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It's the Guns, Stupid!

Although we should applaud the president's and vice president's intention to throw the kitchen sink at gun violence, there is a real danger in a lack of laser focus on sweeping bans of all assault weaponry.
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We have reason to be extraordinarily proud as Americans this week. Because of the courage, determination, and hard work of President Obama and Vice President Biden, we have a set of ambitious legislative proposals and executive actions whose passage would go a long way toward removing military weaponry from our street corners and rural areas. Despite vehement disagreement from 74 percent of their own membership, the NRA leadership's despicable fear-mongering in the service of profits for gun manufacturers and retailers has not prevented the White House from taking on the bullies, not because it is politically expedient but because it the right thing to do. And the right moment. The NRA's playbook of lying low for a week or so until emotions begin to dissipate, then slithering out self-righteously to deny accountability, discredit those who disagree, and deflect responsibility to the mentally ill and an insufficient proliferation of good-guy guns, is simply not working. Not yet.

Look around. Far from dissipating, the momentum is surging. Headline news on a daily basis; Generals Colin Powell and Stanley McChrystal -- real wimps, those two -- issuing outraged statements that semi-automatic assault weapons, huge magazines, and kevlar-piercing bullets belong nowhere but on the battlefield; New York State's lightning passage of unprecedented, tough gun regulation with strong bi-partisan support. In a post three days after Sandy Hook, I concluded by saying that although I wasn't holding my breath, this time feels different. It still does.

But there is a problem.

Although we should applaud the president's and vice president's intention to throw the kitchen sink at gun violence, there is a real danger in a lack of laser focus on sweeping bans of all assault weaponry. Video games, violent movies... even background checks, guards in schools, and gun-show loopholes -- not one of those goals matters in the slightest unless the increasing presence of assault weaponry can be effectively eradicated. With so many dilutive items on the table, does this not allow the NRA obvious bargaining chips in the pitched legislative battles sure to come? Does it not set the stage for magnanimous NRA posturing that will distract and deflect from the foundational problem of accessibility?

Most of all, I am concerned about the utter illusion that better mental services aimed at treating and profiling disturbed people will somehow curb gun homicides in any meaningful way. Expanding mental health care accessibility demonstrably helps prevent suicide, but there is no evidence that this will have any impact whatsoever on the killing of others. I believe firmly that the vast majority of clinicians would attest to this. As I have previously asserted, because suicide by gunfire more than doubled homicide by gunfire in the U.S. last year -- 19,000 versus 9,000 -- improving mental health accessibility is intrinsically laudable for all sorts of reasons. But it is laughable to imagine it would put a meaningful dent on rates of homicide. People who are suicidal regularly come for help. People who are premeditating murder don't.

To wit, an article earlier this week cited the work of Dr. Michael Stone, a New York forensic psychiatrist, who has meticulously examined a database of 200 mass and serial murderers. Only one in five appeared severely disturbed. Dr. Stone concludes, "Most mass murders are done by working-class males who've been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated -- and who undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in our country and do their thing." In addition, as had been repeatedly emphasized, many more homicides occur regularly on our street corners where poverty, not mental illness, is the culprit.

For those who dispute that effective, common-sense gun control is the foundation for curbing gun violence, I again refer to the unimpeachable evidence from Australia where massive gun legislation, spearheaded by Prime Minister John Howard against stiff resistance, purged the country of military weaponry following the 1996 mass murder of 35 people by a lone gunman. A blue chip study demonstrated that in the ensuing years, homicide rates by gunfire dropped by 69% with no rise in homicide by other methods; suicide rates dropped by an even greater 74%, again with no increase in suicide by other methods. Furthermore, in the 18 years prior to the 1996 gun bans, there had been 13 mass murders (defined as four or more victims) leading to 102 deaths. Since the gun bans, there has not been a single mass murder.

I was delighted to see an Op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday, written by John Howard himself, relating his narrative of the successful battle he waged for Australian illegalization of Rambo weaponry. Regarding the essential requirement of tight gun control outweighing all other measures combined, he wrote, "The fundamental problem was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun. It is easier to kill 10 people with a gun than a knife." Recall the deranged knife-wielding man in China, less than 24 hours before the Sandy Hook slaughter, who attacked a throng of 6 and 7 year-olds as they were entering their school. Despite his maniacal slashing, he wounded 22 small children, but none was killed.

It is critical that we not sabotage the effort to end the carnage by blurring exclusive focus on strict gun bans, as Prime Minister Howard warns. Is it not likely that the NRA will exploit the opening to accede disingenuously to other priorities in exchange for holding firm on what matters most? In comparison to eradicating assault weaponry, all other measures are trivial--emptying the dishwasher when the kitchen is on fire.

Though heartened, I am still not holding my breath.