Deadly rhetoric

Illustration by Noma Bar

Illustration by Noma Bar

The US gun lobby claims that guns save lives and keep us safe from criminals – what do social scientists say?

by Venkat Srinivasan

(Venkat Srinivasan is a writer and research engineer based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Caravan and Wired among others.)

The first gun massacre in Blacksburg, Virginia, probably occurred on 8 July, 1755, when a group of native Americans entered Draper’s Meadow and killed four settlers – probably, because there are no rules as to how many killings make a massacre, and because the number of victims is disputed. Some historians have placed the death toll at eight. Draper’s Meadow was a frontier settlement on the edge of Virginia, between the Blue Ridge Mountains and Allegheny Mountains. The natives attacked it, because they felt threatened by the tyranny of the English settlers, who viewed their common land as personal property.

Today, Blacksburg is a vibrant college town, one that is routinely named one of the best places to raise children. Its local university, Virginia Tech, is unfortunately associated with another widely known gun massacre. On 16 April, 2007, a student named Seung-Hui Cho shot two other students in a college dorm a few metres from Draper’s Meadow, before entering a campus building with two handguns and 400 rounds of ammunition. Once in the building, Cho proceeded classroom-by-classroom, finding and killing 27 students and five university staff before shooting himself. His rampage was the worst mass shooting – a category unto itself – in American history, and many people called for stricter controls on guns its wake. But America’s gun rights lobby offered a different take. They argued that the massacre could have been prevented if only someone else in the building had had a gun.

One of Virginia’s biggest supporters of ‘defending your right to defend yourself’ with a gun is the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL). To raise awareness, they run a stall at Blacksburg’s annual crafts, food and music festival, Steppin’ Out. Last year, it was adjacent to a street gymnastics competition for children. As the kids lined up to perform their routines and tumble on the mats, VCDL volunteers milled around distributing brochures about gun safety and gun rights lobbying. They also doled out bright, round, orange stickers proclaiming, in bold, black lettering: ‘Guns Save Lives.’

People of all ages – teenage girls and boys, adult women and men, parents with families – sported the sticker. Some slapped it on their bare upper arms, while others pasted it on their shirts. Kids and dogs wore them, too, though it’s a harder to imagine that the children, to say nothing of the dogs, had considered the sticker’s message carefully. Benjamin Sax, a former professor of religion at Virginia Tech, was at the festival that day with his seven-year-old daughter, who opted not to wear the sticker, asking her father: ‘Why do they do that?’ It’s a good question. With all that we now know about the gun, a fairly unambiguous weapon of destruction, why do some people still tout it as a saver of lives?

About 32,000 people are shot and killed every year in the United States. An additional 70,000 suffer non-fatal injuries from gun shots, three-quarters of which are due to interpersonal violence. Since 1968, more people have been killed by firearms on this civilian ‘peacetime’ battleground across the US than in all military conflicts beginning with the War of Independence in 1775. In 1997, the rate of firearm deaths among children under 15 years old was about 12 times higher in the US than the combined rate for 25 other industrialised countries. And in 2010, firearms accounted for 18,270 deaths or injuries to children and teenagers. The number of deaths due to guns has gone down from a peak in the early 1990s, but firearms still account for half the suicides and over two-thirds of all homicides. It is just a whole lot easier to kill with a bullet than by strangling, drowning, poisoning, or with fists, clubs and knives. But despite these ghastly statistics, one constantly encounters stickers, cable news hosts, and editorials insisting that guns save lives…





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