December 14th, 2013
01:45 AM ET

The real tragedy of America's gun violence

Watch Global Lessons on Guns, a Fareed Zakaria GPS special, this Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

It’s a year since the tragedy at Newtown, yet remarkably little has changed. Despite the loss of 26 lives in the Sandy Hook School shooting that day, including 20 children, Washington has failed to coalesce around any really substantive changes to America’s gun laws. Sadly, that means it is only a matter of time before the next mass shooting.

As part of a GPS special on the issue, we went all over the world in search of solutions and lessons that we might apply here to bring down the epidemic of gun violence that afflicts us. We saw many interesting ideas that worked, all of them centering around some simple, common sense ideas that would put some checks on the unfettered sale and possession of firearms.

What we did not find was a large-scale, nationwide example where expanded attention to mental health issues could be tied to a reduction in homicides or suicides using guns.

This might surprise you. Every time there is a serious gun massacre in the United States – and alas these are fairly common – the media focuses on the twisted psychology of the shooter and asks why we don't pay more attention to detecting and treating mental illness.

But as people like Gen. Peter Chiarelli told me – and he was tasked by the United States armed forces to look into this issue – while you can identify mental issues and be aware of reasons for stress, it is ultimately impossible to predict who among the many under pressure will snap, when that might be, and what form that break will take.

More from GPS: Did Newtown change public opinion?

The question we should really be focused on is not the specific cause of a single shooting, but why there are so many of them in America. To remind you, in recent years there have been around 10,000 gun homicides a year in the United States. According to the United States, in Germany and Canada, there were fewer than 200. In Spain, fewer than 100. In Australia fewer than 50.

America's per capita gun homicide rate in 2009 was 12 times higher than the average of Canada, Germany, Australia and Spain. Does anyone think that we have 12 times as many psychologically troubled people as they do in these countries?

There are other reasons often given for gun violence – popular culture and violent video games in particular. But as this survey across the world should have shown, countries that imbibe much the same gory culture in Europe and Australia have much lower levels of violence. Japan, with its particular fascination with violent video games, is actually stunningly low in gun deaths. So whatever you think of violent video games and movies, they don't seem to be the key cause of gun violence.

And we do have an actual experiment. In the aftermath of its own Newtown-like massacre, Australia changed its gun laws. The result? Homicides and suicides plummeted in the decade that followed. Of course, like all real world problems, the link between guns and violence is a complex issue. But one rarely has so much evidence pointing in the same direction.

More from GPS: Time to rethink video games and violence debate

That finally leaves the issue of the American Constitution – the argument that the Second Amendment makes any kind of serious gun control impossible. I am not a legal historian, but I will note that many serious ones have pointed out that the Second Amendment was not invoked much for much of American history, often applied only to “well-regulated militias,” and for many decades did not stand in the way of sensible gun regulation. And the Supreme Court upheld such regulation. All that started to change in the 1970s and '80s as part of a spirited political movement to make gun rights inviolable.

As I said, I'm not a lawyer. But listen to someone who was: Warren Burger. He was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for 17 years, a conservative Republican appointed by Richard Nixon. Here's what he said about the Second Amendment:

“This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. Now just look at those words. There are only three lines to that amendment. A ‘well-regulated militia’ – if the militia, which was going to be the state army, was going to be well regulated, why shouldn't 16 and 17 and 18 or any other age persons be regulated in the use of arms the way an automobile is regulated…someone asked me recently if I was for or against a bill that was pending in Congress calling for five days waiting period, and I said I’m very much against it. It should be 30 days waiting period.”

But let's get away from the legal issues. Here's how I think about it.  One of the most important tasks for a government is to keep its citizens – especially its children – safe, on the streets and in their schools. Every other developed country in the world is able to fulfill this basic mandate. America is not. And the greatest tragedy is that we know how to do it.

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Topics: GPS Show • Gun Control • United States

soundoff (2,388 Responses)
  1. Morten

    Hello Fareed,this program is the best I have seen from you. You only go on the facts and try to explain not only for american people ,but also for the whole world,thank you so much,and I tell you I have been waiting for this program for a long time. Iam a norwegian,live in spain and a pro-viewer of CNN. The only thing that don't match is the guy who kill so many in norway. His killing have nothing to do with mental illness in that term. His motivation was something much different than the masskilling in US. If you want to hear more about him from my view,you are very welcome. The reason why I write this comment,is that your program was terrific,fantastic and I waiting for some intellectual people in the US to do something.
    Thank you
    Morten Ruud

    December 21, 2013 at 11:52 pm | Reply
    • JL Brown

      The guy who killed those students in Norway WAS mentally ill. He was a right-wing extremist who was inspired by extremist websites. Anyone who kills for any reason other than self defense is mentally ill. Fareed, please ask CNN to re-broadcast "Global Lessons on Guns". The show was excellent. It needs to be re-broadcast once a week until Congress passes some rational gun regulations.

      May 26, 2014 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  2. Morten

    Well,it is what you can do Fareed,NOW it is up to the american people to make a choose,how we get from here..

    December 22, 2013 at 12:37 am | Reply
    • Morten

      I tell you,many people think amercan are stupid,I have meet this people and I understand why they say that but Iam not like this people. Ok what is my point, As you said in your program,about the meaning of the second amendment in the first place and then that this was in 1887,am I right fareed,we live now 200 years later,and if you take yesus in mind,how or where we are now Fareed ? I tell you ,I respect you very much. How many books have you read..

      December 22, 2013 at 12:53 am | Reply
  3. buddesatva

    A worthwhile read, but the hanging question remains; why are Americans committing these acts of violence? Could it be as simple as access to the technology? This seems likely and consequently we have the unaccounted for 'liberty' which is freedom of access to technology. The men who wrote the Bill of Rights had absolutely no concept of modern firearms. Applying the right to bear arms as an absolute is nonsensical. Having said that, Custer and his men were killed with guns the Indians were forbidden to have. Controlling or restricting access to technology is lagging or impossible. I suspect the latter. How will be restrict access to drones? How and should we limit access to government collected information, who owns that NSA data boodle? Moreover, what precisely is wrong with regulating that militia that these lunatics want so badly to be part of?

    December 23, 2013 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • Chuck

      Good point, I remember reading that at one time the Vatican outlawed Crossbows trying to limit technology (the truth of this seems to be unverifiable, but it does sound plausible).

      IMO some of it is cultural and while you may try to limit the damage by passing legislation trying to do some social modification, IMO it is more likely you will just end up with unintended consequences that can't really be forscene, like maybe a rash of bombings or arson. Much like trying to influence the ecology, while the intentions are good, the outcome is often different than the intentions.

      Over here (in Germany) firearms are strongly regulated. Sounds good in theory, but the facts are a large part of the population has a buried stash of firearms someplace (especially the older generation). The black market in firearms is not a large problem and is mostly contained in the immigrant communities. I did a sample poll on my youngest sons friends and asked them how long it would take them to acquire a firearm, here in Germany, if they really wanted one, the time frame was broad, but all were less than a day. Discounting a youngsters tendency to bombast a bit, it seems truly most seemed confidant of acquiring one if they wanted one. Most said they knew someone in the Turkish community who could get them one for a price, which was disturbing on multiple levels..

      What it is, what somebody says it is and what somebody says it should be, are often wildly divergent.

      The weapon of choice here in Germany for committing homicide on your ex wife and the new boyfriend drinking your Beer, is arson. And as often as not they are living in a multi family dwelling and the disgruntled ex spouse ends up burning multiple families, their kids and the neighbors. If you want to hammer a nail, get a hammer, but if you can't find a hammer I guess you can use a fire extinguisher in a pinch.

      Pie in the sky progressive initiatives are unlikely to have the desired results. I can think of very few that actually worked as intended over a period of decades. The politicians tend to laud the wins, bury the failures and/or rewrite history.

      The stupid American; Chuck.

      December 23, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Reply
  4. Eddie Fonseca

    As Americans we look at our great Star Spangle banner flag which proudly hang's on the flag pole, in the front yard and is spray painted on the New York transit bus's and trains on the dark day that the 9/11 terrorist attacks claimed thousand of innocent American lives which is still a constant reminder to the people of New York and America on that darkest hour in America's history books. With our love for gun's we started to fear not just the enemy that attacked our great nation, but our fellow American's as well the one we call our brothers and sisters. For many of us who have been victim's of gun violence which has taken a loved one from our lives, we should as Americans stand with one voice and ask our congress leaders and government what steps are taken so no more innocent American lives are lost at the hand's of stray bullets and illegal guns on our streets. Being an American who has traveled to other nations, and has seen first hand that gun law's and restriction on hand gun's does play an important role in saving lives and dealing with the cause such as mental illness which seems to be the root cause to these shootings in America. When we as Americans one day wake up and realize we live in land of liberty and freedom, and that the way of gun should not be only way to deal with situations but threw understanding and talking about the issues and giving more funding towards mental health so we don't loss more innocent family members or the people we love. Without proper mental funding and improved gun restrictions to getting guns will be a nation, that is seen to the rest of the world as being the wild west of a nation that can solve our difference's without fearing the person walking down the street for years to come.

    April 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  5. Ray

    "Does anyone think that we have 12 times as many psychologically troubled people as they do in these countries?"

    Yes, Fareed, we do.

    We have a generation of kids with parents that have to neglect them in order to focus on putting food on the table.
    Instead of learning how to build character by dealing face to face with adversity, Mommy and Daddy tell their kids that they are winners and hand them things they didn't earn through hard work.
    These kids today cannot cope with the anxiety, fear, and stress that come during the teenage years, notr can they make tough choices because they rarely haev to sacrifice. So, when anxiety turns to anger, they mimic their favorite video game or movie and decide that by lashing out in the worst way, and taking someone's life away they've made some kind of statement.

    June 11, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Reply
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    September 23, 2014 at 8:26 am | Reply
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