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OPED – Gun Control: Better Late Than Never

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 6 2013 (IPS) - Millions across the country, still reeling from the worst mass shooting in the country’s history that killed 20 school children, just 6 years old, and six teachers, are hoping that 2013 may turn up to be a landmark year that Washington lawmakers pass meaningful legislation to curb the culture of gun violence in America.

US President Barack Obama avoided the issue of gun control during his first term but now calls for “meaningful action” saying that “As a country, we have been through this too many times”. He established a gun vio­lence task force, led by US Vice President Joe Biden that is to provide recommendations for legislation in January.

Senator Dianne Feinstein promised to introduce in January a de facto renewal of the assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004. She said her bill would, among others, stop the sale of more than 100 assault weapons, ban high-capacity clips and close the “gun show loophole,” which allows people to buy weapons without background checks. Last week, on the first day of the 113th Congress, several lawmakers introduced ten bills to expand gun regulations.

There is gun violence all over the world but far less than in the United States and many countries have tightened their gun ownership laws in the wake of mass shootings.

England banned handguns after the 1987 Hungerford massacre that killed 16 people and wounded 14 others, and the 1996 Dunblane shooting that killed 16 school children and wounded 13 others. Australia passed stricter gun laws in 1996, after 35 people were killed and 21 wounded in Port Arthur, Tasmania.

Finland imposed restrictions on handgun ownership, in 2008, after 11 were killed in a college shooting. Last year, in Norway, a nation with a tight gun-control and licensing regime, a deranged man methodically gunned down 69 teenagers.

In the United States, there have been more than 30 mass shootings since the 1999 Columbine school massacre that killed 12 students and a teacher. Most notable are the 2007 slaughter of 32 people at Virginia Tech; assassina­tion attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that critically injured her and killed six others; and the Aurora movie theater shooting in July that killed 12 and injured 58.

Such massacres make headlines while thousands of other shootings go unnoticed.  According to Washington Post, there have been 13 such attacks in 2012 which have failed to provoke change. New York Mayor Bloomberg said that “Gun violence is a national epidemic, a national tragedy” and he described it is a problem unique to the US.

Every year, about 100,000 Americans are gun violence victims, according to Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In 2010, 73,505 Americans were treated in hospitals for gunshot wounds, and guns took the lives of 31,076 Americans in homicides, suicides and unintentional shootings. This is the equivalent of more than 85 deaths each day and more than three deaths each hour.

The Second Amendment, ratified in 1791, states “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Americans invoke this right to bear arms conveniently forgetting the fact it was written 220 years ago when a well regulated militia was indeed necessary to secure the borders, and it was passed at a time of single shot rifles and not automatic guns.

I think the constitutional right is abused. Last week, a Connecticut man was charged for having a cache of 161 weapons and crates of ammunition. People do not need semiautomatic guns — that kill many people in a matter of seconds — to secure their homes, for sport or to hunt. Outlawing automatic killing weapons would not infringe the constitutional right.

Past U.S. firearm legislation such as National Firearms Act of 1934 and Gun Control Act of 1968 never deterred gun violence. A case in point is Chicago, which has the toughest gun laws in the country yet, in 2012, had more than 440 school-age children shot and 60 killed. Since the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, over a million Americans have been killed with guns.

In 1994, following the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, Congress passed a federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and was never renewed. The Bill required background checks of anyone seeking to buy a firearm from a licensed dealer but people could easily circumvent the laws and buy guns from private sales and gun shows.

The debate is now raging as to why mass shootings keep occurring and whether gun control legislation alone could prevent these tragedies. While some call for tighter gun restrictions, others want to examine what motivates the culture of gun violence in America. Many question whether it is a result of violent movies and video games that idolize killings, or music and lyrics that glorify guns, rape and murder.

Most gunmen in mass shootings have claimed mental illness as a reason for their heinous crimes. Every unstable mind is not a danger to society but the States must ensure that the mentally ill have affordable access to treatment, and that they do not reach this destructive point in life.

Gun owners should prevent children and mentally unstable from having access to guns. Laws should be passed to limit gun ownership, and penalize gun owners who handle their weapons irresponsibly.

Opponents of gun control are 4 million members strong National Rifle Association (NRA), Gun Owners of America with 300,000 members, politicians of all parties who take campaign money from the NRA, gun owners, and gun manufacturers which is big business in America.

Recently, NRA proposed to have armed guards in every school. This means more guns in the hands of people and more business to the gun industry. Mayor Bloomberg called it “a shameful evasion” of the gun crisis, and said that “they offered a paranoid, dystopian vision of a more dangerous and violent America where everyone is armed and no place is safe.”

Let’s not forget that we experience mass shootings in shopping malls, movie theaters, schools, colleges, places of worship, etc. It is not only costly to install metal detectors at the entrances of all public buildings with gun toting security guards but also would resemble mini fortresses all over the country. Make no mistake, a distorted mind will always find ways to cause mayhem.

According to published reports, some 270 million guns exist amid a U.S. population of 311 mil­lion.  Even  an absolute ban of gun ownership will not prevent mass killings – at least, not for many years – because these millions of guns can easily end up in the hands of convicted criminals or the mentally sick who are hell bent on wreaking mindless carnage.

Americans need to have a sense of what a civilized society is or ought to be. It is time for a serious, non-partisan national conversation that leads to meaningful ac­tion. Let us hope that lawmakers take courage to prevent more tragedies that truly break our hearts.

(*The writer is the former Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations, New York)

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