Sunday, December 15, 2013
A Gun In The Snow
A colleague of mine was out for a walk today. It is a brisk winter day in Minnesota. There is about 6 - 8 inches of snow cover. He was walking across the street and found this handgun laying there.
He took a picture of the gun and called the police to pick it up. They were there in 20 minutes.
My views on violence and gun violence are fairly well known. My recent position has been that arguing with gun advocates and the pro-gun lobby in Congress is futile. But when I saw this posted on Facebook with the accompanying story I couldn't help but think: "Guns are so common they are falling on the ground like wallets." Only a fool believes that this level of gun availability does not result in death and injury of all kinds including accidents, suicides, and homicides. Only a fool believes that with this level of gun availability it is possible to prevent guns from ending up in the hands of people who are not competent to use them. I live in a state that passed a concealed carry law that is basically the right to carry a concealed firearm. It passed a few years ago by tacking it on to unrelated legislation. The gun and holster look like a common one that is sold to those who complete a brief concealed carry course. The main argument of the concealed carry contingent was that they were supermen of sorts. There was literally nothing that would compromise their judgment if they were carrying a handgun. Since then there have been a number of incidents involving concealed carry owners showing that in fact problems happen. In the most notable incident a concealed carry owner opened fire on an undercover police officer. I think it is safe to assume that there are probably at least as many lapses of judgment involving concealed weapons as there are driving automobiles. The main difference is that people spend more time driving. The reporting of these incidents is not transparent and that is typical of much gun legislation.
On a worldwide basis, small arms fire is a leading cause of death and disability. I had the opportunity to see how some of that was transacted when I lived in Africa for two years. In travelling as little as 100 miles there were frequent roadblocks at times. The intent of the roadblocks was not clear but each roadblock was manned by police or paramilitary personnel and everybody was heavily armed. The American friend that I most frequently traveled with told me about a time he got out of his car to ask if there was a problem. One of the police officers pushed the barrel of a machine gun into his chest and prodded him back to his car. He previously served in a country where a fellow volunteer accidentally drove through a police checkpoint because there was nobody around. It appeared to be abandoned. He made it a short distance before he was shot through the head by soldiers out of sight up on a hill.
In the US, besides the obvious problems with the legal availability of firearms there is also the issue of the black market and stolen firearms. Since 1994 an average of 232,000 firearms are stolen every year and 80% of those are not recovered. Stolen guns account for 10-15% of the guns used in crimes. The majority of guns used in crimes are purchased by proxy or so-called straw purchase sales including other tactics like diversion of guns to criminals by licensed gun dealers. There are several common sense changes that can occur in firearm policy that might make a difference in the sheer number of firearms in the general population and their availability to criminals.
This week marked another school shooting. It marked the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. In practically every school shooting easy access to firearms is a major part of the problem. There are clear models for what happens to firearm deaths when some restrictions are placed on their access. Fareed Zakaria has a new feature Global Lessons on Guns on his Sunday news program GPS. Last Sunday he reviewed gun policies in Japan. Getting a license to have a firearm in Japan is very difficult. The authorities need advance information on where it will be stored and they need a detailed floor plan of the residence where it will be stored. In a country of 130 million people there were a total of 4 firearm homicides last year. By contrast, in the United States with a current census of 317 million people, there were 31,672 firearm related deaths (see Table 1-1 and 1-2). The example from Japan is also interesting because it looks at the issue of violent video games. They are played at a higher rate in Japan than the U.S. and it obviously had no impact in the context of extremely limited gun availability.
Even though I think there are better approaches for psychiatry to focus on than strictly gun policy and confrontations with a pro-gun lobby we need a basic level of awareness that current gun laws in the US are probably not what the Framers of the Constitution intended. I think they would be as shocked as anyone if they found a gun in the street. They would be equally shocked to find out that 7 times as many Americans die every year as a result of firearms than died in the Revolutionary War. (see Table 1)
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA