Bill Durston shares ideas on guns in America

Dr. Bill Durston speaks at the American River Democrats meeting.

Dr. Bill Durston spoke at the January meeting of the American River Democrats, and of everything he spoke of, one statistic hit the hardest. Many Americans have the belief that being a responsible gun owner will give them protection from the bad people out there that may do their family harm. But the New England Journal of Medicine reported that a gun in the house is 43 times more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. That’s right. For every one bad guy who invades a home and is killed by the armed homeowner, 43 other people – children, wives, husbands, neighbors, bystanders, and always the most shocking of all, a kid visiting a friend – are killed by a gun in the home.

And yet, despite that shocking number, 63% of Americans polled believe a gun in the home makes them safer.

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Dr. Bill Durston is well known to East Sacramento Democrats. He ran twice against Dan Lungren for Congress, paving the way for Dr. Ami Bera’s successful election in 2012. But he is also an Emergency Room physician, a Vietnam war veteran, and the current President of the Sacramento chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. He pointed out that more Americans are killed by guns here at home every year than died in battle in the whole of the Vietnam war. And the number of Americans killed by foreign terrorists is tiny compared the the people who die in gun violence.

While we spent thousands of lives and billions of dollars invading Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, we are in fact sitting on a huge stockpile of WMD’s right here in America. Our small arms do more damage than anything Saddam Hussein ever threatened us with. California alone has the equivalent of 9/11 attack every year, with about 3,000 deaths from guns. Gun violence is the fourth leading cause of premature death in the US.

I came of age in the 1970’s, and I remember discussions of gun control actually revolved around handguns, especially those cheap and easy Saturday Night Specials that criminals often used. Efforts were underway to restrict or eliminate manufacturing and sales of handguns, advocates pointing out that legitimate sportsmen and “home defenders” were well supplied with rifles and shotguns, and that handguns were designed to just kill people, and were easily concealed.

And yet, despite the fact that handguns are the overwhelmingly most common type of weapon in the death of Americans (U.S. Dept. of Justice) restricting handguns is not even part of the discussion anymore. The efforts have shifted to automatic and semi-automatic weapons, both handgun and rifle style. And thanks to the efforts of the NRA, even that’s going nowhere.

How did we get to this point? The NRA started as a hunter’s organization, that actually supported sensible gun control. But they have been co-opted by the gun manufacturers who are in the business of supplying the weapons that most of the country is in favor of restricting. Dr. Durston pointed out that this is like the “nicotine effect”. Guns are very well made instruments, and when cared for, a good hunting rifle, shotgun, or revolver can last a lifetime. When used on an annual hunting trip, occasional target practice, or in those rare emergency situations, the owner uses very little ammo, and passes their guns down through generations.

Well that is a big problem for gun makers, because it is a limited market. So they get people hooked on newer, more powerful guns (like cigarette makers get smokers hooked on nicotine). Like many consumer goods, once you get one, you’re looking at the next bigger and better version. And if those guns can shoot a thousand rounds in a few seconds, all the better for supplying ammunition! So despite their lofty talk of defending our liberties, protecting our families, and honoring the second amendment, it’s really about money. So any effort to reign in the power of assault style weapons is met with a huge push by the NRA on lawmakers. And when laws do pass, the gun makers’ efforts go to finding technical loopholes in making powerful guns that find their way around the rules.

But some people still insist that they feel safer in their home with a gun. Durston pointed out that our best trained professional gun users – our law enforcement officers – when killed in the line of duty, are shot 20% of the time with their own weapons. (In a conflict, the suspect may gain control of the officer’s gun.) And 85% of peace officers never fire their weapons on duty at all. Can the average citizen do better than the well trained cops? And as guns become more and more powerful, we put the general public in an arms race with law enforcement, and the end result may be even more lethal force used, as officers protect themselves against a more well armed public.

Wayne LaPierre makes a point ( - Alex Brandon AP)

Wayne LaPierre makes a point ( – Alex Brandon AP)

The NRA, and Wayne LaPierre, like to say that the only defense against an armed bad guy is an armed good guy. That may make some sense when the good guy is a trained, uniformed officer, but they mean you and me – we’re the good guys who should shoot back. But consider the scenarios of some of our famous mass shootings. If the response to a shooting at a school, theater, or other public place is all of our well armed heroes pulling out their weapons, we now have several armed people aiming their guns and looking for their targets. While the bad guys are roaming, or even dead, good guys are seeing other armed strangers with guns, and may begin shooting each other, thinking they’ve found the bad guys. And then police arrive, and have to determine who the bad guys are. If they startle an armed person into waving their gun towards the officer, they will likely shoot. And the real bad guy can just blend in and pretend to be one of the heroes…

How about suggesting that the only defense against an armed bad guy is to – one, do everything we can to make sure he isn’t armed. Two, if he is armed, make sure his weapon isn’t rapid-fire military grade. Three, if he is armed, make sure the cops know he’s the bad guy, and if he’s not arrested for actually shooting someone, arrest him for just having the gun. (Can you imagine if we protected our schools by arming teachers? How many inquisitive kids would find those “well secured guns” and start shooting at school?)

But what about when the bad guys are not around? People with guns are far more likely to get killed or injured by their own guns, either accidentally or through suicide. How many stories do we hear each year about a kid finding a parent’s gun and using it, or an angry or despondent person killing a family or co-workers before turning the gun on himself? No, gun control would not prevent many of these incidents, especially since handguns are not even a target for control these days. (Waiting periods and mental illness restrictions on gun purchases may help, but not if the gun is already present.) Perhaps the only answer to some of these tragedies is changing the culture of guns.

A tragic illustration of the dangerous culture of gun ownership happened right here in Sacramento on New Years morning. A young man and young woman, parents of a little girl, stepped out of their home to celebrate the new year. He had his gun with him, likely to shoot in the air as they welcomed in 2015. By 12:06, the young woman was dead of accidental gunfire from her boyfriend. Steven Lucas was arrested for homicide, but his true punishment is knowing for the rest of his life that he killed the woman he loved and his daughter’s mother.

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In the media, her family expressed their forgiveness, knowing that he did not intend to kill her. But the real culprit is the attitude we Americans have to guns. Pictures posted on his Facebook page showed him and Kayley holding and shooting the handgun that killed her. She’d be alive today if there was no gun in their home, and if a gun wasn’t treated as something fun to have, and even celebrate with. America’s love affair with guns results in too many tragedies like this.

Dr. Durston said that a common view of America from the rest of the world is that we love our guns more than our children. This in the face of 250 school shootings (not just Sandy Hook) in the past five years, with virtually nothing done in response.  Most of the guns from those shootings came from the shooter’s home.

So what can be done when virtually all Republicans, and a fair number of rural-state Democrats, refuse to consider even the most “mild” efforts to restrict at least the most dangerous assault weapons? Nationally we can encourage the new Surgeon General of the U.S., Dr. Vivek Murthy, to issue warnings of the lethal danger of keeping guns in the home. That approach did do some good with cigarettes, and led to further awareness and eventual action taken.

We can also encourage our school officials and board members to communicate the warnings about guns in the home, safe storage laws, and the liabilities that gun owners face when their guns are used, accidentally or intentionally by others, to harm people. Hopefully more education and sharing information can dispel the dangerous myth that guns are effective in protecting your family, when they are in fact the most dangerous single item you can have in your home (other than perhaps a honey oil or meth lab – but those people usually keep a gun as well.)

In 2008, when Justices Alito and Roberts were added to the Supreme Court, they ruled for the first time that the second amendment actually applied to an individual right to weapons. Prior to that, the language was judged to be what it actually said – for an organized militia. While rescinding the second amendment may be a lofty goal, electing Democratic Presidents, so future appointed justices may be more reasonable, is something we can all work towards.

Ken Kiunke, Communications Secretary. 2/08/2015

Learn more:

Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence – the 10 Stupidest Lines from Wayne LaPierre

Sacramento Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility

Visit to enter Sacramento area High School seniors in an essay contest for scholarship awards based on the quote “The world is over-armed, and peace is under-funded.” by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Enter by March 11 2015.

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