A Message from the President of Americans Against Gun Violence
July 3, 2017
"Be Courageous, Be Bold"
My wife and I were on short vacation in Monterey, California last week when we learned about the two latest mass shootings in our country. On Friday, June 30, at least 17 people were wounded in a mass shooting in a club in Little Rock, Arkansas. On the same day, a doctor shot and killed a female physician and wounded six other people before killing himself in a Brooklyn hospital.
At the bed and breakfast at which we stayed in Monterey, the other guests included a very nice couple from Denmark, Jen and Kirsten. They'd heard about the mass shootings, too. As we talked with them about the gun violence problem in America, Jen and Kirsten were too polite to ask directly why our country doesn't do something to stop these shootings, but the pained, quizzical expressions on their faces showed that the question must have been on their minds.
The rate of gun related deaths in the United States is 12 times higher than in Denmark. Denmark ranks 54th in the world in its rate of civilian gun ownership. The United States ranks first, by a large margin, in civilian gun ownership, and first, by a similarly large margin, in gun deaths.
Like most other high income democratic countries, Denmark allows legitimate hunters and target shooters to practice their sports but requires licensing of all gun owners and registration of all firearms. Anyone who seeks to acquire a gun must show why he or she needs one and that he or she is psychologically stable and able to handle a gun safely. In the United States, there is no federal requirement for firearm licensing and registration, and anyone seeking to acquire a gun can get one unless the government can show that he or she meets fairly narrow criteria for being prohibited from owning firearms.
As with most other high income democratic countries, Denmark doesn't generally accept "self defense" as a legitimate reason for owning a gun. The Danes, like the citizens of most other developed countries, understand that guns in their homes and in their communities are much more likely to be used to kill or injure honest, law-abiding people than to protect them. In the United States, "self defense" is the reason most often cited for keeping a gun in the home.
Jen and Kirsten appeared to be in their mid 70's. I asked them if mass shootings ever occurred in Denmark. They couldn't remember a single mass shooting in their country in their entire lives. The two mass shootings last Friday raised the number of mass shootings in just the past two weeks in the United States to four.
Before heading for Monterey, my wife and I had attended a meeting in Oakland on Monday with the leaders of other California gun violence prevention organizations. California has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country, and rates of firearm related deaths in California are about 10% lower than the national average. But California's gun control laws are far less stringent than Denmark's laws, and the rate of gun deaths in California is nine times higher than in Denmark.
Everyone at the meeting in Oakland agreed that it should be our goal to lower rates of gun violence in California and the rest of the country to levels at or below the average for the other high income democratic countries of the world. But no one would commit to their organization joining Americans Against Gun Violence in openly advocating that we adopt the same kind of stringent gun control regulations that have long been in place in all those other countries.
The evening following the meeting in Oakland, before heading down the coast to Monterey, my wife and I attended the annual dinner of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence (LCPGV) in San Francisco. LCPGV was founded in 1993 after a mass shooting at a San Francisco law firm. LCPGV recently partnered with Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS), an organization founded by former U.S. Representative Gabrielle ("Gabby") Giffords and her husband, former astronaut and retired Navy Captain Mark Kelly. Gabby Giffords was herself critically wounded by a gunshot wound to the head in a mass shooting near Tucson, Arizona in 2011.
Gabby Giffords was present at the dinner, and she spoke very briefly. She is almost completely paralyzed on her right side as a result of the 2011 gunshot wound, and she appeared to have great difficulty walking slowly to the podium. Once at the podium, she smiled bravely and waved to the audience with her left hand. The audience responded with a standing ovation. She struggled to deliver a few memorized lines in a halting, child like voice, and she concluded by saying:
Fight, fight, fight. Be courageous, be bold. Thanks very much.
The audience gave Gabby another long standing ovation. There were several other speakers at the dinner, including the LCPGV's executive director; the president of the LCPGV board of directors; an attorney from a law firm that received an award for the extensive pro bono work it had done for LCPGV; Gabby Gifford's husband, Captain Mark Kelly; and the keynote speaker, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
During the entire event, though, no one spoke of the need to adopt stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws that have long been in place in every other high income democratic country - countries like Denmark in which mass shootings are rare or non-existent and in which overall rates of firearm related deaths are much lower than in our country. And no one spoke of the need to overturn the radical 2008 Heller decision, in which a narrow 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court reversed over 200 years of legal precedent in ruling for the first time in U.S. history that the Second Amendment conferred any kind of an individual right to own a gun outside of service in a well regulated militia.
On the contrary, a pamphlet entitled The Truth About Gun Violence in America that was published by LCPGV and ARS and placed on everyone's chair at the dinner referred to the Heller decision as a "landmark case" that "affirmed the right to keep a gun for self defense." Elsewhere in the pamphlet, it was stated that "no serious organization" advocates a large scale reduction in the more than 300 million guns that are currently in circulation in the United States. According to the pamphlet, "In reality, smart gun laws are about saving lives and ensuring responsible ownership, not taking away guns."
I have great respect for LCPGV. My wife and I have made many financial donations to the organization over the years, and I've spent countless hours with LCPGV attorneys testifying before committees of the California State Legislature in support of sensible, albeit limited, gun control laws. I also have great respect for the tremendous courage that Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly have shown in dealing with her devastating injury. The leaders of other gun violence prevention organizations that we met with in Oakland are also fine people who have worked diligently to get even limited gun control legislation passed and who, in many cases, have themselves lost loved ones to gun violence.
The obvious truth about gun violence in America, though, is that in order to reduce rates of firearm related deaths and injuries in our country to levels comparable to other high income democratic countries, we must adopt comparable stringent gun control laws. Adopting comparable gun control laws will require overturning the 2008 Heller decision, which LCPGV attorneys have privately described to me as "an abomination." Adopting comparable gun control laws will also require private citizens to surrender many of the guns currently in circulation, just as Australia did when it banned all semi-automatic rifles following the 1996 Port Arthur mass shooting, and just as Britain did when it banned all handguns following the 1996 Dunblane Elementary School mass shooting. Both of these countries, like Denmark, still allow legitimate hunters and target shooters to practice their sports with traditional sporting rifles and shotguns.
I believe that Gabby Giffords' admonition, "Be courageous, be bold," is one that every person who is concerned about gun violence in America should heed. Currently, Americans Against Gun Violence is the only national organization that I'm aware of that openly advocate overturning the Heller decision and adopting stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws in other developed countries.
This 4th of July, the Star Spangled Banner will be played at celebrations all around the country. There has been controversy from time to time concerning whether the Star Spangled Banner is an appropriate national anthem, but little attention has been paid to the fact that the last line in the first stanza is a question, not a statement. It goes:
Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
I don't believe that we can truly call ourselves the "land of the free and the home of the brave" until we show the courage to free ourselves from the grip of the gun lobby and take definitive steps to end the shameful epidemic of gun violence that afflicts our country.
Bill Durston, MD
President, Americans Against Gun Violence
Note: Dr. Durston is a board certified emergency physician, a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, decorated for courage under fire.