America: Armed and Dangerous

In this Jan. 4, 2013, photo, handguns are displayed in the sales area of Sandy Springs Gun Club and Range, in Sandy Springs,
In this Jan. 4, 2013, photo, handguns are displayed in the sales area of Sandy Springs Gun Club and Range, in Sandy Springs, Ga. In Connecticut and Colorado, scenes of the most deadly U.S. mass shootings in 2012, people were less enthusiastic about buying new guns at the end of the year than in most other states, according to an Associated Press analysis of new FBI data. The biggest surges in background checks for people who want to carry or buy guns occurred in states in the South and West. (AP Photo/Robert Ray)

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Those 27 words may have stirred more anger and accusation -- let alone paranoid fantasies and institutional lunacy -- than any other language in the U.S. Constitution. The sense and sensibility of most sections of our founding document have been resolved, if not by time and more enlightened generations, then by the courts. But the heat over the original intent of the 2nd Amendment and its relevance to life in 21st century America has not cooled. Public debate over guns, gun ownership and gun control, when it occurs, rarely approaches rational.

Some of the fury stems from the tragic fact that these discussions are usually triggered, as it were, by some horrific event in which innocent people are murdered. Most recently, six adults and 20 six- and seven-year-old school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., were shot, some as many as 11 times, by a 20-year-old with a semiautomatic weapon designed for the battlefield.

In the heat and hurt of such moments, outrage at an American culture seemingly awash in guns is loud and strident. Many people question why in a free and democratic nation, 311 million citizens feel the need to own somewhere between 200 million and 300 million firearms, and people question the ease with which guns of all kinds can be purchased, even by people who have no business with weapons.

These questions provoke an equally loud and strident defense from folks who believe their basic right to own guns is under attack. They've been told for decades by organizations like the National Rifle Association that they need guns -- lots of guns -- to protect themselves and their families. They've been told that, of all the individual rights enumerated in the Constitution of the United States, the right of an individual to bear arms is the most sacred; the foundation on which all our other freedoms are based.

And, they've been told for decades that the very government created by that Constitution is plotting to take away this most sacred individual right; planning to send dark armies door to door, town to town, state to state to confiscate privately-owned guns. No one has ever explained how this would be done, or why a military force of patriotic Americans who all swear an oath to support and defend a Constitution guaranteeing the right to bear arms would be willing to violate that very Constitution.

To prove this is indeed the national government's agenda, they are told that the fact that nothing has been said or done to advance or even suggest that it was on any government official's mind is prima facie evidence that the plot exists. Seriously.

The National Rifle Association's million-dollar-a-year executive vice president Wayne LaPierre argues that the Obama Administration's lack of action on gun control issues over its first four years proves just how anti-gun they really are. By cleverly not pushing for new gun laws, LaPierre explains, President Obama actually revealed that he has had a secret plan to "lull gun owners to sleep." Obama's "strategy" is to get reelected and then "erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights."

While this logic is borderline paranoid and perhaps clinically insane, it accomplishes two things: It keeps LaPierre in his very well-paid position at NRA, and it feeds the fears of millions of people who've been told over and over again to be afraid. And, in so doing, it assures that any discussion of controls or limits of any kind on gun ownership will be met with a loud and emotionally-charged response, mostly from citizens of red states in the South and Western part of the country; citizens who tend to elect Republicans to public office.

Beyond the raw emotion, hysteria and hyperbole that seem to characterize any public discussion about guns are these facts:

In 2012 alone, there were at least seven mass shooting in the U.S.

  • The Newton, Conn., school massacre in which 27 people were killed;
  • Three people were murdered when a gunman opened fire in a mall in Portland, Oregon;
  • Six people died at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.; and
  • Twelve people were killed and 58 injured at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Shooting sprees in the United States are not rare. Since 1982, at least 61 mass shootings involving firearms have happened in 30 states. In most, the killers obtained their weapons legally.

Of the 11 deadliest shootings in the U.S., five have occurred in the last five years.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School was not the most deadly incident. It was runner-up to the massacre of 33 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007.

And here's a fact that may surprise a lot of people: Gun control is not all that politically popular. Since 1990, the Gallup Organization has asked if Americans think gun control laws should be stricter. Increasingly, the answer is no. The percentage in favor of making the laws governing the sale of firearms 'more strict' decreased from 78 percent in 1990, to 62 percent in 1995, and 51 percent in 2007. In 2010, Gallup found 44 percent favored stricter laws. In fact, in 2009 and 2010, a slight majority said gun laws should either remain the same or be less strict.

It's clear however what we're doing isn't working. Something has to change. President Obama said. "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end," and Vice President Joe Biden is leading an effort to recommend practical, common sense steps to address the slaughter of innocents in our own country. It's a discussion we must have. But it has to be a calm, deliberate discussion, not a high volume, emotion-driven yelling match stirred up by those 27 words in the Constitution.