Counter-demonstrator at March rally against gun violence in Annapolis, Md. (iStockphoto)

Counter-demonstrator at March rally against gun violence in Annapolis, Md. (iStockphoto)

I’m struggling to understand your perspective. I’m convinced most of you are good, reasonable people. I suspect that you and I have more in common than the gun lobby would have us believe.

Just as I’m trying to understand you, I ask you to consider the perspective of someone who does not own a gun. Three out of four Americans don’t, and two out of three homes don’t have guns, so there are a lot of us.

Here’s what might be hard for you to sympathize with: We non-owners believe we receive virtually no benefit from your guns. And yet we get shot by them. We don’t want to be intimidated by the guns that you bought, and we especially do not want to get shot by them. The Newtown tragedy illustrates the incredible social costs these guns can inflict.

Virtually every gun used in crime, every gun used to wound and kill, was originally purchased by a gun owner—and not just any gun owner, but, at least since 1994, someone able to pass a background check, an apparent “decent law-abiding citizen.” Every gun starts out a legal gun.

These guns are now used to shoot some 250 people per day—85 of whom die. Most of the deaths are to decent-law-abiding-citizen gun owners or their family members–who use the gun to commit suicide. But the people shot in crimes, and many killed, are gun owners and non-owners alike.

Every gun may start out a legal gun, but thousands leak over from the legitimate market to the black market. What I can’t understand is why you don’t seem very interested in figuring out how to prevent that leakage.

While individually, most of you secure your guns appropriately, a sizable minority does not—and more than a quarter of a million guns are stolen each year, many used to intimidate, maim and kill.

Worse, collectively some of you fight to prevent the creation of gun policies that could reduce the leakage that causes this mayhem. Such policies are in place in every one of the First World democracies and all have fewer gun problems than we do.

My state, Massachusetts, has stronger gun laws than most states; these laws are designed to reduce the leakage. Fewer criminals here use guns, and those that do, by and large, don’t get their guns from here. It’s too difficult. If our laws had no effect, our criminals would get their guns here. Instead, trace data indicate that most of our crime guns come from states with weak laws.

David Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

David Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center.

Individually most of you report being in favor of many measures adopted by some states and the other First World countries that might reduce the crossover of guns from legitimate to illegitimate use. But you are represented by lobbying groups that prevent such measures from being adopted—and you give money and aid to these lobbies and you vote for politicians who vote in accordance with these lobbies.

Most other First World democracies have gun lobbies. But these focus more on hunting and shooting sports. Compared to you, gun owners in all the other First World democracies have acted more for the common good and the guns they purchase impose less of a cost on the rest of society.

Imagine that a minority of Americans are hand grenade enthusiasts, and you are not one. These grenade owners use their grenades for sport and hunting, and sometimes for self-defense. Also imagine that grenades are maiming and killing hundreds of American citizens each day—many of them non-grenade owners, like you and your family. Wouldn’t you want some reasonable laws to help ensure that you will not be blown up? What if many grenade enthusiasts sell their grenades to virtually anyone, with no background check, or they do not secure their grenades which are then stolen and used to blow people up? Or their lobbies fight against most measures that might reduce the grenade problem?

Individually most of these grenade enthusiasts are nice, decent, honorable people. You personally may not understand why they need their grenades—since most American adults and most adults in other countries don’t feel they need them. But they insist that since criminals have grenades, they need grenades to defend themselves. When you suggest ways to make it difficult for criminals to get grenades, they explain that criminals will always get grenades because criminals do not obey laws–so that any laws you propose, even laws in place in virtually every other country, can have no effect other than to burden them, the decent-law-abiding grenade owners.

Suppose these grenade owners claim not only that grenades made one’s home safer, but that more grenades made society safer, and that grenade owners are the ones that are keeping democracy safe? Are these grenade owners the people you would want to decide when a government must be brought down, or might you worry that some might be more like the Oklahoma City bombers? Further suppose their lobbies effectively shut down data dissemination and support for scientific studies–once those studies began showing that some of their claims might be incorrect?

Indeed, suppose their lobbies try to make it illegal for pediatricians to mention to patients that it may not be a good idea to have unsecured grenades in one’s home when kids are around. Instead, since grenades are being used to kill children in school, they want to arm teachers with grenades. Or at minimum, they want citizens with grenades to be patrolling your children’s school.

How would you feel about these grenade enthusiasts as a group?

That’s how many non-gun owners feel about you.

But that can change. If, as many of you say, you disagree with the gun lobby’s positions, please do something about it. Individually make your viewpoints known (e.g., on the Internet). Collectively, form groups that work side by side with non-owners to solve the problem. I’m convinced that together we can come up with thoughtful, sane laws and enforcement strategies that serve all our interests and keep us safer.

David Hemenway is a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He is the author of “While We Were Sleeping: Success Stories in Injury and Violence Prevention.”