Timothy Ray: How did gun sales get out of control?

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 1:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 1:57 p.m.

About 31,000 Americans die every year as the result of the use of firearms -- far worse than all nations similar to us in most other respects. This is about the same as the number of our annual highway deaths, truly a shameful distinction. Why is the U.S. so much more dangerous to live in than any other high-income democracy?

We have several hideous mass murders with firearms in America every year. Britain, Japan, and Australia also have histories of mass murders, but none of them have mass murders now. The reason for this miraculous change is that each of these nations enacted strict gun laws soon after mass murders occurred. Australia's success was also aided by huge gun buyback programs, which we could easily duplicate, with adequate funding and publicity. Conserving many lives is far more important than saving a little money.

Achieving such a reduction in the U.S. will be far more difficult because of the 2008 Supreme Court decision, "District of Columbia v. Heller," which held that the Second Amendment to our Constitution guarantees each of us an individual right to keep and bear arms. This 5-4 decision was a radical departure from the previous Supreme Court position that people needed to keep and bear arms so that our militia (which no longer exists) would be strong. Since the Heller decision, our nation has been flooded with guns and bullets and with people who believe that there is no other way to read the Second Amendment and that any suggestion by anybody that we should have any gun control at all is a threat to violate the Second Amendment.

"You are trying to take away our guns" is the constant cry of the National Rifle Association and others who make up our vast and powerful gun lobby. The gun lobby gives vast sums to congressional campaigns in order to influence legislation, which they have done quite effectively. It includes gun manufacturers, gun importers, gun dealers and the gun press.

The gun press consists of periodicals that hail gun ownership as patriotic and sacred and that advertise the latest gun innovation, often a mere cosmetic change from its predecessors but offered as a tool for being far more powerful as well as more glamorous. Taking away guns that people need for hunting and self-defense is actually not what the gun-control movement is trying to do. We are about influencing the flood of new guns and imports. Americans are not allowed to have anti-aircraft guns in our backyards. Do we really need to buy battlefield weapons to keep in our dens?

Did you ever wonder why we have 31,000 firearms deaths in America every year? The gun lobby is quick to say "Two thirds of them commit suicide" as if more than 20,000 self-inflicted gun deaths don't matter. But they do matter, and most suicides are preventable. Let's remember that the majority of mass murderers kill themselves last. To understand homicide we must understand suicide. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

A major cause of suicide is clinical depression. Clinical depression is a very widespread and treatable mood disorder. Significant results can be achieved in treating clinical depression through the use of cognitive behavioral therapy by a licensed mental health professional. Combining that therapy with a prescription for anti-depressive medication produces a powerful approach for treating serious depression and preventing suicide.

Elementary schools and preschool programs are very important settings for noticing children with learning disorders, including behavioral disorders, and planning appropriate care and treatment. Adam Lanza, the young man who killed his mother, 20 children, six school personnel, and himself, in Newtown, Conn., had been identified at an early age as having Asperger's Syndrome, which interferes with the development of empathy and may

cause a child to be very anxious when interacting with others. To keep such disasters from being repeated, our public and private school systems have to be prepared for children with Asperger's and other serious developmental conditions.

Another aspect of the Lanza tragedy is that fewer children and teachers might have died if he had been using only small clips, instead of a 30-bullet magazine. Changing clips requires a few seconds delay after each 7 bullets -- enough time for the teachers to rush and grab him and take away his gun. The large magazines present a continuing danger of making gun violence worse than it might otherwise be.

Other causes of America's epidemic of gun violence include the reality that many hardened criminals are buying guns, along with some undocumented aliens and adults with serious psychotic conditions, such as Jared Lee Laughner. Laughner's paranoid schizophrenia led him to fatally shoot a federal judge and several other persons and to seriously injure Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. We must greatly increase support for community mental health and mandate the reporting of persons whose mental conditions render them dangerous to self or others, with a waiver of responsibility for violations of confidentiality in making the reports. Note than Laughner's large clip also enabled him to shoot many people without having to stop and reload.

Under the law we are supposed to have criminal background checks done on everybody who wants to guy a gun. Why isn't this working? First, 40 percent of gun purchases are not made at licensed gun stores. Most of them are made at gun shows or on the Internet, and there are also the straw gun buyers. A straw purchase takes place when someone with a clean record buys a gun from a licensed gun store on behalf of a felon who pays him/her $100 for this service. Mexican authorities report that 70 percent of the guns they confiscate from the criminal drug cartels come from the U.S. No doubt, straw purchases provide many of these guns that are taken into Mexico. No progress can be achieved without universal background checks for gun buyers and better control of sales by gun stores.

Federal legislation could be enacted requiring that guns that are made in or imported into the U.S. have two key mechanical features, each of which would help reduce guns deaths and injuries without any taking of anything. First, every gun should have a child-proof safety, a device for preventing accidental firing. This would be a great gift to millions of families who may at risk of the death of a younger child by an older one who hasn't quite absorbed the reality that real guns are not toys and that death is permanent. Second, every gun made to hold a bullet clip or magazine should have a feature that shows whether or not there is still a bullet in the chamber after the clip is empty. This could save the lives of persons who associate with show off extroverts who, after a few drinks, like to pretend that they are shooting somebody when they believe that they are actually not.

Many guns made in recent years incorporate one or both of these changes, but many do not. These two changes would be a great benefit to America with no significant reduction in anybody's freedom. When the government passed laws mandating seat belts and airbags in new cars, we were not taking away their right to buy and drive cars. Any manufacturer of autos, dishwashers, computers or toasters may be required by the Consumer Product Safety Commission to cease selling items found to be dangerous until the features making them dangerous have been corrected. Only guns somehow escape the normal American expectation that products made or sold in the U.S. will be safe for those who use them. Is this really what the American people want?

How did U.S. gun sales get so far out of control? The gun lobby is a big part of the problem. The gun lobby is almost as powerful in controlling the U.S. Congress today as the tobacco lobby was a couple of decades ago. The National Rifle Association is the kingpin in the gun lobby, but it is supported by donations from very wealthy gun manufacturers and importers. Thanks to the gun lobby, the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) -- the U.S. government agency responsible for prosecuting violent crime, firearms trafficking, and the illegal use of firearms, among other duties -- has been crippled by a number of acts of Congress. The president's authority to appoint a director of ATF has been made contingent on confirmation by the Senate. This change was enacted to make sure that ATF is headed by somebody who has no intention to actually regulate the sale of guns. The lack of a confirmed director has undermined the morale and effectiveness of A TF for the past six months.

As requested by the gun lobby, Congress reduced the time from 90 days to 24 hours that ATF is permitted to retain gun sale data to determine whether or not a gun sale was legal. This opens the door to straw purchasers and convicted felons by making investigation of questionable sales exceedingly difficult. Congress has forbidden ATF from releasing to the public their vast amount of data regarding deaths and injuries from gun violence in the United States. Congress has cut off your right to sue a licensed gun dealer if your loved one has been injured or killed as the result of gross negligence by the dealer. ATF is now forbidden to inspect anyone licensed gun store more than once a year. Imagine the catastrophes that could happen if our state Department of Health were forbidden to inspect licensed pharmacies more than once a year.

How long are we going to put up with a Congress that is controlled by the gun lobby? They are certainly not mentioned in my copy of the Constitution. If you have any children or anybody else you love, it is time to speak out while you still have them.

Timothy B. Ray lives in Gainesville.

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