Why can’t they leave our guns alone, and focus on something dangerous?

The ATF, more accurately referred to as the BATFE, for Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, has, as the name of the organization implies, four areas of responsibility. Of the four, firearms seem to get the vast preponderance of the agency’s attention. I cannot help but be curious about this arrangement of priorities. Why is it that such a disproportionately large part of the ATF’s energy is devoted to regulating firearms? Some might suppose that the reason for this arrangement of priorities is based on the number of deaths attributable to each of these four areas of concern. Such a supposition would be incorrect.

On average, slightly over 30,000 deaths (per year) in the U.S. are caused by gunshot wounds–30,136 in 2003 (this figure from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence–not a group likely to under report the number of gunshot deaths). Of these, more than half are suicide (same source as above). Removing guns can hardly be expected to prevent suicide, as is clearly illustrated by the fact that Japan, where private firearm ownership is virtually non-existent, has a suicide rate higher than that of the U.S. (source). It should also be noted that this figure includes legitimate self-defense shootings, and justifiable shootings by police–not really part of the so-called “gun problem.”

By comparison, in the year 2000 (most recent for which I could find data), there were 85,000 deaths attributable to alcohol use (source)–not quite triple the number of deaths from gunshot wounds, but well over double. Even that number, though, pales in comparison to the more than 400,000 annual U.S. deaths from cigarette smoking (source)–more than 13 times the gunshot death number.

So, between alcohol and tobacco, our country comes dangerously close to losing half a million lives every year, as compared to just over 30,000 from gunfire, many of which would have occurred with or without guns, and some of which were necessary to defend innocent lives.

Explosives are a different matter entirely, of course. I haven’t bothered researching deaths attributable to high explosives, because that number in the U.S. is certainly rather small (the story is obviously quite different for the men and women serving in the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is unrelated to this discussion). Still, that hardly means that we can afford to ignore the threat posed by misuse of high explosives. Bombs are the favorite weapon of terrorists, because they are by far the most deadly (at least in the absence of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons). Terrorists know that they can cause vastly more carnage with explosives than they can with firearms. Like anyone else, terrorists prefer to get the most return on their investment of effort and risk, and explosives are vastly “better” in that regard than guns.

So, does the ATF want to make Americans safer, or would they prefer to simply make us unarmed?

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