In 2009, soon after the massacre in Binghamton, New York, I wrote a column about gun control for the Boston Globe.
On the day it was published emails flooded in, and five men left alarming messages on my home telephone. Any worries I had that my argument was too subtle — I simply described what was required to buy a gun in Cambridge, Mass. — were allayed. “You’re lucky, Ms. Livesey,” one of my male callers said, “that Americans are armed and ready to defend some Scottish immigrant.” (I was born and grew up in Scotland.)
But, alas, defending immigrants, Scottish and otherwise, is the least of what Americans do with their guns. They kill their representatives, their neighbors, their students and their children. And in addition to the larger tragedies that make national news, there are many, many others –– each lost life leaving a terrible hole in many other lives. (For a more accurate picture of the price Americans pay for their love of guns, read David Hemenway’s 2006 book, “Private Guns, Public Health.”)
Why does this continue? Back in Britain people ask me this question and I can only speculate.
Because no politician who advocates for gun control can get elected?
Because Americans don’t trust their police force to defend them?
Because an organization called the NRA pours money into opposing any changes to laws which are so liberal that non-military individuals can legally own assault weapons? (And manufacturers of guns, I presume, pour money into the NRA.)
Because this country is confused about the word “freedom”? Laws do not constrain freedom; they enable it. Look at civil rights. Without laws none of us are free.
Because it’s important to be able to go hunting?
My British friends are not impressed by these answers. But why? They keep asking. So do my American friends. So do I.
I have no new answers to offer but a few years ago, after Columbine, before Binghamton, I did research into suicide for a novel I was writing. I learned that in Britain when domestic gas ceased to be fatal, the suicide rate fell dramatically. People did not seek a new method. The same thing happened here when barriers were put up along a bridge notorious for suicides. Again the death rate went down. Vulnerable people need to be protected from their impulses of despair and violence.
If any good can come out of the events of last Friday it will surely be that people all over this very large country finally acknowledge that everyone should be allowed to go to college, go shopping, go to temple, go to the cinema or go to school without the fear of being shot.
Hopefully many of these people will be NRA members who, with their expertise, will be invaluable in crafting safer laws. And perhaps the federal government will at last give all of us greater freedom by banning weapons that properly belong in the armed forces.