Rethinking Terrorism, Guns and the Study of Violence

Mark Trahant

The news cycle often defines the political story. So instead of a thoughtful conversation about climate change, or last week’s vote in Congress to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or even guns and violence, we turn on the television and terrorism dominates our discourse. This is where the narrative of fear trumps the data.

Yes, terrorism is a problem. And It’s frightening. But it’s hardly the most important (or deadly) one that this nation faces. Vox World (before the San Bernardino massacre) pointed out: “More than 10,000 Americans are killed every year by gun violence. By contrast, so few Americans have been killed by terrorist attacks since 9/11 that when you chart the two together, the terrorism death count approximates zero for every year except 2001. This comparison, if anything, understates the gap: Far more Americans die every year from (easily preventable) gun suicides than gun homicides.”

That is certainly true in Indian country. A recent study by the University of North Dakota found that firearms are used 41 percent of the time in suicides, a significantly higher rate than other ethnic groups.

What’s terrorism and what’s routine gun violence? This country averages a mass murder every day. Yet every proposal to do something from the president has been ignored or condemned by the Congress. On Sunday the president said it’s too easy for “people who want to harm Americans to buy guns.”

Mark Trahant

But that’s not a message Congress will hear. Right now, even funding studies about gun violence is seen as biased and anti-gun. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been blocked from research for more than two decades. “The amount of money available today for studying the impact of firearms is a fraction of what it was in the mid-1990s, and the number of scientists toiling in the field has dwindled to just a handful as a result,” The New York Times said. “No other field of inquiry is singled out in this way.”

Instead Congress is eager to spend billions of dollars on military operations that don’t solve terrorism and, in the case of Daesh, the war effort clearly fueled the group’s rise to power.

Last week that same political divide surfaced again in the Senate when it voted against an amendment to prevent people on the terrorist “no fly” list from purchasing a weapon. Republicans argued that preventing people from buying guns would violate their Second Amendment rights. This is not just an academic debate. The Government Accountability Office found that “from February 2004 through February 2009, a total of 963 NICS background checks resulted in valid matches with individuals on the terrorist watch list. Of these transactions, approximately 90 percent (865 of 963) were allowed to proceed because the checks revealed no prohibiting information, such as felony convictions, illegal immigrant status, or other disqualifying factors. Two of the 865 transactions that were allowed to proceed involved explosives background checks.” And how many of those sales were stopped? GAO said: “About 10 percent (98 of 963) of the transactions were denied based on the existence of prohibiting information. No transactions involving explosives background checks were denied.” Not that that “No Fly” list is perfect (but that’s another story).

Guns? Check. Explosives? Fine. Your Second Amendment rights are protected as defined by the National Rifle Association. The NRA’s version of the Senate vote was “Senate holds the line on Second Amendment rights.”

John Oceguera, a candidate for Congress in Nevada, made national headlines this week by renouncing his membership in the National Rifle Association. “I am a law-abiding gun owner, and have been a Life Member of the National Rifle Association (NRA). I grew up in a family of hunters,” Oceguera wrote in a letter to the NRA. “But more importantly, I’m a father and a husband. I believe that keeping our families safe is our most fundamental priority.”

Oceguera is a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. He said the country can no longer ignore gun violence. “Still, the NRA opposes any legislation that would help keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, criminals and the mentally ill, and spends millions to stop any action in Congress that could help prevent further violence. I cannot continue to be a member while the NRA refuses to back closing these loopholes. Therefore, I resign my membership in the NRA, effective immediately.

Across the country, Native American congressional candidates are split on the gun issue along party lines. In Arizona, Democrat Victoria Steele said: “The issue of gun violence in Arizona and around the country has reached epidemic proportions. Stories of mass shootings and casualties by the dozens are on the brink of becoming commonplace. And yet, despite that alarming trend, Congress does nothing.”

Meanwhile, in Montana, Denise Juneau, who’s the state superintendent of public instruction, dismissed an initiative that would permit public school employees to be armed. She told Montana Public Radio that she’s against the proposal …  “because schools are supposed to be safe places for learning, adding guns into that mix threatens that. It just has so much opportunity for crisis to happen that it’s just a bad idea.”

However, Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, called the measure to prohibit people on the terrorist watch list from purchasing guns “a paper tiger.” He told Oklahoma’s “If the Attorney General is aware of individuals engaging in terrorist activities on American soil, those individuals should be in jail. They ought not be free to buy groceries, let alone guns.”

This is not an easy issue or debate. People in Indian country own a lot of guns. (In general people living in rural areas own guns at higher rates than those in cities.) On top of that, we know how important hunting is to most Native Americans.

Perhaps, that’s one role for Native politicians. It might take leaders who own guns, those who are lifelong hunters, to rip up their NRA membership cards, and then propose reasonable firearm policies and restrictions.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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JohnHancock's picture
Submitted by JohnHancock on
You're a fool if you believe climate change is more deserving of our time and attention that people being gunned down in the name of religion. A fool.

Alamosaurus's picture
Submitted by Alamosaurus on
Some years ago former president George Bush Sr. resigned from the National Rifle Association after the head of the NRA referred to Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire arms agents as "jackbooted thugs". He sent them an angry letter. There are not many things I agree with Bush Senior on, but in this case he was 100% right. We do not premit every tom dick and harry to get a drivers license; in order to get one, a person must pass both a written test and a driving test. Why should we allow convicted felons, mental patients, and members of terrorist organizations to own guns? We do not allow a blind person or an epileptic to get a drivers license because they can not operate a car safely,. So why should we allow individuals who can not own firearms responsibly to own firearms? I am not advocating that all firearms be banned; only that they be kept out of the hands of certain kinds of people by a screening process.