Let’s Rein In Gun Makers

By William Feigelman

Something must be done to address the problem of guns and suicide. About half of the nation’s suicides — a distressingly high number of around 23,000 yearly — are accomplished with firearms. And it is well known that when a society reduces its access to lethal means, such as guns (or even pesticides, as was done in Sri Lanka), the rate of suicides drops sharply. It is no wonder that the suicide rate in the United States has been climbing in recent years, from 11 per 100,000 to 13 per 100,000, with the help of guns that are all too easily available.

I tend to take a long-range view of the firearms regulation issue. I’m reminded of the image of the 1960s Marlboro Man, perched confidently in his pickup truck, smoking his Marlboro cigarette, with his rifle at the ready on a rack behind the passenger cabin, reflecting an image of autonomy and freedom that Madison Avenue so carefully cultivated. Who would have thought that over the last 60 or 70 years, thanks to various public health interventions, smoking rates in this country would have declined from half the population to the less than 15 percent it is today. Big Tobacco, has, for the most part, been tamed, though smaller-scale battles still remain with unregulated e-cigarette distribution. 

The automobile industry also has been tamed by various public health interventions and new laws, going back to requiring seat belt use, to the adaptation of new and expensive emission control mechanisms, to the many other new rules adopted to promote better automotive safety. Thanks to these, yearly highway death rates have drastically fallen as a percentage of total mileage driven, and most large U.S. cities now have reasonably good quality air, compared to 40 or 50 years ago.

The one industry that has evaded practically any federal regulation is guns. Manufacturers have carefully manipulated all public discussions of gun control to encourage more Americans to buy more guns, and we now have almost as many guns as there are people in this country — millions of people buying military weapons annually, slipshod and inconsistent record keeping of gun sales, and an inadequate system for denying guns to people with documented histories of mental illnesses and violence. 

It is no wonder that America has a rate of mass slayings that is 20 times higher than any other country; no wonder it has much higher gun homicide and gun suicide rates than any other country. Evidence shows that states that apply more stringent gun control laws, like Connecticut, New York, and California, do reduce all types of gun-related fatalities. The Australians have demonstrated that government buyback programs actually work. 

I can envision a time, probably not within my lifetime, when all guns will be registered, just as automobiles are, when better mental health and previous violent history record keeping keeps guns out of the hands of unstable individuals, and when military weapons like the AR-15 cannot be purchased by ordinary civilians. It will be a long, uphill climb to implement some of the reforms that are so obviously needed, given the resolute opportunism of gun makers. But citizens like us must mobilize to oppose politicians standing in the way of gun reform. We must enact more gun safety practices and more sensible gun ownership policies to advance public health. 

Fortunately for us, New York has become a haven for gun safety. But talk to your friends and relatives living in Sunbelt states like Florida and Arizona, where some of the worst gun violence incidents have occurred, where some of the more dangerous gun policies are still found (like easy access to purchasing firearms and few regulations for their safe storage, such as keeping them locked up and unloaded). It is no surprise that these states have gun suicide rates practically double New York’s. Tell them to advocate more gun safety. 

We must begin to tame this last unregulated industry, gun making, which, like any other industry, must be socially responsible.

William Feigelman is emeritus professor of sociology at Nassau Community College. He lives in Springs.