A single consumer product holds our nation hostage: the handgun. We live our lives in the shadow of the unparalleled lethality of these easily concealed firearms. This permanent state of fear has become so accepted that we rarely even acknowledge it.
America's handgun industry eagerly exploits this fear, selling its products to a dwindling market. Handgun makers promise a concerned public that the best salve for their fear of crime is to arm themselves with the very weapons that threaten them. A wide range of pro-gun advocates—manufacturers, magazines, lobbyists, and individual gun owners—extol the virtues of the most recent models of handgun.
Their claims are validated by television and movie images,
where handguns are routinely portrayed as effective self-defense tools posing little risk to the user. Although these claims are not borne out by the facts, they live on.
At the same time, gun violence itself is sanitized by the media. The damage inflicted on a human being by a bullet entering the body is uniquely traumatic. An August 1999 article in the British Medical Journal offered this dry description of the forces at work when a bullet enters human flesh: "As a bullet passes along its track in the body, it lacerates and damages tissues by doing work on them—that is, by transferring to the tissues the kinetic energy it is carrying. An equal and opposite amount of work is done on the bullet by the tissues. Where along the track this work is done is determined, in part, by the construction of the bullet."1 But this clinical description cannot convey the destructive capacity of a single bullet. A 1990 Los Angeles Times article describing the effect of two shots from a .38 Smith & Wesson revolver offers a more complete picture:
The first bullet, a flat-nosed lead slug weighing 10.2 grams, or less than ½ ounce, went into his chest angling down. It fractured the fifth rib on the way in, bored through both lobes of the left lung, and fractured the seventh rib on the way out.
Not always a fatal wound....The killer was the second shot. It hit the bone and cartilage of the sternum. That flattened the round a little, increasing its diameter and widening the wound channel it punched through the left ventricle chamber....The bullet left the heart, went into the left lung and exited....In its passage, the slug stretched and displaced for milliseconds the heart muscles, valves and chambers, forming what trauma surgeons know as the `temporary cavity.' It created a temporary space the size of a baseball....
But the heart continued to pump.
Now it is squirting blood from the bullet holes in the heart wall, filling the pericardium and pouring into the chest cavity itself. At a rate of about five quarts a minute. But there is no pressure to carry blood through the aorta and a network of arteries....No blood, no oxygen. No oxygen, no working body cells. Then veins collapse. Electricity and neuromuscular activities stop. Barely a minute after the first shot, the only movement...is a puddle of blood creeping from two exit wounds....It shines like maroon glue....2
Not surprisingly, the injuries stemming from the wound ballistics described above bear little resemblance to the gun violence portrayed on television and in the movies. Rarely, if ever, are viewers exposed to the physical trauma of real-life gun victims: disfiguring injury and long-term disability. .
Fear, physical pain, and death are just part of the price Americans pay for the easy access of handguns.
It is estimated that the total costs to Americans of gun violence (the vast majority of which involves handguns) is measured in tens of billions of dollars.3 In comparison, the wholesale value of the 1.3 million handguns manufactured in America in 1998 totaled only $370 million.
This spiral of violence—buying handguns to protect ourselves from other people with handguns—fuels gun death and injury in America.
This is because the handgun bought for self-protection is far more likely to be used against the owner or someone known to the owner—in a homicide (usually as the result of an argument), a suicide, or an unintentional shooting—than in legitimate self-defense. Contrary to popular perception, most handgun deaths arenot crime related. Most of 1997's estimated handgun death toll of 21,311 people were either suicides or homicides resulting from arguments between people who knew one another.5 In fact, it is estimated that less than 7.5 percent of all gun deaths are felony-related. According to 1997 federal government statistics, for every time a citizen used a handgun to justifiably kill a stranger in self-defense, an estimated 109 lives were lost in handgun homicides, suicides, and unintentional shootings.
America's gun-control movement knows that the most effective approach to reducing gun death and injury would be to ban these weapons. Yet few today are willing to publicly support such a measure. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, a national handgun ban was an accepted policy goal that gun-control advocates supported and defended. Yet, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, most of America's gun control movement, bowing to "political reality," had moved away from the issue. Buffeted by the winds of opinion polls, the guiding principal became not what would work most effectively, but what would sell to the general public most easily. Fearful of becoming enmeshed in the gun lobby's "slippery slope" argument (that any gun control, no matter how limited, is the first step toward total gun confiscation), many actively voiced their opposition to a handgun ban, warning that ban proponents would marginalize the entire movement. They could offer no proof of this claim—yet the argument took hold.
What might have been defended as a short-term political strategy in the 1980s makes little sense in the new millennium. The 1990s reshaped the way Americans view gun violence. In the early 1990s, America's cities were torn apart by a flood of new, high-capacity semiautomatic pistols that put unprecedented killing power into the hands of warring drug gangs, organized criminals, marginalized youths, and ordinary "law-abiding" citizens. By 1993 the gun death toll in America reached an all-time high of 39,595.6 Many Americans rationalized away these deaths, focusing on the skin color of the most heavily impacted victims, and not on the handguns that made the killing so easy. But when the drug wars receded, America found that hidden beneath the gang violence was a pandemic of handgun death and injury that infected the entire society. If many Americans were able to dismiss the first wave of youth gun violence through the prism of race, this changed in the late 1990s with mass shootings in rural and suburban schools by white students. Ironically, these shootings took place during a period in which gun violence had reached its lowest level since the early 1980s, but they removed once and for all white America's false sense of security.
The intrinsic appeal of the handgun for many Americans cannot be denied. Challenge the need for such weapons, and the first question some advocates will ask is "have you ever fired one?" And their belief that mere physical contact with a handgun can turn a heretic into a true believer is not entirely incomprehensible. The heft of a pistol, the way your three fingers and thumb neatly fold around the grip while your index finger rests on the trigger guard, pulling the hammer back with your thumb or racking the slide before adopting a TV-inspired stance has a natural appeal for some. This appeal is heightened by the knowledge that this small piece of machined metal can fire smaller pieces of metal at speeds of up to 1,800 feet per second, punching holes in whatever gets in their way.
Handgun owners' faith in their talisman, however, has not been rewarded. Gun ownership in America is declining. Only one out of six Americans actually owns a handgun.7 Writing in the January 1999 issue of Shooting Sports Retailer, columnist Bob Lockett warned:
We, as an industry, certainly have our share of problems. A declining consumer base, fewer places to shoot due to urban sprawl, a hostile political environment, lack of profitability, manufacturers and distributors in financial trouble, dealers quitting on a daily basis, and the beat goes on.8
An article published two years earlier in the same magazine quoted Greg Ritz, national sales manager for handgun and rifle manufacturer Thompson-Center Arms. Ritz offered this object lesson regarding the public's views toward the gun industry:
I do a lot of traveling, and on an airplane, I often find myself talking with the person next to me, and they'll ask me what business I'm in, and I say I'm in the sporting goods business. Then they ask which category, football, baseball, and I tell them ‘no' I'm in the outdoors business. They say ‘camping equipment?' and I find myself making excuses for being in the firearms business because I automatically expect that my fellow passenger wouldn't understand. So now I just say I'm in the firearms business and they react as expected, mostly negatively.9
American Handgunner magazine summed up the situation in a single sentence:
"The gun business is in an irreversible decline and nothing can turn it around."10
The handgun industry's compatriots in the gun lobby have fared little better. NRA President Charlton Heston—vainly working to overcome the same demographic and social trends bedeviling the gun industry—appears in ads asking "why are you ashamed to tell people you're a gun owner?" But the NRA doesn't make it easy. Prior to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, the NRA adopted the paranoid and conspiratorial language of the militia movement in its efforts to shore up and inspire a sagging activist base. Declaring "The Final War Has Begun," the organization attacked federal law-enforcement agents, labeling them "jack-booted government thugs." Former NRA member Timothy McVeigh apparently believed that the "Final War" had indeed begun and decided to launch the first attack. Temporarily chastened by the wave of horrified revulsion following the Oklahoma City bombing, the NRA replaced its "Final War" with Charlton Heston's "Culture War"—an ideological assault on virtually anyone who is not a white, gun-owning male. Codewords in the NRA's lexicon continue to expose its affinity for the extreme right, such as NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre's declaration in the March 1999 issue of the organization's American Rifleman magazine: "There are many politicians willing to sacrifice the Second Amendment as the first step in the homogenization of American culture."
At the same time, the number of organizations that comprise the gun-control movement has grown. Local, state, and national organizations representing affected constituencies have joined traditional gun control groups. Public support for gun control, as well as specific gun control measures, remains strong. Even the much maligned, under-promoted handgun ban retains support that varies from 36 percent to 50 percent—depending on whether a truly horrible shooting has recently occurred.
America's gun lobby would be on the run, if only gun-control advocates would bother to chase them. Instead, trapped by their perception of the politically achievable, gun-control advocates are always on the defensive. All too often their opening offer is their bottom line. And a cursory analysis reveals that many of the measures they present as comprehensive solutions—such as licensing of gun owners and registration of handguns—will have virtually no effect on gun death and injury.
The goal of this book is simple: to lay the foundation for a national debate on banning handguns in America. It is written not just to inform citizens who are tired and angry of the price we have paid for an unfettered handgun industry, but to inspire a fresh perspective among those who already view themselves as gun control—or even gunsafety—activists.
Chapter One: Handguns 101—A Primer is an introduction and discussion of the different types of handguns, as well as the design features over the past decade that have worked to enhance these weapons' lethality.
Chapter Two: Handguns and History reveals that guns were fairly rare before the 20th century and details how cattle towns during the Westward Expansion employed handgun bans to protect the public safety. The chapter also shows that the number of Americans who favor a handgun ban exceeds the number who actually own handguns. Finally, the chapter demonstrates how the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is no impediment to a handgun ban.
Chapter Three: Handguns and Suicide looks at how the heightened lethality and growing availability of handguns play a key role in suicide, and charts the alarming effects on the elderly, young Americans, and blacks. The chapter closes with a discussion of murder-suicide.
Chapter Four: Handguns and Self-Defense details how the handgun industry has exploited fear of violent crime in its efforts to sell "self-defense" handguns and reveals how rarely these weapons are used to kill criminals or stop crimes.
Chapter Five: Handguns and Crime explores the true nature of homicide in America and the use of handguns in non-lethal crimes. The chapter also details the strong public support for expanding the categories of those who should not possess handguns to include specific misdemeanor crimes. Finally, the chapter details how it is only in lethalviolence, facilitated by the easy access of handguns, that the United States leads other Western, industrialized nations.
Chapter Six: Handguns and Women recounts the efforts of the handgun industry to increase sales of their product to women through fear of crime and promotion of a new breed of "firearms feminism." The chapter details how, contrary to the industry's claims, bringing a handgun into the home, especially where domestic violence is present, only increases the risk of death for a woman.
Chapter Seven: Handguns and Youth looks at the high toll America's children and teens have paid for easy handgun availability. The chapter also details NRA and gun industry efforts to counter sagging sales by working to create a youth gun culture, and exposes the dangerous limitations of "gun safety" programs for children.
Chapter Eight: Handguns and Minorities details the disproportionate impact handguns have on minority communities—most notably blacks and Hispanics—by looking not only at national figures, but at three "snapshots" to gauge more accurately the effect on Hispanic America: California, Texas, and Chicago. The chapter also details the racism prevalent among high-profile members of the gun lobby.
Chapter Nine: Handguns in Public looks at the shootings in public spaces, schools and office buildings for example, that have come to define gun violence in the late 1990s, and illustrates that the majority of these shootings were facilitated with legal handguns. The chapter also scrutinizes pro-gun claims that the answer to such shootings is merely to arm more members of the general public with handguns.
Chapter Ten: The Case for Banning Handguns summarizes the argument in favor of banning handguns and reveals how many of the currently accepted gun control "solutions"—such as licensing and registration, so-called "smart" guns and other "gun safety" measures, industry "self-regulation," and enforcement alone—will have little effect on handgun death and injury. The chapter is followed by an Afterward detailing 10 things that advocates can begin doing today to work toward a handgun ban.
This will not be an easy book for some to read, because it resolutely challenges deeply felt conventional wisdom on both sides of the intensely emotional debate about the role of guns in our society. Yet there is nothing easy about the anguish of gun violence in America, nothing easy about the task of reducing it to civilized norms. Unless we are willing to resign ourselves to pathological levels of killings and injuries, we must accept the simple truth that handguns are the problem. Then we must summon the will to ban them.