National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  September 5, 2003

Study unmasks U.S. addiction to guns

With 200 million private firearms out there, curbing guns is an uphill struggle


Many Americans have almost given up on the possibility of cutting back on the carnage done by handguns. But a new 469-page study issued by the Brookings Institution offers a massive amount of information on the gun culture. “Evaluating Gun Policy” surveys all of the fears and phobias behind the fact that 36 percent of American households own a gun, with at least 200 million firearms in private circulation. Less than 10 percent of guns are owned by women.

In 1999, 28,874 Americans died by gunfire. The rate of death by gun violence for young Hispanic men was several times the rate for non-Hispanics; the death rate for young black men was 25 times the rate for white males.

In 1998, more than 30,000 Americans took their own lives. Nearly 65 percent chose to use a gun.

The major legal method used to curb the abuse of guns is to restrict their sale. There are 4,000 gun shows held annually along with sales at countless retail outlets. The federal Brady bill has prevented the sale of guns to some 41,500 persons with records of crime or mental instability. But the desire and the demand for guns continues. Thirty-three states now allow the sale of concealable weapons; their owners proclaim that such guns decrease crime.

There are some initiatives designed to cut back on gun violence. Federal and state laws have increased prison penalties, the buy-back of guns is widely used and education on the dangers of guns is increasing.

But America’s addiction to guns, an addiction unknown in countries like Canada, Japan or England, continues. The new Brookings study does not diagnose the strange obsession of the National Rifle Association. But this organization wields compelling power over members of Congress from Western states where the possession of guns is deemed a God-given right -- or at least a guarantee of the Second Amendment. One can point out that there is no judicial or academic authority for this conclusion. But to no avail. The NRA can somehow dominate the scene. The defenders of the Brady bill are valiant, but their struggle is uphill.

Some time ago Harvard University held a conference comparing the Canadian experience where guns are almost nonexistent to the very different American scene. No one at the conference could explain the stark contrast except by the decades of relying on guns on the Western frontier.

When Ronald Reagan was seriously wounded by a gun in an assassination attempt, many were convinced that the time to curb guns in America had finally arrived. But even that horror show could not induce Congress to act -- even though up to 70 percent of the American people want to regulate guns.

Homicide is always a mysterious and baffling event. Why Cain killed Abel has never really been resolved. But the violence and the threat of violence caused by the presence of millions of guns in the United States has to be a sign that Americans believe in self-help in a way no other civilized society allows. The recent study by the Brookings Institution furnishes objective and unbiased information that can be helpful in working toward the resolution of a seemingly intractable problem.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 2003

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