Friday, December 14, 2012, may go down as a turning point in American history. It’s too soon to tell, of course, but the terrible massacre of 27 people–twenty of them young children–at Sandy Hook Elementary School (one victim, the shooter’s mother, was killed in her home) seemed to wrench American hearts like no other moment since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. The brutality of the shootings and the drama of the moment have been retold continuously in the days since the events, and President Obama’s tearful reaction and then powerful speech seemed to draw a line in the sand–something even past massacres have failed to do, whether at Virginia Tech University, the movie theatre at Aurora, Colorado, or any other of the 61 U.S. shootings over the past thirty years in which at least four people have died, whether in homes, schools, malls, restaurants, or other public spaces. A timeline of violent gun deaths only confirms that these events have become a regular feature of modern American life.
Naturally, the debate has quickly turned to the topic of gun control and the extraordinarily high number of guns owned by Americans. Defenders have argued that the Second Amendment right to bear firearms is an important guarantor of American liberty and security and that restrictions on legal ownership make no difference, while detractors have argued that the interpretation of the Second Amendment has become dangerously individualistic, that the right to bear arms is antiquated and out of step with the needs of modern society, and that the potency of assault-style guns makes them dangerous in a way that the public cannot manage.
In the summer of 2012, Adweek posted this image from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, circa 1981. It illustrates graphically how disproportionate the rates of gun death are in the United States as compared to other leading industrial nations. Little has changed in the years since then. The Brady Campaign has been working to control hand guns since 1974 and has amassed a great deal of research to support their case. For example, a 2010 article in the Journal of Trauma points out that, “US homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in the other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher. For 15-year olds to 24-year olds, firearm homicide rates in the United States were 42.7 times higher than in the other countries. For US males, firearm homicide rates were 22.0 times higher, and for US females, firearm homicide rates were 11.4 times higher. The US firearm suicide rates were 5.8 times higher than in the other countries, though overall suicide rates were 30% lower. The US unintentional firearm deaths were 5.2 times higher than in the other countries. Among these 23 countries, 80% of all firearm deaths occurred in the United States, 86% of women killed by firearms were US women, and 87% of all children aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms were US children.”
These statistics are important for two reasons. First, the argument that crimes like the Newtown massacre aren’t really related to the proliferation of guns (and the potency of those guns) just doesn’t hold water. Both hand guns the killer used fired up to five bullets per second–in this case, hollow point bullets designed to open up upon impact and inflict maximum tissue damage. These are military grade firearms which have no business in civilian hands. Their presence in society facilitates these kinds of killing sprees that rarely occur in societies where assault weapons remain illegal. While early indications suggest American public opinion about guns may finally be changing in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, only time will tell whether the sorrow, pain, and outrage over this tragedy will lead to concrete action to ban on assault weapons or place other restrictions on gun ownership.
Second, the statistics on gun deaths speak directly against the “moral decline” argument emerging in the wake of the Newtown massacre. One popular version of this explanation comes from former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, whose Fox News video is currently making the rounds on Facebook. (Non-Facebook users can see a slightly shorter version here.) Huckabee argues that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings have no rational explanation–they are simply a manifestation of evil. And when we wonder where God was during such an evil moment, we need to remember that we have systematically ushered God out of our schools, public spaces, and culture over the past fifty years or so. No new laws are necessary to prevent such crimes, Huckabee claims, if we would but teach and observe the law we have had for quite some time–the divine commandment against murder (along with the rest of the Ten Commandments). It’s an attractive explanation, particularly for Christians who feel increasingly marginalized in American culture. But while I would affirm Huckabee’s contention that Western countries have become more secular since the Second World War and agree that our societies are worse off because of a decline in Christian moral standards, I’m not convinced that this explains the Newtown massacre. If America was more moral 30 or 40 years ago, why are violent gun crime rates about the same? (In fact, gun killings might have peaked in the early 1990s.) Again, are America’s higher murder rates really just a reflection of secularization? Would we really argue that the U. S. is less Christian than Canada or Europe or Japan or Australia, where murder rates–and especially gun-related murder rates–are so significantly lower? It just doesn’t add up.
So as the conversation around the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School moves from sorrow and grieving over the terrible loss of life to the proper legal and political responses, the evidence demands that gun control be the number one topic of discussion and the primary arena for action. Only time will tell whether this moment will become the historic turning point concerning gun violence in American society, or whether it will remain merely another in the long list of senseless slaughters over which we helplessly wring our hands.