Our Problem with Gun Violence is #NotNormal

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Last month, one of my former students from Newark asked me the following question:

Mr. Paulsen, “if teachers were given the option to carry guns, would you?”

My answer? 100% absolutely not.

While traveling abroad throughout this semester, I have been asked versions of this question time and time again. People from Japan could neither understand the epidemic of gun violence in the United States nor the guns laws in our country. When I travelled to South Korea during the Olympics, people asked me why teachers are given weapons like police officers. And in Taiwan, I am asked almost daily about school shootings. As a proud pacifist, it is incredibly difficult to offer any possible explanation as to why our country is so obsessed with guns. After all, domestic mass shootings are a uniquely American problem that happen literally no where else in the developed world.

What is perhaps most frustrating is that, to some fringe groups, advocating for common-sense gun laws instantly declares you un-American. Are we proud of this value? Are we proud that owning a lethal weapon makes one a patriot? Are we proud that citizens of other countries fear visiting the U.S. because of our problem with gun violence? Take this following video, for example: imagine if the words were exactly the same, but instead of NRA branding, it was branded with an ISIS flag (complete with the timer and all).

Would we tolerate literally any other group using this type of rhetoric? These videos are akin to encouraging domestic terrorism, which unfortunately serves as seductive propaganda to some of the most vulnerable communities throughout our country. I honestly believe that if more Americans travelled internationally, our country would soon realize what it is like in literally every other first world country. Perhaps fellow Fulbrighter Martha Infante put it best:

“It never occurred to me just how much I have internalized and to an extent, normalized the violence in our society. How does one explain the dramatic rise in poverty we have experienced over the last few years, and the vast wealth inequality that has existed for much longer? How do I explain that our society values the protection of gun owners’ rights over the innocent lives of children? Mercifully, my Finnish audiences were kind enough to not push the matter as they must have seen how painful these questions were to answer.”

To be clear, I am not necessarily anti-gun. I have used a shotgun, a handgun, and a rifle (including the infamous AR-15) numerous times throughout my life. Although I have never used it, I did have a hunting license in New York State at one point, and my family is full of police officers and veterans. I am not advocating that we send the military around to every household in America and forcefully confiscate every weapon in the country, as some conspiracy theorists often put forward. Rather, I think we should look to other countries to inform best practices, allow our CDC to start researching gun violence, and completely reform our background check system. In this post, I look to debunk some of the vicious rumors that are often perpetuated by the NRA, and then offer my own solutions to the massive epidemic of gun violence that permeates our great country.

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“One child is holding something that’s been banned in America to protect them. Guess which one.”

Access to Guns

It is estimated that the United States has more guns in circulation than people. Think about that for a second. The OECD suggests that gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the US than in any other high-income country. Gun-related suicides are eight times higher in the US than in other high-income nations, too. Last year, 43 toddlers shot someone with a gun. 43 TODDLERS!! Did you know that our Federal Government banned the sale of Kinder chocolate eggs due to the danger they pose to kids? We currently live in a country where it is easier to purchase a weapon of mass destruction than it is to buy a piece of candy.

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Mental Health

Recent analysis suggests that only 23% of perpetrators of mass shootings showed signs of a mental illness before committing their atrocities. Our country absolutely needs mental health reform, including improving access and removing the stigma around getting help. But our problems go far beyond mental health, include an aura of toxic masculinity that has become deeply ingrained within our culture. After all, what does every mass shooting have in common? Almost all of them are all carried out by males (and typically young men). The U.S. does not have a monopoly when it comes to mental health issues; other countries simply do a better job at serving those that need help and preventing them from purchasing a firearm. Please stop blaming mental illness for our fundamental problem with guns; it only adds to the negative stigma and discourages people from reaching out for much-need professional help. It should be noted that America does not have a problem with crime, either; it has a problem with guns.

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“Guns don’t kill people; People kill people!”

Yes. Agreed. I guess we could say the same thing about car crashes, too: cars don’t kill people, people kill people. But we have made cars significantly safer over the years, starting with seat belts and air bags. We have achieved this end by studying car crashes profusely and spending a lot of capitol on research and development. Currently, the U.S. Congress bans the CDC from even studying gun violence. If people are adamant that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” why not let the CDC research how we can make gun ownership safer in this country, just like we did with cars for the greater part of the past century? Research overwhelmingly suggests that states with higher gun ownership rates have higher gun murder rates—as much as 114 percent higher than states with lower gun ownership rates. Also, why are there so few mass casualty events in other first world countries? Sure, someone could absolutely kill several people with a knife in a subway station. But it would be a lot harder to injure 851 people and kill 58 innocent lives in less than ten minutes, as was the case in the horrific Las Vegas shooting of 2017.

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“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

I honestly do believe that well-trained uniformed police or active duty military personal (a so-called good-guy) can absolutely stop a bad guy with a gun. Check, mate. But to make this argument for civilians is narrow and extremely short-sighted. Let us consider a recent shooting outside the Empire State Building. Let us imagine for a second that ‘concealed carry’ was legal in New York (which House Republicans are trying to pass, by the way…) and twenty “good guys with guns” were there. The first shots ring out, and all twenty draw their weapons. On a cold, busy New York City afternoon, how do they know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Do they just start shooting everyone else? How would the police know who is the “bad guy?” In fact, “No mass shootings in the past 30 years have been stopped by an armed civilian; in 1982, an armed civilian successfully killed a shooter, but it was only after he committed his crime.

The whole “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” is incredibly faulty logic. I did not realize that we were going back to the figurative days of the Wild Wild West, either…

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“Criminals don’t obey the laws”

This is a pretty ridiculous argument that has become a major talking point on Fox News. Host Tomi Lahren recently gave her opinion that we should not pass any gun laws because ‘criminals don’t obey laws.’ Using this rhetoric, what is the point of having any laws? Why have a justice system at all? The whole intent of any law is to defer a specified activity. Would we say the same thing about literally anything else?

The Second Amendment though.

Yes, the second amendment! Let’s talk about it. I honestly do not understand people that are “against gun control.” Everyone is for gun control; we just disagree about where to draw the line. For example, should I be allowed to own a functional Sherman Tank, and park it in my driveway? If I had the resources, should I be allowed to legally purchase a rocket launcher? What about an ICBM? Of course not!! Only those on the absolute fringe of this argument suggest that I should be able to own a nuclear weapon to “defend myself.” In fact, the 2nd amendment is the only amendment that specifically encourages regulation: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This sentence has been up for debate for the past 300 years, and there is significant controversy over whether this amendment was even meant for civilian use to begin with (Remember when each state had a standing army, and even their own currency?). Also, for those that suggest that we need the 2nd amendment in case the government ever turns on us, does anyone really believe that 20 people with AR-15’s can actually defeat the strongest military in the history of the world? Highly unlikely.

The constitution of the United States of America is a document that was designed to be changed. Both Congress and the Supreme Court has put regulations on other amendments, including the famous restriction on the 1st amendment that one cannot falsely yell ‘fire’ in a crowded movie theater (See Schenck v. United States). In fact, the “2nd amendment” was literally the 2nd change to the constitution. Our founding document did not get everything right the first time, either. Remember slavery, which was 100% legal under the constitution? What about when white males were the only people that were allowed to vote? There is even precedent for repealing an amendment; specifically, the 21st amendment repealed the 18th amendment, and ended prohibition.

BUT WHAT ABOUT CHICAGO?

Great city, yes. I love those sandwiches from Hannah’s Bretzel (I actually think those sandwiches are better than the hotdogs, the popcorn, and the deep-dish pizza, come to think of it). But what about Chicago? Oh, the crime rate in Chicago, yes. To be clear, the gun violence in Chicago is truly a tragedy. A lot of people often use Chicago as the perfect example of why gun laws do not work, because Illinois has releatively strict gun laws. The truth is that many of the guns used in Chicago were purchased in neighboring states with significantly weaker gun laws. In fact, “nearly 60% of the guns used in gun homicides in Chicago in 2017 were trafficked from out-of-state dealers, and 20% of the guns came from Indiana alone.”

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Newark, New Jersey, also has a serious problem with guns. While the state has relatively strict gun laws, most guns used in homicides are trafficked from other states with less regulation. In fact, Governor Phil Murphy recently signed legislation that would mandate public reporting of where each gun that is used in a shooting throughout New Jersey was sold.

Solutions

People love to be critics, but what about possible solutions? Now that I have offered a plethora of debunks to common arguments of the National Rifle Association, let us now look at viable solutions that could actually have a sustained impact on our country and stop the vicious carnage once and for all. In Australia, the Port Arthur massacre was a mass shooting that took place in 1996. After this horrible tragedy, of which 35 people were killed and 23 wounded, the Australian government realized that ‘enough is enough’ and started a year’s long approach to end mass shootings. By every metric, their reforms have been extremely successful: there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996. To me, it shows that we can make a difference, if we have true leaders that are willing to put their country in front of their wallets.

Note: It should not be interpreted by any reader that any of the following solutions are original to the author in any manner.

Right to Operate License

Let us treat gun ownership like car ownership. Think about what one needs to do to buy a car:

  1. Be a certain age (dependent on the state)
  2. Pass a written test
  3. Pass a practical test
  4. Pass an eye exam
  5. Pay an administrative fee to get a license
  6. Obtain car insurance

And, even after you follow these steps, you need to follow “the law” to keep your license, and renew it every few years. I like that idea – let’s treat gun ownership like car ownership.

Increase the fidelity of background checks and end all “loopholes”

Currently, around 40% of all gun sales involve private sellers and do not require any background check whatsoever. A new Quinnipiac University poll suggests that “support for universal background checks is itself almost universal, 97 – 2 percent, including 97 – 3 percent among gun owners.” 97 PERCENT!!! WHAT ELSE DO 97% OF AMERICANS AGREE UPON IN 2018?!?  Let us increase the fidelity of background checks and end all loopholes, including the infamous “gun show loophole,” once and for all.

End the distribution of Military-style weapons

A recent Marist poll found that “following the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 71% of Americans, including 58% of gun owners, agree the laws governing the sale of firearms need to be stricter.”

If a civilian wants to keep a hunting rifle in their house, I think they should more than be able to (after finishing the strict licensing procedure outlined above). A handgun for protection? I guess I could be ok with that in certain situations. But in my perspective, we need to end the sale of all military-style weapons to civilians. Quite frankly, there are no viable arguments as to why any civilian should be able to own one of these deadly weapons of war designed to kill people.

Strong safety measures

I am vehemently against arming teachers. For goodness sakes, even the TSA agents at our airports do not carry guns. In fact, most police officers abroad do not even carry their service weapon with them. Arming teachers would be a dangerous precedent that would end in the killing of more students, not less. That being said, I am all for a strong school perimeter and having a well-trained school resource officer, but without transforming our gun control, there is little a single SRO can do against a man holding an Armalite assault rifle. In fact, the school in Parkland actually had an SRO on duty, but remained outside the school during the shooting because he himself was afraid of the shooter.

Offer lucrative gun buy-backs

This is exactly what Australia did. The federal government should start a lucrative, no-questions-asked national gun buy-back program to start getting many of these weapons off the streets. Although many cities offer buy-back incentives on a yearly basis, a national gun buy-back program would do little without the aforementioned reforms.

Conclusion

We can and must do better, America. For those that are strong supporters of the 2nd amendment, I understand your loyalty. That being said, I encourage you to come spend a month abroad, and see what is like having to constantly defend our absurd obsession with guns while living in a country that has not had a mass shooting in decades.

For those incredible teenagers in Parkland – keep fighting the good fight. One of the best pieces of leadership advice came during my junior year of college at Marist, when the then Chief Public Affairs Officer Tim Massie told me that, “if people cannot find anything wrong with you, they will start making stuff up.” Over the years, I have truly learned how valid that advice is – when your opponents need to start making things up about you, you know you are slowly winning the fight. It may take us a long time to get there, but you are on the right side of history.

To close, it is overwhelmingly frustrating being abroad and constantly having to defend our countries absurd gun laws. While it is easy to feel hopeless, I will be purchasing an item from the Caliber Collection. This incredible organization purchases guns from police buy-back programs, melts down the guns, and re-purposes the metal as jewelry. In addition to helping get guns off the streets, they also donate 20% of their revenue to further expand gun buy-back programs across the country. I will also be donating to Sandy Hook Promise – a grassroots organization started by the families of the Newtown Elementary School shooting that looks to stop all gun violence in our country.

It may not change the world, but at least it’s a start.

This is posted in solidarity with all students who are participating in today’s #NationalSchoolWalkout on the 19th anniversary of the tragedy at Columbine High School, and is dedicated to all of those lost in senseless gun violence. Looking to make a difference? Consider purchasing an item from the Caliber Collection or donating to Sandy Hook Promise here.

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