The drama of Monday’s riveting manhunt in southwest Iowa could have been taken straight from a Hollywood script. Last Friday, 38-year-old Rodney Eugene Long escaped from a low-security prison where he was serving a five-year sentence, triggering a massive manhunt after he shot and seriously wounded a sheriff’s deputy. Long broke into the home of an elderly couple, Jerome and Carolyn Mauderly, on Monday night and held them hostage at gunpoint for hours. Around two in the morning, Jerome snuck off to find his shotgun and immediately shot and killed Long.
Besides providing a thrilling tale of pursuit and danger, the Mauderlys' handling of the situation is already being held up by the gun lobby as proof of the virtues of gun ownership for self-defense.
Although estimates vary widely, social scientists suggest that 250,000-370,000 defensive gun uses — which include anything from brandishing a weapon to scare off a criminal to pulling the trigger to defend oneself — occur each year. Access to guns may prevent an untold number of rapes, robberies, and murders. Indeed, nearly half of gun owners report keeping one for self-defense purposes.
However, sensational stories like that of the Mauderlys obscure the reality that, while guns can be used defensively, a huge number of crimes are facilitated by America’s exorbitant gun ownership rates and lax gun control laws. According to a June 2013 report released by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, 335,000 gun deaths occurred between 2000 and 2010. Handguns were used in more than 87% of violent crimes, and comprised 72.5% of firearms used in murder and non-negligent manslaughter incidents, primarily because they are easily concealable.
Troublingly, handguns are almost absurdly easy to acquire. Although the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act mandates that each state conduct a background check before authorizing the purchase of a firearm, potential gun owners can get around this by making their purchase at a gun show. Right now, only six states — California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island — require background checks at shows.
Perhaps one of the most alarming gaps in gun security is the lack of enforcement of laws regulating the sale of firearms to the mentally ill. While 44 states have laws that aim to do so, just seven states account for 98% of the names of prohibited mentally ill individuals, meaning that most states have no way of knowing if they are selling firearms to people who are seriously psychologically impaired. This oversight sheds light on the case of the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho, who passed a background check before purchasing a gun and going on a shooting spree that left 32 people dead, even though he had been declared mentally ill two years prior to the attack.
Defensive gun use and smarter restrictions on ownership do not have to be mutually exclusive. Simple measures, such as more stringent background checks and a ban on assault weapons, are easily implemented and enjoy wide public support. A February Quinnipiac poll found 92% of respondents favoring expanded checks on every single gun sale, and a recent Pew poll found that 60% of Americans supported an absolute ban on assault weapons. The story of just gun use of 71-year-old Jerome Mauderly is inspiring — but it shouldn’t distract us from the tens of thousands of lives that may have been saved by stricter gun laws.