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A student protests on the steps of the Vermont Statehouse at a rally on Feb. 19.

Voices / Viewpoint

Our government held hostage

Intuitively, we know what needs to be done about guns, but it will require courageous, non-compromised leaders to enact these changes

Neil Senior M.D. is a psychiatrist.


The horror of the Parkland, Florida massacre cannot be overstated. In six minutes, a cowardly bully murdered 17 innocent people.

However, as we contemplate this truly awful event, we should not lose sight of the 100 or so Vermonters who kill themselves with guns each year, often with handguns and often alone.

These events are rarely reported in the media, lead to no political posturing, and leave the survivors and first responders to grieve in isolation, mostly without any community support.

As the teenagers of South Florida and hopefully the rest of the country rise up in response, it is reasonable to ask: What are the adults doing?

For the president, $30 million in NRA campaign contributions encourages him to blame mental illness, ban bump stocks, arm teachers, and consider improving background checks.

All these interventions, as well as banning semiautomatic weapons, are in my opinion, political pandering that will essentially do nothing to significantly deal with this carnage.

* * *

The problems with these strategies are as follows.

• The majority of gun deaths nationwide are suicides, not murders.

• The majority of homicides are with handguns, not semi-automatic weapons.

• Bump stocks are rarely used.

• Teachers’ jobs are already hard enough without making them impossible.

• Most guns in this country are apparently sold outside of mainstream retail outlets and frequently illegally. This means most guns are sold without a background check.

• And frankly, the background checks are so limited in scope that both Nikolas Cruz, the shooter in Florida, and Stephen Paddock, the shooter in Nevada’s 2017 mass shooting, apparently passed them.

• Finally, given that guns mostly end up in families, the purchaser may pass the check, but what about everyone else who has access to these weapons?

As often occurs after a mass shooting, banning semi-automatic weapons becomes the rallying cry. Of course, they should be banned, but given that more than 60 percent of gun deaths are with handguns, don’t expect this move to have much of an impact on the nation’s overall rates of death by guns.

Research shows that people who are mentally ill are much less likely than the general population to perpetrate gun violence and are, in fact, more likely to be victims. As far as I can tell from the press, neither Cruz nor Paddock had mental illness; rather, they were angry, well-armed narcissists.

We need to stop calling angry men “mentally ill,” for all we are doing is sidestepping the obvious problems that anger and bullying are doing to all levels of our society.

* * *

So what to do about the 30,000 people dying annually from guns in this country? Intuitively, we know what needs to be done, but it will require courageous, non-compromised leaders to enact these changes. Simply put, there needs to be many fewer guns in our society.

Here are a few suggestions for our leaders to consider in order to achieve this objective.

• Overturn the Congressional ban on gun safety research. It is unbelievable that this public-health crisis cannot benefit from research funded by the federal government.

• Support comprehensive legislation that would require all gun owners to have proof of legal purchase and pass a comprehensive background check.

• Sell only single-shot long-arm rifles, preferably muskets! Having grown up in Australia, I can assure you that the public lives safely without semi-automatic weapons and handguns. In spite of what we are told here, the public does not need these weapons.

• Cars require annual inspections. Treat guns the same. If we require background checks for gun ownership, then require these checks annually and for all family members.

• Treat ammunition as a public-health problem the way we treat cigarettes, by taxing them at a much-higher level than at present.

It is extraordinary that the leadership of the 5 million members of the NRA can hold 320 million Americans hostage.

But, as we all know, they only need to focus on the 535 members of Congress.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #449 (Wednesday, March 7, 2018). This story appeared on page E3.

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