The Cost of Cowardice (part two)


When it comes to passing gun regulations, the United States Congress is a group of cowards.
Congress-members of both parties use the second amendment as a fig-leaf to cover their cowardice while they dance to the tune of the National Rifle Association. Republican senators, with the exception of perhaps four, are completely in the pocket of the NRA. Democrats who will vote for gun regulations pay homage to “responsible gun owners” and “second amendment protections” before they speak about Band-Aid measures to prevent gun violence.
The cost of this legislative cowardice is high. In an average year, “over 108,000 (108,476) people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, or by police intervention.” In an average year for all ages, 32,514 people die from gun violence; 75,962 people survive gun injuries. On an average day, 7 children and teens die from gun violence. “Every day, 41 children and teens are shot and survive.” (These numbers come from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence:
Further, there is the monetary cost of gun violence. According to an article in “Mother Jones” magazine (, the annual cost of gun violence, based on 2012 data, is $229 billion dollars. “Mother Jones” reports:
“Even before accounting for the more intangible costs of violence, in other words, the average cost to taxpayers for a single gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000. And we pay for 32 of them every single day.”
The cost is a calculation of both direct and indirect costs. Direct costs include emergency service, police investigations, long-term medical and mental health care, and court and prison costs. Eighty-seven percent of these costs are paid by taxpayers. Indirect costs are those that impact the quality of life, including lost wages of survivors. Moreover, when a person suffers a gun injury, that trauma can be lifelong and the ultimate cause of death. According to “Mother Jones”:
“In August 2014, a medical examiner concluded that former presidential aide James Brady’s death in a nursing home at age 73 was due to complications from the bullet he took to his head during the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life almost 34 years earlier.”
Then there is the cost in tears and the empty place left in our lives when a loved one dies because of gun violence. Behind faceless statistics stand real people with selfies and Facebook pages. They have friends, family, and shared experiences. They have hopes and dreams, and for those who die too soon, those possibilities also die. There is no way to calculate this cost. (See:
We tolerate these costs because we live with the mythology that guns protect us and our family members from strangers who want to do us harm. It is true that in an encounter with someone who wants to do harm, a person with a gun suffers less injury than an unarmed person who uses other strategies of self-defense, but the studies that show this do not account for variables such as who the victim is, who the perpetrator is, and what the circumstances are.
This idolatry of the gun, the thought that the gun will protect us from strangers, hides the reality that more guns in the home leads to more accidents, suicides, and homicides, perpetrated by family and friends against each other. ( While most men are killed or injured by a gun outside the home, most women and children are killed and wounded at home. In a study by Matthew Miller, Deborah Azrael, and David Hemenway – “Firearms and Violent Death in the United States” – they report that more guns equals more gun violence. They say:
“. . . states with higher rates of household firearm ownership had significantly higher homicide victimization rates for men, for women, and for children. The association was driven by gun-related homicide victimization rates; non gun-related victimization rates were not significantly associated with rates of firearm ownership.”
A gun in the home is especially dangerous to women. The study says: “A gun in the home is a particularly strong risk factor for female homicide victimization – with the greatest danger for women coming from their intimate partners.” A woman who lives in a home with a gun is three times more likely to be murdered than a woman who lives in a home without guns. Further, guns provide no protection for battered women.
Guns are dangerous to children. Compared to other developed nations, a child in the United States is 13 times “more likely to die from a firearm homicide and eight times more likely to die of a firearm suicide.” The researchers say:
“Firearm policy is often focused on guns used in crime. . . . In the United States, there are more firearm suicides than firearm homicides, and women, children, and older adults are more likely to die by gunfire from a household gun (typically legally acquired and possessed) than from illegal guns.”
Despite this reality, when the Supreme Court ruled on gun rights in “DC v Heller”, it ruled 5-4 that the second amendment guarantees the right of citizens to keep and bear arms for the purpose of self-defense. Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Antonin Scalia found words in the text of the US Constitution that are just not there. He cited words from various state constitutions, words available to the Framers and no doubt known by them, but words they nonetheless decided not to include in the second amendment language. Those state constitutions gave its citizens the right to “bear arms in defense of themselves and the state.”
Thus, Scalia writes: “We therefore believe that the most likely reading of all four of these pre-Second Amendment state constitutional provisions is that they secured an individual right to bear arms for defensive purposes.” And so Scalia reads this meaning into the second amendment. This is the heart of the complaint that Justice John Paul Stevens articulates in his dissent in Heller. Citing both history and precedent, Stevens argues that the plain meaning of the text of the second amendment restricts the right to keep and bear arms to service in a well-regulated militia. Stevens writes: “Specifically, there is no indication that the Framers of the Amendment intended to enshrine the common-law right of self-defense in the Constitution.”
Citing the Court’s decision in a previous case – “United States v Miller” – Stevens says: “The view of the Amendment we took in Miller – that it protects the right to keep and bear arms for certain military purposes but that it does not curtail the Legislature’s power to regulate the nonmilitary use and ownership of weapons – is both the most natural reading of the Amendment’s text and the interpretation most faithful to the history of its adoption.”
In a separate dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer called attention to the increase in gun violence during the last 40 years and its relationship to “the easy availability of firearms in the United States.” Breyer cites a study that shows: “for every intruder stopped by a homeowner with a firearm, there are four gun related accidents within the home.” Breyer recognizes that most murders by law abiding citizens arise from anger, passion or intoxication and that 25 per cent occur within families. He writes: “More teenagers die from firearms than from all natural causes combined.” I say: in short, guns do not keep us safe.
While Scalia finds words in the text that are not written there, he did say that the second amendment does not grant unlimited gun rights. There is no right to carry any kind of gun in any kind of way for any kind of reason. Laws that prohibit felons and the mentally ill to buy and keep guns are permissible as are laws that govern the sale of firearms.
Within these parameters there are some restrictions on guns that a courageous Congress could pass. Strengthening background checks would be an important step. There should be universal background checks; the FBI should have not three but ten business days to complete a background check. Firearm owners ought to be required to report lost or stolen firearms within 72 hours of learning of the loss. Guns should only be sold by licensed dealers. More people ought to be ineligible to buy guns including people who have temporary restraining orders filed against them, those who have violated restraining orders, and people convicted of misdemeanor stalking. Gun manufacturers ought to be encouraged to manufacture childproof and personalized guns. There ought to be a true assault weapons ban. There ought to be a ban on high capacity magazines. The federal government ought to provide funding for more research into gun violence in the United States and around the world. (For the entire list of recommendations see: “Reducing Gun Violence” 259-262.)
In an opinion piece in the “New York Times” published July 17, 2015, four members of the clergy call for President Obama to use the purchasing power of the federal government to pressure gun manufacturers to take steps to keep their guns from ending up at crime scenes. Reverends David K. Brawley, Otis Moss III, David Benke, and Rabbi Joel Mosbacher want more smart guns, and they want gun makers to only allow reputable dealers to sell their guns. They write:
“For the government to keep buying guns from these companies – purchases meant to ensure public safety – without making demands for change is to squander its leverage.”
About military procurement of weapons, they say: “It should require all bidders to provide detailed information about their gun safety technologies and distribution practices in the civilian market. No response, no contract.” (
Executive purchasing prerogatives not-with-standing, in my opinion, the responsibility for passing gun regulations – up to and including outright bans not only on assault weapons, but hand guns as well – rests with Congress. Other countries have found the political will to do this.
After a mass shooting on March 13, 1996, where a teacher and 16 five and six-year-olds were killed and three teachers and ten children were injured by a gunman using two semi-automatic pistols, two revolvers, and high capacity magazines, the United Kingdom banned handguns. In 2010 there was a mass shooting in Cumbria where a man killed 12 people and himself using a legally owned shotgun and a rifle. Gun control advocates are pressing for further legislation. According to Michael J. North writing about gun control in Great Britain: “In 2012 there were only six gun homicides in London reported in the media and a total of 32 across Great Britain.”
Australia provides another example. In April 1996 a young man used an assault weapon to kill 35 people and seriously injure 19 at the Port Arthur historic site in Tasmania. As a result of this, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister John Howard led an effort to reform gun laws. The National Firearms Agreement implements a number of gun control measures including a ban on automatic and semi-automatic long arms, nationwide registration of all firearms, safety training for licensing, and no mail-order sales of firearms. License applicants must say what their reason is for possessing a firearm, and personal protection is not considered a “genuine reason.”
Writing about the Australian experience, Rebecca Peters says: “Overall, Australia’s reforms have proved a resounding success. We have not had another mass shooting since 1996, and the firearms mortality rate today is 1/100,000 – less than half what it was then (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012), and one tenth the current United States rate.”
Brazil has also taken steps to decrease gun violence. It is a country with one of the highest rates of firearm homicides in the world. Even so, Brazil has been able to reduce firearm deaths. There was a concerted effort to bring various groups in civil society – “churches, women, social groups victimized by guns, physicians, academics and sympathetic journalists and politicians, and unions” – to work together to change public opinion to favor stronger gun laws.
Antonio Rangel Bandeira writes: “When the polls showed that 81% of Brazilians favored a new gun law, the climate changed in the Congress. Although the arms industry had the money, the voters were on our side. In December 2003 our bill was approved by all political parties. President Lula signed the Disarmament Statute into law as a Christmas gift to the people of Brazil.”
Under the law, civilians cannot carry weapons. No citizen may own a gun that is more powerful than a .38 caliber. It raised the age where one could buy a gun to 25 and purchasers must show evidence they have knowledge of gun safety. Brazil instituted voluntary weapons buybacks. There was a media campaign where women encouraged men to give up their guns with the slogan: “Choose Gun Free. It is Your Weapon or Me!” Further, Rio de Janeiro publically destroyed 100,000 weapons.
In May 2011, after a mass shooting in Rio de Janeiro, the government started another buy-back program. Bandeira writes regarding the 2011 buy back campaign: “The campaign’s slogan is: Hand in Your Weapons. Protect Your Family, to counter the misguided practice of arming oneself to defend family and loved ones.”
Because of these efforts, gun deaths are down 70% in Sao Paulo and 30% in Rio de Janeiro. A referendum on a total ban on all sales of guns and ammunition to civilians was defeated even though support for gun control is above 80%. An effort to register guns owned by law-abiding citizens is underway. The most important thing though is that people in Brazil recognize gun violence and gun control are international problems that will require commitment from civil society in every nation.
I started my reading for this essay shortly after the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. Since that time – a little more than a month – there has been another multiple murder, this time in Chattanooga, Tennessee where a young Muslim man shot and killed five service members. The conversation now is about whether or not the young man was indoctrinated by Daesh (aka ISIS) propaganda. Was this a Daesh terrorist attack on United States soil?
At the Family Leadership Summit 2015 in Iowa, the moderator asked the crowd what was the greatest threat to the United States – Russia and Vladimir Putin, Iran, or ISIS. By applause, the people chose ISIS. The truth is that as far as I know, Iran has not killed any Americans on American soil, neither has Putin, nor has Daesh. However, presuming that today is an average day in America, 297 people were shot in the United States. Eighty-nine people probably died today from gun violence. If a foreign government or none state actor killed this many people every day in the United State, we would be at war. The danger to America is guns. This is the cost of congressional cowardice.
At the end of the day, we have the leadership we elect. Most people in the United States want stronger gun laws. If Congress will not craft stronger laws, it is our duty to replace it with a Congress that will. If we do not, we will continue to pay the too too bloody cost of cowardice.
To read the complete essays referenced see “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis” edited by Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love and the Public Conversation.”

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