NEW YORK - How many people can a man kill without a gun?
That question occurred to me once again when a man armed with an automatic pistol and an assault rifle slaughtered 49 people and wounded 53 others before he was shot dead in Orlando, Florida, on June 12.
When I arrived in New York in 1968, fear of murder had gripped the city. In fact, murders were increasing fast, from 631 in 1964 to 1,554 in 1974 — a jump of 2.5 times in 10 years. The term “Saturday Night Special” (for an easily obtained handgun) was on everyone’s lips.
The number kept rising until 1990, when it peaked at 2,245. In the United States as a whole, the number peaked in 1991 at 24,700.
Not all those killings were committed with guns. Also, as I learned in 2000 when I wrote my first report on U.S. gun killings for the trade agency that employed me, a significant portion of them are suicides. In 1996, for example, of 30,000 people who died of gun injuries, 46 percent were suicides.
I wrote that report because there was news that New York Gov. George Pataki had submitted the nation’s “strictest gun control” proposal to the state legislature. It soon became law. The law, however, belied the “strictest” characterization, except for the banning of “assault weapons.” But the need to ban such weapons pointed to the sorry state of gun control in the U.S.
Actually, assault weapons had been banned federally in 1994, by the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, otherwise known as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB). But it was not just full of loopholes and constitutionally porous; it also had a 10-year sunset clause. And when 2004 came, the Congress let it lapse instead of strengthening it.
In April 2007, when a student at Virginia Tech armed with two powerful pistols killed 32 people and shot himself, I wrote a series of reports on gun killings in the U.S. One of the things I noted was that murders by guns in 2004 totaled 11,624, which meant that the same number of people — 32 — were killed by guns every day, on average, in this country.
What may surprise residents of other societies is the number of people shot dead by the police. The matter has recently come to the fore because some were graphically captured by iPhones and created an uproar. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), such killings, which it categorizes under “legal intervention,” totaled 311 in 2004. In 2015, that number totaled 990, according to Washington Post investigations.
When mass murder — defined by the FBI as “a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident, with no distinctive time period between the murders” — occurs, some Americans argue that the murder rate in the U.S. is not that high. In some ways, that is true, as you can readily confirm by looking it up on the internet. But it will depend on what you compare, of course.
In my 2007 reports, I used the figures in the table “Firearm-related mortality, by manner of death and country” in the WHO’s 2002 analysis titled World Report on Violence and Health. The table didn’t explain why some of the more obvious countries, such as South Africa and Colombia, were not included, but among the countries selected for the table, in the rate of murders by firearms per 100,000 people, only Albania with 17.6 and Estonia with 4.9 exceeded the U.S. with 4.4.
Why do so many gun killings occur in the vaunted “most democratic” nation of the world? Is the idea of “democracy” misconstrued in this country?
The foremost reason for the killings is evidently that guns are abundant in the U.S. and increasingly so. A 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service says that in 2007 there were 294 million firearms in this country. That year the U.S. population was about 300 million. That meant there were practically 100 firearms per 100 people. Back in 1994, there were 74 firearms per 100 people.
Whenever mass killings occur, sales of guns shoot up. And people in charge do not discourage it. Upon learning of the killings at Virginia Tech, the governor of the state, Tim Kaine, said, “People who want to … make it their political hobby horse to ride, I’ve got nothing but loathing for them.” Translation: Don’t talk about gun control.
Likewise Hillary Clinton. Just about 10 days after the killings, eight Democratic presidential candidates for the 2008 election lined up for a TV debate. There, when asked about the killings, Clinton said that the federal government had “failed the students,” not because it didn’t have stringent gun control, but because it hadn’t done “more to try to keep guns out of the hands of the criminal and of the mentally unstable.”
That’s piffle. Studies have repeatedly shown the difficulty of determining who is “mentally unstable,” besides the fact that they are not the main cause of mass killings. A 2015 National Institute of Health report, for one, concludes so.
“And during the Clinton administration,” Clinton added, “that was a goal, not to in any way violate people’s Second Amendment right but to try to limit access to people who should not have guns.” Her husband Bill had signed the AWB into law.
The question is: Who ever said the Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees people’s right to own guns? No one except the gun rights nuts. The only Supreme Court decision on it until Hillary Clinton’s assertion, U.S. v. Miller in 1939, was the opposite. Justice James McReynolds, who delivered it, made it clear that the right to “keep and bear arms” is not of “the people” but of a “well-regulated Militia.”
In 2008, that 70-year-old decision was overturned by District of Columbia v. Heller. Justice Anton Scalia, who delivered the decision, made the United States “less fair, less tolerant, and less admirable,” Jeffrey Toobin, the law analyst for The New Yorker and CNN, judged.
You can say the same about Hillary Clinton as regards “gun rights.”
Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist in New York