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Gun owners, the vocal minority

Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut speaks at the Democratic National Convention. More coverage at latimes.com/trailguide.

Last month, a 63-year-old teacher at Cumberland Valley Christian School, a church-affiliated K-12 school with an enrollment of 400 students in Chambersburg, Pa., just 24 miles north of Hagerstown, left a loaded handgun on top of the toilet tank in a school bathroom. At least four primary-school-aged students used the unisex bathroom after the teacher, the fourth reporting the presence of the gun to a parent.

The school staff was informed. Police were summoned. The teacher now faces criminal charges and has resigned from her post. No one was hurt. Only afterward did the school announce a policy — no guns in the building unless approved by the administration.

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The incident was noteworthy, in part, because it demonstrates the threat posed by average, well-meaning people treating firearms too casually. Contrary to the opinion of the National Rifle Association that schools would be safer if teachers and other staff were armed — the proverbial "good guys with guns" to counter the "bad guys with guns" — the reality is that a greater number of firearms means there's a greater chance of more such potentially unsafe encounters between kids and deadly weapons.

But it's also worth noting that teachers don't often own guns, nor do they frequently bring them to work. In this, they are simply typical of all Americans. As common as firearms have become in the United States — more than 310 million in circulation as of 2009, or about twice the per capita rate of a half-century ago — most people don't own one.

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How can this be? Because while there are more firearms in circulation than there are automobiles and trucks in the United States — indeed, research suggests there are now more guns in the U.S. than people — they are in the hands of a relative few. A new survey by public health researchers at Harvard and Northeastern estimates that 3 percent of Americans own 50 percent of the guns. In all, only about 22 percent of the survey's respondents reported owning a firearm at all.

That means that 78 percent of Americans don't own a gun. While similar studies have pointed to concentrated firearm ownership in the past — Pew Research Center estimated the percentage of armed U.S. households at about one-third two years ago — the Harvard-Northeastern study suggests there are more guns in fewer hands than ever before.

According to researchers, that 3 percent of "super" gun owners have between 8 and 140 guns in their homes, or an average of 17 each. And while some are no doubt collectors of firearms, the researchers found most said they bought handguns specifically to protect themselves. Yet how could it be that some people are so frightened they look to create an extensive home arsenal while three-quarters of the population don't own a single firearm?

This increasingly lopsided circumstance still doesn't fully explain why the nation remains stuck in a political gridlock in Congress over the most common-sensical of gun control proposals like strengthened background checks. It's understandable that the gun owners feel passionate about their Second Amendment rights, but what about the rights of the three-quarters who would like to see fewer guns turn up in the hands of criminals and the seriously mentally ill?

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Perhaps this points to why a veteran teacher might bring a handgun to school — taking a cue from the NRA recommendation to arm school staff to help prevent the next Newtown massacre (or a repeat of the West Nickle Mines School shooting in nearby Lancaster County a decade ago that left five dead). But it also shows the pitfalls of such behavior when the gun ends up within the reach of youngsters who could easily have hurt themselves.

Clearly, guns are not really part of the American landscape. They are highly prized by a small segment and owned by about one-quarter of the populace — roughly the same percentage of Americans who admit to Internet trolling. We should no more put up with bullying behavior by those gun enthusiasts than we should succumb to those malicious Twitter users. And given that suicides and accidents represent the majority of firearm deaths, it's reasonable to conclude that people who own a sporting-goods-store worth of guns aren't doing their families any favors either.

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