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The Lessons of Dayton

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has recycled a two-year-old column in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass murders in which he points out the unsurprising correlation between gun ownership and gun deaths.

Since Kristof first penned this article, dozens of mass murders have taken place around the country while the federal government remains paralyzed and in the grip of the National Rife Association, the lobbying arm of the powerful gun manufacturing industry.

How many must die before Washington enacts meaningful gun control? Before our elected leaders do more than offer their “thoughts and prayers”?

Before Kristof’s column needs to be republished again?

Kristof points out that America has by far the highest firearms ownership of any nation with 88.8 per 100 people. Germany has 30.3 guns per 100 people, by way of comparison, nearly a third of the U.S. firearms ownership rate.

When it comes to murder committed by guns, Kristof notes, America’s arsenal of firearms is six-times more lethal than our neighbor, Canada.

“The evidence is overwhelming that overall more guns and more relaxed gun laws lead to more violent deaths and injuries,” he reports.

Kristof is no stranger to Dayton where a few days ago nine people were senselessly murdered and dozens more injured by a 24-year-old wielding an assault-style rifle equipped with a magazine containing a hundred bullets.

 Long a fan of Kristof’s column, I met him in 2009 when he arrived in Ohio to accept the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Lifetime achievement Award on behalf of himself and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

The prize recognizes “the power of the written word to promote peace.” Kristof and WuDunn were being honored for their work in Asia, Africa, and the developing world. They won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China’s democracy movement and its ultimate suppression.

As a member of the literary prize board, I had nominated them and it was my duty and pleasure to escort Kristof around town when he arrived for the ceremony.

Why Dayton for such an award?

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize is an outgrowth of the city’s involvement in the end of the bloody war in Bosnia, hammered out at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 1995. Wright-Patt, on the outskirts of the city,  was selected to keep the participants isolated from the public during the protracted negotiations. By that time, the war between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia had raged for more than four years claiming a quarter-million lives.

In the aftermath of the accords, Dayton felt an understandable pride in playing a part in ending the war. A sister-city relationship was established with Sarajevo. A peace museum was founded. And the literary awards were created.

In Bosnia, Dayton is synonymous with peace.

In America, Dayton has become yet another example of our failure to address an obvious public safety disaster.

Ironically, a year before the Dayton Peace Accords were finalized, Congress passed a 10-year ban on assault weapons that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The law has expired and has not been renewed.

Since then, the number of mass shootings in America by murderers using military-style assault weapons has accelerated. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been more than 250 mass shootings in the United States since the beginning of 2019. That’s more than one a day.

The place-names of many of these shootings have now taken on new meaning, linked inexorably with violent death: Aurora, Pulse, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Virginia Tech, Columbine, El Paso.

And now Dayton, a city that has prided itself on being a place where peace could take root.

Could Dayton be the last straw, the killing ground that finally prompts Congress to act?

It will take more than thoughts and prayers to make that happen.

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