CNN's Frida Ghitis' recently penned an Op-Ed titled "How strong, really, is America?" which addresses the Boston Bombings, gun violence in America, and the American legislative process for addressing issues.
In some ways, Ms. Ghitis' article has many things right: you don't mess with America; American patriotism is strong as is our ability to come together in crisis; and our reach and power in the world is quite notable. But Ms. Ghitis also got many things wrong. Like many pundits writing on gun violence and gun control, she appears to be woefully under-educated and researched on the issue, relying on other authors who similarly have not fact-checked original sources well. In four ways, Frida Ghits proves she doesn't get it on gun control.
1. False Basis for the Severity of the Problem:
The first problem is not having an accurate basis for the severity of the problem or harm to be addressed by policy. I'm all for an open and honest discussion, but honesty in the data cited is the first – and possibly most important – step.
Ghitis: "Americans are dying by the thousands at the hands of other Americans and the country can't figure out what to do about it ... More than 30,000 people in the United States are killed every year by someone brandishing a gun ... It is as if a house stood protected as a fortress ... while inside the residents were slaughtering one another."
Counterpoint: The word "dying" links to CDC, which says, "intentional self-harm (suicide) by discharge of firearms" resulted in 19,392 deaths (table 10, p.23). Two-thirds of the deaths involving firearms are suicides. Ms. Ghitis says, "dying at the hands of other Americans" and "slaughtering one another." Suicide is dying at your own hands or slaughtering oneself, not one another. The basis for two-thirds of the deaths are not at "others hands." Ghitis should read her own cited sources more carefully. Further, FBI data shows that there were 8,874 homicides involving firearms of all types in 2010, the same year as Ghitis cites the CDC stats.
Another problem with Ghitis' description is the word choice of "brandishing." Brandishing is defined as "wave or flourish (something, esp. a weapon) as a threat or in anger or excitement" (Google search). Merriam-Webster defines it as: 1) to shake or wave (as a weapon) menacingly 2) to exhibit in an ostentatious or aggressive manner. This could only rightly be used in reference to violent crime or homicide against another person in the context of gun violence or gun deaths, not suicide. One does not wave a gun in anger or menacingly at oneself. This is either a gross oversight, or a carefully chosen war waged with words. Either way it is not accurate or honest.
Further to the point on suicides, gun control won't eliminate suicide or marginally decrease it — not even if we were to outlaw and confiscate all guns. As a case study, Japan — a darling for gun control advocates — has a much higher suicide rate, nearly double the U.S. (and No. 10 in the world) while virtually permitting no guns except shotguns that are very strictly regulated.
I agree that suicide is a big problem by itself — the 10th cause of death in the U.S. (whereas homicides don't crack the top ten). However, let's be honest about our facts and figures and report data that are relevant to gun control when talking gun control and using words that imply violence done to others. Suicide has different causes than violent crime and homicide crime and ought to be addressed by different policy. Nothing in the Manchin-Toomey gun amendment that was referenced in Ghitis' Op-Ed would have any logical bearing on suicides – even suicides by firearm.
2. The 90% of Americans supported the Gun Bill Myth:
Ghitis: "The U.S. Senate could not manage to approve a minuscule improvement to the country's efforts to keep weapons out of the hands of potential criminals, including possible terrorists even though polls show most of the public support it."
Counterpoint: This is not researched well. Ghitis links to a Washington Post article "90% of Americans want expanded background checks on guns. Why isn't this a political slam dunk?" I recently wrote about this and demonstrated in detail that the claim in this article is just sloppy journalism. The actual survey question cited by the Washington Post article narrowly defines expanding background checks to "requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows" only. There is much more in the Manchin-Toomey amendment. It would be accurate to claim that the majority of Americans want expanded background checks at gun shows, but not to say that 90% of Americans supported the Manchin-Toomey amendment in its entirety.
3. Misunderstanding the Second Amendment:
Ghitis: "The Second Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1791, states that the people have a right to "bear arms," but it also prefaces it with what sounds like a caveat, that this is because "a well regulated militia" is "necessary to the security of a free state."
Counterpoint: In context, Ghitis is writing about what makes America different from other countries in how we approach guns. The article she links to leaves the impression that the law might allow for tighter regulation. Ghitis doesn't expand on this in her Op-Ed, but let's take a deeper look at the phrases she highlights.
I have written about the Supreme Court's rulings about the Second Amendment previously. The Court takes pains to describe the historical and legal context of every word in the Second Amendment, including "well regulated" and "necessary to the to security of a free state." The people – that is all able-bodied citizens – are the militia. The Court said, "the adjective 'well-regulated' implies nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training" (p. 23). Regarding the free state phrase, they said, "the phrase 'security of a free state' meant 'security of a free polity,' ... meaning a 'free country'" (p. 24). The Court wrote it might well have been written "because a militia (all citizens) is necessary to keep the nation free, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" as that is the meaning of it.
4. Lacking the Clarity that Comes from Providing Context:
Ghitis: "If America were really strong, it would find a way to stop the killings, to staunch the bleeding. But no, America has become weak. The nation has become incapable of solving problems through normal legislative channels."
Counterpoint: I agree that our Legislative branch is not very effective. It is outside of the scope of this article to analyze this, but suffice it to say it takes two to tango. However, this statement is wholly without context in terms of whether or by how much – comparatively — America has "staunched the bleeding." In terms of both violent crime and homicides, the number and the rate (per 100,000 people) have been cut in half in the last 20 years. I previously wrote about this in detail. The FBI's Crime in the United States report shows a 1993 high of 24,526 homicides and non-negligent manslaughter and a rate per 100,000 of 9.5, compared to 2011 which saw 14,612 homicides non-negligent manslaughter (note: the FBI Uniform Crime Report lists homicides separate from non-negligent manslaughter. The number of homicides for 2011 was 12,664) and a rate per 100,000 of 4.7. That's a 41% drop in the number of homicides and non-negligent manslaughter and a 51% drop in the rate per 100,000.
In the same time period, the numbers of guns in America have proliferated. The FBI background check system has been setting records for the number of new purchases for months. Many states have adopted "right to carry" laws, which means any citizen can obtain a Concealed Carry License (CCW) to carry a gun concealed unless there is a specific reason to deny them such as a felony or mental illness. Yet despite more guns, and more people being able to carry them concealed in public, homicides and other violent crime has gone down.
This is not to say that gun violence is no problem at all, however pundits on all sides would do well to be honest and accurate as they make their cases. It might go a long ways toward finding common ground. I have argued that we ought to be doing the long and tedious work of addressing the underlying root cause of violence and homicide in our country. This work is not likely to be swift or win the next election cycle, but is what we would do if we really wanted to address the issues. We've made a lot of progress, in context, on violence and homicides — cut in half. That doesn't mean we can't do more. We ought to address gang violence, drug abuse, concentrated urban population and poverty, and mental illness. Let's choose to engage in real solutions, not empty rhetoric based on loosely cited data.