Joseph E. Duerr
What is this American fascination — even an obsession — with possessing guns?
It’s an important question because it goes to the heart of the current debate on placing restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms by the federal government and some states.
The current effort has been driven by the recent killing of 26 children and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But the issue is much larger than this tragic event or other mass killings we have experienced. The total number of deaths caused by guns in this country continues to increase, reaching an estimated 32,000 or so deaths in 2011. Data compiled by Bloomberg News estimated that by 2015 shooting deaths will probably exceed automobile-related deaths in the United States.
It is estimated that about 85 Americans die by guns each day. And the number of firearms continues to rise. One survey said there are 1.8 firearms per household in the United States, and estimates are that the number of guns owned by civilians is about 300 million.
Are all of these guns needed? What is this fascination with them? Obviously there are many reasons.
A retired police officer who attended a gun show this year in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., was quoted in a New York Times story as saying, “I want to see a free America, and if we lose this, it’s over.” Another man said he inherited his interest in guns from his grandfather. He said: “It’s more than a gun. It’s a piece of national identity. And I like going to the end of a (firing) range and trying to shoot something the size of a quarter.”
Our frontier heritage of the Old West and the spirit of independence and self reliance are perhaps part of the explanation why firearms are considered such an integral part of our national heritage. It’s as though there is a cult of guns in this country that rises to object to attempts to place any restriction on the sale and possession of firearms.
And there are other reasons. Some people own guns for hunting, sport and collecting, and some for what they consider personal protection. Many see no connection between having guns and these firearms being used in acts of violence against another person.
Whatever the reasons for this obsession with guns, what we need to get past is that the legitimate possession of guns has nothing to do with reasonable restrictions on firearms that are needed in a civilized society for public safety and the common good. What’s so wrong, unreasonable or un-American with regulations such as requiring universal background checks and permits for owning a gun? What is so wrong or unreasonable about having limitations on the sale of high-powered semi-automatic and military-style weapons that have the potential for causing enormous harm?
We need to get past the belief that our personal freedoms reign supreme and recognize that these freedoms need to be balanced by the requirements of public safety and the common good of society. There is no public outcry that our freedom to drive an automobile is balanced by the requirement to pass a driver’s test to get a license, to renew that license every few years and even to have auto insurance.
Why should the freedom to possess a firearm be considered so sacrosanct and so different when compared to the exercise of other personal freedoms? As Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., wrote in a Jan. 3 column in the Rhode Island Catholic newspaper: “The right to own a gun is not an absolute right. As a personal right, it always has to be balanced with the legitimate rights of other people and with protecting the common good. That’s a principle that applies to all individual freedoms.”
Bishop Tobin added, “As a society, we need always to achieve a proper balance between individual freedom and the common good.” Regarding control of guns, he said, “it’s an issue where a little bit of common sense would go a long way in restoring a proper balance between individual rights and the common good of society.”
The American fascination with guns is perhaps the reason why the gun control has become such an emotional issue. But emotion is no way for a society to operate, especially in dealing with a question involving human life and in which firearms are a leading cause of non-medical deaths.
It is time to address the reality that reasonable limits on the sale and possession of guns and on magazines with multiple-capacity rounds are necessary. Such reasonable restrictions are a common-sense response to balancing a freedom to own firearms with the welfare and common good of society.
(Joseph E. Duerr is retired editor of The Record.)