Increasingly Dangerous Guns Endanger US Communities

(Photo: Amy Buser)(Photo: Amy Buser)

The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It, by Tom Diaz, The New Press, 336 pages, $18.95 paperback, Release date: January 1, 2015.

Several days after I first opened Tom Diaz’ powerful – and absolutely horrifying – book, The Last Gun, a tiny news item caught my eye. The account reported the death of Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident Christa Engels, who had been shot to death by her 3-year-old son. The toddler had apparently discovered the weapon underneath a couch.

It’s a sad, but not particularly uncommon, story. In fact, Diaz reports that during the last decade, more than 30,000 US residents a year have died because of guns. “Every year,” he notes, “more Americans are killed by guns than people of all nationalities are killed worldwide by terrorist attacks.”

You’d think these stark facts would cause our lawmakers and neighbors to say, “Enough.” But they haven’t. Not Sandy Hook, not Fort Hood, not the mass shootings in Binghamton, New York, at Virginia Tech, or in Tucson, Arizona, or Aurora, Colorado, have led the body politic to stand up to the National Rifle Association [NRA], or the gun manufacturers with which it is aligned, to demand stricter regulations on who can obtain and use firearms.

The Last Gun explains the reasons why gun control has become “the third rail” of US politics and deconstructs why efforts to enact common-sense guidelines continue to fall flat. The book utilizes countless examples. Take the aftermath of the 10-minute-long rampage of US Army Major Nidal M. Hassan in November 2009. Hassan had been stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, and his shooting spree left 13 dead and 32 wounded.

“The Department of Defense appears to have missed the significance of the incredible level of firepower that was easily accessible to Major Hassan,” Diaz writes. Instead, following standard operating procedure, after the shooting, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates appointed several people to “review” the incident. Their conclusions – however listless – noted that the Department of Defense had no policy governing the privately owned weapons of enlistees and suggested that the DoD do an additional review, this time to ascertain the need for regulations to keep track of who owned what. Three months later, Gates authorized all Base Commanders to generate rules to require staff members to report possession of all non-military-issued firearms to superiors.

The NRA responded quickly, deriding this as an “affront to the Second Amendment” and enlisted Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma to introduce The Service Member Second Amendment Protection Act of 2010. The goal? To “forbid any action by the Defense Department that might affect personal weapons.” The bill became law.

In the frenzy to get this legislation passed – thus guaranteeing the right of military service members to amass arsenals of weapons – several big concerns were ignored. For example, Diaz points out that the gun Hassan used, the FN Five-seveN, was a “typical example of military-style weapons that define the market today. There is no mystery in this militarization,” he writes. “It is simply a business strategy aimed at survival: Boosting sales and improving the bottom line in a desperate and fading line of commerce. The hard commercial fact is that military-style weapons sell in an increasingly focused civilian gun market. The sporting guns do not.”

Yes, you read that correctly – the number of hunters is way down, so gun sellers have had to conjure new audiences for their wares. Among their targets are women and white Americans who are upset about demographic shifts in their homeland.

And neither the NRA, nor pro-gun lawmakers or manufacturers, will let little things like mass murder in movie theaters, at workplaces, or on college campuses get in the way of their desires. Indeed, as Diaz reminds us, to hear the industry tell it, each violent event is an aberration, facts be damned.

“The toll of ordinary Americans killed and injured by guns every single day would remain staggering, a bloodletting inconceivable in any other developed country in the world,” he writes. “Firearms are the second leading cause of traumatic death related to a consumer product in the United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall for Americans ages 15 to 24. Since 1960, more than 1.3 million Americans have died in firearm suicides, homicides and from unintentional injuries.”

What’s more, Diaz points out that 90 percent of US households own a car while fewer than one in three own a gun. Still, firearm deaths have come to exceed motor vehicle fatalities, something that should certainly give us pause.

Diaz blames collusion between the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation [NSSF], the industry’s trade association, for the government’s hands-off approach to gun control. At its core, he continues, are several delusions. One potent one describes assault rifles that were initially designed for the battlefield as the tools of harmless sport, fun for the entire family. A second one is born of racism – the NRA’s constant moaning that President Obama has a secret plan to destroy the Second Amendment and leave righteous white Americans defenseless against tyranny.

Former NRA president Charlton Heston did not try to mask his indignation over the imagined shift. “Caucasian victims prefer the America they built – where you could pray without feeling naïve, love without being kinky, sing without profanity, be white without feeling guilty, own a gun without shame and raise your hand without apology,” he lamented.

The upshot, Diaz writes, is that in today’s USA, “guns are most likely to be owned by white men who live in a rural area, those who are middle aged or older, with middle to higher income, who grew up with guns in the home and who live in the southern or Midwestern regions of the country. Moreover, fewer and fewer people are owning more and more guns.” To wit: Diaz notes that the average gun owner now has an average of 6.9 guns compared with a still-high 4.1 per person 20 years ago.

There are many other delusions promoted by the NRA, NSSF and their legislative allies, as well, most of them left unquestioned by mainstream media.

Open carry laws, for one, give gun owners the right to bring arms wherever they go, from churches to the mall. Unfortunately, the folly of this policy is well documented: Having a weapon nearby increases the likelihood that it will be used to commit suicide or cause injury or death to someone else.

In addition, despite NRA and NSSF claims that guns are necessary to protect one’s home from lurking invaders, evidence shows that “guns in the home are more likely to be used against occupants of that home, especially women . . . While two-thirds of women who own guns acquired them primarily for protection against crime, the results of a California analysis show that purchasing a handgun provides no protection against homicide among women.”

Even more chilling, the price we pay to assist victims of gun violence is steep. According to Diaz, the US spends approximately $100 billion a year on health care, disability and unemployment benefits for those who’ve been shot. Worse, that’s just the tip of the bullet: “In 2010 alone,” Diaz reports, “the cost of gun crime in America – gun murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault – was almost $58 billion, $57,926,815,000 to be exact.”

The NRA, of course, pooh-poohs these expenditures and instead argues that the United States is at a crossroads and has to choose between “two distinct paths and destinies.” Still reeling from the US losses in Vietnam, Diaz says that association members have been swayed by James William Gibson’s 1994 assertion that “Whites, no longer secure in their power abroad, also lost their unquestionable dominance at home.” Now, allied with the most racist branches of the US right-wing, the NRA’s “call to arms” is not symbolic – it’s literal.

The fantasy of a vast terrorist conspiracy out to destroy “the American way of life,” compounded by an influx of “illegal aliens,” requires action, they say. That the country is presently being led by an African-American male has further fanned the backlash.

You might think the Obama administration would fight back, but so far it has not. In fact, the government has not only flinched and cowered, it has expanded gun rights to allow people to bring firearms into national parks and onto Amtrak.

“America lacks a clear national plan of action to significantly reduce gun violence,” Diaz notes.

It obviously doesn’t have to be this way. Diaz advocates using a public health approach to stop gun violence, similar to the approach that led to the installation of seatbelts, air bags, energy-absorbing steering wheels, shatter-resistant windshields, head-rests, and better headlights and brakes in vehicles. By focusing on prevention – reducing the amount of firepower on the streets and in our homes – Diaz believes that public health will benefit. “Between 1966 and 2000, the combined efforts of government and advocacy organizations reduced the rate of motor vehicle death per 100,000 population by 43 percent,” he writes.

Creating a database that tracks all instances of gun violence, something that currently does not exist, he continues, is the first step in documenting the problem. “The gun industry’s marketing and distribution programs, coupled with increasingly lax laws about access to guns, are the equivalent of the badly designed, dangerous, and poorly marked roads before the advent of the vehicle safety public health approach. It benefits no one but the gun industry.”

Language is also important, and Diaz urges us to question the industry’s use of terms like “sporting rifles” when they are referring to semiautomatic assault rifles, guns that are increasingly available to anyone with the cash to buy one.

Diaz further urges us to stop accepting weak politicians who are afraid of angering the NRA – or of losing their campaign donations. “One of [NRA CEO and executive vice president] Wayne LaPierre’s stock horror stories is that some eggheads in America think that we might learn something about gun control from other nations of the world,” he writes. “He’s right. We can learn a lot from the successful experiences of other free and industrialized countries, including those that have sprung from the Anglo-Saxon heritage of which the NRA and the right-wing are so protective.

Other countries do not suffer the same torrent of needless gun death and injury for the simple reason that neither their citizens nor their leaders will tolerate it.”

Needless to say, we shouldn’t tolerate it either. We can pay tribute to Christa Engles and the other 30,000 people killed by gunfire last year by standing up to the NRA and the NSSF and making gun control and safety a priority. There is no better way to honor their memory.