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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Stop Talking About Gun Control—Enforce It

10 minute read
Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is the author of the new book, Writings on the Wall.

During Tuesday night’s CNN debate among Democratic candidates for president, moderator Anderson Cooper said, “Let’s move on to some of the biggest issues right now in the headlines today. We’re going to start with guns.”

This is a monumental difference from both Republican debates that substantially ignored the issue of gun control. The reason for this difference can be found in Anderson’s phrase, “in the headlines today,” because it’s only after brutal mass shootings that the otherwise smoldering issue is stoked to full flame. Having had three shootings at schools within a few days of each other, the headlines are ablaze with tragedies, and the public has again been forced to confront our mixed-message gun laws.

My father was a policeman. My grandfather was a policeman. I grew up with a gun in my house. I collect vintage guns from the Old West. I love Quentin Tarantino films, with their excesses of gun violence and criminal anti-heroes. The story of the heroic but doomed defense of the Alamo chokes me up. I am as much a part of the American gun culture as many other Americans. But even I know that something’s got to change when it comes to guns in America. Because what we’re doing right now, which is a whole lotta nothing, isn’t working. The death toll mounts, our children are slaughtered, and we bicker like a stubborn couple arguing about what color to paint the den.

When 2,977 innocent people were killed during the 9/11 terrorist attack, America leapt into action. We created the Department of Homeland Security and passed a controversial USA Patriot Act. We announced to the world that no price was too high to protect American lives.

Ten times the number of people who died on 9/11 are killed every single year due to gun violence. That’s about 30,000 gun deaths annuallymore than 400,000 people since 9/11—and most lawmakers do very little to protect us. In 2015, we’ve already had 294 mass shootings (defined as four or more people shot during one incident). In 1,004 days, we saw 994 mass shootings. That’s nearly one mass shooting a day for almost three years.

Yet our legislators are not leaping into action. Many of them are just muttering the same old platitudes about mental health, which it turns out, has negligible effect on the killings but makes a fine scapegoat for avoiding doing their jobs. To best understand why so little is being done, we need to understand the three major foundations of gun violence: the Second Amendment, gun economics and the deep roots of America’s gun culture.

The Second Amendment simply states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” For some, this is an endorsement that individuals have the right to have as many of any kind of guns that they want so that, in the event of an attack, the people can form an ad hoc militia to defend the country. For those proposing stricter gun controls, the key phrase is “well regulated,” which would seem to advocate guns for those already in some sort of organized and official government militia.

It’s pointless to keep arguing because neither side will be persuaded by constitutional arguments, since they each choose to interpret the Second Amendment in a way that is advantageous to their side. Clarity may only come through an eventual and inevitable constitutional amendment. But that’s way down the road, and we need to do something right now to stop the bleeding.

I wish the issue were merely a philosophical difference between two moral sides, each fighting for the betterment of their country. But, as usual with politically divisive issues, the Deep Throat character in the film All the President’s Men nailed the real problem that subverts most our political battles when he said: “Follow the money.”

In 2012, Americans spent about $6 billion a year in guns and ammunition, employing about 209,750 people at annual wages of about $9.8 billion. A lot of people have a huge financial stake in continuing gun manufacturing and sales at the current rate. For example, following the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children and six adults dead, the increase in public discussion over gun control caused gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson stock to drop 5.2%. That explains why, according to PBS’s Frontline, the National Rifle Association spent nearly $28 million in 2014 opposing gun control. It’s trying to maintain the industry and the jobs reliant on that industry. To do so, gun lobbies contribute millions of dollars to politicians to influence their inaction.

But the economics on the other side may be even more compelling. According to a 2015 Mother Jones report, gun-related deaths and injuries cost American taxpayers about about $229 billion per year. To put that in context, Medicaid spending in 2014 totaled $251 billion and the 2015 requested defense budget was $495.6 billion. So, we’re spending $229 billion a year of taxpayers’ money to protect a $6 billion industry. Gun deaths are expected to surpass auto deaths this year and continue to do so in the coming years, which is an increase in taxpayer costs, not to mention an increase in lives lost. The economics don’t seem to support our pry-the-gun-from-my-cold-dead-fingers position.

Finally, American culture celebrates its pioneer spirit, which includes using force to conquer most of the inhabitants who were here before us. But it also celebrates our desire to form a better country and to use arms to defend our democratic ideals. As a kid, I loved everything about the Old West, especially the gunfights in the streets when the good lawman puts down the evil gunslinger. I also love vigilante stories of seeking justice against the powerful and corrupt, like when the Punisher single-handedly takes out a Mafia family or a drug cartel.

But I can appreciate the fantasy stories without having it define my view of reality. In real life, I don’t want vigilantes deciding who lives or who dies. The American gun culture fantasy proclaims that decisive violence can solve most of our problems; the reality is that violence mostly makes our problems worse. In the real world where our actions have concrete consequences, I want the rules of law and reason and compassion to be our guide.

We need to distinguish between the fantasy elements of our gun culture that we enjoy in fictional forms because they often satisfy our need for pure justice that the real world can’t deliver. It’s not that different than religions portraying a heaven where goodness always prevails. These ideals can inspire us to cherish justice and to do good without resorting to the violent means of the fantasies. Those clutching their guns in fear that a Big Brother government will one day take away our freedoms leaving them as the last defense for democracy are indulging in childish fantasies. The price of these fantasies is putting guns in the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.

We already have about 310 million firearms in the U.S., certainly more than we reasonably need for any reason. In fact, the U.S. has more gun ownership than any other country. According to a 2007 Small Arms Survey, though we have less than 5% of the world’s population, we have 35% to 40% of the world’s civilian-owned guns. As a result, we also have the highest rate of gun-related deaths among developed countries. In 2013, the U.S. rate of gun deaths was 106.4 per million people. By comparison, in the United Kingdom, the 2011 rate (the last date for which numbers are available) was 2.3 gun deaths per million.

Gun violence is especially dangerous for children. In 2012, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, guns were the second leading cause of death among children ages 1 to 19. Among African-American kids, it was the number one cause of death. Black children were almost five times more likely to be killed by guns as white children, and between 1963 and 2010, nearly 60,000 black children were killed by guns. “Gun violence really has a staggering impact on black children and black families,” said Caroline Fichtenberg, director of research at the CDF. “People think guns and gun control are rural issues, just the stuff of political debates, but this is an American issue that certainly involves black families.”

The idea of a good person with a gun stopping a bad person with a gun is part of the American gun culture fantasy. We want to imagine ourselves in that action movie, saving someone by taking out a bad guy, and being paraded across TV shows while being fawned over by celebrities. The truth is much more devastating. Earlier this month an 11-year-old Tennessee boy shot to death an 8-year-old girl because she wouldn’t let him pet her puppy. In August, a 3-year-old Florida boy looking for an iPad found a gun and accidentally shot himself in the head. In February, a 3-year-old accidentally shot his father and pregnant mother while at a motel in Albuquerque. It’s clear that not everyone has enough common sense to own a gun.

To make matters worse, instead of trying to limit the number of guns around our children, states are passing laws to allow some students to carry concealed weapons on campus. The Oregon campus where the recent shootings occurred allowed concealed weapons, though to no avail. Texas has also passed such a law, though many teachers and students alike are protesting that having students with weapons might inhibit free speech in the classroom as people are afraid to anger anyone.

Maya Angelou said, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” We cannot let gun violence in this country reduce us to cowards afraid to act because we don’t know the outcome or because it may offend those who put their own selfish desires over the good of the country. We do indeed need to enact some gun reforms, though in increments that allow us to measure the effectiveness of such laws. Let hunters hunt, collectors collect, gun enthusiasts shoot at ranges. But the answer to decreasing gun violence is not putting more guns out there. It’s especially not putting guns in the wrong hands.

For this country to control the gun violence, we need to make some changes. Those changes are not the first step to taking away everyone’s guns, as some opponents claim, but rather they are the first steps in taking guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally unstable, the unfit.

The recent massacre of nine people at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College has prompted President Obama to make new calls for stricter gun control laws. His plan is a reasonable beginning. His modest proposal calls for background checks, investing in school safety, improving mental health awareness, providing gun training, increasing police on the street, and banning military-style assault weapons. This is where the “well regulated” part of the Second Amendment comes in. Let’s try it, see if it works or not, then reassess our options after a reasonable amount of time.

I don’t want to witness one more person shot, one more grief-stricken parent, one more gun-lobby donation-receiving politician saying, “Our prayers are with the family,” without having done something to save those lives. That is the real heritage of American culture: fearlessness and sacrifice in protecting our people.

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