Obama's Simplest Case for Gun Regulation

Can he do what Congress won't?

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Guns are dangerous. This simple fact deserves more prominence in the discussion of gun rights and gun regulation in the U.S. -- a debate that will be rejoined (if not renewed) this week as President Barack Obama announces new efforts to reduce gun violence.

Guns in America

More than just the gun movement ignores the danger of firearms. It's a wider cultural failing. In October, a 2-year-old in South Carolina found a revolver in the seat pocket of a car and shot his grandmother while they were riding. Last year, a 9-year-old girl lost control of the Uzi she was firing at an Arizona shooting range and shot her instructor dead.

About a third of U.S. households with children under 12 contain a gun. Every year between 2005 and 2012, according to one estimate, 110 children under the age of 15 were accidentally killed by a gun -- most by other children or themselves.

Still, the heaviest toll of gun violence falls on adults; more than 30,000 Americans die and tens of thousands more are injured each year. The U.S. is not an outlier in crime in general. Americans are less likely to be victims of assault, for example, than citizens of other developed nations. The U.S. is merely an outlier -- a gargantuan one -- in its levels of gun violence.

This is a public safety problem. But it's also a cultural problem, and should be addressed as such. Drunk driving was once perceived as a dangerous yet inevitable nuisance, albeit one with occasionally deadly consequences. It's now widely regarded as antisocial, and sometimes criminal. Americans still drink plenty of alcohol. But they drink and drive far less than they used to.

Clear-eyed recognition of the inherent danger of firearms is necessary to draw attention to the ways in which they're sold, stored and accessed, and by whom. It would prompt social condemnation of parents who arm unstable children, or fail to safely and properly store guns in their homes. It would reinforce the call for universal background checks on gun purchases and for technologies such as trigger recognition that can reduce the risk of accidental injury or death. It would discourage the all-too-common habit of treating guns like toys.

The economist Herbert Stein once famously said: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." Without changes to America's gun culture and laws, there will be hundreds of thousands of pointless deaths and injuries in the years ahead. No civilized society can tolerate so much violence forever. It will be reduced only when society finally recognizes the danger -- and then moves to address it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.