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No, Guns Really Are the Issue

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In the wake of the Connecticut shooting last Friday, some numbers were being floated on Facebook (FB): 10,000 gun deaths each year in the U.S. compared to 57 in Switzerland, 158 in Germany, 41, in England, 35 in France...

I initially just chalked this up to exaggeration, sparked by an understandable outrage.

But as others began voicing all sorts of opinions about how to prevent such tragedies from happening again, old arguments against new laws emerged and I decided maybe it was worth it to look into those numbers.

In his article for TheStreet Tuesday, economist Peter Morici notes some of the arguments against gun control, and observes that we can't police the problem away. We need instead to encourage a greater civility.

On Facebook, in the newspapers, on the radio, others were arguing that the real issue here is mental illness, not guns. Gun rights supporters love this argument: No amount of law can stop a crazy person hell-bent on destruction.

True enough. But that rationale also overlooks the obvious: A law doesn't have to be 100% effective to be a good law. We stop at traffic lights because we have arrived at a common agreement to do so. Observing the right of way allows us all to pass safely through most intersections.

People will ignore the law, even harming those who would obey. But the risk of death is generally reduced; the benefits of the law remain real.

Statistics

It turns out the Facebook numbers were largely correct: We are burdened by a disproportionate level of guns and gun violence compared to most other nations of the world.

The FBI compiles statistics on violent crime -- these are voluntary reports from around the country, and as such, probably understate the case. I also looked at the Center for Disease Control's statistics and the U.N. Office of Disease and Crime -- gun violence figures for both of those are higher than those at the FBI.

The Guardian's DataBlog is one site that collects these statistics. The Guardian's page is short on details, but the U.S. numbers correspond to data found from the official sources.

Despite those variations, overall trends and rankings with other nations are clear and consistent from all sources.

For each of our roughly 310 million people there is very nearly one gun in private hands. The most commonly cited figure is nine guns to every 10 people. That makes us No. 1 in the world for the proliferation of guns among the citizenry, beating Yemen by a wide margin and double that of Switzerland where every young man serves in the army and keeps his weapon at home.

For most of Europe that ratio is less than 1:10.

A large number of U.S. households have guns, but not a majority -- somewhere on the order of 40%, according to JustFacts.org. Many homes have multiple guns, even though most have none.

Take a look around next time you're at the mall: At least two out of every five people -- men, women and children -- have access to guns (plural) at home.

Yikes.

Still, our county is not the leader in the total number of gun homicides. We're in the top five, but we're not the top. That distinction goes to Brazil, with over 34,000, according to The Guardian's DataBlog. The U.S. comes in fifth on The Guardian's list with 9,146. Other sources put that figure at well over 10,000.

Fewer guns don't mean fewer gun crimes. Brazil, for instance, has 0.8 guns for every 10 people.

Conversely, more guns don't mean more safety. Panama and Mexico have relatively high gun ownership rates -- still nowhere near ours -- and gun death rates much higher than ours.

Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Denmark are among the European countries with much lower gun ownership rates and much lower gun death rates.

Switzerland is an outlier. Often touted in gun law debates, it has a high rate of gun ownership and low rate of gun deaths. Much of that comes from the benefits of education. Most of the guns in private hands are army issue and the people who have them are trained to use them safely. Switzerland is also much wealthier per capita than the U.S. and has a total population smaller than New York City.

Yet, even in Switzerland, they are having this same discussion about introducing new gun laws. They don't feel safe either.

In the U.S., mind you, we're not talking simply more guns. We're talking about the most guns. Twice the gun-ownership rate of Switzerland.

Guns are everywhere. We're saturated. Prior to Friday, you could buy them at Walmart (WMT), for goodness sake, as you pick up some groceries and Christmas decorations. Walmart had the good sense to take a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle off its retail Web site in the wake of Friday's shooting. It remains to be seen if the chain -- or any other gun retailer -- will volunteer to permanently discontinue any weapons sales.

Yes, other elements are at play in our gun crimes, including a lack of care for those suffering from mental illness and their families. But with those other problems, we offer the potentially violent criminal easy access to weapons -- much more so than most other nations. The door to the arsenal is left wide open.

As a society we need to respect each other more, as Morici suggests, to encourage a greater civility. We also need to care more about serving those suffering from mental illness before that illness becomes a problem for society. Not shutting them away -- that doesn't really help -- but offering ongoing love and support to them and their families.

But these very real concerns only heighten the need for greater gun controls. With so many guns, all issues have the potential to become gun issues.

We can feel satisfied that we are not Honduras, which has a rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people of 68.43 -- easily the highest in the world. We can also be proud that overall gun violence is in a long-term downtrend in this country, tapering significantly from highs in 2005 and 2006.

But we can't feel proud that our own rate of gun deaths still hovers around 3.0 for every 100,000 people -- the 28th worst among the nations of the world and more than three times higher than the highest rate of any European country.

We can't be proud of our trove of guns when we know that, for whatever reason, we are not keeping them safely.

--Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.

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