We Must Find the Courage to Defy the NRA

A statue in the United Nations Sculpture Garden. (Photo credit: Karl Fredrik Reuterswar / Flickr)
A statue in the United Nations Sculpture Garden. (Photo credit: Karl Fredrik Reuterswar / Flickr)

When I first moved to the United States from Canada, I was shocked by the casual normalcy with which Americans treated their guns. Canada is no stranger to guns — we rank 12th in the world in gun ownership with about 1 gun for every 3 Canadians — but we lack a culture of firearm fetishism. Few Canadians feel an urge to purchase a gun for non-hunting purposes, and Canadian gun owners just don’t feel the need to walk around strapped. Efforts to circumvent our gun control laws were an anathema; I remember as a child reading a two-page spread in the Toronto Star dedicated to an investigative story about a homicide committed using an unregistered firearm: it had been purchased across the border in America.

The first time I saw a gun, I had just moved to the United States. I was shopping for athletic clothes at a local sporting goods store when I wandered over to the outdoors section. There, within a display counter, were a collection of handguns. I stared in horror at them: lying just inches from my face behind a wall of plexiglass — a weapon that existed only for the purpose of killing another human being with a quick pull of a trigger. This was a machine invented only for ending life, easily purchased for a few hundred dollars.

I couldn’t help wondering, “is human life worth so little to Americans, that the means for taking it can be found on sale next to the sleeping bags and ice coolers?”

I was sixteen at the time. Nearly two decades of living in America has done little to blunt this initial reaction I had to American gun culture. I’ve been in the United States — where most people love their guns — all of my adult life. I’ve lived in Arizona — where most people really love their guns — for several years, during which time I met many people with Concel & Carry Permits and who never went anywhere without a gun in their purse or holstered at their hip. I’ve fired a .45 (which, admittedly, was pretty fun).

But, I’ve never stopped wondering why Americans place so little value in human life that we are unwilling to do anything about this country’s senseless hyperproliferation of guns.

There are more guns owned in America than there are Americans, which results in a gun ownership rate that is nearly double the countries who rank immediately below the United States, which include Serbia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Most American gun owners own 8 guns or more, which is twice the number of guns found in the typical gun-owning household two decades. To this Canadian, it is all so senseless: why are Americans so obsessed with their guns? And, can’t Americans see the heavy cost of their gun culture, which this country pays for daily with the blood of American lives?

Number of firearm-related homicides per 100,000 residents in the world's developed countries. (Data source: Wikipedia)
Number of firearm-related homicides per 100,000 residents in the world’s developed countries. (Data source: Wikipedia)

Mass shootings and other forms of gun violence happen in Canada, but they do not happen with the same regularity as they do in America, nor do Canadians react with the kind of complacency towards such killings that Americans routinely exhibit. In America, 3.55 per 100,000 people die by firearm-related homicide, by far the highest such rate of all the developed nations.

American gun culture has been particularly good at breeding mass shooters. In 2015, 330 mass shootings claimed over 367 lives — more than one death for every day of the year — and injured 1317 more. Some of those killed in 2015 in a mass shooting by a legally purchased gun include the victims of Dylan Roof, who entered a church in Charleston and shot to death nine Black men and women in what he hoped would be the start of an American race war. It should go without saying that restrictions on gun ownership

It’s true that unlike other countries, America’s constitution guarantees its citizens the right to bear arms, but this does not preclude the right of the federal government to license and regulate gun ownership in order to ensure public safety. Indeed, 80% of Americans currently support tougher gun control laws according to a NY Daily News/Rasmussen, believing that such restrictions are necessary to prevent guns from being accessible to those who would use them to do harm to others. A separate Gallup poll also found that a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws.

Asian Americans are less likely to die by firearm-related homicide than members of other groups, but this does not mean that laws that would limit firearm access would have no significant impact on our community. There is no tolerable number of deaths by firearms; even one death is one too many. Meanwhile, we can recount the names of several Asian Americans — including NYPD police officer Wenjian Liu — who have lost their lives to gun violence.

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are — like other people of colour — far more likely to be victims of serious violent crimes (defined as rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault, and which will include violent crimes involving a firearm) than Whites. Unlike members of other communities of colour, this rate has nearly doubled since 2003 for the AANHPI community; in 2012, 9.1 per 1,000 AANHPI were the victims of a serious violent crime (vs. 6.8 per 1,000 for Whites). Indeed, like the rest of Americans, 80% of AANHPI voters support tougher gun laws.

Asian Americans — like all Americans — know that better gun control is an issue that matters to all of us.

Source: AAPIData
Source: AAPIData

Despite America’s popular support for common sense gun regulation, there has been no significant movement on the gun control issue for decades. Indeed, in my time in America, this country has backslid: in 2004, a federal ban on assault rifles signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2004 was allowed to expire just a decade after being passed. The reason for this resistance has been the nation’s powerful gun lobby, headed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), a close ally of mainstream Republicans. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who is South Asian American, found his nomination for the post opposed by Republicans for over a year because he called for America to prioritize gun violence as a health epidemic in a tweet.

It is laughable to call the gun control issue a “debate”. In a debate, both sides can have a fair hearing. But, the NRA is flush with donors, and wields a budget of over $240 million dollars — nearly 100x the budget of Washington’s most prominent gun control lobbying group. For decades, the NRA has dominated the gun control landscape, and turned any effort to introduce a new gun control law into political suicide for any politician who dares broach the subject.

Yesterday, President Obama marked the start of his final year in the Oval Office with a courageous act. Surrounded by the victims of America’s most prominent recent acts of gun violence, President Obama gave a speech to the nation wherein he revealed a long list of executive actions and proposals aimed at limiting future gun deaths. The proposals outlined by Obama are conservative in scope — the most significant is a redefinition of whom would be classified as a gun dealer, which would require more background checks and would effectively close the so-called “gun show loophole” —  and some experts predict that the measures announced will directly affect only a few thousand gun sales.

But, that doesn’t mean that President Obama’s announced measures yesterday were meaningless. On the contrary, President Obama struck a powerful blow in support of common sense gun control reform with the symbolic throwing of a gauntlet at the feet of the NRA. President Obama signaled with his proposals yesterday that we should not be — and can no longer afford to be — afraid of the NRA. We cannot allow this powerful lobbying group that represents the interests of less than 10% of the American population to put the rest of us at risk of gun-related violence. President Obama showed bravery yesterday when he boldly stood up to the NRA. In his speech, he said:

“We do have to feel a sense of urgency about it,” the president said. “People are dying and the constant excuses for inaction no longer do.”

Every year, thousands of Americans lose their lives from gun-related violence. This senseless loss of life can no longer be tolerated. Last month, a new assault weapons ban was introduced in Congress, and the American public must demand that our elected officials show the same courage that President Obama displayed earlier this week. This assault ban must be the first of many more congressional laws aimed at toughening gun control that we must demand be passed this year.

Guns don’t kill people, people do; but guns make it a heck of a lot easier for people to kill people.

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