Commentary / World

America has long fostered a culture of violence

by Cesar Chelala

The recent shooting rampage that left 49 people dead in Orlando, Florida, is just the last, but by no means the only incident taking the lives of dozens of people. Florida, where the event occurred, has also the sad distinction of being the first state to issue 1 million permits to carry concealed guns.

Although violent incidents occur in other countries, they are not as frequent — or as lethal — as in the United States, which has the highest homicide-by-firearms rate among the world’s most developed nations. Gun ownership is particularly relevant in the U.S., where civilians own an estimated 300 million guns, making Americans the most heavily armed people in the world on a per capita basis. In comparison, police in the U.S. have approximately 1 million guns.

A report by the Swiss-based Small Arms Survey states that with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has approximately 35 to 50 percent of civilian-owned guns, and it ranks No. 1 in firearms per capita.

The question of gun ownership in the U.S. centers on the Second Amendment of the Constitution: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Opponents of gun control stress the last part of the sentence: “the right of people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” They neglect to consider the first part, which describes a “well-regulated militia” as the holders of this entitlement.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has become one of the country’s most powerful lobbies, and its influence continues to grow. According to The Washington Post, the NRA has helped elect 4 out of 5 candidates it endorses in congressional elections, and is continuously trying to overturn gun control laws.

At the same time, landmark Supreme Court rulings in 2008 and 2010 dramatically curtailed the authority of state and local governments to limit gun ownership. To make matters even worse for gun control advocates, approximately half of the 50 states in the U.S. have adopted laws that allow gun owners to carry their guns openly in most public places.

Although self-defense is often cited to justify the people’s right to bear arms, research has shown that a gun kept in a home is 43 times more likely to kill a member of the household or a friend than an intruder. In addition, using firearms to resist a violent assault increases the victim’s risk of injury and death. The number of teenagers who die from gunshot wounds in the U.S. is greater than for all other causes combined.

In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Arthur Kellermann states that excluding factors such as previous history of violence, class and race — to name the most important three — a gun-holding household is 2.7 times more likely to experience a murder than a household without one. His findings have been severely criticized by opponents of gun control legislation.

It is estimated that the gun market of $2 billion to $3 billion a year has experienced an extraordinary boom since President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, despite his emphatic position for stricter gun control laws. According to a Gallup survey, 47 percent of American adults keep guns, the highest level since 1993.

Peter Dreier, a distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, states that among modern democracies, the U.S. has the most guns per capita and the weakest gun control laws. Obama has indicated that Congress has failed to pass “common sense gun safety reforms.”

From 2011 through the first three quarters of 2012, the NRA spent more than 10 times as much as gun control interest groups in its lobbying efforts.

After the Orlando tragedy, the share prices of two of the biggest U.S. gun companies, Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson, have substantially increased. We cannot decry the consequence of our actions if we foster a culture of violence in the country.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international public health consultant and author of the Pan American Health Organization publication “Violence in the Americas.”

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