America has recoiled in horror over the shooting rampage in Arizona but throughout the country some 30,000 people die each year of gunshot wounds — about one-third of the 98,000 who are shot.
The most recent violence has turned the spotlight once again on a system that fuels gun crime and, say some, is giving in to an “extremist” minority of gun advocates at the expense of national safety.
“We need more sensible laws, and we need a change in social norms,” says David Hemenway, a Harvard professor of health policy and expert in gun violence. “But the sad thing is that too many people are cowed by the gun lobby. And on a typical day in the U.S. there are 80 deaths from firearms.”
Arizona’s laws allow lethal weapons to be concealed as well as easily purchased. And, says the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, there is a strong link between lax laws and shooting deaths.
“Laws keep down the gun population,” says the centre’s executive director Josh Sugarmann. “But states with the most lax laws and the highest gun density tend to have the highest overall deaths.”
Arizona is ninth in state firearm deaths. Its rate for 2007 was about 15 per 100,000, exceeding the national average of 10.
Louisiana, where 46 per cent of households have guns, has highest figure, of 20 per 100,000. In the lowest ranking state, Hawaii, with a gun death rate of 3 per 100,000, only 10 per cent of households have guns, according to U.S. statistics.
“When you look at the rates of homicide without guns in the U.S. it’s only slightly higher than in Canada,” says Ryerson University professor Wendy Cukier, author of The Global Gun Epidemic. “But rates of homicide with guns are much higher. It shows that the availability of guns is very important.”
Both state and national laws have been crucially weakened over the past decade — including a Supreme Court ruling that makes home ownership of guns a right, and the expiry of a federal ban on extended ammunition clips for automatic weapons, which police say permitted Jared Lee Loughner to attach a clip that could fire up to 33 bullets without reloading.
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Critics say even the laws that exist are poorly enforced and monitored.
On Tuesday, gun-control advocates called for reforms of the federal background check system that allowed Loughner to buy two weapons in the past two years: a shotgun and a semi-automatic pistol that attracts gun lovers with its “fantastic firepower.”
In spite of Loughner’s encounters with police over alleged drug use, he purchased the weapons from a sporting goods shop that apparently found no record of his dismissed drug charge, or run-ins with community college police.
“The Arizona tragedy has once again exposed fatal cracks in our background check system,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who joined with other civic leaders and police Tuesday to outline ways of keeping guns from the hands of the violent and unstable.
“It should be clear to everyone that the system is broken and it is time for our leaders in Washington to step up and fix it,” he said.
Gun control advocates say that the complaint is nothing new, and in spite of spectacular shooting attacks little has been done to improve the U.S.’s gun violence record, which is the worst of all the industrial countries. Nor has it changed under President Barack Obama, an avowed supporter of firearm control when he ran for election.
“In just one year (he) has signed into law more repeals of federal gun policies than in president George W. Bush’s eight years in office,” says the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a leading gun control lobby group.
“From the repeal of Reagan-era rules keeping loaded guns out of national parks to the repeal of post-9/11 policies to safeguard Amtrak from armed terrorist attacks, President Obama’s stance on guns has endangered our communities and threatened our national security.”