Reflections of a lifelong shooting sports advocate

If I hear that well-intended but vapid utterance, “thoughts and prayers,” one more time, I’m going to scream.

It’s a knee-jerk reaction of condolence, meant as a soothing balm in the face of a horrendous situation. Like 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, gunned down in their classroom last Tuesday by an 18-year-old with easy access to high-capacity weapons.

Or an equally deranged young man who drove to Buffalo on May 14 to slay ten Black Americans at a grocery store.

The leading cause of death among American children is gun violence. More than traffic accidents. More than drownings. More than cancer.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Nearly two-thirds of the more than 4,300 U.S. youths, age 19 and under, who were killed by guns in 2020—yes, in a single year—were homicide victims, according to the Centre for Disease Control.

“When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?” asked US President Joe Biden in a national address last week. “Why are we willing to live with this carnage? Why do we keep letting this happen?”

Pro-gun Texas Governor Gregg Abbott, a Republican, told assembled grieving parents and media that the Uvalde school shooter had a “mental health challenge,” and that the state needed to “do a better job with mental health.” He did not mention that Texas provides the poorest overall access to mental health care in the country, nor did he note that he recently slashed $211 million from the department that oversees his state’s mental health programs.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat who came to Congress representing the Connecticut community where 26 elementary school students and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed nearly a decade ago, begged his colleagues in the Uvalde aftermath to pass legislation addressing the nation’s gun violence problem.

“Spare me the bullshit about mental illness,” said Murphy. “We don’t have any more mental illness than any other country in the world. You cannot explain this through a prism of mental illness because we’re not an outlier on mental illness. We’re an outlier when it comes to access to firearms and the ability of criminals and very sick people to get their hands on firearms. That’s what makes America different.”

There were more than 393 million guns in the U.S. as of 2017, roughly 120 guns for every 100 people in the country. Annual domestic gun production increased from 3.9 million in 2000 to 11.3 million in 2020, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).

Joel, 44, and Lynne, 43, in Austin, Texas, with their children and 80 percent of their gun collection, one of a series of images posted on Facebook from photographer Gabriele Galimberti’s trip across the US, documenting gun ownership. Click image to be taken to the series. FACEBOOK

Guns were the instruments of death for 1.5 million Americans between 1968 and 2017. That’s higher than the cumulative number of soldiers killed in every US conflict since the American War for Independence in 1775.

In 2020 alone, more than 45,000 Americans died by gun-related homicide or suicide, more than any other year on record.

Would tougher gun laws have prevented the tragedy in Uvalde?

Governor Abbott rejected this view. But the reality is that Texans can openly carry handguns and rifles without a permit, and any 18-year-old Texan can buy military-style, semi-automatic rifles and ammunition without a background check or firearms training. Texas gun homicides have increased some 90 percent in the last decade.

Ironically, the minimum age to purchase tobacco products in Texas is 21. Eighteen-year-olds can legally buy a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round clip, but they may not legally smoke a Marlboro.

One might reasonably suspect that Governor Abbott has a prejudice in favour of unfettered firearms ownership. In fact, he was set to speak at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Houston last weekend, along with Senator Ted Cruz and former President Donald Trump.

While the NRA has been weakened in recent years due to scandals and depleting finances, it and other pro-gun organizations remain a powerful force in Republican politics, spending over $15 million last year to push their status-quo posture on gun laws. Cruz reportedly receives more money from the gun lobby than any other politician, and directs measures in opposition to gun control in Congress, despite evidence that most Americans support commonsense firearm reforms.

The gun issue is highly political in the U.S., with many Americans clinging to their constitutionally enshrined right to bear arms through the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has interpreted as an individual right, rather than applying to a “well-regulated militia,” as the text actually reads.

Gazing south across the border, peace-loving Canadians ask the question: What the hell is going on in the Land of the Free?

School shootings, and mass murders in general, are more common in the United States than in the rest of the industrialized world. According to CNN, there were at least 288 school-specific shootings in the US in the previous nine years, which was 57 times more than other G7 countries combined. Over 200 mass shootings have been reported in the United States thus far in 2022.

Gazing south across the border, peace-loving Canadians ask the question: What the hell is going on in the Land of the Free?

A 2017 study by a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama found that the U.S. accounted for 31 percent of mass shootings globally between 1966 and 2012, despite having only five percent of the world’s population. If this were solely a mental health issue and not a gun issue, you would have to conclude that the U.S. has a veritable monopoly on mental illness. But it doesn’t.

America’s failure to meaningfully constrain gun ownership and the number of guns in circulation has contributed to the ongoing tragedy, replayed with shocking regularity.

It is a cruel irony that the US Supreme Court and many state legislatures are currently pushing to overturn Roe v. Wade so as to stifle abortion and protect the unborn, while at the same time they are doing pathetically little to safeguard the lives of American children, one in five of whom lives in poverty. Only about nine percent of the federal budget is spent on programs benefiting kids, while the elderly get a third of the total budget dollars. This disinvestment in children is a national travesty.

Stricter gun laws have been introduced in the US Congress after previous mass shootings, but they have been defeated by Republicans, independents, and some moderate Democrats.

Other nations have reacted differently in similar circumstances.

In Canada, after the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre, in which 14 female engineering students were killed in their Montreal classroom, new legislation required safety courses, background checks, and increased penalties for some gun crimes. In 2020, shortly after a gunman shot and killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, Canada banned some 1,500 models of assault-style firearms and components.

Canada’s rate of firearm homicide is 0.5 per 100,000 people, versus the United States’ rate of 4.12.

When a gunman killed 35 people at a cafe in Tasmania in 1996, Australia banned many firearms, and increased licensing requirements. Firearms-related deaths plunged to 0.15 per 100,000 people in 2014—less than a third of even the Canadian rate—a decline of 72 percent over the past decade.

After the Christchurch mosque shooting that killed 50 people in March of 2019, New Zealand swiftly banned the sale of assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. Firearm-related murders totalled 11 in 2021.

After a gunman killed 16 children and their teacher in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, Britain adopting some of the strictest gun controls in the world. The United Kingdom’s rate of gun homicide is 0.04 per 100,000 people—less that a tenth of Canada’s rate and less than one-hundreth of the US rate.

American writer James Boise, in his novel The Shooting, wrote that Americans seem trapped between the clash of gun culture myths (freedom, self-determination, peace) and the cold, harsh reality too frequently relayed in the daily news (death, maiming, terror.)

Some states — notably California — have dramatically enhanced their gun laws to include universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods before purchasing a gun, and an “assault weapons” ban, referring to military-style high-capacity rifles which are often used in mass slayings. These steps appear to be reducing, but not entirely curtailing, the carnage in that state.

Sadly, even modest restrictions are assailed as “gun grabs” and an assault on Second Amendment rights

Sadly, even modest restrictions are assailed as “gun grabs” and an assault on Second Amendment rights. Last year, the US House of Representatives passed two bills to expand background checks during firearms purchases. One bill would have closed a loophole for private and online sales, while the other would have extended the background check review period. Both bills languished in the Senate (which has a 50-50 Republican-Democrat split), where Democrats need at least ten Republican votes of support in order to overcome the unofficial but customarily observed filibuster rule. The bills stalled and died.

Explain this to the parents of 19 elementary school children who woke up the morning of May 24 in Uvalde, Texas, enjoyed a family breakfast before they strapped on their backpacks and headed out the door, never to return home.

Americans have yet another tragic opportunity to demonstrate that they love their children more than their guns. They will have to defeat the false narrative being hurled at them by the NRA, by firearms manufacturers, and by the likes of Ted Cruz that yet more guns will make them safer. They must rally their senses and enact prudent gun control, just as has been implemented in scores of other countries around the world.

Restricting firearms won’t eliminate shootings, but it will reduce the carnage. The science, and the statistics, say so.

Ted Cruz told the press that he and his wife were “fervently lifting up in prayer the children and families in the horrific shooting,” and rather than admitting that lax gun laws were responsible, pointed to family breakdown, a decline in church attendance, social media bullying, and violent video games as the real problems.

Two former US presidents were less patronizing, and more honest.

Barack Obama said that, “Nearly ten years after Sandy Hook — and ten days after Buffalo — our country is paralyzed, not by fear, but by a gun lobby and a political party that have shown no willingness to act in any way that might help prevent these tragedies. It’s long past time for action.”

Bill Clinton conveyed a similar tone, saying, “Our elected leaders at the local, state, and federal levels, regardless of party, must find commonsense ways to keep our children and communities safe. They can do so without touching the right to hunt, sport shoot, and keep guns for self-defence. Propaganda and paranoia have kept us from helping each other on this for too long.”

Still thinking of taking the kids to Walt Disney World in Orlando this summer? Maybe it’s time to plan a staycation in Ontario until the Americans get this figured out.