Gun violence and harm reduction

Gun control won't stop every horrible attack -- but it will make awful situations less awful

Deadly attacks on large groups of people are happening all over the world. Most of the time, politicians call it “terrorism.” It’s happened in France, in Britain, sometimes with suicide bombers (who are, of course, very hard to defend against), sometimes with knives and cars used at weapons.

I'm sorry, but nobody needs or has a right to an assault pistol
I’m sorry, but nobody needs or has a right to an assault pistol

But the United States has the unfortunate distinction of being the place where the weapons of choice are high-powered firearms, which tend to make bad situations a lot worse – and which other countries manage to limit and control.

If the attackers on London Bridge, who killed seven with a van and knives, had been armed with assault weapons, the death toll would have been much higher.

If the Pulse Nightclub killer had a knife instead of a gun, the death toll would have been much lower.

We live in a horribly violent society, and I could spend hours talking about why, about what we have done wrong as a global body politic to let things get to this point. But I want to do something different, and talk, on a day when a man with a rifle started shooting at Republican members of Congress and a man with an assault pistol  killed three workers at the UPS facility in Potrero Hill, about what the public health folks call Harm Reduction.

Let’s say you can’t stop all of the insane violence or terrorism right now. What you can do is make it harder for a killer to maximize the carnage.

You can, for example, strictly control handguns and assault weapons.

I have never been opposed to hunting; For better or for worse (my daughter things for worse) I am not a vegetarian. The meat I buy at the store was killed by someone else, and I never see or have to think about that part of my Italian meatballs or turkey sandwich.

If someone else who eats meat wants to hunt a turkey for dinner, or shoot a deer and make venison sausage (and I know people who do both), I’m not in any position to argue.

But as we all know, the gun you use to shoot a deer or a turkey isn’t typically the kind of gun that gets used in these mass killings. (Besides, since hunting is regulated in most parts of the country, when not ask the hunters to check out a gun from a licensed dealer before the go hit the woods, then bring it back when they’re done? I’ve gone fishing off the Farrallons, but I don’t own the gear you need for rockfishing; I just rent a rig when I go. Much easier.)

I know that’s heresy in this country, where a lot of people see the Second Amendment as a right to protect themselves against the government. Whatever your opinion about the government, I don’t think that’s a very effective strategy in 2017.

But I do think that other countries (with robust democracies) have done a pretty good job of keeping powerful firearms out of the hands of people who will abuse them. There are very few gun murders in England, where there are still hunters, but most guns are strictly regulated.

I also hear the gun-rights folks say that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But shootouts, as we saw this morning in Washington, are not typically an optimal solution; they often end up with the “good guys” – in this case, the cops — getting shot, too.

Which suggests that the best defense against a bad guy with a gun is to not let him get it in the first place.

Every time this horror raises its head in the US, I wonder: What will it take to bring us to our senses? When will we understand that even if you can’t stop violence, you can make it less lethal by downsizing the weapons?

Gun control isn’t perfect. It doesn’t stop stabbings and people driving cars into crowds. It doesn’t stop suicide bombings.

But it’s a form of harm reduction. It makes a bad situation less bad.

Maybe that’s the only way we can talk about this. And we have to. Because there are three dead people who worked at UPS would would probably be alive today if their killer didn’t have a gun.