By Mike Farrell
Years ago, probably the late ’70s, I went to a fund-raising event in Los Angeles to hear Rev. George Regas, one of the founders of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. I remember being struck by a unique part of his fund-raising pitch that day. He said that our society’s priorities are upside down: human existence is being endangered by the makers of war, so in a rational society those working for peace should be funded by the government while the Pentagon has bake sales to raise its budget.
He said it better than that, but the idea stuck with me. And when I think about it, so many of the things we do in this country tell me he’s right. The “official” policies are too often counterproductive in a society that claims to respect the dignity of each individual, in a state that claims to believe in equality and says it intends to “promote the general welfare.” The general welfare means, roughly, taking care of the needs of the common citizen. And that’s us, folks.
But take a look at poverty, climate change, health care, racial and gender equity, the proliferation of guns; name your issue. Whatever it is, we clearly seem to have gone pretty far off track in a lot of areas in a lot of ways and find ourselves wondering why we’re stuck in opposition to one another.
When that happens, I’ve found it helpful to look for thoughtful, clear-eyed people who are capable of taking a dispassionate look at a troubling issue or situation and parse it, take it apart logically, and in so doing provide a better understanding of not only the issue itself but its history, the factors or elements that have led us to a place that is so obviously deeply wrong but somehow seems too overwhelmingly complicated to ever get right.
Happily, there are such people in our world. They are leaders, but not necessarily part of formal leadership. Think of them as thought leaders. One of the best of them, I believe, is Thom Hartmann, the author of this book.
Like Rev. Regas, Thom recognizes that we have inverted our priorities and wants to do something about putting us back on our feet. Thom does it by first educating himself, and then reading more, debating, learning, studying, assessing, questioning, and challenging. Once his ideas are formed, he puts them out there by talking, speaking formally, broadcasting, studying more, challenging more, and writing. His books, more than 20 by now, cover a wide range of subject areas. But you’ve picked up this one because it deals with a very current, very deadly national dilemma: gun violence.
Typical of Thom, he doesn’t simply leap into today’s debate and make a well-thought-out argument on one side of a thorny question. Instead, in The Hidden History of Guns and the Second Amendment, he lays out a path of paving stones, asking you to look at the way in which firearms were introduced into our world, by whom, and for what. He walks you through a history replete with the ugliness of the worst kind of human behavior and allows you to see the processes by which a culture within a culture can develop. He explores racial attitudes, the extremes of colonialism, the demands of exploration, national expansion, and the costs of the assumption of white supremacy.
Much of what he relates about the development of our country will make you wince. But all of it is presented without fear or favor in order to create an understanding of who we are and how we came to the place we find ourselves in today.
And then he offers insights and ideas about what might be done to ease the pain, to find a way to resolve the apparent dilemma posed by the tension between those wanting to live a completely free and independent life and those living happily and productively in a free society that imposes necessary constraints. He points us toward finding a way to resolve it all in a manner that allows those with differing philosophies to respect themselves and one another, while living comfortably together.
Enjoy the trip. I did.
Mike Farrell, best known for playing Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H, and is the author of Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist and Of Mule and Man.
The characters I’ve played, especially Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, almost never use a gun, and they always try to use their wits instead of their fists.
There was a high deck of wispy clouds, with bits of bright blue sky cracking through, and it was bitterly cold, two days before Christmas 2008, in Lansing, Michigan. The wind cut right through you. A little less than a foot of crystal-white snow covered the ground, most of it accumulated over a few small storms during the past two weeks.
Two of my brothers, one of their kids, and one of mine all drove out to the small nearby town of Mason, where one of the area’s larger shooting ranges was located. My brother Steve has collected guns for years and even built a small shooting range behind his rural house on the Grand River. When my wife, Louise, and I visit Michigan, we usually stay with Steve and his wife, and during the summers we target-shoot competitively on his backyard range. (Steve is not a hunter; he’s mostly a vegetarian, in fact.)
Inside the shooting range, there were numerous paper targets for sale; they included black-outlined Muslim men in turbans, depictions of big men with nappy hair, and the usual round bull’s-eyes.
The store attached to the range was huge—from the outside it looked like a one-story warehouse with a few windows clustered around a bumped-out entrance with weather doors in the center of the long building. Inside, long rows of glass cases held many of the more than 2,000 guns they boasted of having in inventory.
Behind the glass cases were long stretches of shelves for ammunition, which I was pretty sure from previous visits were usually full. Today they were nearly empty.
I rented a .40 caliber semiautomatic pistol (wanting some practice with something that could kick) while my brothers and our kids were making their selections. The guy taking my money was tall and thin, his pale skin highlighted by wispy facial hair.
“I’ll take two boxes of 40s,” I said.
“No, you won’t,” he said. “One box per customer.”
“We’re nearly out of ammunition,” he said, waving at the shelves as if it should have been obvious to me.
Wondering if there’d been a Christmas run on bullets (this was rural Michigan, after all), I said, “Why’s that?”
He snorted as if I were mentally defective. “You noticed that (n-word) who just got elected?”
“There’s another?” He squinted at me.
“What’s he got to do with your ammunition?”
“He’s going to take away our f*cking guns and ban ammo. People are stocking up! Where the f*ck have you been?”
“I didn’t know Obama wanted to take away my guns,” I said tentatively.
He snorted again and then pulled a cellphone from his back pocket, poked the screen, and scrolled down for a moment. “Look,” he said, holding the phone in front of me where I could read it. It was an email titled, in bold screaming type, “Obama is coming for your guns in January!”
“How do you know?” I said.
“Can’t you effing read?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it true. There’s lots of crap on the internet.”
He shook his head. “It’s true, I seen it on Fox, too. And you can only buy one box.”
I sighed and handed him my driver’s license and credit card. You can’t challenge Fox News in this part of the country.
The great ammunition shortage of December 2008 was the first of two—the second, coincidentally, was in December 2012, right after President Obama was reelected. An explosion of hysterical emails and widespread coverage of Obama’s “coming gun extermination program” preceded both. Which is pretty ironic, given that the only gun effort Obama had undertaken was to allow them in national parks. Nonetheless, these were such large, nationwide events that there’s even a Wikipedia page about it all.4
Between the weapons manufacturers and right-wing pundits trying to whip up fear and increase donations and listenership, a black man in the White House was a huge boon for the death industry. Earlier in the year, as Barack Obama and Joe Biden were gaining on John McCain and Sarah Palin, Nancy Lanza got a divorce from her husband and, with her son Adam (who was to become the Newtown, Connecticut, shooter), began collecting guns.5
It was a fateful year.
While the United States has a long and sordid history of violence against both indigenous people and enslaved people, it’s largely in the past 40 years that we’ve seen an explosion in something virtually unknown in the rest of the world: school shootings.
Tracking that outburst of school-based violence, the past 40 years have also seen an actual decrease in all crime, violent crime, and gun-related violence. The three most likely factors causing this decrease are the aging of the baby boomer generation (people in their 20s and 30s are the most likely to engage in criminal activity); the legalization of abortion in 1973, leading to fewer unwanted children (unwanted children are more likely to grow up antisocial); and the removal of lead from gasoline in the 1970s (lead damages the brains of children in ways demonstrated to make them more likely to grow up violent).6
That said, with our nation awash in guns, the rate of gun violence on a per capita basis in the United States, at 120 killings per 100,000 people, is massively higher than in any other fully developed nation in the world.7 In Japan, the odds of a person being killed by a gun are the same as those of being hit by lightning: one in 10 million. In England and Poland, it’s one in a million; and in countries with widespread (although reasonable) levels of gun ownership, like Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, it’s one in two million.
In the United States, there are 96 gun-based deaths a day, every day of the year.8
This book examines the sources of this proclivity for gun violence that’s so deeply embedded in the American psyche. By learning and understanding our history, we can begin the process of recovering from it. Finally, you’ll find clear, simple, and effective solutions (that work within the boundaries of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court) to our gun-violence crisis.
Introduction: The Social Cost of Guns
In my lifetime, we have lost a President, a Civil Rights leader and a Presidential candidate—all to gun violence.
It was the late 1960s, and Clark Stinson had joined the army. It wasn’t that he wanted to go fight in Vietnam; he hoped that by joining up, he could get a job that would allow him to avoid combat duty. And he’d probably get drafted if he didn’t join, given his lottery number.
He came home to Lansing, Michigan, from boot camp on a brief leave extremely depressed. A year before, Clark had joined his best friend—they were inseparable through several years of middle school—spending a summer living in a teepee in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they both studied religion and meditation practice deep inside the Cherokee National Forest.
When he looked up his friend, he noted that it was Christmastime, and the Vietnam War was still raging. He wanted out of the army but knew that pretty much every option available to him would lead either to exile or to jail. His friend listened attentively but couldn’t offer anything other than sympathy.
Two days later, Clark made a decision. He visited a gun store near his home and bought a small pistol and a box of bullets. He went home, sat on his bed, and thought about his future for an hour or so. Then he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
His wife, Colleen, called me in hysterics. I was Clark’s best friend, the guy he’d confided his depression to, although he never told me that he was considering suicide. It was a shattering experience for all of us who knew and loved Clark.
Society lost an extraordinary human being. I lost my best friend, and Clark’s mother lost her son. Colleen lost her husband.
Every year in America, the firearms industry sells about 16 million new weapons into the American civilian mainstream (generating more than enough profits to fund pro-gun groups and PR), while this nation suffers around 34,000 gun-related deaths.2 Two-thirds of all American gun deaths are suicides, the result of the efficiency of guns at producing a quick and painless death (although they leave a gruesome mess for survivors), combined with continuous access in gun-owning households so that a momentary depressive impulse that could be backed away from via a second thought with an overdose or a slit wrist becomes, instead, nearly 100 percent fatal.
The role of impulse combined with availability becomes starkly visible when compared with the experiences of other countries. For example, when Australia put into place stringent gun-control measures and a nationwide gun-buyback program in 1996, the already-declining annual rate of all suicidal deaths, which had fallen by roughly 3 percent, fell dramatically to a more than 7 percent annual decline.3
Additionally, the percentage of all homicides committed with guns—74.5 percent in 2016 in the United States4—also went down in Australia with the 45 percent drop in gun ownership that immediately followed the introduction of more stringent gun laws.5 That drop was similar to the drop in suicides. The peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention noted, “Australia’s 1996 gun law reforms were followed by more than a decade free of fatal mass shootings, and accelerated declines in firearm deaths, particularly suicides. Total homicide rates followed the same pattern.”6
The social cost of gun homicides and suicides in the United States—including lost productivity, the “value” of the lost lives, and expenses directly associated with gun deaths—is, according to peer-reviewed research performed by Timothy M. Smith of the University of Minnesota, around $300 billion annually, more than the entire nation was spending on Medicaid in 2013 when the research was published.7 That works out, essentially, to a $2,380 annual tax on every American household.8
And that number doesn’t include the more than 80,000 firearms-related injuries reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) every year, each costing more than twice as much as other injury-related hospitalizations, because bullets cause such extensive damage to organs, bones, and tissue.9
It’s hard to know exactly how many children are killed or maimed by guns because in 1996, Rep. Jay Dickey, R-Ark., at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and weapons manufacturers, attached the Dickey Amendment to a must-pass omnibus spending bill, making it illegal for the CDC to keep track of or analyze the data. Congress simultaneously cut the CDC’s budget by the exact amount it had been spending to track gun violence.10 (Sixteen years later, Dickey essentially apologized in a Washington Post op-ed, calling for research into gun violence.11 As he later told ABC, “I wish I had not been so reactionary.”12)
A peer-reviewed study published in Pediatrics in 2017 attempted to determine how many children are the victims of guns in the US every year and concluded, “Nearly 1300 children die and 5790 are treated for gunshot wounds each year.”13 That’s around 19 children shot in this country every day, seven days a week, including holidays.14
But that’s the bottom of the range of numbers, because above what can be clearly identified, the data gets fuzzy (due to the Dickey Amendment, which is still law).
A 2013 study of New York childhood gun fatalities found that the state suffers from the same problem as other states: a lack of good data. The authors report, “[A] New York Times review of hundreds of child firearm deaths found that accidental shootings occurred roughly twice as often as the records indicate, because of idiosyncrasies in how such deaths are classified by the authorities.”15
And all of this deals with these deaths and injuries as if they were a purely economic problem, measurable in dollars and cents. But for any family who lost a member of their household to a bullet, whether by suicide or homicide, or even has to deal with the often life-changing consequences of a bullet ripping apart a relative’s body but not killing him or her, it becomes obvious that these emotional costs, which can echo through generations, are even more massive.
The social and human costs of a nation awash in firearms are increasingly obvious. Because it is impossible to understand the present without understanding the past, this book covers the history of genocide and slavery, which forms the bedrock of United States history, and how the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve that racist bedrock.
The second part of this book examines the myths at the root of modern American gun culture, and how modern gun culture hatched out of reactions to social and economic changes in the United States, as well as savvy marketing, legal maneuvering, and marketing by weapons manufacturers.
The final chapters of this book analyze the present situation and lay out an array of solutions to “cure” America of its gun-violence epidemic…