September 2013 Archives

Our Violent Culture

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       This morning in Boston began as a beautiful, sunny day with a crisp autumn chill. The center of the city was thronged with thousands of tourists, individuals on their way to work, and students scurrying to classes or lounging on the Boston Common or on nearby benches. This microcosm of humanity looked serene, idyllic and peaceful. Yet neither Boston nor anywhere else in the United States is safe because of this country's love affair with guns and the ease with which firearms can be purchased in so many states of the union.

            Yesterday's mayhem in Washington, D.C. follows a long line of gun-related tragedies. Since Charles Whitman's massacre of seventeen people and his wounding of thirty-two others at the University of Texas in 1966 gun violence has continued to percolate across the country, most recently at Virginia Tech, to Aurora, Colorado, to Fort Hood, Texas, to Newtown, Connecticut.


           The National Crime Victimization Survey documents that 467,321 persons in this country were victims of a crime committed with a firearm in 2011. In the same year, data collected by the FBI show that firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robbery offenses and 21 percent of aggravated assaults nationwide.          

         Further, the data shows that most homicides in the United States are committed with  firearms, especially handguns.

         The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the United States continues to experience epidemic levels of gun violence, with over 30,000 lives lost every year. In addition, for every one person who dies from a gunshot wound, two others are wounded.  Each year, approximately 100,000 Americans are victimized by gun violence.

         The emotional and economic losses caused by these gun deaths and injuries, as well as the emotional travail and suffering inflicted upon the families, friends and neighbors of the victims, are incalculable and the cumulative effects of this violence upon our entire society are pervasive.

         A recent report in the Huffington Post by Jillian Berman ("Taxpayers Shoulder Bulk Of Gun Violence Health Care Costs: Study," 9/13/13) cites a study from the Urban Institutewhich reports that U.S. taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to care for the victims of gun violence. According to an analysis of hospital and insurance data by researchers at the Institute, about 80 percent of the cost of treating victims of gun violence in 2010 was borne in part by taxpayers whether through government programs such as Medicaid or through publicly-funded programs that subsidize hospital care for the indigent and unemployed.

   Gun violence  

        The article quotes the author of the Institute's study, Embry Howell, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute."The victims are concentrated among young, poor males. This is the population we're talking about and their costs are very high. It's one group that is heavily uninsured."

         The study further notes that hospitals in the U.S. spent $630 million in 2010 treating the victims of gun violence and that the cost of gun violence to Medicaid alone that year was approximately $327 million. The study also found that the average cost of a hospital visit for a gun violence victim is $14,000 more than that of the average hospital stay, primarily because of the severity of the injuries involved.

          Lamentably, the inability of this country's political institutions to address this problem has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). As the tone-deaf and always pugnacious Justice Scalia piously intoned, "The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating handguns... But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."

          Scalia's unbridled defense of anti-social individualism has given license to gun nuts and Second Amendment absolutists to thwart every rational effort to control the continuing slaughter of innocent citizens. While most GOP legislators at the federal, state and local levels have enthusiastically embraced the mantra of the NRA that "guns don't kill people, people do," timid Democratic legislators have been cowed into submission.

          So severe has the problem become that two state Democratic state senators in Colorado, who supported modest gun control measures, were recalled by angry constituents who feared the confiscation of their firearms while in the Des Moines Register reports that Iowa is granting permits to acquire or carry guns in public to people who are legally or completely blind and that state law does not allow sheriffs to deny an Iowan the right to carry a weapon based on physical ability.

          How does one explain this insanity?  Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from the liberal ethos of the country in which the Founders intentionally constructed a constitutional system that emphasized the rights of solitary individuals over those of the community and, by means of checks and balances, separation of powers, and a diffusion of political power across a porous, largely unaccountable federal system, signaled a permanent distrust of government and its ability to act as an positive instrument for the public good.                   

          But one suspects that the problem is much deeper than the apotheosis of an increasingly unresponsive and unstable political system built upon an antiquated political philosophy. In the Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm posited a conflict at the root of modern Western civilization between those who love of life - Biophilia/Eros - and those who are lovers of death  -Necrophilia/ Thanatos.

            As Fromm observed, "To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible...The situation of mankind today is too serious to listen to the demagogues - least of all to demagogues who are attracted to destruction - or even to the leaders who use only their brains and whose hearts have hardened. Critical and radical thought will only bear fruit when it is blended with the most precious quality man is endowed with - the love of life."

          Protecting the lives and safety of innocent citizens the paramount duty of any democratic government. The right of citizens to live meaningful and productive lives without the fear or threat of senseless violence perpetrated by sociopaths and the deranged is a basic human right that trumps any narrow, inflexible interpretation of the Second Amendment.   

           Unless the problem of gun violence is addressed honestly, openly and courageously by judges and politicians, the number and severity of incidents of senseless gun violence are likely to increase. Will this country then descend into the kind of dystopia described by Hobbes, in which the "life of man is poore, nasty, brutish and short?"  If that dark, future world should come to pass, those who now oppose all rational forms of gun control may be ruefully remembered by those who survive as disciples of Thanatos who spawned a culture of death.


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