By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON — Guns do kill people. Our national New Year’s resolution must be to stop the madness.
It is shameful that gun control only becomes worthy of public debate following an unspeakable massacre such as Newtown — and even more shameful that these mass killings occur so often. What usually happens is that we spend a few weeks pretending to have a “conversation” about guns, then the horror begins to fade and we turn to other issues. Everything goes back to normal.
“Normal,” however, is tragically unacceptable. In 2010, guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans. Most of the deaths were suicides; a few were accidental. About a third of them — 11,078 — were homicides. That’s almost twice the number of Americans who have been killed in a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Britain, by comparison, the number of gun homicides in 2010 was 58. Here we’d consider that a rounding error.
What explains the difference? Well, I spent a few years as The Washington Post’s London bureau chief, and I can attest that Britain has the same social ills that we have — crime, unemployment, alienation, racial strife, mental illness. Britain also has a powerful, rural-based constituency determined to protect the right of hunters to spend weekends blasting away at shadows in the woods. Gun-loving Brits are no less passionate than gun-loving Americans.
But Britain recognizes the obvious distinction between guns legitimately used for sport — shotguns, hunting rifles, some target pistols — and those meant only to kill human beings. Most handguns are banned. All automatic and semi-automatic firearms, including the kind of assault weapons used at Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech and the other mass shootings in this country, are banned.
In Britain, individuals must have a “good reason” to obtain a license to own a firearm. Self-defense is generally not considered an adequate reason — nor should it be, since research suggests that guns actually make the owner more vulnerable.
In an often-cited paper published in 1993 by the New England Journal of Medicine, a research group headed by Arthur Kellermann examined homicide records in the Memphis, Seattle and Cleveland metropolitan areas and concluded that guns “actually pose a substantial threat to members of the household.”
“People who keep guns in their homes appear to be at greater risk of homicide in the home than people who do not,” Kellermann’s paper said. “Most of this risk is due to a substantially greater risk of homicide at the hands of a family member or intimate acquaintance. We did not find evidence of a protective effect of keeping a gun in the home, even in the small subgroup of cases that involved forced entry.”
The National Rifle Association has been trying to discredit Kellermann’s findings for 20 years, and surely won’t stop now. The NRA’s appeal to public opinion is based on cultivating a state of paranoia: You need a gun because bad people have guns and they’re coming to get you.
Hence the unbelievable response by NRA chief Wayne LaPierre to the Newtown killings. The solution isn’t to take assault weapons out of the hands of madmen, LaPierre argued, it’s to put armed guards in the schools so there can be a great big gunfight when the homicidal madmen show up. Never mind that armed officers at Columbine tried, and failed, to stop that massacre. Just be paranoid. Fight guns with more guns.
This must be the year when America says: No more.
The solution certainly is to take assault weapons out of the hands of madmen. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pledges to introduce legislation banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines as soon as the new Congress convenes. This should be just the beginning.
President Obama gave a moving tribute to the Newtown victims — who included 20 children, seven adults and the troubled assassin — then followed up by assigning Vice President Biden to come up with concrete proposals. That’s all well and good. But we’ve had our fill of elegies and blue-ribbon task forces and reports destined to gather dust. We don’t need talk, we need action — and we need it now.
Politicians, beginning with the president, must show the courage to stand up to the gun lobby. They must do it for the children of Newtown. They must do it for all the 11,000 men, women and children who otherwise will not live to see New Year’s Day of 2014.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.