Editor’s Note: Philip Alpers is founding director of GunPolicy.org, a global project of the Sydney School of Public Health, which compares armed violence, firearm injury prevention and gun law across 350 jurisdictions world-wide. A member of the UN’s Program of Action on small arms since 2001, Alpers participates in the UN process as a member of the Australian government delegation. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Alpers: America's epidemic of gun violence has already proven too much for any one president
It is inconceivable that the people of such an advanced nation will tolerate an ever-worsening state of armed violence forever
It’s impossible to run for President without having a firm position on gun control. For every candidate in every election campaign, it inevitably becomes a dividing line.
And 2016 is no different. At various stages, Donald Trump has held differing positions on the matter, but has been sufficiently in favor of protecting the second amendment to secure the support of the NRA. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, while claiming to respect the second amendment, has made clear that she wants to see tighter control on gun ownership that “tries to save some of these 33,000 lives that we lose every year.”
But no matter whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton who captures the White House next week, America’s frightening rate of death by gunshot wounds will certainly be forced into retreat. One day.
Because it is inconceivable that the people of such an advanced nation will tolerate an ever-worsening state of armed violence and insurrection, there must come a time when solutions already tested and championed by the United States are deployed to reduce the country’s toll of 33,000 firearm-related deaths each year.
In hindsight, how naïve were we to imagine that the massacre at Columbine High might prove to be the tipping point? Thirteen years and 421,000 American gun deaths later, even the slaughter of 26 mainly white children and teachers at Sandy Hook couldn’t induce the US Congress to act. Clearly, the country’s gun death toll must get worse before it gets better.
But take heart, America already has the solutions.
Since 1934, US federal law has mandated licensing and registration for machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and rifles. It works. Such firearms quickly became, and remain the guns least used in crime. Today, the few states that similarly regulate much more common handguns point to similar effects, even when undermined by their gun-lax neighbors.
On its roads, America dramatically reversed the soaring toll of death and injury by automobile with a holistic array of evidence-based public health measures. The world followed suit. Licensing and registration did not lead to mass confiscation, and cars remain objects of maleness, power and freedom.
Other US-led successful public health campaigns, from tobacco harm reduction to HIV/AIDS, saved countless millions of lives, all in the face of years of denial and quasi-religious opposition from self-interested groups. It can be done.
Unique to the United States, the Second Amendment to the Constitution is just that – an amendment. As with universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and Prohibition, Americans are free to change an outdated law when they so choose. The solution to armed violence, America’s fatal flaw, is not unthinkable.
Granted, armed violence is a multi-faceted, often intransigent public health problem, which spans a dozen disciplines. Yet for 20 years, the US gun lobby has successfully suppressed research in this field.
Imagine the outcry if for two decades the transportation industry lobby had managed to choke off all federal funds for road safety research. To prevent and reduce firearm injury, America’s medieval purge of knowledge and evidence must, and will be overcome.
In many other nations, improvements are well under way. Latin Americans, for example, suffer gun death rates to make your toes curl. For this reason Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia joined Australia, the United Kingdom and democratic countries in the Pacific Rim in mounting massive national disarmament and firearm destruction programs, each followed by fewer gun deaths.
With millions of new firearms sold each year around the world, and perhaps at best only a million destroyed, it’s an uphill struggle. Yet the unmistakeable global trend is to tighten firearm legislation and its enforcement, not to accept the least credible excuses for unbridled gun ownership. In the United States, the most common of these is fear, according to a study this year by academics at Harvard and Northeastern universities.
America’s epidemic of gun violence has already proven too much for any one president. Even if Trump were to spark armed insurrection, even if Clinton were to deliver on the NRA’s biggest nightmares, next week’s election winner can only boost the next peak, or perhaps trigger a brief trough in those horrible gun homicide and gun suicide charts.
But as with the toll of road-related deaths, a range of long-term public health initiatives will gradually work in parallel to save countless lives. Gun buyer background checks, micro-stamping of firearms and ammunition as a crime-busting tool, smart guns that only the owner can fire – and yes, licensing and registration – must ever so slowly become the norm.
This pair of presidential candidates will be long gone, but America’s children will insist.