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Facing our gun culture

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New York is toughening its gun-control laws, and that's worth celebrating. But I'm not optimistic that we'll go further – because we haven't faced up to what our gun problem is.

At both the state and federal level, the current focus is on "assault weapons." And yes, guns of the kind that killed those children and adults in Newtown are a terrible problem. We should ban those weapons, and we should ban high-capacity magazines.

But assault weapons, which are most often used in mass shootings, aren't the only guns killing people. As tragic as those shootings are, deaths by assault weapons are dwarfed by the deaths from other guns. Are those victims any less precious? Are their deaths any less abhorrent?

Many of those victims are African American and Hispanic. What does it say about this country that we get upset only when there are mass shootings of predominantly middle-class, predominantly white Americans, in a movie theater or a school? Where is the outrage when a single person is gunned down in the inner city?

The United States' gun problem is unique. Among the world's wealthy countries, Charles Blow wrote in the Times recently, "America has the highest gun homicide rate, the highest number of guns per capita, and the highest rate of deaths due to assault."

From the Washington Post's Fareed Zakaria: 32,000 people died from gunshots in the US in 2011. That's 87.7 gun deaths every day.

"The US gun homicide rate is 30 times that of France or Australia, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime," Zakaria wrote, "and 12 times higher than the average for other developed countries."

It's not that we have more people with mental illness, said Zakaria, because we don't. And we're not the only country with lots of violence in popular culture.

The problem, Zakaria wrote, is the easy availability of guns.

And from Jennifer Kabat on Salon.com: There are 88.8 firearms per 100 people in the US. Among the world's wealthiest countries, 80 percent of firearm deaths take place in the US. And it's far more likely that a gun in the home will be used for suicide than for self-defense.

Our gun problem is complicated. The roots of the trauma in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, presumably, are different than those of the almost daily shootings in America's cities. And all of those are different from the gunshots of an angry, inebriated husband or friend – or a citizen who thinks a visitor to his neighborhood is up to no good. Or a child who finds a loaded gun at home.

What they all have in common is guns and their availability. And it doesn't seem possible to talk about that without talking about America's culture of violence. Numerous studies have indicated that violent entertainment – video games, TV shows, movies, music – doesn't make the average person violent. But I am troubled by the growing pervasiveness of violence – graphic violence – in our culture. It demeans us. And it distorts our values.

It says a lot about our values when a gun manufacturer – the manufacturer of the rifle that killed the children in Newtown and the firefighters in Webster – promotes the gun with an ad saying "Get your man card reissued."

Will we come to our senses about guns? It's hard to think that we will, when the gun lobby resists even the most logical controls on assault weapons – and guns are considered a symbol of manhood. How can we hope for effective legislation?

You can't get rid of guns, Megan McArdle wrote on the Daily Beast last week, because there are too many of them, the opposition's too widespread, and the Supreme Court says Americans have a constitutional right to own guns.

But if the Constitution couldn't be changed, we'd still have slavery. And think what the result would be if we had refused to move against polio or tobacco.

Are we really helpless to deal with one of the biggest public-health issues this country faces?

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