Less than 24 hours before the Sandy Hook shooting, students in my media and politics class, in our final meeting of the semester, debated gun control in the abstract. Students presented their findings on media misrepresentations of reality and demonstrated that, on this contentious issue, reality remains hard to grasp. Yet the next morning, reality was before us as another violent tragedy played out on television.

Liza Long’s piece on this site about the role of mental illness in these incidents has spread widely, and many others have emphasized the importance of discussing ways to improve mental health in this country. Absolutely. But let’s not be distracted from the real issue.

Mental health is a problem around the world. Every country has troubled individuals who cannot be reached before it’s too late. The United States might have an edge, but mental disorders are “commonly occurring and often seriously impairing” throughout the world, according to an overview of World Health Organization surveys.

Richardson & Hemenway (2003): The US homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in the other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher.But America unquestionably has far higher rates of firearm deaths than other high-income countries around the world. Many poorer countries, especially in Latin American and the Caribbean, have higher per capita rates, but the U.S. far outranks other advanced industrialized nations, including European nations and others such as Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Within the United States, research demonstrates that “gun violence is not just the product of troubled or deranged individuals, as is commonly portrayed, but is both associated with and embedded within the economic and social context of places,” according to analysis by The Atlantic. “Whether looking at the state or metro level, we find strikingly consistent associations between gun violence and key markers of socio-economic disadvantage—poverty, income, education, class, and race.”

Research also supports the importance of gun control. The Atlantic found “substantial negative correlations between the rate of gun deaths and states that ban assault weapons, require trigger locks, and mandate safe storage requirements for guns.” Gun deaths are significantly lower where there are stricter gun control laws. Studies also show that homes, cities, states and regions with more guns correlates with a higher risk of firearm homicide.

We do not need to ban guns or even come close. We just need sensible restrictions, as Nicholas Kristof illustrated on Saturday when he asked why we don’t regulate guns as seriously as we regulate other potentially dangerous machines such as cars or even ladders. Gun rights advocates often mistakenly focus solely on the user of the machine (i.e., “guns don’t kill people”), but it’s the machine’s fundamental capacity to do harm that demands regulation. Kristof concludes: “The fundamental reason kids are dying in massacres like this one is not that we have lunatics or criminals—all countries have them—but that we suffer from a political failure to regulate guns.”

Gun regulation does not violate the Second Amendment just as speech and press regulations do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment tells us to literally make “no law” restricting our freedom of speech or the press, but of course, we have plenty of laws that do just that, from libel and obscenity laws to copyright and the licensing of broadcasters. This is because most of us can come together and agree that we have certain agreed upon interests that we value above pure, unfettered free speech for everyone at all times. The same should be true of guns.

I encourage my students to look for the nuance in this and all issues. Like abortion, immigration and other tough issues, nothing is black and white. Neither the evidence nor the solution. In this case, where can we impose reasonable limits while still protecting the constitutional right to bear arms? How can we balance gun rights with other broadly shared social goals like protecting our children?

How about bringing back the assault weapons ban? Requiring trigger locks and safe storage has worked well in other countries, as have longer waiting periods and some gun buyback programs. As Kristof reports, Canada now requires two references to buy a gun. How about that? Even pet adoption requires references.

So yes, let’s have the conversation on mental illness. Surely we need to take care of those who need help. But let’s not ignore the evidence on sensible gun laws. Now is the time to find the political will to finally make some progress on this issue. Certainly it is absurd for us to sit back, do nothing, and wait for tragedy to strike again.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • chuckdaly

    Unfortunately, articles like this will not foster any honest debate. Yes, the US has a higher gun related death rate than other countries, but over half of the gun related deaths are suicides, and over half of the homicides are drug and gang related. How many drug and gang related homicides occur with legally obtained firearms or even with assault weapons? Virtually none. Sadly, confiscating and banning all firearms will not stop those deaths from occuring. Also the Atlantic is far from an unbiased source regarding gun control. I could easily post studies from the Heritage Foundation as well. Gun advocates know far more about gun control facts than gun control advocates know about firearms. For example, most gun control advocates don’t know that using a high capacity magazine [30 rounds] only saves a shooter about 1 second over the shooter just switching magazines.

    While most americans do believe a little more gun regulation is needed, Democrats should use the Republicans “Mental Health” scapegoat and run with it. Brokering a deal with republicans to fund more mental health facilities and help for parents of mentally ill will truly help lower the amount of crimes like that of Newtown, CT. While banning large capacity magazines, and assault weapons might make people feel good, it will do very little to help thwart gun violence. All other loopholes would need to be closed on the state level.

    • Marcus Ampe

      In case those who wanted to kill themselves had no gun, they would have thought about other means perhaps, but it would have been more difficult. In Belgium a more severe gun law halved the suicides by guns to 89 in 2006; 73 in 2008 and 68.for 2010.

      In West Europe we do not have so many mass shootings as in the United States. But also in Europe the most important matter is to look at the mental health system and all the work that has to be done in that sector.

      One of the reasons why Obama Care has to be worked out much more, though many Americans are against such a democratic and necessary health scheme.

      • chuckdaly

        I agree that guns are viewed as as easier way to commit suicide, but countries like Japan have some of the higest rates of suicide in the world, where no one, not even police officers own firearms.

        Mass shootings are a very recent phenomenom in the US, but the worst mass killings were not even commited with firearms. My personal opinion, is that if all guns were banned and confiscated in a single day, mass killings will continue by other means, probably like those used in the middle east. As long as parents have difficulty obtaining adequate mental care for troubled children, and the US media continues to glorigy the nuts who commit these crimes, it won’t stop. I think US news outlets should limit how often they broadcast the name of the killer. The victims names are rarely remembered by the public, but most americans can name the killers of the Oklahoma city bombing, The DC snipings, Columbine shootings, Aurora Theater shooting, VT shooting, etc. Ask an american to name a single victim of any of the previous incidents and watch them struggle to recollect.

        • Marcus Ampe

          Psychological treatment should in the first place being easily accessible for every one, and there should be a medical supervision and ability by gp’s to direct people to the right treatment.

          As you say by prohibiting guns this would not stop people killing themselves nor killing others. But it can diminish already a lot and make it more difficult to come into such a murderous action. (Which shall give some time to have it noticed that something is going wrong, so that counter action can be taken before the worst happens.)

    • theUg

      What is your “virtually none” based on? Where do you think criminals get thousands and thousands of guns? Did they all killed and robbed their mothers to get them? How about this statistic: 57% of gun crimes are linked to less than 1% of licensed gun dealers ( http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=129253&page=1 ). Yet ATF has no resources or rights, thanks to gun industry lobbying, to prosecute or regulate those dealers. They cannot even mandate them to keep track of their inventory.

  • Kevin K

    This disturbed young man was bent on destroying society,,a trigger lock? a waiting period? a magazine capacity restriction? what would have prevented this tragedy? The mentally ill need to be recognized for what they are…Guns in the home of a mentally ill man, that’s poor judgement, his mother and many others payed the price for this mistake. Here’s another scenario,,no guns,,,the disturbed young man has dropped out of school,,bounces from place to place,,his last job before his name hits the papers isn’t of much concern unless it’s your child he’s driving down the interstate with. He really liked his new job, 10 bucks an hour, “School Bus Driver”

    I like the idea of having firearms instruction INSIDE our schools,,an elective perhaps.
    So many firearms in society with no respect to such. Our kids grow up playing Commando games and dream of the day they turn 18 so they can buy an AK or AR,,but they have zero firearm instruction! They don’t know the butt end from the muzzle, and certainly have no respect for the deadly force they have just purchased. Pass a firearms instruction course first, then you may own a gun.

    Passing legislation limiting the magazine capacity doesn’t deter anything,,,a reload can be an unconscious act performed in less than three seconds. Trigger lock is just stupid placed on a weapon designed for self defense, imagine fumbling for keys as you hear footsteps in the hallway at 3am. Safe storage is of course a good idea for holding a collection but that’s as bad as a trigger lock under duress. Assault weapons ban? what’s an assault weapon? I hope it’s not my beloved AR,,Eugene Stoner’s design is the most accurate semi-automatic HUNTING rifle I own, I can place a second or third shot in the “kill zone” on a deer very quickly, bringing meat to the table effectively/humanely.

    I do see a need for change in society,,too many sick individuals lurking amongst us,,I’m still pissed at the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. We need to recognize and eliminate the potential threats to society before they become “national tragedies”

    I don’t have any immediate answers but I hate the idea of someone supposing the idea that limiting my rights makes society a safer place from people like Adam Lanza.

  • Noel O

    This article states many points in regards to Gun laws, mental health, and gun-related homicide. But I do not see any reference to legal owned vs. illegally owned? This is one of the biggest misconceptions.Also many of the gun control restrictions that are stated i.e., trigger locks, references, etc are current gun control policies in effect in many states. For example, in CT, you must gather 3 references (maybe less), take a CCW (concealed Carry Weapons) class, and gather approval from the local police sheriff (in Bpt, CT at least not sure of other areas). There may be more but I am not sure of all the requirements. Each State has a website that will provide this information. And the “analysis” made by the Atlantic, ““Whether looking at the state or metro level, we find strikingly consistent associations between gun violence and key markers of socio-economic disadvantage—poverty, income, education, class, and race.”, well of course. My biggest gripe with the statement, “we have to do something”, is that the easiest and in my personal opinion the least expensive, is the route that is shown as the only option. Let us look at our government’s choice of drug enforcement. Millions upon millions is spent on drug enforcement, jail time for drug offenders, border patrol, state of the art surveillance equipment, on and on. How much is actually spent on drug assistance? Helping people who are addicted, helping them to become drug free? Most of my knowledge comes from a personal experience with a parent. And the assistance we received: was the family coming together to pay for private in-patient program. In conclusion, as a comparison, if a person takes a life while driving under the influence (211 children in 2010 (madd.org/statistics/), the gov’t does not try to ban cars, people do not blame the cars, why is it that people believe that in incidents like this guns should be banned? Is it more of misinformation brought on by the media, lack of overall knowledge, or just misinformation on their part?

  • Marcus Ampe

    When ordinary people can not get to guns a lot of damage can already been avoided. Guns are not play-toys.

    Why do ordinary citizens have to bear weapons? Leave them to the security forces and the army and keep them out of daily life.

    • I lived in the foothills north of Boise. When coyotes come onto my property and spook our horses and fight with our dogs, we have a gun (safely stored and unloaded) to shoot at the coyotes to scare them, or kill them if necessary. One time, a coyote came, and a horse jumped over the fence, the coyote chased it onto a 65 MPH highway and the horse got hit and killed by a semi truck. If you were driving a small car and hit a horse, the driver might have died, too. If a coyote is on our lawn I’m not going to call the cops and wait 15 minutes for them to drive from the city to come shoot it for me, by then our dogs, chickens, cats and horses might be dead or injured. Many other farmers and ranchers are in the same situation. This is why ordinary people bear weapons.

      • Marcus Ampe

        To give signs to wild animals a noise maker can help or a hunting gun, but that would not need a war-gun, like so many military arms are on sale for any civilian to get.
        A problem with wild animals coming so close to populated areas is also because they do not have enough food because too much of their food is taken away by hunters and poachers. when enough food is provided for the wild animals they would not have to come to catch the easier prey. Gamekeepers should be more aware of that.
        Naturally you have to protect you livestock and house animals and as long as that is taken serious and the only reason for having the gun, this should not be a problem when it is in sound hands who take care that nobody else can get onto it.

        Also a better control on whom can buy a weapon to hunt can help to restrict the weapon falling into unsound people.

        • 1234bear

          What is a “WAR” gun? Only in very rare instances can a private citizen possess a quote ‘WAR’ gun.

      • 1234bear

        It’s called the 3 S’s, Shoot, Shovel ,and Shut up. At least that’s what they do in WY with the Timber Wolf. I suspect that’s what they do in Idaho too.

    • Also, in regards to hunting as a sport, look at mountain towns in Colorado and Idaho that rely on the hunting season for the city’s summer economy. If only the cops and military had guns, those cities would become ghost towns. Ski resorts like Tamarack and Brundage can’t support FOUR Idaho mountain towns with skiing alone. Taking away guns is one way to turn Valley county into a ghost town. Hunting for a sport is not a bad idea. You gotta think outside the “city boy” box here.

  • Susan

    A perspective piece from forensic pathologist who less passionately addresses the violence; why it will happen again; how we can each find our part in lessening the likelihood, and putting guns and mental health issue in the recipe, but not calling them the anchor ingredient.

  • “How about bringing back the assault weapons ban?”

    How about it? Even the NY Times has finally noted that Connecticut had an “assault weapons” ban which mirrored the Federal version and stayed in place after the Federal law lapsed in 2004. Yet the Bushmaster used was purchased in compliance with that law.

    Well – either the media is claiming an “assault weapon” was used even though legally they are wrong, or the weapon was modified after purchase (possible).

    And let’s note that no serious soldier would use this civilian rifle for an assault. The military M16 can fire in full automatic (one trigger pull empties the clip), bursts (three rounds per pull) or single shot. The civilian version is locked on one pull, one shot.

    What makes this an “assault weapon” for legal purposes is mostly cosmetic gidgets that make it look cool in a Hollywood movie or at the shooting range but don’t really impact its lethality. For example, a flash suppressor, a bayonet lug and a grenade-launcher mount may look scary (or cool) but aren’t really relevant to how the gun was used. The pistol grip and the collapsible stock (helpful for concealment) are also non-essential for killing people. The high capacity magazine seems to me to be an issue, but that would be legal on a normal looking “hunting” rifle. And with “only” ten bullets in the clip instead of thirty, the shooter has to swap clips more often – not that hard, I have been told.

  • Threadson

    I have a better idea. We make muder illegal, that way people won’t murder each other because after all…laws stop criminals from commiting crimes, right? People like the author of this article that live in a fantasy land where laws make it impossible for bad things to happen have no idea what the real world is like. This is America, land of the free and home of the brave, not the land of reasonable restrictions and waiting periods. We cannot regulate evil, the man that committed this horrible crime was evil, period. Yet as scared sheep we blame not the deranged lunatic but the tool used by the perpetrator. You want a solution? Well I’ll tell you right now, it’s not regulation, or reasonable restrictions, wake up and realize that what you see as reasonable is nothing more than infringement upon the rights of millions of Americans. Gun laws only affect legal gun owners, this Lanza character did not own any of the firearms he used to carry out the horrific killings at Sandy Hook. Lanza stole the firearms, after murdering his own mother. Someone low enough to murder not only their own mother but 20 first graders and 6 more adults obviously doesn’t care about your reasonable restrictions. You Sir, the author of this article are nothing more than a foolish and ignorant enemy of the constitution.

    • Marcus Ampe

      We can not restrict people doing evil, but we can make it more difficult for evil people to do what they would like to do. In the states it seems to easy to buy products which can bring damage to others (people, animals and plants)
      There should be much more control on what is produced and offered in the shops to the general public to safeguard others.

      • 1234bear

        For your information 99.99% of all the firearms owners are not going to kill anyone today. The city with the toughest gun laws in the nation had 505 homicides in 2012 and 42 in Jan.2013. So how’s that “gun control” working out there. When I think of gun control I see two steady hands. That and a good Glock 17 is all need to stop the bad guy who is threatening your life.

  • The problem with assessing and extrapolating gun violence and homicides to be associated with the entire culture is that much of it is related and confined to a criminal subculture, particularly the drug subculture. There’s an abundance of ancillary questions within this arena, such as how the lifting of prohibition would affect this type of crime and gun violence. I do, however, believe it is past time for some reasonable restrictions, including high capacity magazines, armor piercing ammunition and certain military weapons. I would also include proof of training in safety and use such as is commonly required for the purchase of a youth hunting license.

    • Threadson

      How about we require proof of training in safety of the first amendment? You believe in reasonable restrictions of the second amendment. Well I believe in reasonable restrictions of the first amendment, that way we can censor offensive material such as, pornagraphy, obscene language, or anything that I deem offensive. We need federal regulation of the second amendment as well as the first, and third, and fourth and fifth, and so on.

      • Marcus Ampe


        • 1234bear

          Hey after reading what you have posted I say that your POV is just hypothetical. Read the 2nd Amendment.

      • theUg

        Note how you said “anything I deem offensive”. The problem is that people living in society refuse to work with the rest of society on some sort of consensus. It is always what you, or I, or she, or someone else “deems” necessary, and seldom something what we can agree on.