I was talking to a doctor the other day. Somehow we got onto the intake forms you fill out when you have an appointment. It includes questions about your health history, smoking and drinking — but also whether or not there are guns in your house. Why does the doctor care about guns and whether I own a gun? As it turns out, gun ownership can be a health hazard.
The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages physicians to inquire about firearms. These doctors support the storage of unloaded firearms with trigger locks and in locked cabinets. Why? Because a gun at home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill a family member or friend than a criminal. With more than 20,000 child deaths attributed to firearms since 2000, it’s easy to understand why physicians have begun to ask this question.
But intake forms asking about the presence of guns in a household should take a backseat to bigger concerns about access to firearms — particularly given the recent rash of gun violence in the Puget Sound. The guns used to murder five people in Seattle at the end of May were legally purchased guns. The gun a 9-year old boy brought to his school in Bremerton that went off and critically injured a little girl — the owner of that gun claimed he didn’t know the gun was missing, and therefore he wasn’t responsible. The Bushmaster rifle that the DC sniper used to kill 10 people was purchased in Tacoma at the Bull’s Eye gun shop.
So what happens when one right — the right to keep and bear arms — violates another right, namely the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? You can’t pursue happiness if you are dead or injured. Just as there are sensible limits on the First Amendment free speech — you can’t shout “bomb” on an airplane — there need to be sensible limits on the Second Amendment that protect citizens’ right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In our state, guns are available for just about anyone. How about a man arrested for domestic violence? Yes. How about someone with a history of mental illness? Yes.
We allow the purchase of military-style assault rifles, have not closed the gun-show loophole, and allow the open carry of firearms. Can you carry a weapon near a bar? Yes. Can you carry a weapon in a park? Yes, all of them. Can you carry with a round in the chamber? Yes, as long as you are 21 years old.
How about buying a gun? No background check is required to purchase a gun at a gun show. There are 14 shows scheduled this summer in Washington state. So felons and the mentally ill will have plenty of opportunities to purchase a gun.
One way to stop criminals from purchasing guns is to hold the vendors at gun shows liable for the criminal use of such firearms. That would put a dent in gun shows and move gun sales to gun shops where purchasers are required to undergo a background check. In 2010, a couple of state representatives introduced this legislation to do just that. What happened? Nothing. No hearings, no committee actions, no vote. The Legislature was too scared to act.
What the Legislature has done is to prevent cities like Everett from enacting their own regulations to protect people from guns. So Everett can’t ban guns in its parks. It can’t prevent 18-year-olds from purchasing guns. It can’t ban the sale of assault weapons.
Those in the Legislature may be intimidated by the gun lobby and the NRA, not just for their own re-election, but for their own well-being. Tom Wales, a federal prosecutor who was the president of Ceasefire, a gun control advocacy group, was shot dead in his own home on October 1, 2001. The perpetrator has never been caught. Good reason to hold your head down as a legislator. There are crazy people out there — and we allow them to get guns. If the deranged man who went on a killing spree in Seattle last month had only his fists, five people would still be alive today.
How should we respond? One group called for three minutes of contemplation, prayer, or meditation… As if that will do anything. There is a more effective way of preventing these senseless acts of violence: Get the Legislature to pass some sensible gun laws, instead of playing hide and seek with the NRA.
John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.