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By Nicholas Kristof
Graphics by Nathaniel Lash and Stuart A. Thompson
Once again the United States is seared by screams, shots, blood, sirens and politicians’ calls for thoughts and prayers. Two shootings in California since Saturday have claimed at least 18 lives, leaving Americans asking once again: What can be done to break the political stalemate on gun policy so that we can save lives?
For decades, we’ve treated gun violence as a battle to be won rather than a problem to be solved — and this has gotten us worse than nowhere. In 2021 a record 48,000 Americans were killed by firearms, including suicides, homicides and accidents. So let’s try to bypass the culture wars and try a harm-reduction model familiar from public health efforts to reduce deaths from other dangerous products such as cars and cigarettes.
Harm reduction for guns would start by acknowledging the blunt reality that we’re not going to eliminate guns any more than we have eliminated vehicles or tobacco, not in a country that already has more guns than people. We are destined to live in a sea of guns. And just as some kids will always sneak cigarettes or people will inevitably drive drunk, some criminals will get firearms — but one lesson learned is that if we can’t eliminate a dangerous product, we can reduce the toll by regulating who gets access to it.
That can make a huge difference. Consider that American women age 50 or older commit fewer than 100 gun homicides in a typical year. In contrast, men 49 or younger typically kill more than 500 people each year just with their fists and feet; with guns, they kill more than 7,000 each year. In effect, firearms are safer with middle-aged women than fists are with young men.
We’re not going to restrict guns to women 50 or older, but we can try to keep firearms from people who are under 21 or who have a record of violent misdemeanors, alcohol abuse, domestic violence or some red flag that they may be a threat to themselves or others.
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