News that an armed fugitive who shot and killed four police officers near Seattle on Sunday was still at large prompted fear, anger, sorrow and something else: The desire to grab a gun. “I can tell you that most people have probably got their weapons loaded right now,” a retired computer worker from Parkland, Wash., told The Times. “I think people should carry their guns and be ready,” a local taxi driver told National Public Radio.
It’s a typical American response to an all-too-typical American incident of gun violence. It is also a striking example of the disconnect between our desire to feel safe and our insistence on loose gun laws that make us less so. The murdered officers were armed, well trained in the use of their weapons and wearing bulletproof vests. It didn’t save them.
Americans seem hard-wired to love guns; our frontier history and our bloody split from the British crown have made gun ownership both a cultural imperative and a constitutionally enshrined right. That’s not going to change any time soon, and polls show that’s OK with increasing numbers of Americans. But we pay a steep price for our fascination with firepower.
Had Sunday’s victims been, say, Mounties, it wouldn’t necessarily have sent Canadians scrambling for the gun racks. But then, such killings are far less common in Canada. According to the FBI, the U.S. homicide rate in 2008 was 5.4 for every 100,000 people; 67% of those killings were committed with guns. In Canada, the homicide rate was 1.8 per 100,000, with 33% of the killings committed with guns. Notice a pattern? Canada has stricter guns laws than the United States, requiring owners to pass a safety course and get a license before buying a gun, rather like drivers must do here. The need for a driver’s license seems obvious to most Americans -- after all, a car with an untrained driver behind the wheel can be deadly.
Time will tell how the suspected shooter in Parkland got his weapon. If he stole it or acquired it from an accomplice, there are few gun laws that could have prevented the tragedy short of a blanket ban on handguns, and the Supreme Court last year ruled that Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban was unconstitutional. Yet regardless of the circumstances in Parkland, it is simple for criminals and the mentally unstable to acquire guns in this country. In most states (though not, thankfully, California) they need only go to a gun show and buy from a reseller, because dealers in second-hand firearms usually aren’t required to perform a federal background check.
That “gun-show loophole” should have been closed years ago because it would protect the public while doing nothing to restrict law-abiding citizens’ right to bear arms, but the gun lobby has successfully resisted every attempt at reform. Americans could stand to be less gun-crazy and more willing to stop crazy people from getting guns.