By Thomas Larson
When citizen caravans storm state capitols with parades of motorized force and mask-free rallies, asserting the people’s right to assemble, I don’t reach for my gun. I don’t keep a gun; I’m too afraid it’ll go off. Instead, I reach for my pen—it’s much mightier and safer, history tells me, in times of civil unrest.
Such parades to reopen “our country,” Trump-code for his country (bikers, truckers, corporate execs, and the one percent), are an odd sight: A freely assembled protest to agitate for free assembly is a contradiction; besides, few have been cited or arrested for violating stay-at-home orders. Still, I find free assembly—petitioning the government for a redress of grievances—essential to our individual and social well-being. People facing economic loss should be alarmed and angry. However, to protest restrictions on Americans’ right/need to work or freedom to assemble as the “open up” coalition pleases makes no sense once we understand the severity of the threat.
Citing the over-cited Second Amendment argument may help clarify what’s going on. The Bill of Rights allows individuals to bear arms. There are some restrictions, which most Americans support but which face challenges in courts and legislatures. One result is, curbs on guns are often watered down or, if upheld, poorly enforced. Another result has been a largely unrestricted growth of firearms since 1950: Today, there are nearly 400 million guns in America (1.2 per person), a consequence of citizen firepower unimaginable, perhaps, by the founders.
Restrictions aside, nothing slows the flood of guns into our citizenry, especially not when gun stores are deemed “essential businesses.” People conceal or brandish them in public, collect them by the hundreds (all styles, all calibers), create markets of untraceable sales and exchange, and victimize themselves or others in domestic disputes, suicides, and accidents, especially involving children. (Guns are the second leading cause of death for kids, five to fourteen.)
In a country with a patchwork of laws, it seems guns are going off everywhere. In certain communities and social groups that’s true. But the connection between gun prevalence and crime is hazy. For instance, it cannot be predicted when a school shooting will occur and who will commit the crime; to the consternation of antigun and progun groups alike, more guns in homes leads to more violence while more guns in public, in the age of concealed-carry, reduces crime.
Because of criminal gangs, a sensationalist media, and TV-and-movie armed fantasies, we counter the reality and the myth of gun violence with bag searches and metal detectors routinely—in courts, schools, workplaces, airplanes, sporting and concert venues, and more. All to reduce, we hope, the potential threat that one whacko means harm to the collective with a gun or a hand grenade or a bomb to wreak havoc on mass gatherings.
Some statistics. Gun deaths hover around 40,000 per year, which includes homicides and suicides. Flu deaths average roughly the same number per year. During this extraordinarily viral year, estimates of death from the coronavirus through the end of July only, are between 60,000 and 240,000. (This does not include a “second wave” of infections and deaths likely this fall.)
What’s the point of comparing guns and viruses?
The CDC’s most recent tally of emergency room visits for gun violence is 1.7 million. With the flu, the CDC describes its “influenza burden” with a staggering statistic: For the 2017-2018 flu season, there were 61,000 deaths, 810,000 hospitalizations, and 45,000,000 illnesses. Roughly 13.5 percent of Americans got the flu, lost work time, infected many around them. If the coronavirus is 10 times deadlier than the flu and sticks around for another year, we may face a half-million deaths and ten million hospitalizations. One nearly unimaginable turn is that the majority of Americans may be exposed to the virus or test positive, all before a vaccine.
Guns kill with a deafening pop; viruses kill silently. Yet viruses are far more lethal than guns. Viruses render moot constitutional issues like gun ownership and freedom of assembly. Viruses supersede individual rights in a time when what matters, almost exclusively, is our survival, which is our collective right as a society.
Understanding the lethality of COVID-19 and living in a country that tries to guard itself from guns and bombs in tens of thousands of public places—and wisely so, post 9/11—we may need ten times more governmental pushback against this disease’s willy-nilly transmission than we’ve done even to date. Not only does the threat justify our massive lockdown but it calls, going forward, for an unprecedented reorganization of work life and social life in the near future.
To claim that the government has overreached its powers and burdened its citizenry by denying the free assembly of lawful protest against stay-at-home orders in no way compares to the ongoing critical threat of the COVID burden.
For the moment, imagine first that we have no background checks on firearm purchases, no assault-weapon ban, and no laws against open or concealed carry; imagine second that we treat gun violence as a biopsychosocial disease, which is how we classify nicotine addiction and alcoholism. Even with these scenarios, we still stand a 50-to-1 greater chance of lasting harm and death from the COVID mayhem than we do from guns.
This recitation of fact comes from one who doesn’t own a gun and who would gladly rewrite the law in America to echo Mexican law: there, by constitutional decree in 1971, gun owners are allowed to keep guns but only in their homes as self and family protection. Carrying or using a gun in public for any reason south of the border is a crime.
Thomas Larson is a San Diego freelance writer.
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