On October 16, 2008 at 2:15 PM, part-time college librarian Alan Godin walked into the library of Northeast Longview College in San Antonio. He went to the desk of fellow librarian Devin Zimmerman, a well liked member of the library staff who was working on new ways to make the library more accessible to students with disabilities. Mr. Godin put on a pair of shooting range ear protectors, pulled a handgun then shot and killed Mr. Zimmerman. He then put the gun on a table, sat down and waited for the police to arrive. He is currently being held on a $250,000.00 bond and his trial is scheduled to start at the end of the month.
Mr. Godin’s gun did not kill Mr. Zimmerman. Alan pulled the trigger and will pay for his crime. But the gun did make it easier for him to kill his fellow co-worker. Godin is 62 years old, 5’3" and weighs approximately 125 pounds. He is not the type of person to participate in a physical altercation. Without access to a firearm, there is a very good chance that Mr. Zimmerman would still be alive.
On October 8, 2009, Meleanie Hain was found dead in her home, the victim of a murder-suicide. Ms. Hain’s story was not necessarily noteworthy on a national level, on average over a 1000 women per year die at the hands of a spouse or lover from guns. The NRA would like to tell you that if a woman is trained to use a firearm then she is safer than she is without one. But the background of Ms. Hain would seem to argue that point. Ms. Hain was a parole officer and former prison guard who gained notoriety in 2008 by attending her daughter’s soccer gun with a pistol strapped on her hip in plain sight. The resulting uproar from other parents caused county officials to revoke her carry permit. She successfully sued to get it back but it did little to help her on the night of her murder. All of her training, her obvious comfort with firearms and her gun ownership failed to save her life. One wonders if there had been no gun in her house would she be an abuse statistic as opposed to a homicide statistic.
I missed the Godin story when it originally happened. It was quick "filler" for national news but sadly, school shootings that result in only one death no longer get national coverage. There are simply too many of them. But I have thought of it often over the past year. You see, Alan Godin was once a good friend of mine. I confess that I have no idea what happened during the years we lost touch to bring him to a point where he would take another man’s life.
This is the point where I am supposed to rail against American’s love of guns! I’m supposed to point out that if we could get rid of all guns in America, then we would all live safer lives. And that’s true to a degree...IF you actually could get rid of all guns. But that won’t happen because the problems are two fold.
One is a legal issue. Americans have a right to bear arms according to the Constitution. Now you can argue that this was a right never intended as an individual right but as the right of the state to arm a militia. But the Supreme Court has disagreed with that interpretation which pretty much eliminates the possibility of any ban from a legal standpoint.
The second problem is pragmatic. Gun bans don’t work! The old bumper sticker is still true, "WHEN GUNS ARE OUTLAWED ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS". In an age of the "disposable culture", guns are the one item we make that is made to last FOREVER! The pistol your grandfather bought in 1950 is still capable of firing accurately some 60 years later if it’s been well cared for. Firearms are handed down from generation to generation in America. An unbelievable number of the firearms produced over the last 50 years are still out there waiting to be fired. Wishing they would go away won’t make them disappear. To say nothing of the 4.5 million NEW firearms sold EACH year in the US.
Acknowledging the impossibility of enforcing a total ban however should not suggest that increasing or enforcing regulation of firearms is also impossible. Likewise we should not assert that regulations cannot contribute to the public safety.
And guns are a matter of public safety. On average, each day in America some 276 people are shot. One out of every three American homes owns a gun. And while many are for home protection, the reality is that those guns are four times more likely to be used in an unintentional shooting than to be used for self defense. These are facts that can be looked at in two ways. You can scream about the horror of the accidental shootings or you can be grateful that you had a weapon when someone broke into your home. The odds are against your gun actually helping you during a break-in, but if you are that 1 out of 4 who successfully injures another person with a firearm in self-defense, you tend to be grateful for your right to own a gun.
But there are things that can be done to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children. (Who are most often injured accidentally by guns. Over 4,000 children under the age of 19 were injured accidentally by guns in 2007.)
First and foremost: Lock your guns in a gun safe! This simple act of responsibility will do more to cut injuries than any legislation or ban ever could. A gun safe keeps guns out of the hands of your children and will help prevent them from being stolen from your home. That’s where a huge percentage of criminals get their guns. They steal them from people who bought them for home protection. Sometimes they break into your home to steal them and sometimes they are stolen by a relative who has ready access to your home. The 18 states that have laws on the books requiring safe storage of weapons have on average 26.3% fewer gun thefts than states without such laws.
Perhaps we should examine making gun owners liable for any injuries caused by a gun NOT stored in a safe. If your kid’s best friend starts playing with your pistol and someone gets shot, make the gun owner responsible for the financial burden. Much like a car owner is responsible for damages done by an uninsured vehicle he owns. It might sound crazy, but it would help make people think responsibly about their gun ownership.
We can also enforce the current laws that are already on the books. Specifically, let’s look at gun shows. The ATF estimates that approximately 30% of illegally trafficked firearms come from gun shows. Federal law requires ANYONE (whether a licensed gun dealer or a private citizen) to refuse to sell a firearm to anyone they suspect of not being unable to pass a back ground check. Recently, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City commissioned an investigation of gun sales at gun shows. When undercover "buyers" approached 30 sellers in a variety of states, they agreed on the price to the gun and pointed out that they probably couldn’t pass a background check. Nineteen of those "sellers" went ahead with the sale after being told the "buyer" couldn’t pass the required background check. It’s a clear violation of the law, but it is not something that is often enforced by ATF. It needs to be!
Now the NRA is extremely upset about this "sting" operation. They insist that it’s wrong of New York City to try to regulate gun sales that originate out of their jurisdiction. New York City has some of the toughest laws on the books regarding gun sales and extremely severe penalties regarding crimes using guns. As a result, New York Criminals often do not get guns from within the city limits of New York City. In fact, the ATF estimates that 89% of guns used to commit crimes in New York City come from out of state gun shows! In other words, their regulations decrease the number of crimes committed using guns purchased illegally within New York. Unfortunately it is still extremely easy to go to less regulated states to purchase guns to bring back to New York City to commit crimes with This is why New York City Mayor Bloomberg supports changes in federal law to standardize the rules by which all guns are sold throughout America.
Americans will never get rid of their guns. As that other famous NRA bumper sticker puts it, "THEY CAN HAVE MY GUN WHEN THEY PRY IT FROM MY COLD DEAD HAND". Right of ownership however is not a reason to abdicate the responsibility for those weapons. These three simple steps: 1) enacting nation wide safe storage laws, 2) enforcing current legislation and 3) standardizing the rules for gun sales nation wide won’t solve every problem associated with guns in America....but it's a good place to start.
Sadly, two case examples I listed earlier would both have been totally unaffected by these changes. Both Mr. Zimmerman and Ms. Hanes would still be dead from gun violence even if these three suggestions were being met. My friend Alan would still be facing a jury next week. The children of the Hains will still be orphans. Tomorrow someone may die from gun violence in your city. Some child will end up fighting for his life somewhere because his friend wanted to show him Dad's cool gun. But maybe with a little work and without the NRA's kneejerk reaction against any and ALL legislation, we can avoid SOME of these accidents. This is not about a perfect solution, instead it is about making an impossible situation better. Nothing more and nothing less. Pragmatic but not perfect.