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Will we come to our senses on gun control in 2014?

Americans cannot continue framing gun control laws in terms of infringement on their freedom.

Last updated: 03 Feb 2014 08:02
Marda Dunsky

Marda Dunsky is an author and journalist teaching at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
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In 2013, NRA's "Political Victory Fund" raised $10.2m [Getty Images]

Many Americans are hoping that 2014 will bring more of the gradual economic progress that is putting a few more dollars back into our pockets and thousands back to work.

But will 2014 also mark our emergence from the numbness that has stymied real progress on gun control - and continues to expose us to a national shooting gallery of sorts?

Recent headlines and morning news shows tout decreasing numbers of homicides in cities including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit, and so we bolster our sense of safety with these sound bites - even as Baltimore and Newark, among others, continue to struggle with rising rates of gun-related violence and death. Americans go to ordinary places - supermarkets, movie theatres, malls, workplaces, schools - every day expecting to be safe. But our expectations are dashed continually with new reports of shootings in public places.

The December shooting in suburban Denver by a teen gunman at his high school, in which he killed one student before killing himself, occurred about 10 miles from the site of the infamous 1999 Columbine school massacre.

A year after the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, which took 26 lives, including those of 20 children, we have not become any safer in ordinary places - and the national conversation about gun control has not drilled down nearly deep enough.

Last December from overseas, I watched the Sandy Hook story unfold. A hundred miles from where I sat glued to the television in horror, a mini-war had erupted in and around the Gaza Strip weeks earlier. A hundred miles in another direction, the civil war in Syria continued to rage.

War on home soil is largely foreign to Americans. Perhaps uniquely among the world's peoples, we believe that we have a right to be happy and prosperous. Implicit in that right is the assumption that we can go about our daily lives safe in our homes and in the public space.

However, since 1982 there have been at least 67 mass shootings carried out with firearms in 30 states across the country from Massachusetts to Hawaii, Mother Jones reports, killing and injuring at least 1,000 Americans. More than half of these cases have involved school or workplace shootings.

A billboard in Boston sponsored by Stop Handgun Violence, a group that tweets killings involving firearms at #GunSense, posts a running tally of deaths by gun violence since Sandy Hook. The Telegraph reports that from December 15, 2012, to December 15, 2013, there were 23 mass shootings that killed 100 people in this country.

These freedoms are derived from a document written by human beings - and what people have created, people can change, for their own good.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, US President Barack Obama announced the most aggressive federal gun-control plan in decades to combat what he termed an "epidemic of gun violence". However, 2013 was marked by federal legislative failure. In April the Democratic-controlled Senate failed to pass stricter background checks for purchasing guns; the Republican-led House did not even consider the matter. Talk of a federal ban on assault weapons went nowhere.

The money-politics dynamic speaks for itself: By the end of September, the National Rifle Association's "Political Victory Fund" raised $10.2m in 2013 - surpassing the gun lobby's fundraising target for the entire year and exceeding by $1m its tally for 2012, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Some gains have been made on the state level. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland and New York passed tightened gun-control laws. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, bills that would have relaxed permit and background-check requirements failed in Utah and Montana; legislation that would have broadened where guns could be carried was defeated in Georgia and Wyoming.

In order to achieve national standards for gun control, however, our leaders cannot continue to frame the issue in terms of political expediency. As a people, Americans cannot continue to frame the issue in terms of narrowly defined freedoms.

We have to think the unthinkable and recast the gun-control debate in personal terms: As things stand now, almost any of us can find ourselves in a nightmare scenario in almost any public place at almost any time. The statistical probability of that happening is not what matters. What matters is that it can and does routinely happen in the kind of ordinary places that most of us frequent.

Yes, we have constitutional rights that allow us to bear arms and to produce and consume violent entertainment. Yet these freedoms have proven to have dangerous, if not fatal, impacts on public safety. Moreover, these freedoms are derived from a document written by human beings - and what people have created, people can change, for their own good.

The US and the world have changed greatly since the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791. The events of recent years have shown Americans that our freedoms are not immutable and absolute but are subject to reinterpretation, revision and, in some cases, even limitation.

For our physical safety, we now routinely take off our shoes and submit to body searches at US airports, practices unheard of just over a decade ago. For our economic security, the process of reregulating the financial industry's ability to manipulate the so-called free market has begun.

We are not watching gun carnage unfold in some distant land. It is happening in US schools, on US military bases, at our workplaces. It is corrupting our right to be safe in the public space - an existential right that underlies all other freedoms and iterations of American dreams, including economic prosperity.

As surely as the next mass shooting will reveal itself on our smartphone, laptop and television screens, we must begin the difficult task of redefining American freedom vis-a-vis gun control - through public discussion, legislation and perhaps even a constitutional amendment.

The price of continuing to watch ourselves from afar, numbed by horror and inaction, is great indeed. The spectre of US gun massacres is taunting us to come to our senses.

Marda Dunsky is an author and journalist teaching at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her most recent book, Goodbye, American Dream? was written with Aaron Jaffe. 

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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