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Celebrating a tool of death

Guns are guaranteed to kill people. Those who participate in Gun Appreciation Day should back common-sense safeguards and concede that the very real threat of gun hazards should be minimized.

David Lazarus

6:21 PM PST, January 17, 2013

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Saturday is Gun Appreciation Day, an occasion to feel good about a consumer product that is guaranteed to play a role in the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans this year.

That's not hyperbole. Roughly 30,000 people have been killed annually by guns in this country since 1979, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2010, the latest year for which statistics are available, the body count was 31,672.

That places guns in unique company as a legal, over-the-counter product that, in the hands of some users, will kill people. Not may kill people, like a defective baby stroller or vehicle. Will kill people.

Cigarettes, which play a role in more than 440,000 U.S. deaths annually, are another consumer product falling into that category. Alcohol, meanwhile, is linked to about 80,000 deaths in this country each year.

But today, let's focus on guns.

President Obama this week said he'll introduce legislation that includes a ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines and expanded background checks for gun purchases. He also signed 23 executive orders aimed at tightening existing gun-control laws.

The National Rifle Assn., not surprisingly, vowed to wage "the fight of the century" against any new gun regulations.

I spoke with Larry Hunter, one of the organizers of Gun Appreciation Day. He's a former vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and congressional staffer who now heads Revolution PAC, a conservative political action committee that aims to "defend liberty with a revolutionary spirit."

Hunter said the NRA doesn't go far enough in its defense of gun rights. He said that by focusing primarily on safeguarding the individual needs of hunters and other gun owners, the NRA misses the bigger picture.

"Gun Appreciation Day is a celebration of our liberty and our freedom," Hunter told me. "It's a galvanizing event for conservatives of all stripes who are concerned about the growth of the police state."

As he sees it, an armed populace is a necessary check on runaway government power. Without an armed citizenry to oppose it, Hunter said, the U.S. government would become increasingly tyrannical.

"Gun rights are a deterrent to that," he said. "This isn't about overthrowing the government. This is about preventing the government from overthrowing liberty."

OK, I'll get back to that in a moment. First, a word from the firearms industry.

Gun and ammo companies accounted for nearly $32 billion in economic activity last year, according to a recent report from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry group based in Newtown, Conn., where 20 little kids and six adults were shot to death last month.

The foundation emphasized that its members are, first and foremost, job creators.

"During difficult economic times and high unemployment rates nationally, our industry has grown and created over 26,325 new, well-paying jobs over the last two years," it said. "Our industry is proud to be one of the bright spots in this economy."

I can appreciate that. But left unsaid was the fact that as the gun business was hiring about 13,000 people a year, its product was being used to kill more than twice that number.

Guns were used in 11,078 U.S. homicides in 2010. They were used in 19,392 suicides.

And every year, about 600 fatalities are attributed to accidental gun deaths, such as the 3-year-old boy in Washington state who discovered his father's gun under a car seat last March and fatally shot himself in the head.

It's not my intent to delve into the politics of gun control. What fascinates me is the reluctance among some to acknowledge that guns are inherently dangerous, just as cigarettes and alcohol are.

We heavily regulate smokes and booze to minimize as much as possible their threat to society. Why shouldn't the same thinking apply to guns?

That doesn't mean anyone should or will be taking away people's handguns and rifles. We don't do that with cigarettes or liquor.

But just as the goal of much of our tobacco and alcohol regulation focuses on keeping these products out of the wrong hands and preventing them from being misused, regulation of firearms needs to focus on reducing gun violence.

That's the key issue here — or it would be if gun supporters would acknowledge as much.

"The problem is not gun violence," said Hunter. "The biggest problem is that we live in a culture that is suffused with violence."

Another problem, he said, is that people who end up being "lone gunmen" are frequently taking "psychiatric drugs."

"We're overdosing people on these drugs," Hunter said. "It adds to the violence."

I'm no expert in sociology or psychiatry, but I do know that when a product is linked to multiple deaths and injuries, the solution typically involves how such products are sold, and how they're used by consumers.

I mean no disrespect to Hunter or other gun enthusiasts, and I think it's great that they take freedom and liberty so seriously, even if their concern may border on paranoia. But guns, like cigarettes and alcohol, have a track record of causing harm to their users and others.

The Obama administration, in a not-very-tyrannical fashion, is proposing modest steps intended to provide more transparency to firearm sales and limit access to specific weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people.

If we were talking about an unsafe power tool or baby crib, officials would stand firm on their responsibility to protect the American people. When it comes to guns, there's a belief among some that this product is sacrosanct and that no amount of regulation is tolerable.

Hunter told me that any such moves would lead inevitably to complete prohibition, just as they once did with alcohol.

He needs to look around and realize that liquor is legal and available; cigarettes are legal and available. But they're regulated to improve the public welfare. No one would argue that, absent such regulation, the country would be better off.

It's the same with guns.

Surely we can all appreciate that.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. he also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.