President Barack Obama's address to the nation on Thursday, hours after a gunman rampaged through a community college in Roseburg, Oregon, was the 15th time he has delivered remarks about a mass shooting during his presidency. Noting that the previous 14 killing sprees had failed to stir Congress to tighten gun laws, he took a more aggressive tone this time.
"This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America," said Obama. "We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved ones because of our inaction."
The president went on to compare the nation's response to gun violence with how we react to other kinds of tragedies.
"When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer," he said. "When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives.
"So the notion that gun violence is somehow different, that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt and protect their families and do everything they do under such regulations, doesn’t make sense."
Obama criticized the "routine" reaction of those who, faced with mass killings that account for just a small portion of overall U.S. gun violence, will predictably argue that no common-sense gun legislation could have any effect on gun deaths.
The "Guns don't kill people. People kill people" crowd is already out in force, repeating the National Rifle Association slogan ad nauseum in a preemptive effort to stifle any conversation about the guns that make gun violence possible. Instead, they argue that the only way to address the issue is to focus entirely on the people using the guns.
It's a clever piece of messaging, because a claim built on such reductionist logic can't be completely false. After all, guns can't shoot themselves (though they do sometimes go off unintentionally). With that saying, pro-gun people can blame everything on those who use firearms for evil, then move on.
We can generously assume that some of these people are truly concerned about gun violence, and are using the NRA motto to call for a discussion on social indicators that can lead to mass violence, particularly mental health. That's a step in the right direction. Mental health should certainly be a part of this conversation, though how large a part depends on who you ask.
But because of a historically rigid interpretation of the Constitution's Second Amendment, we're told we can't consider both sides of the equation when we attempt to discuss gun violence. Mental health or nothing -- or just nothing.
Here's what that thinking might look like if we took the same approach to other causes of death.
Cars don't kill people. Drivers kill people.
This argument, like the NRA slogan, isn't completely wrong on its face. But we treat the issue of traffic deaths completely differently than gun deaths. In the 100-plus years of American automobiling, the nation has developed and refined strict licensing and insurance requirements, and a host of other vehicle laws, all put forth with the goal of reducing traffic accidents and making the road safer.
Car manufacturers have continually improved safety, in part because government regulations compel them to do so.
These measures haven't eliminated automobile fatalities. But imagine what highways would look like if we took the same approach to cars that we have to guns.
Heart disease doesn't kill people. Poor lifestyle choices kill people.
Sure, it's the heart disease that ends up leading to the deaths of 610,000 people in the U.S. each year, but that heart disease doesn't just cause itself. Poor diet, obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, excessive alcohol use and heredity all contribute, so let's just focus on those things instead of having a conversation about what's actually doing the killing.
Cancer doesn't kill people. Smoking and genetics kill people.
Again, we must think about the individual on the other end of this equation, not about the thing that is literally killing them.
Collapsing houses don't kill people. Lousy architects kill people.
Those beams may end up crashing down on your head, but once they've been put in place, all we can do is wait to see if that actually happens. Don't worry, if it does, we promise to look into whoever designed it.
HIV/AIDS doesn't kill people. Unprotected sex kills people.
Luckily, we live in a society that believes in both treatment and education. Though it could certainly do a lot better on both.
Diabetes doesn't kill people. Deranged pancreases kill people.
Sorry, there's nothing we can do for you. One way or another, a pancreas that wants to screw with your blood sugar is going to find a way to do it.
Fires don't kill people. Arsonists and electrical problems kill people.
Before we talk about fireproofing, escape routes and emergency response, let's consider the root causes: Why would someone use flames for evil? Why does electrical wiring fail?
Drugs don't kill people. People kill people.
If we can condense the gun argument into this format, why not with drugs, another public health issue? Drugs, like guns, literally cause death. And drugs, like guns, can't kill without the involvement of a human.
It's clear, however, that for decades the U.S. mindset has centered around the belief that both drugs and people kill people. We've spent an immense amount of money locking up drug users, and trying and failing to keep people from getting their hands on illegal substances. Prohibition has flopped fantastically. Maybe that's why nobody is suggesting that we just ban guns and wage war on people who use them responsibly.
But maybe our drug policy should take a cue from the shallow slogan that has for so long influenced gun policy.
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