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Our national gun crisis, one birthday at a time

St. Louis Post-Dispatch • Aug 24, 2018 at 8:40 AM

Saturday was Armond Latimore's birthday. "I'm just glad I can say I made it to see 17," he posted on Facebook that day. About an hour later, he was dead, shot outside a north St. Louis restaurant. Police aren't yet talking about possible suspects or motives.

The heartbreaking notion of a 17-year-old marveling at having lived that long begs the question of what kind of danger he thought he was in. Was there gang involvement? Was it related to the bullying that his mother told the Post-Dispatch he'd written about? Of course, in America, utterly random violence is always a possibility.

One thing we can say with certainty: Whatever trouble Armond ran into would far less likely have been fatal had it happened in any other industrialized nation in the world. Among advanced societies today, the specter of daily street shooting deaths is a uniquely American one, the result of our political inability to treat the gun-violence epidemic like the health care crisis that it is. Why we continue to tolerate this is among the questions all should be asking in the wake of this teenager's death.

As horrific mass shootings dominate the headlines, we forget that they are only a sliver of the problem. Our country's tragic addiction to firearms is mapped with milepost markers like "Columbine," "Sandy Hook" and "Parkland," but the biggest mass shooting is the one that is unfolding day by day, victim by victim, in homes and bars and on sidewalks and streets all around us.

Firearms kill 30,000 to 40,000 Americans annually. About two-thirds of those are suicides or accidents. The other roughly one-third are homicides. In nations with strong gun restrictions, there are far fewer gun deaths. If America's tidal wave of annual firearms killings isn't the result of a cause-and-effect between those two factors, how exactly does the National Rifle Association explain it? Are we just a naturally more violent people?

Gun-rights advocates claim, correctly, that illegal guns are a big part of the problem — which they then twist into an argument against even bothering with tighter restrictions since criminals won't adhere to them anyway. But illegal guns are an argument for tighter controls, not looser ones. It's common sense that tighter controls on legal weaponry would interrupt the pipeline leading to the proliferation of illegal weapons.

The NRA wants you to believe there's nothing constitutionally that we can do. But even the Supreme Court has declared that, although the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to own guns, ownership can be reasonably restricted. The NRA continues to oppose, for example, a policy of universal background checks for every gun transaction, including private sales. They don't like calling it a "loophole," but it is, by definition. Who knows how many of these illegal guns they say can't be stopped are getting in through that loophole, and others like it?

Mass shootings are the stuff of our collective nightmare, which is why restrictions are necessary on military-style semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity clips. But the carnage unfolding quietly, under much of the media radar in north St. Louis and across America, needs to be part of gun-control conversation, too. We don't just have a mass-shooting problem; we have a shooting problem.

All the missed future birthdays of the too many Armond Latimores among us require that we finally address it.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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