Trading Guns for Lives in America

Is there anyone among the families and friends of  the 59 people murdered and the 520 people wounded in Las Vegas who would not gladly have traded the constitutionally protected right of their killer to buy an unlimited amount of firearms and ammunition for the lives and safety of their loved ones?

In the American political system it seems that it is always more important to protect the right of virtually anyone to buy and carry arms than to protect the lives of the many thousands of citizens (13,286 in 2015) who are killed each year by these same arms. 10,000 children are killed or wounded by guns each year in this country.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment to the Constitution gives us the individual right to own guns for self defense. So, until the Court’s composition changes, it is unlikely that the tide of gun violence will diminish. The Republican Party has also been vociferous in opposing fairly sensible restrictions on the types of guns sold – such as outlawing the sale of military style assault rifles –and in promoting laws that allow people to carry guns openly in public, even in schools.

The President and Congress seem only able to offer us their thoughts and prayers each time there is yet another episode of mass murder, and they write each such event off as being an “act of pure evil” or the product of a disturbed mind.

Is there anything we can do as citizens when the courts, the Presidency and Congress refuse to change the status quo? I think there is.

First, as an individual, do not own or buy guns. If you have one, destroy it. Do not sell or give it away. Take it out of circulation. We lead by our personal example.

Second, do not visit, or allow your children to visit, homes where there are firearms – even if they are in gun safes. It may be awkward at first to ask if guns are present in someone’s house but it is no different than asking if there are peanuts when one of your kids is deathly allergic to them or turning down the offer of a car ride when you know the driver has been drinking.  By showing disapproval of owning guns in this small way, we each begin to take a moral stand, just as we do when we tell guests that we do not allow smoking in our homes or when a vegetarian politely declines to eat meat.

Third, have conversations with your friends who have guns. Most gun owners say they buy guns for self defense and, of course, would never use them to harm others or themselves. Yet, when we allow everyone to buy guns, we end up with millions of them in the hands of people who will one day kill or hurt others or themselves.

Why should your freedom to defend yourself be limited because of the actions of these disturbed or irresponsible others? Well, for a start, you may be one of the people who become their victims, like hundreds of people did in Las Vegas this week. Stephen Paddock, the shooter, was one day just a middle class accountant taking advantage of his right to buy 42 weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. On another day he killed 59 people who were listening to country music.

But more importantly, in a well ordered society we all often give up individual freedoms in order to secure a greater community benefit. In many cities we can’t burn coal or wood fires in order to preserve clean air for everyone. We pay to have our trash hauled away to keep our streets clean and healthy. We comply with building codes to maintain a city’s beauty or to ensure safe building standards. We wear seat belts to save lives, our own and others’. And, in most countries, we limit the possession of guns to keep them out of the hands of criminals and to protect everyone from intended or unintended violence.

There is a moral choice here. When everyone exercises their legal right to buy guns, we end up with the situation we now have in the United States with thousands of deaths every year. When we have laws such as those in Australia or the United Kingdom that restrict the possession of guns, and when everyone sees that their personal safety is ensured by such laws, we create a more lawful and a less violent society. The moral choice is: Am I willing to give up a personal, legal freedom now in order to bring about a change in the society in which I live? If I do not commit to living without a gun, who else will?

If we wait for our leaders to change the laws, we might wait forever. But we can start changing our individual behavior and choices today. Sometimes our leaders have to be led.


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