Capitol Journal

Lax gun policies are hitting America where it hurts

SACRAMENTO — It may be a while before we know everything about the San Bernardino butchery, but the central detail was clear from the start: The culprits were guns.

Not Muslims. Even so-called radical Islamic terrorists cannot kill 14 and wound 21 with knives or ball bats.

Bombs, maybe. But those two holiday party killers preferred guns because, in America, guns are so easy to obtain and use.

Not mental illness. Anyone who murders is a sicko. But it's insulting and intellectually dishonest to equate all killing with the severely mentally ill.

"Contrary to popular belief, mental illness by itself is not a leading contributor to interpersonal firearm violence," Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, a longtime UC Davis gun violence researcher, wrote in a recent report.

"Severe mental illness is a risk factor, but the risk is small," Wintemute told me. "Age and sex — young men — are much higher risk factors."

Yes, the mentally ill need treatment. Governments have been derelict. And the most gravely ill should be kept from firearms because these people, Wintemute says, are a huge risk for suicide.

But murderers? The mentally ill always have been convenient culprits, if you listened to the weapon worshipers. There has been no indication, however, that the two San Bernardino assassins — Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 29 — were clinical cases.

True, they were Muslims. But there is roughly one mass shooting — four or more victims — each day in America. And here's betting that few of the assailants are Muslim and most were raised Christian. The common denominator is that they were all blazing away with guns, the preferred killing tool.

America has only 4.5% of the world's population but 41.5% of its civilian-owned firearms. We have by far the highest gun ownership rate on Earth. What results is no surprise: No other developed nation comes close in firearms fatalities.

Blame it on all of us. Long ago, we decided to let potential killers arm themselves with practically any weapon they choose.

You know, all those law-abiding people — like that quiet Redlands couple — who are law-abiding until they're not.

"I've thought a lot about it and have come down to this," says Wintemute, an emergency room physician who has treated countless gunshot wounds. "We know there's a predisposition to use high-capacity weapons in mass shootings. But we, as a country, have made a series of policy decisions to make those weapons available to the widest number of people.

"We are now reaping the harvest of those decisions. These weapons are being used in precisely the way they're designed."

We're told the assault rifles fired at the office party were purchased legally. That's the problem. They should have been illegal.

California, Chicago and Washington, D.C., can pass tough gun laws. But they'll always be the victims of lax bordering states where bad guys can go load up.

So blame us because we haven't pressured Congress to pass strong nationwide laws — such as banning large-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring universal background checks.

National Rifle Assn. scare propaganda to the contrary, no one is advocating the confiscation of all weapons. But that's where we're headed eventually unless the gunners wake up and compromise on some realistic solutions to the daily slaughter.

Solutions such as requiring smart guns — firearms that can be used only by their rightful owners, not by thieves or crooks buying weapons in the underground.

Also, solutions like requiring background checks for ammo purchases. And limiting the buys. Farook and Malik fired up to 75 rounds during their killfest and 76 while exchanging fire with police. Cops found 4,500 rounds at their home and 1,600 in their car.

Nobody needs that many bullets unless they're arming for mass mayhem.

Another solution: A well-funded government buyout program that offers financial incentives for people to dump guns they really don't care about but are sitting ducks for thieves or accidents.

If it makes you comfy, keep a gun for self protection. But caution: A firearm at home is 22 times more likely to be used in a domestic homicide, suicide or accidental shooting than in self-defense, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Blame some Democrats, too — moderates cowed by the powerful gun lobby.

Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed major gun bills. One would have banned the sale of firearms capable of holding detachable, high-capacity magazines. Another would have led to registration of ammunition sales.

Some liberals don't have clean hands. Last year, they pushed a ballot measure that, among other things, reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor the penalty for stealing most handguns. Voters passed it.

They'll get an opportunity to correct that mistake next November. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is sponsoring an initiative to return all gun thefts to a felony while significantly tightening California's firearms laws.

Newsom's proposal would ban possession — not just sales — of magazines holding more than 10 rounds. It also would require instant background checks — the first in the nation — for every ammo purchase.

"We're at a tipping point in this country," Newsom says. "What do we value? We value our safety and our liberty. How do we balance both? Change has to start from the bottom up, with the public, not from the top down. I have zero optimism about Congress."

Gun violence can't be stopped. But it can be reduced if we're smarter about our asinine arsenal.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 07, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Gun policies hit us where it hurts - Making high-powered weapons widely available puts everyone at risk - CAPITOL JOURNAL" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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