Let me get right to it: There is never an easy, unemotional time to talk about gun violence. And if we're serious about saving innocent lives, we're going to need to make some sacrifices, to be brave.
We know the drill. After every mass shooting, we're reminded not to politicize the wounding and deaths of students and teachers and others by talking about how to stop it, to wait until passions cool, ostensibly out of respect for the grieving. Then the camera crews leave town and we move on to other things.
But students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former classmate killed 17 people and wounded 14 others with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, are not waiting. They are seizing their moment in front of the cameras and at rallies, as 18-year-old Emma Gonzales did over the weekend, to demand gun control.
That they are so young and still in the throes of grief and reeling from what they've experienced, that their voices are so raw, is part of their power. It's also what will allow some to dismiss them as emotional and too close to the issue.
It's been nearly 30 years since at the age of 16 I lost someone I loved, shot by strangers who were teenagers themselves. And I have not cooled off. People who've lost a loved one to murder will tell you the grief doesn't end, exactly. It thins out — more for some than others — into a kind of film, touching every experience with an absence that will always be wrong. Those of us who live with that kind of loss can't afford to wait until we can have esoteric discussions about gun violence, or for even more people to lose someone so they feel it as sharply, doing the grim math of multiplying their own grief by the number of newly dead.
Call that bias, if you like. It changes nothing. The statistics remain the same. We are not safer with more guns. According to a New York Times article citing a study out of the University of Alabama, "America's gun homicide rate was 33 per million people in 2009, far exceeding the average among developed countries. In Canada and Britain, it was 5 per million and 0.7 per million, respectively, which also corresponds with differences in gun ownership." This despite similar crime rates between the U.S. and Britain — and no, the study found no correlation relating to population diversity or rates of mental illness. Rather unsurprisingly, rates of mass shootings in the countries studied also climbed with increased gun ownership.
But this is not about statistics. If it was, we wouldn't be racking up 10.2 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2010 according to the American Journal of Medicine. We'd have gone the way of the U.K., which banned private ownership of handguns, semiautomatic rifles and pump-action shotguns and registered shotgun owners and lowered its annual gun deaths to .2 per 100,000. If we were making cold, dispassionate judgements, we would have copied Australia, which after banning semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns, and restricting gun ownership saw one gun death per 100,000 people. We'd have followed Japan, with its ban on handguns and its rigorous vetting and testing for shotguns and air rifles. It scored a 0 per 100,000, but its annual gun deaths hover around 10 people. Keep in mind hunting and target shooting haven't been outlawed in any of these countries.
I lived in Tokyo, the world's most populous city with 38 million people, for a decade without hearing a single gunshot. My children only took part in school drills for earthquakes. We brought our kids back to the U.S. after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown. Sometimes I wonder if we made the safest choice.
No, gun violence and gun control are not about hard numbers, unless we're talking about polling numbers for gun voters or campaign donations from the National Rifle Association. It's about emotion and gut feeling: who we think we are, what makes us feel safe and what we're willing to sacrifice.
After every mass shooting news outlets and public officials alike laud the dead and wounded who sacrificed themselves, shielding the bodies of others with their own, like Sonny Melton, a nurse who died saving his wife in Las Vegas. Or Jason Josaphat, who died putting himself between a stranger and a bullet at the Pulse nightclub. Or Aaron Feis, the Stoneman Douglas football coach killed shielding students from gunfire. And now some are suggesting teachers, the folks we can't seem to pay or supply well enough, carry weapons and be the oft-theorized but seldom realized "good guy with a gun." (In its study of 160 mass shootings that left 486 dead, the FBI found only one successful intervention by an armed private citizen who was not a security guard.)
Maybe we're asking for the wrong kind of sacrifice. I won't pretend we won't lose anything giving up easy access to firearms. We would have to let go of some deeply rooted ideas of who we are and how we keep ourselves and each other safe.
I want to believe that most of us would throw ourselves in front of a bullet to protect a child or victim of domestic violence or a stranger — that we'd sacrifice. But if we're going to stem the bloody tide of gun violence, what we need to sacrifice is part of our culture, to trade our romanticized image of armed heroism for something quieter: the laying down of arms, letting go of our national stockpile of guns in order to protect our most vulnerable. We need to surrender the false feeling of security that comes with access to guns, to be brave enough to put down the weapons that are failing our most vulnerable. That's how we're going to save children, the battered, the people we may never meet — from a distance and every day, with no shootouts and no medals.
It might not feel heroic to you yet. Let yourself think about it in the abstract, to look at the numbers and the studies with as cold an eye as you can. Don't take too long, though. The numbers won't stop climbing and chances are you're going to feel it soon enough.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.