On Guns and America

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Virgina Tech massacre. My thoughts keep returning to the issue of American gun culture.

I asked my friend Ben P. to weigh in. Ben is an American who’s lived in Australia for the last two years; I asked him what he thought about the shooting.

Why do our fellow Americans love guns so much? How do you balance the constitutional right to bear arms with public safety? How much impact does gun violence have on overall morbidity in America? What can be done to decrease the number of people killed by guns in the United States every year?

Here’s what Ben said.

I woke up in a hotel room on Monday morning, turned on the TV and heard the news of yet another mass shooting in the United States. Was I shocked? Yes. Was I surprised? No. I don’t think anyone can be anymore; except for the media, which ask really stupid questions as if they can’t figure out for themselves that there’s no way of stopping a determined gunman from killing people once he’s got the gun.

This incident I found particularly troubling, however (and this is coming from someone who lived in DC during those John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo days). Perhaps because I spent time on a Virginia college campus myself, used to travel to Virginia Tech on a regular basis, and have any number of friends who attended school there. Or perhaps because the body count for this event was particularly high. Or perhaps because I feel a bit like I’m on the outside looking in, which heightens one’s feeling of helplessness.

The gun culture which prevails in America is another example of a problem the country has created for itself that it doesn’t know how to get out of, and, more troubling, has essentially stopped trying. I have no problem with the Constitutional right to bear arms. Granted, I’d prefer it be viewed in the context of the time in which it was written, in which case every house should be equipped with a muzzle-loading, smooth bore musket, but for some reason conservatives who demand a strict interpretation of the Constitution don’t see it that way.

Regardless, the right to bear arms does not in any way shape or form equate to the right to bear ANY arm, and in my liberal elitist way, I fail to see how anyone can rationally make that leap of logic and expect to be taken seriously. Americans obviously feel that some weapons should be kept under control — we’re allegedly fighting a war in a couple of countries in pursuit of that ideal. Yet no one is willing to fight for those ideals at home. If a fundamentalist Muslim blew himself up on a college campus killing a couple of dozen people in the name of jihad, we would decry it as a terrorist act and redouble our efforts to keep such “weapons of mass destruction” out of the hands of terrorists. Clearly, we’re willing to allow our civil liberties to be degraded in the name of fighting terrorism — a necessary sacrifice in a time of war, some say. Yet those who make that argument remain blind to the fact that any single individual with one hand is now capable of being a WMD — and they vehemently resist more robust gun control in the name of (are you ready for the irony?) civil liberty.

Despite the efforts of Brady and his followers, gun control laws in America are a brutal joke. The simple fact is that it is a completely open market. Anyone who wants a gun can acquire one with little to no effort, regardless of whether or not he or she is homicidal or suicidal. If a purchase is blocked at a licensed gun store, go to a private dealer. No problem. A hard long political fight went down in America to create the laws we have, and they’re worthless. (Oh, and some of them have lapsed; thanks for that, US Congress).

I’m not opposed to all guns, but it’s absurd that we routinely sell military-grade firearms in America and have the nerve to act surprised when there is a military-style firefight in American streets. And I can’t figure out why gun advocates are not more committed to measures that keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them for nefarious purposes. It’s all supposed to be about security, right? America has consistently fought to ensure universal access to guns, but consistently fought to prevent universal access to health care. And likes it that way. Please explain.

Yet despite the US having the highest incidence of gun-related injuries and deaths in the developed world, it’s much more than the availability of guns that’s at issue. Obviously, virtually the entirety of America’s arsenal does no harm whatsoever. Meanwhile, Switzerland is armed to the teeth, but you don’t see able-bodied men breaking out their government-issued assault rifles and offing themselves or each other. What makes America different? I have no idea. Perhaps gun culture is a matter of faith, something that runs strongly throughout the nation. It’s a matter of faith that people have the right to possess weapons. It’s a matter of faith that without those weapons, they will be placed at risk from whatever boogeymen they imagine. In other words, people have faith that guns equal security. Sure, there’s also a whole libertarian streak than runs through the heart land, but all of those amendments to the Constitution demonstrate a willingness for Americans to update their policy preferences at some level.

From a public health standpoint, it’s crystal clear that gun possession does not increase the security of one’s body or possessions. But public health is about risk at the population level, and when it comes to guns, people think personally. They don’t think a family member will use a gun as a means of committing suicide or that a burst of anger will lead to a impulsive act, or that a precocious child will pick up a gun and, by accident or design, pull the trigger. But that’s exactly what happens, with the loss of thousands of lives per year. Show me the person who argues that arming America is the best way to prevent gun fatalities and I’ll show you a person too stupid to be trusted with a firearm. Does anyone really believed that a guy like Cho would be put off by the thought that other students might have guns? He shot himself, so obviously the risk of taking a bullet wasn’t spooking him. If widespread gun possession creates security, then why is America so rife with violent crime? Because criminals have guns? Okay, then how did they get them and why did we allow it to happen? Well, either non-criminals with guns become criminals (e.g., Cho and a rather large proportion of other perpetrators of gun crimes), which we can’t predict, or non-criminals sell them to criminals (such folks are technically criminals as well, but you get the point). Now sure, maybe there are a few instances where people acquired guns via theft, but then that just goes to show you that owning a gun doesn’t ensure you won’t get robbed, doesn’t it? So as long as you keep the flow of guns going, there’s going to be gun violence. Period, end of story. Having let things get to where they are generation after generation, this is a problem without a clear solution. We could try to not make it worse than it already is, but what we have is social and political apathy in the face of a clear policy failure.

What’s been interesting about living abroad is to see how others view the issue from the outside. I’ve spent the past few days attempting to explain America’s gun culture to Australians, many of whom love America and its people, but who simply don’t get the gun thing. Australia had its own massacre back in 1996 (35 killed), which was promptly followed by strict gun control laws. A generally unsuccessful buy-back program was launched (rounding up on the order of 10% of the estimated guns that existed) and comprehensive licensing was instituted. You’ve got to demonstrate you need a gun, and, get this, self-defense isn’t even one of the accepted justifications. Handguns had previously been banned long ago, but semi-automatic rifles and shotguns were added to the list. What effect has this had on gun deaths in Australia? Not a whole lot — deaths are down, but as always the cause isn’t clear. There weren’t very many to begin with (although stabbings seem quite popular). But then so is urban poverty — there’s universal health coverage, the minimum wage (a concept Australians invented, by the way) is $12.75/hour, everyone gets at least 4 weeks vacation, and the economy has experienced steady economic growth for over 15 years. (Could it be that when you take care of your citizens, everyone benefits?). Australians don’t spend much time bemoaning the loss of their civil liberties, because they’re too busy enjoying the nice quality of life.

In any case, it’s quite possible that even Australian or European-like gun controls in America wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to shootings or, at least, violent deaths, because there are far more guns in circulation than one could ever hope to tame, and far too many people wiling to use them. And maybe America’s just got a bunch of mean people who will do evil deeds through whatever means are at their disposal. But what sickens me is that no one even wants to try. We can do a hell of a lot more and still enable law-abiding reasonably sane individuals to get cozy with the Constitution. Example: it seems self-evident that we should try to deter individuals with suicidal tendencies from buying a gun. Here’s an idea: let’s try to throw a hurdle or two in the way of a psychotic youth looking to score a 9mm. Skip the background check. How about a crazy check?

Thanks, Ben, for weighing in.

Elsewhere, my pal Aaron T., who lives in Korea, has a thought-provoking story at Tripmaster Monkey about the nation’s collective shame over their native son. A snippet:

One might guess the Korean media reported Cho’s racial origin before other news outlets simply because they didn’t scrutinize the facts. They heard it and they reported it. This happens all the time in Korea. That time, they guessed right, though they made up for it later when major news outlets were reporting that afternoon that Cho’s parents had attempted suicide and that the father had succeeded. This was later confirmed to be untrue by a Virginia Tech spokeswoman who said “both are very much alive.” Oops. Sometimes you win sometimes you lose.

Surely, in due time, the Korean media will focus on the fact that gun control in America is like soju control in Korea…that is, to say it is not controlled at all. This will be highlighted in such a way that would give the unbiased viewer the impression that the news is telling Koreans that they have made the correct choice: to stay in Korea.

And finally, The Economist has an incisive look at gun violence in America. Some snips:

Cho Seung-hui does not stand for America’s students, any more than Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did when they slaughtered 13 of their fellow high-school students at Columbine in 1999. Such disturbed people exist in every society. The difference, as everyone knows but no one in authority was saying this week, is that in America such individuals have easy access to weapons of terrible destructive power. Cho killed his victims with two guns, one of them a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol, a rapid-fire weapon that is available only to police in virtually every other country, but which can legally be bought over the counter in thousands of gun-shops in America. There are estimated to be some 240m guns in America, considerably more than there are adults, and around a third of them are handguns, easy to conceal and use. Had powerful guns not been available to him, the deranged Cho would have killed fewer people, and perhaps none at all.

No phrase is bandied around more in the gun debate than “freedom of the individual”. When it comes to most dangerous products—be they drugs, cigarettes or fast cars—this newspaper advocates a more liberal approach than the American government does. But when it comes to handguns, automatic weapons and other things specifically designed to kill people, we believe control is necessary, not least because the failure to deal with such violent devices often means that other freedoms must be curtailed. Instead of a debate about guns, America is now having a debate about campus security.

Americans are in fact queasier about guns than the national debate might suggest. Only a third of households now have guns, down from 54% in 1977. In poll after poll a clear majority has supported tightening controls. Very few Americans support a complete ban, even of handguns—there are too many out there already, and many people reasonably feel that they need to be able to protect themselves. But much could still be done without really infringing that right.

The assault-weapons ban should be renewed, with its egregious loopholes removed. No civilian needs an AK-47 for a legitimate purpose, but you can buy one online for $379.99. Guns could be made much safer, with the mandatory fitting of child-proof locks. A system of registration for guns and gun-owners, as exists in all other rich countries, threatens no one but the criminal. Cooling-off periods, a much more open flow of intelligence, tighter rules on the trading of guns and a wider blacklist of those ineligible to buy them would all help.

Many of these things are being done by cities or states, and have worked fairly well. But jurisdictions with tough rules are undermined by neighbours with weak ones. Only an effort at the federal level will work. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York, has put together a coalition of no fewer than 180 mayors to fight for just that. Good luck to him.

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