Slaughterhouse of Civilization
We Americans tend to think of gun violence in terms of some traumatic event: Columbine or Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert Kennedy, rather than as a daily fact of American life. All of us know that every assassination of an American president was committed with a gun. All of us who were alive remember the terrible day when John F. Kennedy was murdered. But too few of us know that, since that day, more Americans have died from gunshot wounds here at home than died in all the wars of the 20th century, the bloodiest 100 years in world history.
And as horrific as was the carnage at the World Trade Center, it would take Osama bin Laden nine more such attacks to equal what we Americans do to ourselves every year with guns.
By trade, I’m a fiction writer, a creator of the imaginary. But in my latest novel, I chose fiction to expose a real-life American tragedy: the state of law and politics that has allowed the gun lobby to turn our country into the slaughterhouse of the civilized world. That’s not a rhetorical flourish I’ve invented to sell books; it’s a truth we’ve tolerated for far too long.
The facts regarding guns and children are particularly appalling. Our passing shock at Columbine merely obscured an epidemic: 12 kids a day die in murders, suicides and accidents involving guns.
Only in the United States do surgeons prepare for combat duty by training at urban hospitals. But then, only in the United States do we protect the right to make and own bullets designed solely to tear apart the internal organs of their victims.
The problem is not that Americans value children less than unfettered access to every conceivable weapon by virtually any adult. Fully 80% of us favor common-sense measures to make our country safer for our families and our children.
Nor is the Bill of Rights a bar: The notion that James Madison wrote the 2nd Amendment -- with its reference to a “well-regulated militia” -- so that racists, sociopaths and madmen could access weapons undreamt of 200 years ago is, as the late chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Warren Burger, observed, “a fraud on the American public.”
Rather, the problem is a well-funded gun lobby backed by a single-minded minority which has, through misinformation, stealth and political contributions, frustrated even minimal efforts to stem the tide of violence.
Let me be clear: I believe that every law-abiding adult has the right to own a gun for any lawful purpose, whether for sporting use or self-protection. No one I know wants to confiscate guns. The gun safety movement has two simple goals: First, to prevent murder and injuries by keeping violent criminals, spousal abusers, drug abusers and the mentally ill from buying weapons. Second, to prevent accidents and suicides by making guns safer.
That is simply common sense. And it is shared by millions of responsible gun owners across the nation. They are not to blame for the carnage. The problem is an extremist gun lobby that perpetuates its power by trumpeting a paranoid fantasy that a liberal elite is out to rip the weapons away from every gun owner in the United States.
In this debate, it is the National Rifle Assn. that is the true purveyor of fiction. In its paranoid world, any measure to make you safer is the first step on the slippery slope to taking away its members’ rights: It supports the sale of assault weapons and “cop-killer” bullets. It opposes closing loopholes that allow criminals, wife-beaters, terrorists, drug addicts and the insane to acquire firearms. It has blocked the Consumer Safety Product Commission from regulating guns to make them safer, so the commission now can regulate only toy guns, not the real ones. It has opposed measures specifically designed to protect kids, including requiring safety locks or putting indicators on guns to signal that they’re still loaded.
The NRA has claimed that all we need to do is enforce existing laws. But then it has riddled those laws with loopholes and gutted the agency charged with enforcing them, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
And it has fought to keep Americans from knowing the facts by barring the Centers for Disease Control from investigating the costs and causes of gun violence. Now it is very close to winning Senate passage of legislation that would ban the victims of the D.C. snipers from seeking civil recovery via lawsuits against the rifle manufacturer, whose weapons are so well suited to sniping, and the dealer who somehow allowed the alleged shooters -- a spousal abuser and a juvenile -- to acquire a deadly weapon they never should have had.
In return for all of this, the NRA has nothing to offer us but more tragedy and death. The supposed “solution” favored by the NRA -- heavier sentences for those committing crimes with guns -- will do little to save lives. Punishment is not the same as prevention; however we feel about capital punishment, it does not resurrect the victim.
In fiction and in life, the true essence of a tragedy is that it is preventable. This one is.
I believe that, someday, those who own guns and those who don’t will unite to create a new reality: a country in which our grandchildren will hear of the deaths we suffer today with the disbelief and wonder we now preserve for fantasy.
Richard North Patterson’s latest novel is “Balance of Power” (Ballantine, 2003). He is on the board of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.