Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reducing Gun Violence Means Addressing Poverty, Desperation

By Nathan Rothwell

Firearm-related homicides in U.S. cities rival those of the deadliest nations
I would like to preface this piece by acknowledging that my perspective on gun control is colored by personal circumstances. For example, I have no children – nor do I intend to. Perhaps I would feel stronger about limiting the availability of firearms if this were not the case, or perhaps not. In any case, I freely admit that this bias exists.

I have also never been a victim of gun violence, nor do I directly know anyone who has. This likely sets my opinions apart from those who tragically cannot say the same. But this is important to note, because the great gun discussion which has gripped the nation for decades includes a wide variety of perspectives, with every one of them colored by individual motives and experience. Honestly, I would not have this debate any other way.

With that said, there is only one place for this debate to begin. Special attention must be brought to the conversation’s loudest voice, belonging to none other than Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association.

Over the last 15 years, the NRA has been acknowledged as one of America’s most influential lobbying groups. They have proved to be quite successful in lobbying toward a single goal: promoting gun ownership. While there is nothing inherently wrong with their objective, they seem unmoved by the resulting consequences. When LaPierre argues in favor of putting more guns near schools in the name of protecting children, is he concerned with promoting safety, or gun ownership? When the NRA releases its own video game almost immediately after blaming video games for our national violence problem, how can it be argued that they do not value promoting gun ownership above all else?

This should go without saying since it’s so painfully obvious, but it unfortunately must be repeated again, as the NRA would rather not admit to it – firearms are offensive weapons and instruments of violence. They hold the potential to end a life within the blink of an eye, and this potential is realized every day when lives end at the barrel of a gun. LaPierre and his organization seems completely unwilling to own up to these simple facts, which makes them difficult to take seriously when discussing gun control.

There is just no overlooking the fact that gun violence cannot be committed without guns. The NRA deserves to be taken to task for constantly and disingenuously skirting around this obvious truth. However, and as much as it pains me to do this, I have to agree with their staunch opposition to recent gun control legislation.

As we often do in this country, we are once again reacting to the latest crisis with short-sighted, kneejerk responses, while completely ignoring more effective long-term solutions. Those who truly wish to threaten, injure, or murder people with a gun are rarely deterred by the fact that doing so is illegal. Cracking down on the ability to legally acquire and utilize firearms solely affects law-abiding citizens who posed no threat to begin with; those who intend to use guns for violent means will simply turn to theft or seek out a crooked gun dealer to achieve their goals.

The prevalence of guns in the United States is certainly a factor in the amount of national gun violence (even though the NRA refuses to admit it), but it is not the chief cause. Neither is the prevalence of violent media, which is itself a red herring argument.

"Guns don't kill people. People kill people." - The NRA
"Yes, but I think the gun helps." - Eddie Izzard

Violent television shows, movies, news reports, music, and video games are rampantly consumed by Americans, but this is also the case all over the world. It does not effectively explain why certain U.S. cities have gun-related homicide rates rivaling that of the deadliest nations around the globe. The overwhelming majority of us consume and even celebrate our violent culture without turning to violent crime.

If we truly mean to put a stop not just to gun violence, but all illegal violence, we must ask ourselves what drives people to commit such terrible crimes in the first place. This is where solutions become far more difficult, which is why they have been all but completely ignored. After all, why ask ourselves difficult questions when we can simply assign blame to an inanimate firearm or video game and call it a day?

Rather than blame violent media for all of our problems, we can instead turn to it for meaningful answers. For example, the critically-acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos notoriously illustrated what drives certain individuals to commit horrible, violent acts.  Mobster protagonist Tony Soprano’s interactions with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi reveal that his actions are driven by a sense of desperation. He is plagued by an overwhelming sense of dread that he cannot obtain comfort or provide for his family without succumbing to the base instinct of threatening/murdering a rival and taking what he needs.

Mr. Soprano is himself driven by greed and a certain degree of bloodlust, but many other factors cause people to become desperate to the point of violence. The U.S. Census Bureau indicates that 16% of Americans live in poverty, many through no fault of their own. The “War on Drugs” has been an abysmal failure, except in turning ne’er-do-well thugs into overnight millionaires who form gangs to protect their lucrative drug trafficking businesses – not to mention making America’s incarceration rate the highest in the world.

And worst of all, certain Americans are labeled socialists and tyrants for attempting to curtail the costs of a skyrocketing health care system. Many have assigned a direct role in the recent mass-shooting epidemic to the lack of mental health care options in this country, but the problem isn’t a lack of options; it’s the exorbitant costs of such options. Many health insurance companies refuse to cover mental health issues, making treatment a luxury that only the wealthy can afford.

Fighting poverty, reforming health care, and ending the War on Drugs (in particular) would have a much greater effect in reducing American gun violence than banning video games or curtailing gun ownership. Naturally, these solutions have been mostly ignored. Not only because they seem like indirect solutions, but also because certain parties are highly motivated to maintain the status quo.

Republicans have repeatedly threatened to thwart the Obama Administration and even shut down the government entirely in the face of taxes potentially being raised on their corporate donors the American plutocracy, even as income inequality in the U.S. rivals that of third-world nations. Meanwhile, private companies have been offering to purchase prisons from state governments in exchange for a guarantee that said governments keep those prisons full of inmates – a goal much easier achieved by keeping them full of drug traffickers. And as mentioned before, proponents of health care reform are labeled socialist dictators, even though the United States is the only developed nation that does not offer some form of universal health care.

In summation, it does us no further good to assign blame if the true goal is to reduce gun violence. Worrying about who is responsible will not bring back the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary, nor will it prevent another elementary school from suffering a similar fate. Instead, we are much better served by reevaluating how we treat the young, poor, and sick citizens of this nation.

If desperate times call for desperate measures, then the most effective measure of all can only be curtailing the sense of desperation that sadly plagues so many of us.

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