On December 7, 2022

There are ways we can change the equation

By Walt Amses

Editor’s note: Walt Amses is a writer who lives in North Calais.

Between the time I’m writing this and you’re reading it, there likely have been several mass shootings, bringing the total to well over 600 so far this year, a number that, however astounding, increases annually in a country with more firearms than people, where the Second Amendment has absorbed the First: We let our guns do the talking.

And the more they talk, the louder their voices. For the first time in history, gun deaths overtook automobile accidents as the leading cause of “traumatic deaths.”

While the proliferation of guns and their easy availability are major contributing factors in the ever-increasing death toll, semiautomatic weapons of war, high-capacity magazines and a homegrown terrorist alliance between the National Rifle Association and its congressional concubines made this national disgrace inevitable.

The fabricated NRA/GOP “Good Guy With a Gun” mythology, coupled with a yearslong promotion combined with thinly veiled racism, have turned parts of rural America into havens for heavily armed, delusional soldier boys, bent on protecting the nation from Drag Queen Story Hours, library books they’ve never read, and trans teenagers they’ll never meet.

The Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and the rest of the far-right, white supremacist militia movement have been both directly and indirectly involved in the spate of mass shootings that gouge indelible scars on our country. Their exploitation of open-carry laws — the indecent exposure of assault weapons — to ostensibly “keep the peace” is an essential gear in the machinery creating the locked-and-loaded culture where the gun is the answer, no matter the question.

Marching into your local school board meeting wearing faux military gear hefting an AR-15 may expose you as a moron but it certainly achieves its purpose: intimidating legitimate speech, limiting debate to incoherent screaming matches and dissemination of conspiracy theories too stupid to list here.

Such nonsense is apparently OK with conservatives all the way to the top. When the former president of the U.S., urged by advisers to disavow the white supremacist anti-Semite he’s just had over for dinner, refuses, unwilling to “alienate supporters,” we’re a nation in serious trouble.

We make certain assumptions regarding the cause of the carnage, some accurate — more guns equal more gun deaths; some less so — untreated mental illness is the primary cause of mass shooting incidents.

While the political debate over gun violence ranges far and wide, one thing sorely missing is comprehensive scientific research into the problem and there’s a very clear reason for that. Since 1996, gun manufacturers and their mainly Republican apologists in Congress have blocked CDC funding for such studies, predictably concerned by what the results might yield. Research since funding was marginally restored justifies those fears, minimally indicating more guns equal more gun deaths.
Although still woefully underfunded, some research has begun to emerge — including a review of a Harvard study conducted 20 years ago that explored the relationship between gun prevalence and homicide — confirming the hypothesis that a proliferation of firearms yields a corresponding uptick in shootings and deaths. The conclusion was bolstered by researchers employing a number of different techniques of measuring gun availability and access with findings replicated in other studies.
Citing other countries quickly responding to incidents of gun violence with legislation, including increased restrictions, the Rockefeller Institute of Government, while recommending several policies such as banning high-capacity magazines and so-called assault weapons, at the same time admits: “Present political realities make this approach feel all but impossible in the United States.”

But there’s even more to consider than the complexities of the left-right divide on guns in America that hints at why we shoot each other more frequently and in higher numbers than any other industrialized country in the world.

A 2019 Northeastern University study outlined in Scientific American found an inverse association between social mobility and gun homicide rates. In other words, in counties where social mobility is higher, firearm murder rates are substantially lower than areas where movement up the ladder remains stagnant.

Designed to provide policy makers with “additional tools to address the epidemic of gun violence in America,” the author — epidemiologist David Noonan — finds an increase in social mobility would lead to a 25% reduction in homicide rates.

It doesn’t take a genius to integrate these findings into the larger picture, including America’s high rates of depression and anxiety, certainly exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, leaving our collective emotional state in shambles.

At this juncture 30%-40%— tens of millions of us — report being angry, sad, afraid or tired. Fatalities related to drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide — “deaths of despair” — claim hundreds of thousands annually, lowering life expectancy three years running for the first time since 1918.

Life in working-class America is hard and getting harder. Jobs are exported, wages are inadequate and the price of everything skyrockets even as the same political class responsible for the epidemic of firearms consistently balks at initiatives to make life better for their struggling constituents.

While it’s unlikely any compromise on gun ownership and the Second Amendment will happen anytime soon, the wealthiest country in the world has other options at its disposal to change the equation. If reducing the number of guns is impossible, perhaps we can begin by reducing the other factors that may contribute to shooting each other being just another part of life in America.

A government more responsive to the needs of its citizens understands that money is not the only route to a better quality of life. If difficulty climbing the socioeconomic ladder equates with more gun violence, it would follow that more opportunity for social mobility might do the opposite.

Countries with lower gun violence than the U.S. frequently have the wellbeing of their citizens as the No. 1 priority — providing universal health care; free or affordable college education; subsidized parental leave; affordable child care; labor protections, including strong unions; better health outcomes; and a longer life expectancy.  Europeans, not having to contend with the crippling worries that consistently plague Americans, are far more likely to report being content or happy and far less likely to pick up a gun.

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