It’s Time

Let’s Not Wait to Talk About Gun Control

Thirteen people are dead at the Washington Navy Yard.

It’s all happened before. It will certainly happen again. And after the recall vote in Colorado on September 10, it seems more certain than ever that nothing will be done to prevent it.

“It” is mass-casualty shootings, such as the one that just occurred in the Washington Navy Yard. This historic facility now joins the long roll of place names indelibly associated with massacre and grief: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown. I write on the day of the killing. Gun enthusiasts say it is inappropriate to talk about gun violence at the time it occurs. Better to wait ... and wait ... and wait ... until time has passed, and the weeping next of kin have vanished from TV, and it’s safe to return to business as usual. The idea of the gun enthusiasts is that the way to show respect for the victims of gun violence is to do everything possible to multiply their number.

Yet the gun enthusiasts do have one point on their side: for all the horror of these massacres, they are only a small part of the story of gun violence in America. Most casualties of gun violence will not die at the hands of a mentally disturbed killer seeking random victims. Most gun casualties occur in the course of quarrels and accidents between people who would be described as “law-abiding, responsible gun owners” up until the moment when they lost their temper or left a weapon where a 4-year-old could find it and kill himself or his sister.

As David Hemenway notes in his study Private Guns, Public Health, Americans have experienced similar debates in the recent past. “Cars don’t kill people; bad drivers kill people,” could have been the slogan of the auto industry when it resisted safety regulation in the 1960s. The garment industry could have argued: “Flammable pajamas don’t kill children; careless smokers kill children.” And so on. Every accident has many causes, of course, and public safety progresses by addressing each one. To reduce car fatalities, we both installed seat belts and cracked down on drunken driving. Child deaths by fire have been reduced both because pajamas are safer and because adults smoke less.

Likewise, better mental-health provision would contribute to the reduction of gun massacres. But America’s uniquely grisly record of gun death cannot be addressed without addressing guns.