(This essay, edited, was originally published by thehill.com on February 22, 2018.)
In comparison to the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, the violent incident a few days earlier at my granddaughter’s high school in our cozy, comfortable New England town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was insignificant. Marcus Schlip, 22, assaulted the physical education teacher to gain entry to the gym, after which he told all the students to line up against the wall because he was now in charge. Luckily, he carried merely a knife which remained in his backpack. This episode—however less violent than the Parkland massacre—still traumatized my granddaughter.
America remains positively “exceptional” in so many ways; however, in the area of gun control & personal safety, it—among modern, industrialized countries—stands egregiously apart. According to procon.org, gun death in America, 1999-2015, was the number one cause of homicide, of suicide, and of death by gunshot from legal intervention. During that period, America averaged over 33,000 gun deaths each year. The Center for Disease Control reports that in 2014 America had 33,594 firearm deaths. From 2001 to 2010, close to 120,000 Americans were murdered by guns, 18 times all American combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These data and other contrast with data from other modern, industrialized countries where gun deaths are rare. In Germany, two of every million die by gunshot from another person, about the same rate as in the Netherlands and in Austria. In Poland and in England, the figure is less—about one in every million. In Japan it is even rarer: one in ten million, similar to the rate of Americans killed by lightning. In comparison, the rate in America is 31 per million. For men 15-29, gun homicides are the third leading cause of death after accidents and suicides.
In his magisterial work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond arrives at five key factors which determined the fates of societies. In the many he examines, past and present day, he asserts that the only factor significant for all societies is the decisions they make facing their challenges.
At this point in the story of American civilization, one of these key decisions regards national culture and policy on gun control-personal safety. Our current culture, and the policies rooted in it, are unsustainable. Civilizations whose citizens kill each other at such a high rate cannot persist, especially if they kill their young at high rates. When we lose young people, we lose their potential positive impact. Our sense of personal safety declines, replaced by fear. Especially in school shootings, our children grow more fearful. These impacts hinder our civilization’s progress at home and influence abroad.
Compared to other developed countries, our dominant views and policies on the subject are indisputably backward. During my six years in Germany as an army officer, I had numerous conversations with my German friends about Germany’s completely different culture on gun ownership. Gun ownership there is a privilege, not a right, enshrined 230 years ago in the country’s constitution. To purchase a gun in Germany, it takes months to earn the certificate validating one’s skill with a weapon and its ammunition. You must show that you can store it safely, in a place in which only you have access. You must be at least 18, and if you are under 25, a psychological exam is required showing your fitness. Each new gun purchased must be registered. Günter Lach, a member of Parliament in 2015 and avid marksman, said that in Germany, “at any given moment, you know where a gun is.”
In France, as well, guns are highly regulated. A hunting license is required before a rifle can be purchased. For buying a gun to be used at a firing range, the police must approve one’s application. All guns must be registered, and it is illegal to possess military-grade weapons. Gun buyers must provide a medical certificate of mental and physical fitness to own a weapon.
As for all the arguments that gun advocates assert, they may have their merits, but these are drowned out by our current realities. The inordinate gun deaths year after year indicate their views, and the laws and policies stemming from them, are not working for our civilization, which is bleeding itself and failing to provide safety for its children. Abraham Lincoln’s words ring true: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our … [children].”
While we have the Second Amendment, we have no amendment enshrining the right to contribute to American civilization or for a child to live without fear. Perhaps we need one. I am sure that Thomas Jefferson would agree. I wish all who disagree could have seen the fear in my granddaughter’s eyes.