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Commentary: Whole lotta shootin' goin' on

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2009 - I was listening to talk radio last Friday, anxious to learn details of the massacre at Fort Hood the day before. Initially the alleged shooter, one Nidal Malik Hasan, was reported to have been killed. Later, he was alive but critical and in a coma. Last I heard, he was in stable condition but not talking.

At any rate, I was trying to sort out the details of the incident because I was thinking of yielding to the obvious temptation to write a column to the effect that it might be a bad idea to recruit Muslim extremists into the military when we're at war with Muslim extremists.

This shooter was reported to be a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder. Perfect: a soldier returns home stressed out from fighting crazy Muslim extremists. To relieve his anxiety, we send him to a doctor who just happens to be a crazy Muslim extremist himself. This strategy might explain the dismal cure rate for PTSD.

My idea for a rather jingoistic diatribe against political correctness got derailed, however, when the broadcast I was listening to was interrupted by a bulletin from Florida reporting yet another shooting rampage. This one involved a disgruntled former employee named Jason Rodriguez and an architectural firm in Orlando. No Muslim extremist connection here -- the obvious commonalities between the back-to-back mass shootings concerned "crazy" and "guns." That and the adjective "unarmed" used to describe the victims.

In the Fort Hood incident, the doer was brought down by a civilian woman police sergeant, Kimberly Munley, who was herself wounded during the melee. Taking nothing away from the heroism displayed by Sgt. Munley, she had an advantage that others at the scene lacked -- she had a gun. It is perhaps not coincidental that the killing spree ended with the arrival of an armed defender.

Of course, it can also be argued that the killing spree would have never begun in the first place if the psycho responsible for it didn't have a gun -- or in this instance, two of them. Therein lies the paradox: It takes a gun to start the shooting and it usually takes one to stop it. What then is the appropriate public policy regarding firearms?

Last year, the military reported 314 American deaths in Iraq and 153 in Afghanistan for total of 467 of our troops killed in two foreign wars. By contrast, FBI statistics for the same period reflect 509 murders in Chicago. Not all of the Windy City murders involved firearms but neither did all of the war deaths, more than half of which are attributed to explosives. It is thus fair to conclude that more Americans were shot dead in Chicago last year than in two foreign wars combined.

In all, 16,272 domestic homicides were reported in 2008. Guns were used in two-thirds of these incidents. Handguns were the weapon of choice in 71.2 percent of gun homicides. Not counting suicides, accidental shootings and justifiable homicides, that makes for about 10,902 American gun deaths for the year; approximately 7,762 of which are attributable to handguns.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics advises that 517 people were murdered at work during 2008. Of these, 413 (79.9 percent) were killed by gunfire. In a nation obsessed with the health risks of second-hand smoke and fatty foods, you'd think somebody would be talking about these numbers.

Perhaps the reason that public dialog about gun ownership has all but ended is that people get tired of talking about unsolvable problems and if ever there were a Gordian Knot, this is it.

Nobody knows exactly how many firearms are in circulation domestically, but by any reasonable reckoning, there are more guns than there are adults to shoot them. Not everybody owns a gun, but people who do often own more than one. I, for instance, have accumulated six of them over the years. With all this weaponry available, the genie's already out of the bottle and you'd play hell getting him back in.

Also last year -- while Chicago was out-shooting Iraq and Afghanistan -- the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision (District of Columbia v. Heller) that the Second Amendment does provide for private ownership of firearms. The insurmountable obstacles to disarming the public are thus both logistical and legal.

Gun advocates often argue that localities with strict gun laws, like Chicago, have the highest rates of gun violence while places with few gun restrictions, like Vermont, have the least gun crime.

That argument is true as far as it goes but can also be used to explain why there are so few boating regulations in the Mojave Desert and so many at the Lake of the Ozarks. Laws are enacted in response to a perceived need. Places where gun violence is a problem are more likely to pass gun laws than are those in which it is not.

That said, a reasonable person is left with a decision to make. All but two states currently provide for concealed-carry. Should you incur the expense and inconvenience of arming yourself or gamble that you won't need a gun?

The fore-cited statistics are alarming but it must be remembered that the numbers are derived from a country of about 303 million people. The odds are thus overwhelmingly in your favor if you choose to remain unarmed. Then again, if the need for self-defense arises, a gun is a very handy item to have. As the saying goes, "When seconds count, the cops will be there in minutes."

You'll have to figure out your best course for yourself because there's no cogent public policy to guide you. A nation that is presently contemplating a public health tax on soda pop can't seem to come to grips with the issue of guns.


M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.