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Why can’t Americans give up their guns?

by Hiroaki Sato

NEW YORK — Is there anything comparable to the numbing obstinacy, the utter blindness to reality, that politicians display toward the consequences of untrammeled gun ownership in this country? So I wondered, once again, when I stumbled upon President George W. Bush’s answer to what some now call “the Virginia Tech Massacre” — the report that three of his agencies prepared on his orders.

Here are some facts. The number of those shot dead by a mentally unbalanced student in “the massacre” that April morning was 32. The figure was thought large enough, even in this country, that The Washington Post prepared a profile of each person killed and serialized the sketches. But anyone willing to pause and check would have found a startling fact: That number is close to the daily average for killings by firearms in the United States.

According to the U.S. government’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2004 — the latest year for which such figures are available — a total of 11,624 people were shot dead or murdered. That averages out to 32 a day.

In the same year an additional total of 16,750 people shot themselves to death with firearms, 649 people died in gun accidents, and 311 in “legal intervention,” that is, shot dead by police. Also, 235 people died for unknown reasons though it was clear that they did so of gun wounds. A grand total of 29,569, or an average of 81 people a day, were killed or died by use of guns.

Thirty-two out of 81 is 40 percent. So, four out of 10 people who died with firearms were murdered. In the same year, the number of overall homicides — not just with firearms, but also with knives, “blunt instruments” and so on — was 17,357. That means 67 percent, or two out of three homicides in this country, were committed with firearms.

Despite such figures, some Americans, mainly defenders of gun ownership, argue that the murder rate, the gun-murder rate, of this country is not particularly high, or that gun control doesn’t really have much to do with murder rates. Their arguments are often tortuous, but let us compare the U.S. with other countries.

In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) compiled a “World Report on Violence and Health.” One of the tables in the report, “Firearm-related mortality, by manner of death and country,” gives, among other things, firearm death rates per 100,000. It shows that in firearm death rates, Albania, at 22.1, tops the U.S., at 11.3; and in firearm homicide rates, Albania, at 17.6, and Estonia, at 4.9, top the U.S., at 4.4.

So, yes, you may say the U.S. is less violent than Albania and Estonia. You may even want to add the deeply Buddhist nation Thailand to the countries more violent than the U.S. For, in the ratio of firearm homicides to total deaths by firearms, Thailand, at 89.7 percent, beats the U.S., whose rate is less than half, at 38.8 percent.

For some reason, this WHO table does not include certain countries. So you turn, for example, to an “International Homicide Rate Table” in a Web outfit calling itself GunCite, and you surely find several other countries that are more violent than the U.S. The years for statistics cited vary from country to country, but compared with Columbia’s firearm homicide rate of 51 per 100,000 (1996), the U.S. rate of 3.7 (1999) certainly looks inconsequential. Even with South Africa’s rate of 27 (1995), the U.S. seems admirably safer.

For that matter, in total firearm deaths, which include homicides, America’s rate of 11.3 per 100,000 (1998) seems pretty bad. But when you consider the perennially conflicted state in which the U.S. is supposed to find itself for one reason or another, you may prefer to conclude that the firearm mortality rates of some other countries are more disturbing: Finland’s 5.7 (1998), France’s 5.0 (1998), and so forth. The rub is that in such countries most people who meet death with firearms do so by volition: suicide.

So, we are back to the total of 11,624 people murdered with firearms in a single year. For comparison, the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq, at the time of this writing, is 3,700, or just about one-third of domestic murders with firearms. And that number is stretched over a period of four years and five months.

But numbers such as these do not faze politicians a bit. Immediately after “the massacre,” Tim Kaine, governor of Virginia, famously declaimed: “People who want to . . . make it their political hobbyhorse to ride, I’ve got nothing but loathing for them.” The “political hobbyhorse” here means talk of the need for gun control. Bush, who took the unusual step of flying to the bloodshed site the next day, refused to recognize gun ownership, untrammeled or otherwise, as the problem. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain, among others, followed suit. They would not meddle with people’s “right to bear arms,” they proclaimed.

Still, for political reasons, Bush felt he had to do something. So he quietly ordered the secretaries of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services (HHS), to look into the matter. They fanned out to a total of 12 states to hold hearings in hastily set up sessions. The result, posted on the HHS site in mid-June without fanfare, is the report I stumbled on recently: “On Issues Raised by the Virginia Tech Tragedy.”

But it focuses on the difficulties in preventing mentally disturbed people from possessing guns. It is as if the three secretaries, along with Bush, took to heart what appears to be the credo of the National Rifle Association, which is famously dead set against gun control: “It’s not guns that kill, but people.”

Not that Americans don’t care about other people’s deaths. They do. Just the other day, for example, apparently in reaction to the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, The New York Times carried an article on great improvements in bridge construction in recent years. One of the past incidents the reporter cited was a similar collapse in 1967. It killed 46 people, “one of the deadliest failures.” But he added, it “prompted a national program of regular inspections.”

The question is a simple one: If the accidental death of 46 people can prompt a national program, why is it that a single person deliberately killing 32 people, not to mention wounding 30 others, with a gun he acquired with no constraints cannot lead to a national reconsideration of the deadly situation?

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York.