Guns or Cancer, Which is Better?

I don’t normally write about guns, but soon it will be gun violence awareness day, so it seems appropriate to throw my two cents in. After all, I like shooting guns, and I like talking about the law. Plus, you know, I have a terminal cancer diagnosis, so it just kind of makes sense.

I recently read two similar news stories about a pair of women who were killed mere days apart: one was deliberately shot by a stranger after leaving a rural vacation spot, and another was shot in the back when her toddler found a gun in the car while they were driving. Pure coincidence that both of those happened close together in Wisconsin, a state I used to live just over the border from, and happened within a week of each other with two mothers being shot and killed while driving with their children in the car. Otherwise, one was a presumably intentional (if random) murder by a horrible person, the other a very random (and presumably inadvertent) act by an innocent.

I’d love to say that the random shooting of mothers by their small children was a complete outlier, but it isn’t. Sadly, this sort of thing happens far too frequently, even among responsible gun-owners and pro-gun advocates — even while they are driving. Of course, not all toddlers who come across guns shoot their mothers. Sometimes, and I find this part deeply, deeply sad, they simply shoot themselves because a loaded gun was within reach. (For those of you who did not or could not click that last link, it details four cases where toddlers shot and killed themselves during the same week last month, in addition to five non-fatal accidental shootings by minors.)

And that is a clear example of what is wrong with current gun regulation. This is not an issue of “who is a responsible gun owner” — I am sure that all the owners from those news stories thought of themselves as responsible, which in itself is part of the problem (I’m responsible, I’m not a criminal, why should I not be able to have MY gun?). The end result was still four dead toddlers in a single week. Even in a nation as expansive as the United States, this is an egregious number for such preventable deaths.

If we have almost 300 “accidental” shootings by minors in a single year, and roughly 550 accidentally fatal shootings overall, there is a very clear problem that tighter gun regulation would have prevented. Yet, compare this with how many times guns killed in self-defense: looking at recent stats, it appears that less people are killed in justifiable homicide (259) than accidentally — in fact, a civilian gun is more than twice as likely to kill by accident than it is to kill in the service of protection.

That means the balance tilts heavily away from personal safety, as highlighted by Scott Martelle in his LA Times opinion piece:

"Oh, and match those 259 justifiable homicides with the theft of about 232,000 guns each year, about 172,000 of them during burglaries. That’s a ratio of one justifiable homicide for every 896 guns put in the hands of criminals.

Those 259 justifiable homicides also pale compared with, in the same year, 8,342 criminal homicides using guns, 20,666 suicides with guns, and 548 fatal unintentional shootings, according to the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report. The ratio for 2012, per the Violence Policy Center, was one justifiable killing for every 32 murders, suicides or accidental deaths (the ratio increases to 38-1 over the five-year period ending in 2012). That’s a heavy price to pay."

This kind of destroys the whole “if guns were regulated, then only the criminals would have guns” line. It seems that most, if not all the guns in criminal hands began in the possession of presumably responsible gun owners or were legally obtained by the criminals, themselves. Reducing the number of gun sales each year and severely restricting the types of guns that are sold would make a huge difference in improving public safety. There is no real debate left on this issue, in spite of what the gun lobby might want you to think. It is just a matter of how willing the public is to place limits on what can be owned and how it can be obtained — there are no restrictions on freedoms for law-abiding persons of sound mental health to own “a firearm” for hunting, sport or protection that are even being seriously considered,  only regarding what qualifies as a legitimately necessary firearm (no assault rifles, for example, and no grenade launchers) and the process of properly licensing ownership (like we do with cars). It seems like this should be a no-brainer.

Yet, many people would rather arm chimpanzees* than give up a gun they have no practical use for beyond being symbolic of their perceived right — a right that technically isn’t even in the Constitution. The interpretation of protection for personal gun ownership has been accepted by many legal scholars and justices, but it is rooted in politics (and a Conservative majority on the Supreme Court). A very strict (and I dare say accurate) reading of the Second Amendment shows that guns can only be protected if they are utilized by members of a State (meaning government) run militia (i.e., the National Guard, the US Army, etc., or police). The Fourteenth Amendment offers better protection for current gun owners afraid they will have their cold and presumably dead hands pried free.

A recent discussion regarding interpretation and precedent of Supreme Court cases on the Second Amendment got me thinking. So I went back to look at the Second Amendment, something I’ve done more than a few times, and worked out an argument based on the meaning of the words in context as opposed to trying to guess at intent (which assumes the wording was flubbed or somehow twisted). Many legal cases appear to reach outside of the Constitution itself for interpreting the Second Amendment, citing State laws or other documents rather than focusing on the text at hand, often seemingly influenced by the politics of the day. Stepping back from that (perceived) error and remembering that the Constitution itself was designed to be amended in order to suit the needs of changing times (the Second Amendment being, you guessed it, the second amendment of many to come), I present the following interpretation.

I decided to look at what we would have through a simple literary breakdown of the actual written text.

It never seems to come up in discussions about this, but the framers of the Constitution were by no means poor writers. Quite the opposite, they were relatively eloquent. The issue of “clauses” in the First Amendment is clear because of proper grammar. The use of commas and semicolons and words like “or” all work together to stress multiple parts to what is being said while also making the multiple intentions of the First Amendment perfectly clear. Then there is the Second Amendment…

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

When you look at how the Second Amendment is written, it is entirely different. This isn’t because the writing is sloppy, it is because the wording is trying to be specific. The final comma between “Arms” and “shall” would not be there if the sentence wasn’t full of qualifying statements. But each comma separates points in this case. It clearly does not state “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed,” because those last four words are actually tied to the first four words in the sentence. To put this clearly, it actually states “A well regulated Militia shall not be infringed.” The other two parts of the sentence are simply there to support this, to explain “why” with the bit about the security of a free State, and “how” with the bit about keeping and bearing Arms. But the whole of the “what” is that the Militia shall not be infringed. And it is the “what” — the intention — that matters in this case.

Questions of personal rights (as raised through Heller and MacDonald) are really the domain of the Fourteenth Amendment, which offers more than enough protections for the individual with regard to personal security issues as well as legal gun ownership outside of a government sponsored Militia. And it is not like the Supreme Court has been unanimous in their decisions granting the Second Amendment the power to protect personal gun ownership — in fact, the Court has been sharply divided along this line, with the Conservative majority tipping the scale of justice in line with the political tide, if not the actual text of the Constitution.

There are a lot of misconceptions that run through our society with regard to Second Amendment issues, and the notion of gun regulation in general. A meme has been circulating recently, centering around the idea that Liberals are insisting we don’t judge all Muslims based on the acts of a few lunatics (aka, terrorists), but then they judge all gun owners based on the actions of a few lunatics. There is, of course, a huge assumption being made by those propagating this myth, which is that gun owners are being “judged” because a call is made for tighter gun regulation, and one must question the motives of whoever began propagating the notion. Any reasonable person knows better than to judge a large group based on the actions of an extremely tiny sub-set. Beyond that, though, most proposed gun control legislation is designed to focus on those so-called lunatics, not the “responsible” gun owner. Besides, the number of Americans killed by terrorists worldwide (including within US borders) is less than one percent of the number of Americans killed on US soil by gun violence from 2001 to 2013. In other words, terrorists barely register as a threat compared to run of the mill gun shenanigans here at home.

Then there is the whole “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” line that is so-often used as a means of suggesting that guns, in and of themselves, are not the problem. To which we must simple reply that people are the ones who would be getting better background checks, not the guns, and people are the ones who would be getting licensed for ownership, not the guns, and people are the ones who would have mandatory safety lessons, not the guns… So, yes, it seems pretty clear that proposed regulations do, in fact, focus on the human element. The only limits to the guns themselves fall into what can be legally sold.

Which brings me to the next point. If there are somewhere in the range of 33 to 34,000 gun-related deaths in the US annually, compared to over 595,000 projected cancer deaths in the US for 2016, why does cancer seem like it is so much less dangerous than guns? Both can strike randomly, unpredictably. Both can kill without prejudice. And though cancer kills exponentially more people each year, I am much more afraid of guns.

And I have cancer.

My cancer does not frighten like me like guns for a few reasons. One, no random dude is going to kill me with a cancer he has in his possession, no matter how pissed off he is at work, or because he lost his job, or because he is mad at his wife who just left him (probably because of his obsession with cancers). Two, my cancer is not going to accidentally fall into the possession of my daughter, and then accidentally kill her or her mother while she is fiddling around with it. Three, although it isn’t getting enough money, there are thousands of dedicated scientists working to make my cancer become non-threatening — and it even has the support of the federal government.

More importantly, though, there is a trend that I see for the future. The gun threat to average citizens may not change much over the coming years, but the fact remains that more guns continue to come into the market every week. Even with better regulation, people will be building their personal arsenals, big and small, which only means that more guns are in homes and on the street. It is a ridiculous buildup of weaponry for a peaceful nation. Our children are entering a society with more guns per capita than any time in recent memory, certainly in our lifetimes and probably since the Nineteenth Century, when hunting was still widely necessary or had been within a generation. Better cancer treatments, on the other hand, are arriving on the market at unprecedented rates. Cancer detection is improving as well, allowing for earlier treatments and higher cure rates. While we are a long way from eradicating all cancers, we are very close to being able to cure many of them and make most of the others manageable for patients to enjoy long-term, healthy lives.

Until so-called patriots and those duped by the gun lobby can get unstuck from their dogmatic views on the Second Amendment, we will see no such progress with gun regulation. “Gun Rights” are an oxymoron — guns cannot have rights, and most people will surely agree that we all have the right not to be shot. Until we can unite behind the idea of sensible regulation, understanding that regulation protects the rights of everyone while also acknowledging that unmitigated gun ownership is not a “natural” right because we are not born with weapons in our hands, we will not be able to make our families safer from something that is very much in our power to change.

My cancer may be a challenge, but it is one that I am dealing with and which I hope one day to be clear of. There are thousands of patients like me out there, living with cancer but continuing to enjoy their daily lives and time with their loved ones. And knowing what I do, having already spent my first of potentially many years on chemotherapy, if I had to choose between being inflicted with cancer or being shot by a gun, cancer wins. If my cancer disappeared and I was faced with the choice between a path that had a better than 50% of getting cancer again or a path with a better than 50% chance of being shot at, I’d take the potential cancer path. Maybe its because I’m comfortable with what I know. Maybe it’s because I know people who have lost loved ones to both cancer and guns and it is the losses to guns that seem the hardest to overcome. Maybe it’s just that I really want a better world for my child and science is already making great progress with cancer. So why can’t society rally on guns?

It is all about Public Will. The public has shown its will with regard to cancer research, and the government has stepped in line, sometimes even leading the fight. Now it is time for the public to show its will for sensible gun regulations — we are way past the time for the government to lead the way.


(To be fair, while the gun deaths in this country had been steadily rising above 33,000 for years, peaking in 2013, there was a wonderfully large drop in 2014, down to less than 13,000 gun deaths for that year — but numbers were back on the rise in 2015. Including injuries, the number of incidents for both 2014 and 2015 exceeded 50,000 per year.)

* I don’t literally mean that there are loads of people out there wanting to give guns to chimps. I think that should have been fairly obvious, but the chimp thing was being used as a metaphor for the extremes that some pro-gun protesters have suggested or attempted in their opposition to the mostly imagined threats to their rights. And in case I need to clarify things about the perspective of this post in general and my perspective in particular, it is not meant to be anti-gun or anti-freedom in any way. Quite the contrary, I like guns just fine. I enjoy shooting them. I have no problem with their proper use, provided that proper use does not involve civilians killing people who do not objectively deserve to die, or otherwise injuring people who do not objectively deserve injury. What I do have a problem with is the widespread ownership of guns for which there is no safe manner of use, no practical use or which are in the possession of people who should not have them. I also have a problem with the lack of a system to ensure that the guns out there are kept safe, monitored and accounted for. Just as it is not guns, but the people holding the guns that cause death and injury from bullets, so it is the people with guns that I am most genuinely concerned about. But the guns, as objects of potential destruction, must be controlled.

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