This article discusses the political double standard of legislating to protect the ‘unborn child’ while consistently opposing legislation that would help protect those that have already been born from the documented risk of gunfire-related death and injury. The nature and effectiveness of the NRA’s political contributions and lobbying efforts are discussed, and the often used argument of traffic-related fatalities to defend the loss of life by firearms is explored. It is postulated that the issue of gun-related injuries and death in children, regardless of a ‘constitutional right’, will become the indefensible issue that will put pressure on politicians to enact sensible firearm legislation despite political contributions and lobbying efforts.
The Double Standard
The gun lobby and the Pro-Life movement both largely reside on the political right. Both have impressive lobbying presence and both seek to have legislation enacted favorable to their cause. Yet, when it comes to the issue of protecting ‘children’, conservative politicians treat these two entities as legislative opposites.
The Pro-Life movement argues that life, with all the rights and privileges thereof, begins at conception (ref). Thus abortion, performed at any point during the pregnancy, is held to be equivalent to murder, some even opposing the procedure in cases of incest and rape as is the stance of former Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry (ref) and current candidate Rick Santorum (ref). The National Pro-Life Alliance (NPLA) (ref) and the Susan B. Anthony List (ref) have each published their legislative agenda and include such items as Defunding Planned Parenthood, H.R. 3 (No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act), Overturning Roe v. Wade with a Life at Conception Act, and others. The view of the embryo/fetus being equivalent to a child is clear in NPLA’s opinion of their legislative agenda: “None of these battles will be easy. But they are ultimately winnable. Pro-lifers owe the unborn nothing less”.
Some attempted legislation is noteworthy: a Georgia state lawmaker attempted to redefine rape victims as ‘Accusers’ (ref); this past year South Dakota State Rep. Phil Jensen (R), sponsored a bill that would have let some people legally kill abortion providers by changing the definition of justifiable homicide – a homicide would be permissible if committed by a person “while resisting an attempt to harm” that person’s unborn child or the unborn child of that person’s spouse, partner, parent, or child (ref); and another piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), H.R. 358 (the Protect Life Act) would have freed hospitals from any abortion requirement, e.g., a woman requiring an emergency abortion, even including the transfer of the patient to a facility that would (ref).
And, there is much religious conviction behind the Pro-Life movement. Consider GOP presidential candidate Santorum’s position that a rape victim should accept “this horribly created baby” as it was still a gift from God, even if given in a “broken” way – ref).
Regarding legislating on this belief, the matter is not without ambiguity as there are valid questions as to when the life of a child actually begins. The field of reproductive biology has shown that, at minimum, two-thirds of all human eggs fertilized during normal conception either fail to implant at the end of the first week or later spontaneously abort; and some experts feel that the number is even greater describing the pre-implantation loss of embryos (that are well along the way regarding cellular division) to be “enormous”, as high as 80% (ref). The implantation of embryos in humans has been described as being ‘horribly inefficient’. So, if life begins at conception and we require baptism for salvation, a valid question would be why a compassionate Creator would design a reproductive system that results in a holocaust of lost lives (ref) and denies so many innocents the opportunity for salvation. And if one wants to take the stance that conception only counts as life if the embryo survives implantation, then what would be the basis for opposing embryonic stem cell research? Yet, despite the legal and medical/scientific uncertainties, the convictions/beliefs are strong enough to propose and enact legislation to protect the ‘unborn child’.
However, when it comes to infants/children who become victims of gunfire, there are no such uncertainties. These individuals have been born into this world, have a certificate of live birth, and are entitled to protection under many enacted laws. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called the mortality and morbidity associated with firearm-related injuries in children as being ‘epidemic’ (ref). As was reported in a University of Michigan Health System report, the CDC has reported the rate of firearm deaths in children under age 15 as being almost 12 times higher in the US than 25 other industrialized countries combined. American children were found to be 16 times more likely to be murdered with a gun, 11 times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die in a firearm accident than children in those other countries. And when researchers studied the 30,000 accidental gun deaths of Americans of all ages that occurred between 1979-1997, they found that preschoolers aged 0-4 were 17 times more likely to die from a gun accident in the 4 states with the most guns versus the 4 states with the least guns.
The nature of some of these firearm injuries/deaths in the pediatric population is horrific as reported by the media: a family returning from a baby shower had their car ambushed by two gunmen wounding both parents and killing their two-month-old infant (ref); an infant being shot and wounded in the home by another child handling a gun (ref); a four-month-old infant being shot and wounded in an exchange of gunfire in a neighborhood (ref); a 12-to-18 month old boy being one of four killed by gunfire in an act of domestic violence (ref); a pregnant teen being shot and killed where the fetus did not survive delivery (survived about a week as an infant girl) (ref); a father, engaged in substance abuse, who murdered his 3-month-old son by gunshot (ref). The list could go on and on. I submit that these infants are every bit as defenseless as a fetus. And although the Pro-Life movement sometimes invokes a picture of an aborted fetus as an emotional way to make their point, the same could be done with a murdered infant (WARNING: the image contained in the following link involves a graphic display of a gunshot wound to the head of a young child and is not suitable for viewing in a work setting: image 1).
Yet, despite these statistics, incidents, and opinion issued by reputable associations and agencies regarding the health risks guns pose to children, conservative lawmakers in large part consistently oppose legislation that could help curb this loss of life, such as expanding background checks, requiring safe storage of guns in the home, and closing gun show loopholes that facilitate firearms falling into the hands of criminals, the mentally-ill, terrorists and drug traffickers (all of whom are known to have taken children’s lives). A law was passed in Florida this past year that not only prohibited physicians from enquiring if a gun was in the home (asked as part of injury prevention) but actually imposed penalties up to and including loss of the license to practice medicine if the questioning was deemed to be ‘unnecessary harassment’ (ref). Further, lawmakers are expanding public exposure to guns without imposing tighter regulatory controls governing gun safety; e.g., reciprocity of concealed carry across state lines despite widely varying requirements for such a license, and permitting concealed guns in parks and restaurants (including those that serve alcohol) where our children play and our families eat. And it doesn’t help that legislation was signed into law that defunded federal research on gun safety, first with the CDC (1996) and just recently with the NIH, the NRA referring to the work of those agencies as being ‘junk science’ (ref).
And therein lies the glaring political double standard: staunchly defending the life of the ‘unborn child’ through legislation while failing to enact legislation to protect those that have already been born. I submit that arming up under the claimed ‘right to defend oneself’ is irrelevant as a solution to this appalling loss of young life, and must actually be a contributing factor to the problem as gun show vendors certainly wouldn’t sell their products to anyone other than a ‘law abiding citizen’, right? But then again, how would one know unless one checks. Consider Colin Goddard’s ability to walk out of an Ohio gun show within 20 minutes where he purchased an Egyptian-made AK-47 variant and a Tech-9 assault pistol – obtained without a background check and without producing any identification (ref). (Colin is a Virginia Tech massacre survivor who sustained 4 bullet wounds and now works for The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The purchases mentioned here were part of an intentional undercover operation, involving a hidden camera, to show the need to tighten-up gun sales).
This hypocrisy represents politics at its worst and reveals that the actual political agenda has little to do with protecting children. It is about manipulating hot button issues and pandering to special interest groups for political and financial gain.
The NRA: Political Contributions and Lobbying
A recent article (ref) described the NRA’s ties to the firearms industry (both in representation on its board and the substantial financial support it receives), how the relationship between the NRA and the firearms industry changed during the long-term decline in personal and household gun ownership in America, and how that organization’s manipulation of fear and paranoia are used to enhance gun sales and drive fundraising. This section will detail the nature and effectiveness of that organization’s political contributions and lobbying efforts.
A document detailing NRA political contributions and lobbying expenditures has been published by OpenSecrets.org (ref). Quoting from its summary:
“The National Rifle Association goes to great lengths (and spends a huge sum of money) to defend the right to bear arms. It is opposed to virtually every form of gun control, including restrictions on owning assault weapons, background checks for gun owners, and registration of firearms. NRA’s influence is felt not only through campaign contributions, but through millions of dollars in off-the-books spending on issue ads and the like…. During the 2010 election cycle, the NRA spent more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level — messages that advocate for or against political candidates. These messages primarily supported Republican candidates or opposed Democratic candidates”.
In 2011 the organization spent $2,085,000 on lobbying efforts, with 28 lobbyists hired, 14 current revolving door personnel, and with 56 bills mentioned. In the current 2012 election cycle, and consistent with its long-term record, political contributions were heavily weighted to Republican vs Democratic lawmakers, 89% vs 11%, respectively. In the US House of Representatives this current election cycle, the NRA has contributed $33,000 to 20 Democratic lawmakers while contributing $218,838 to 157 Republican lawmakers, the leading recipient being Eric Cantor (House Majority Leader) with $7,450. A listing of various bills lobbied by the NRA in 2011 is contained in the document and include H.R. 822 (National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act of 2011), S.570 (A bill to prohibit the Department of Justice from tracking and cataloguing the purchases of multiple rifles and shotguns), H.R.308 (Large Capacity Ammunition Feeding Device Act), and others (see document for complete list).
Are lawmaker’s legislative votes tied to political contributions? Consider 2000, the year following the Columbine High School massacre, when there was strong public support for enacting gun control legislation. That assault, carried out by two senior students on April 20, 1999, killed 12 students and one teacher, injuring 21 others directly, making it the deadliest such high school massacre in American history (ref). In 2000 close to a million moms marched on Washington and other cities on Mother’s Day, demanding sensible legislation out of Congress on the issue of gun safety. Although polling consistently showed that their demands were backed by public opinion, they found that it was the flow of millions of dollars in campaign contributions that mattered most. Quoting from a PublicCampaign.org article published in 2000 (ref):
“Since 1997, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies have made political expenditures outweighing those of gun control groups by a ratio of almost twenty-three to one, $5.8 million to $258,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Last year, in the wake of the Columbine tragedy, Congress voted down proposals to require background checks for sales at gun shows-where three out of four of the weapons used at Columbine were bought.
The 44 senators who said “no” to background checks on three separate roll call votes over the course of a week in May 1999 were the beneficiaries, on average, of nearly 29 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 40 senators who said “yes” to background checks on all three votes — $23,340 v. $815. After the Senate finally approved a three-day waiting period for gun show purchases, the House took up the issue in June 1999. The 212 House members who voted the NRA’s way on two separate roll call votes were the beneficiaries of 31 times more campaign cash from gun rights groups than the 189 members who voted in favor of background checks — $11,195 v. $355″.
And in Colorado, the NRA gave thousands of dollars to state lawmakers in a successful effort to defeat several gun control laws inspired by the Columbine massacre (ref), including requiring background checks at gun shows, increasing the age of buying a handgun from 18 to 21 years, and safe storage of guns at home (the latter defeated after a 1997 publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that gun safe storage laws significantly reduced unintentional shooting deaths in children younger than 15 years – ref). In the month before the gun debate the NRA sent Colorado lawmakers more money, $16,950, than in the previous three years; and as political contributions go in Colorado, that figure was very high, one government watchdog group describing it as “a financial arms race”. These legislative defeats came the same week that Littleton, CO, was rocked with two new murders – two Columbine High School sophomores (15 and 16 years old) were found shot to death at a sandwich shop near the school (ref).
In a previous article, Our Unrepresentative Representation (ref), I describe how politicians have become beholden to special interest contributions as they can not raise nearly enough money in their own districts to support the cost of a campaign (and SCOTUS’s Citizens United decision has only made matters worse). It is not unusual for more than 90% of the contributions to come from outside their districts and for the majority to come from out-of-state with the largest single out-of-state source typically being the greater Washington DC area from which many lobbying groups operate. And politicians are reliant on such funding to keep their job as campaign spending is highly correlated with campaign success.
Although the votes being ‘bought’ to support the agenda of the NRA and the firearms industry may be good for gun sales under the pretense of a constitutional right, they have not been so good for the health and well-being of children in our country.
The Gun vs Automobile Fatalities Argument
One of the counter-arguments often made by ‘gun rights’ advocates is that of traffic-related fatalities, including those in children; i.e., what’s the problem with guns when automobiles claim more lives than guns do in this country. And they do. However, that argument creates a false comparison in at least a couple of ways.
First, it is not the absolute number of deaths that is as important as determining the risk of death. For example, when considering a medication or undergoing a medical procedure, one does not want to know the absolute number of individuals who have suffered an untoward event, one is interested in understanding the odds that it may happen to them. For that reason, untoward events are expressed in terms of a ‘rate’. And, in assessing product safety, a summary of deaths is the very first starting point.
When data are normalized to control for factors such as size of the population and economy, we can examine the rate of firearm homicides (ref) and traffic-related deaths (ref) in America versus peer countries. In instances where comparisons can be made, there is typically a marked difference. Some examples follow. In America the per capita adjusted rate of traffic-realted fatalities is 1.78 times that of Spain, but the rate of firearm homicide in America is 14.66 times that of Spain. The US rate of traffic-related fatalities is 2.73 times that of Germany, but our rate of firearm homicide in is 7.71 times that of Germany. And the rate of traffic-related fatalities in America is 1.6 times that of Australia, but our rate of firearm homicides is 11.71 times that of Australia. Consider also that automobile ownership in the US is widespread with most households owning one or more private cars (ref), but that gun ownership is concentrated in less than a third of US households (ref). Although one might argue specific numbers, what is important is directionality, and the disproportionate rate of firearm-realted deaths in the US versus peer countries derived from these sources are in the same direction as those published by the CDC and other sources such as the field of actuarial science (ref).
Second, automobile-related deaths are largely occurring within the intended purpose of the product, i.e., transportation, the vast majority being highway related. This risk is recognized and as such the product has been heavily regulated typically including proficiency testing in the presence of law enforcement prior to the issuance of a license (as well as periodic retesting), mandatory registration with an insurance requirement, product recalls when safety issues are identified, and child safety issues are also addressed (ref).
On the other hand, the fatalities being described for firearms (e.g., homicide, suicide) are not a result of the product being used within the intended purpose of protection, hunting, etc. This falls under what is known as ‘product abuse potential’ and that is when regulation is usually applied to limit the opportunity for such ‘off label’ use, such as is the case with a narcotic that can cause health risks outside of its intended purpose. Consider that firearm-related deaths have been identified as the second greatest cause of the life expectancy gap in America compared to peer countries (ref) (automobiles being first), and yet the notable difference in regulatory requirements between the two. Washington state, for example, does not require training nor permits before a gun purchase, does not compel registration, and allows individuals without a serious criminal record or history of mental illness to obtain permits to carry a concealed weapon (ref); and should H.R. 822 (concealed carry reciprocity) become federal law, these individuals would be legally allowed to carry their concealed guns across state lines, and depending on the state into public parks, restaurants and bars.
And some risks between the two products are clearly different, e.g., a car stored in the garage has been shown to pose little risk to a child in the home, however guns stored in the home have claimed many young lives (ref). Regarding ‘concealed carry in bars/restaurants’, an intoxicated automobile owner can arrange for one in the party to be a designated driver; but with the holder of a gun who becomes intoxicated (and we know with certainty that some licensed gun owners will become intoxicated while in possession of their firearm, as was the case for Tennessee state lawmaker Curry Todd who sponsored that very legislation and claimed that no responsible gun owner would – ref) the idea of a designated gun operator is ridiculous.
This argument is best taken off the table until the firearm-related death rate in America versus peer countries approaches what we see for traffic-related fatalities, and firearms face a similar level of regulatory oversight as do automobiles.
Although the ‘gun rights’ versus ‘gun control’ debate is often painted as an ‘us versus them’ matter, the issue of safeguarding the health and well-being of children should not be. It was certainly never the intent of a constitutional right to trump the protection of children. And it is time to stop construing the need for safety regulation as an assault on a constitutional right and ‘trying to take our guns away’; automobiles are regulated to address safety concerns and still have widespread ownership in America. The health risk guns pose to children has been recognized by major associations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and such notable agencies as the CDC. It’s time that we stop trying to treat the symptom of the illness (advocating the carrying guns to protect ourselves) and begin striking at the heart of the illness which is our markets readily arming the less-than-law-abiding citizen and the mentally-ill, as well as failing to store guns properly in the home (as I write this article a 4-year-old child in a neighboring town shot himself after finding an unsecured gun in the home – ref). And, frankly, having been awarded a NIH training grant during my graduate training, I find it a bit incredulous that an organization such as the NRA, that is tainted with industry money, refers to the work of the CDC and NIH as ‘junk science’.
What is occurring with the gun industry and its advocate group, the NRA, is strikingly reminiscent to what we witnessed with Big Tobacco that denied the health risks and where that industry used its lobbying clout to fight regulation and continue marketing strategies that were ultimately shown to be harmful to the youth of this country. And, as was discussed in a prior article, the effectiveness of gun safety education in children is questionable as a solution and we should not be transferring the responsibility of safety to children (ref). If history is any lesson, the issue of gun-related injuries and death in children, regardless of a ‘right’, will become the indefensible issue that will put enough pressure on politicians to enact sensible legislation despite political contributions and lobbying efforts. Where Big Tobacco fought against regulatory intervention to defend their customer’s ‘right’ to smoke when and where they wished, the health risks of second hand smoke were ultimately confirmed. The effect on health with guns is much faster than that of tobacco, but the end result is the same – death, disfigurement and debilitation, and steps should be taken to reduce those risks, especially with children.
Regarding the Pro-Life movement, although not agreeing with them on the issue as to when a human life actually begins, I respect their right to such a belief but feel that it is best left within the practice of their faith. I personally want to see abortion minimized and believe that an effective intervention would be the widespread availability of family planning counseling and sex education, rather than the defunding of it. And I do not agree that a woman who has had her body assaulted by rape should be made to bear the consequence of that crime. However, politics is a world where special interests are played for financial and political gain, and the Christian Right has been so played by the very party where it largely resides.
David Kuo, a conservative Christian, was second in command of President GW Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. in his book “Tempting Faith” (ref) he detailed how that office was used almost exclusively to win political points with both evangelical Christians and traditionally Democratic minorities. Prominent national Christian leaders were referred to as “the nuts” by the president’s political strategist Karl Rove, and although greeted with smiles were referred to behind their backs as being ‘ridiculous’, ‘out of control’ and ‘just plain goofy’. This while Kuo’s office was being used to mount ostensibly ‘nonpartisan’ events designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted states. Regardless of what side one sits on, such tactics are offensive. We are best served by honest debate, not political manipulation.
The issue discussed in this paper, protecting the health and well-being of children from a an established health risk, should be one that unites the vast majority of Americans. And, regarding our politicians who claim that their Pro-Life stance is about the protection of children, I believe they will be much more believable when we see the same legislative fervor they show for the unborn being extended to those that have already been born.