Tom Diaz is a former senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center and the author of “The Last Gun: How Changes in the Gun Industry Are Killing Americans and What It Will Take to Stop It.”
The next time you play airport security theater — remove shoes, display laptop, toss water bottle — think of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Think of the moviegoers in Aurora, Colo., the citizens in Tucson peaceably assembled to meet with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., and Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old Chicago girl killed by gunfire days after coming to Washington with her high school band for President Obama’s second inauguration.
“Unfortunately, what happened to Hadiya is not unique,” Obama said in Chicago on Feb. 15. “It’s not unique to Chicago. It’s not unique to this country. Too many of our children are being taken away from us.”
These victims were casualties of domestic battles. Most died from wounds inflicted by military-style weapons designed to kill large numbers quickly.
Then ponder this: Americans suffer assaults on their privacy — they are groped in public and wiretapped en masse — and surrender their constitutional protections against unwarranted searches in the name of the war on terror, yet they cannot muster the will to protect children from mass murder with military-style weapons. We have spent more than $1 trillion on homeland security since Sept. 11, 2001, yet have withheld annual funding of less than $3 million for research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on gun violence.
Why are the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments subject to erosion in the name of homeland security, but the Second Amendment is beyond compromise in the name of saving innocent lives?
The risks of terrorism are not so much greater than the risks of gun violence that a disproportionate response is justified. Between 1969 and 2009, according to a 2011 Heritage Foundation study, 5,586 people were killed in terrorist attacks against the United States or its interests abroad. By comparison, about 30,000 people were killed by guns in the United States every year between 1986 and 2010. This means that about five times as many Americans are killed every year by guns than have been killed in terrorist attacks since Richard Nixon took office.
The Transportation Security Administration has an annual budget of about $8 billion and has spent about $60 billion on aviation security since 2001. The TSA employs about 62,000 people, of whom 47,000 are airport screeners.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — the principal federal agency charged with regulating the gun industry— has a budget of about $1.2 billion. It employs roughly 5,000 workers, about half of whom are special agents charged with carrying out criminal investigations.
These huge allocations turn the reality of risk on its head. In the nine years after 2001, 340 people were killed and 267 injured in attacks on civil aviation worldwide.
Our perception of the relative dangers of terrorism and gun violence is distorted. We don’t know it, and our leaders don’t bother to tell us. Indeed, they conspire with the gun industry to hide it.
Beyond immediate danger, humans are poor judges of risk — witness texting drivers and iPod-entranced jaywalkers. Yet, with education, risk perception can change. We’ve altered risk perceptions about smoking, unprotected sex, seat-belt use and the need for police to wear body armor. These changes were driven by fact-based research and clear advice on how to lower risk.
Americans needed no further evidence of the risk of terrorism than the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. President George W. Bush standing on the twin towers’ rubble with a bullhorn sparked a national consensus about what to do. That consensus has been sustained by a vast, federally funded security industry that extends even into academia. The Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security lists 375 colleges and universities that offer homeland security programs. Platoons of security experts from the industry and its academic branch continually warn us in seminars and congressional hearings of the need to keep the money flowing.
The greater risk of gun violence is masked. The media report lavishly on mass shootings but often fail to cover the much higher number of Americans killed and injured in gun violence daily. In Chicago last month, Obama said that 443 people were killed by guns in that city in 2012, and 65 of them were children — “a Newtown every four months.” Every day, about 80 Americans die from gunshots and about twice as many suffer nonfatal injuries, often lifelong debilitations. I researched a week of U.S. news stories about gun violence in August 2011 and then compared them with CDC averages; I found that about eight times more gun deaths and 60 times more gun injuries occurred than were reported.
The gun industry and the National Rifle Association have shut down federal information sources. Until Obama changed the policy by executive order in January, the CDC was forbidden to research gun violence under a law passed in 1996. In 2003, the ATF was forbidden to release summary data from millions of crime-gun traces. We value ignorance over knowledge of a threat that takes more lives than terrorism many times over. Congress and two presidents — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — have presided over this flight from fact. It has been politically safer to pander to the visceral fear of terrorism than to stand up to the gun industry.
Hopefully, this is changing. While Congress muddles along its familiar, shameful path of rhetoric and preemptive surrender — Republican legislators recently voiced their opposition to keeping records of gun sales — Obama has clearly articulated the fundamental causes of U.S. gun violence. By taking the issue to the American people, he may get the support of the majority who want real change. A Johns Hopkins poll released in January showed that 89 percent of Americans wanted to require background checks for all firearms sales; more than 80 percent wanted to prevent “high-risk individuals,” including people who have violated restraining orders, from owning guns; 69 percent wanted to ban sales of semiautomatic assault weapons; and 68 percent wanted to prohibit the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines.
If we are to protect the homeland, we must also protect our children and all innocent citizens from the epidemic of violence inflicted by military-style guns.
Read more from Outlook: