the words of NRA president Wayne LaPierre: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

What's incredible is not that a million-dollar-a-year shill like LaPierre can utter such horseshit with a perfectly straight face. That's just a dollars-and-cents reflection of the going market rate for a professional lobbyist's soul. No, what's incredible here is that polls show most Americans still believe the same horseshit about guns making us safer - even though our nation is a near-perfect experiment proving the opposite.

This is not a particularly secret experiment, mind you. After all, even if you haven't been exposed to all the aforementioned studies and data, you probably have a basic sense of the macro numbers, and those macro numbers are stark. As the Washington Post documents, this country at once sports the world's "highest gun ownership per capita rate" and one of its highest gun violence rates. To paraphrase LaPierre, that suggests the primary thing that helps a bad guy with a gun is a country awash in guns - so awash, in fact, that the Post notes American now has twice as many guns per capita as Yemen, the violence-plagued war-torn nation that is the next highest on the gun-ownership list.

But, then, Colorado's election results - and Congress's almost certain refusal to even discuss gun control after the Navy Yard shooting - confirm the lamentable reality that in some parts of the country, gun facts only minimally shape political outcomes. With national polls showing consistent support for gun control, that hardly means the overall push for gun control is dead. But it does mean that no matter how much evidence accrues proving that gun regulations reduce gun death, no matter how much data shows that fewer total guns means fewer episodes of gun violence, and no matter how many body bags pile up, sensible firearm regulation remains politically unattainable in many locales. It also probably remains unattainable in a U.S. Senate where 11 percent of the population has enough representation to stop any piece of legislation.

Some of that depressing reality is the result of money from the gun lobby having made puppets out of too many legislators. Some of it is because potentially pro-gun-control legislators probably don't want to face the inevitable death threats that come with merely trying to prevent violent criminals and domestic abusers from legally possessing firearms. But let's be brutally honest - a lot of it also is because at the rank-and-file voting level, there are plenty of Tugg Speedmans and Homer Simpsons who are deeply committed to seeing Commando Schwarzenegger in the mirror.

Though it goes unmentioned, this is the true mythology at work. Yes, for all the manly men hollering about the Second Amendment while dressed up in tricorn hats or packing heat at presidential events, the hardcore opposition to background checks, magazine limits and other modest gun regulations has absolutely nothing to do with the constitution. We know this because even the most conservative Supreme Court justices acknowledge such regulations comply with the founding document. The constitutional rhetoric and references to the Founding Fathers from gun extremists, then, is just a cheap method of shrouding dumb-jock machismo in the veneer of snooty pretension. The calculation is that simply holding up an assault rifle and screaming an 18th century-ish word like "tyranny" or "liberty" both credentials one as a constitutional scholar and hides the very personal mythology that really fuels much of America's gun politics.

In that mythology, the gun owner dismisses all the data proving that guns make homes less safe and endanger people (including gun owners themselves) because he believes that while all the other idiots may shoot their eyes out, he is a Commando who won't make mistakes. Likewise, all the evidence proving that gun regulations actually succeed in reducing gun violence is viewed as unimportant to the individual because he views his Schwarzenegger-like acumen as the best form of protection for him - everyone else be damned. Meanwhile, before the viscera is even scrubbed off the asphalt, the same mythology instantly reimagines every mass murder as proof that if only someone with a gun had been at the scene of the crime, the day would have been saved.

Of course, during such paroxysms of firearm violence, it's a guarantee that at least one person with a gun definitely was at the scene of the crime: the villain. Sure, gun control won't stop all of those "bad guys" - nobody is arguing that it will. But the data clearly prove that those bad guys are empowered by the "more guns, less regulation" ideology. Constructively addressing that reality requires an America that is finally willing to look in the mirror and reject the alluring fantasy.