As written previously, I have strong views on gun violence in this country. My upbringing in rural Wisconsin swayed me toward loose gun restrictions, even though I myself was not particularly interested in firearms. My perspective has changed with education, distancing myself from the narrow views of my childhood, seeing more of the world, and by the violence that is wrought daily by guns in the United States. I write below about viewing gun violence from afar and provide some facts that have struck me along the way.
America has a problem with guns. Echoing Tom Ricks, it is more than a problem; America has a sick fascination with guns that has prevented the passage of important, necessary, and sensical legislation and that has made our country stand out as an outlier in annually topping the charts with the number of gun deaths and mass shootings.
I have a unique perspective on America, guns, and mass shootings. In December 2012, I was deployed as a Marine infantry officer in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. As my Marines and I were preparing to depart our base on another daily combat patrol, we saw the news that twenty young elementary children and six teachers were murdered in Newtown, Connecticut. Again, on another deployment in 2016 advising Jordanian military forces, we watched and read the news as an attack unfolded at an Orlando night club, at the time the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
The irony was not lost on me during the Sandy Hook massacre. Here I was an infantry Marine in Afghanistan, attempting to provide security in a land many Americans consider to be backward, uncivilized, and dangerous, all the while children in my own country were being murdered and the government would ultimately take no measures to change the ease of access to high-powered guns. The same was true in Jordan, as I was offered sincere condolences for the murders in Orlando by dozens of Jordanian military members and civilians, yet many Americans would consider countries in the Middle East like Jordan to be filled with jihadists hell bent on beheading Americans on site.
The international numbers speak for themselves. According to the Small Arms Survey, the United States owns more guns per capita than any other nation at 120 firearms per 100 residents. We are a nation that has more firearms than people. The next closest country as of 2018 was Yemen at approximately 50 firearms per 100 residents. (The same Yemen that is currently gripped in a Civil War and terrorist violence.) The United States also has the highest percentage of gun-related deaths among the developed world. In most fields of research, the number of firearms and the levels of gun violence would be a relationship of causation or correlation, yet even after the El Paso and Dayton shootings of 2019, leaders including President Donald Trump solely blamed mental illness and hatred, again leaning toward no action against gun access. One of the most common inquiries I have received from my encounters with non-Americans overseas is just how dumbfounded it is that Americans so freely, easily, and enthusiastically purchase and maintain firearms. The concept is simply irrational. It is plainly obvious to most international observers why Americans have such a problem with gun deaths and mass shootings: there are too many guns.
My generation has come to age with the facts of public gun violence that has transformed into a culture of mass shootings. Starting in 2006 when I was a college student in Virginia, I have witnessed shootings at schools like Virginia Tech (2007, 32 killed), Sandy Hook (2012, 27 killed), and Parkland (2018, 17 killed). I have heard the news of massacres at houses of worship such as at Killeen, TX (2017, 25 killed), the Tree of Life Synagogue (2018, 11 killed), and an African American church in Charleston (2015, 9 killed). Yet more violence occurred at bars, movie theaters, and places of work: Aurora (2012, 12 killed), the Washington Navy Yard (2013, 12 killed), San Bernardino, CA (2015, 12 killed), Fort Hood (2009, 13 killed), Thousand Oaks, CA (2018, 12 killed), Orlando (2016, 49 killed), Virginia Beach (2019, 12 killed), and now a Wal-Mart in El Paso, TX and a bar in Dayton, OH. I’ve witnessed the news of the largest mass shooting in American history at a concert in Las Vegas in 2017 that killed 58 and wounded over 500 people. Almost anywhere imaginable – any type of place that is public, vulnerable, and has innocent people in it – has been targeted.
The list of mass shootings highlights only some of the prominent events. Let’s not forget that most gun deaths occur daily on the streets of America’s cities and neighborhoods. In 2016 alone, 36,658 Americans were killed by guns, and the majority of these were either suicides or other homicides. It is worth asking just how many of these deaths could have been prevented or the number of victims lowered if not for the access to firearms in this country. As a point of comparison, 37,461 Americans died on the roads in vehicle accidents during 2016. While every traffic death is tragic, Americans still get on the roads every day as vehicle travel is an important foundation to the American economy and to Americans’ access to markets and each other. There is an important economic, national, and social purpose for driving. For what important economic, national, or social purpose does gun access serve most of the American public? The answer is that there is no important purpose except to serve the idolization of guns by many Americans and the services of the gun lobby.
Historically, the idea of an unlimited right to gun ownership in the Constitution is simply incorrect, as prominent founding-era historian Joseph Ellis acknowledges. The right to bear arms was directly – and solely – linked to a citizen’s service and membership in a militia. The very idea is ludicrous that our founders, who though brilliant are also too busy being dead, would have thought it wise to provide large-scale high-powered gun ownership to the mass of average and untrained citizens. Remember, the founders may have overthrown a rule of British tyranny, but they were equally skeptical of the “great beast” that the mass of citizens represented, as they concernedly observed the revolting events in France at the time.
Yet, even with the absence of historical context in the debate about guns, it is disappointing and disheartening that state and federal governments have not appropriately enacted measures against such large numbers of deaths from a single source. So many political leaders mention that the most important political responsibility of national politicians is to keep Americans safe, yet they have consistently failed to do so regarding this issue. When they discuss taking any action, it rarely revolves around actually banning certain types of firearms, limiting the number of firearms already available, and making guns extremely difficult to purchase. Following the shooting in El Paso Texas Governor, Republican Greg Abbott, turned his attention to mental health almost immediately. Imagine if every time you went to the doctor, or took your car to an auto shop, the physicians or mechanics consistently misdiagnosed your problem, despite the facts staring them right in the face. The lack of attacking the root of a problem would not be tolerated in business or medical fields. But it is tolerated with guns. It is not that we have more mental health patients than the rest of the world, it is that it is too easy for people with motives to kill to purchase a firearm in this country.
For infantry Marines, weapons are a deadly tool used with great effectiveness to accomplish the mission on the battlefield and ultimately serve the nation’s interests. The right to carry and use a weapon, especially in the Marine Corps, comes with a high level of responsibility, a determined focus on safety, strict handling and storage procedures, and constant demands and expectations of professional conduct and behavior. It is a slap in the face, a professional embarrassment, that outside the armed forces, which uses weapons for a living, military-style guns are so easy to attain and there are no public expectations and standards of safe behavior. Current and former service members, as well as law enforcement professionals who face the dangers of high-powered guns daily, should be at the front of the line demanding gun legislation that restricts public gun access, especially to military-style weapons.
My service as a Marine, and particularly my time overseas during the shootings at Sandy Hook and Orlando, has given me perspective on guns. From an outside view the problem is self-inflicted, the solution is simple, the logic is clear, yet the inaction is abhorrent. Other nations that have experienced gun massacres have acted decisively and the results have demonstrated effectiveness. Leaders of this nation, and specifically leaders of the Republican Party, continue to demonstrate a lack of leadership on the issue and no moral courage to act. Leadership means being in front of constituents and leading them in the right direction, not simply doing as constituents say, which by its nature is not leading. The United States consistently fails to lead and act and thus we continue to be an international embarrassment regarding gun deaths.
America is sick with guns. The country will continue to suffer as long as easy access to firearms continues to be tolerated.