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Gun control might work, but US needs to temper paranoia and rage

The school shootings in Connecticut have revived a stalled debate on gun control. But history is against any meaningful action to limit gun ownership.

Hard cases make bad law”: emotionally wrenching events are not usually the best basis on which to make policy decisions, precisely because they engage our emotions rather than our rational faculties. But sometimes, particularly when a debate has stagnated, it can take something dramatic to enable any sort of action at all. So it is unavoidable that the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school has set off a debate on gun control in America and around the world.

The prospects of change are helped by the fact that the United States has just finished its election season and its president has a renewed mandate. This is the point in the cycle at which politicians can focus most on good policy with the least anxiety about re-election. But for proponents of gun control, the good news pretty much ends there.

If Barack Obama has any intention of pushing serious gun control he will face enormous political resistance, because that is just the direction to which his opponents are already attuned. Nixon could go to China; Bill Clinton could “end welfare as we know it”; Obama, even, could escalate drone warfare. All those moves brought political gains, but confirming people’s fears carries only risk.

This is why the comparison with John Howard after Port Arthur is so inapt. Howard was taking on his natural supporters with the support of his usual opponents — for Obama it would be the reverse. Almost nothing excites the paranoia of the American Right so much as the idea of a black man taking away their guns.

It was not always thus; once upon a time, gun control was promoted by the white establishment to keep guns out of the hands of vengeful blacks (there was a fascinating account in The Atlantic). But now that gun ownership is widespread, the priority in the heartland — fuelled by such well-funded lobby groups as the National Rifle Association and the even more extreme Gun Owners of America — is to hold onto their own weapons to fight off the black/Muslim/communist hordes.

Even as the carnage from mass shootings continues to mount, the cause of gun control in America has gone steadily backwards. Support for stricter gun laws has been trending downwards for the last 20 years, and it has become much more of a partisan issue. No Republican with any sort of national ambitions can afford to be less than subservient to the gun lobby.

Legal developments reflect that. The federal ban on assault weapons was allowed to expire in 2004, and although the President has indicated he would support its renewal he has clearly not made it a priority. Democrats will now try to send a new version to his desk. And in the 2008 case of District of Columbia v Heller the Supreme Court for the first time interpreted the second amendment as conferring an individual right of firearm ownership.

I’m a moderate when it comes to gun control; indeed by Australian standards I count as pro-gun because I believe those who want to should be allowed to own handguns for self-defence. But the American debate has swung much too far in the opposite direction: much more could and should be done to keep the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who would misuse them.

The second amendment itself contains the words “well regulated”, and Justice Scalia in Heller pointed out that the decision “should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.” It won’t do to just blame the constitution for widespread gun ownership.

But there’s something deeper than gun control at issue here. As I said last year, when discussing the remarkable example of Switzerland, “the relationship between gun ownership and gun use is anything but simple”. Other developed countries manage to keep homicide under control despite widely differing patterns of gun ownership. America does not.

See, for example, the graph of OECD assault deaths doing the rounds of the internet this morning (taken from Sociological Images). It’s not confined to gun deaths, but it shows that, despite a recent sustained decline, Americans kill one another at a rate three times greater than elsewhere. Gun ownership and the political support it receives are symptoms at least as much as causes.

That’s not to deny that some measures of gun control would be worthwhile. But even if, most improbably, Obama were to succeed in taking away his countrymen’s guns, it would not really solve the problem. What somehow needs addressing is the rage and paranoia which, among other effects, makes gun control such an uphill battle.

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  • 1
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    The US need to temper paranoia and rage - not a chance - they have god, jesus, pastors, priests, bibles and the guns. Just to back that up, there is the American films that seem to always depict extreme gun violence to invoke right. Add to that real life issues that the American government and Americans seem to be disliked by most people on this planet, i.e. Middle East, South America, Vietnam, Americans are best left alone, this issue like the Columbine massacre before, it will fade away, there will be no change in gun control laws, or violence in movies and yes there will be more massacres. President Obama say’s there has been four times of gun massacres during his administration. I wouldn’t live in the world greatest democracy or the land of the free - rent free.

  • 2
    Bill Hilliger
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Some at Fuxnews are advocating that teachers should be armed or armed security at every school. Don’t know why they don’t go the whole hog and insists that pupils be armed.

  • 3
    paddy
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m a moderate when it comes to gun control; indeed by Australian standards I count as pro-gun because I believe those who want to should be allowed to own handguns for self-defence.

    Lulz Actually Charles, by Australian standards, I’d suggest you sound like a raving looney from the Shooter’s & Rooters party. Self-defence from whom?

  • 4
    Malcolm Street
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    On the thread for Guy’s article I’ve mentioned Switzerland (and Israel). In both cases the high gun ownership is *a responsibility of citizenship* and only in the context of a genuine “well ordered militia”, ie they are under military discipline, organization and training.

    There’s a big difference between regarding gun ownership as a responsibility and as a right. Not to mention that the military training in both countries would spot nutters a mile off and keep them away from weapons. Also to mention that the militias in these countries are to support the state, whereas in the US the most vociferous gun activists see themselves as in opposition to the state and hence most social structures.

    Paddy - +1. Allow hand guns in self defence = some nutter with some mates taking his piece out on the town to show off. A few drinks and watch out!

  • 5
    David Allen
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see any hope.

    It is either,’an act of unspeakable evil’; the perpetrator acting as an agent of the Devil. Or, ‘God has taken them home’ [Obama], in which case the shooter was engaged in the Lord’s blessed work.

    Nothing to do with us then?

  • 6
    John Bennetts
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    I cannot understand how Bill can support personal handguns (read: “That is indeed a pistol in my pocket, and I am also happy to meet you”), let alone others’ support for military long arms and weapons with 30-shot magazines.

    One this issue, John Howard’s legislation was absolutely correct and, thanks to his personal self-belief and longevity in office, he was able to see it through. Australia’s gun control laws are unfortunately destined to be the exception, rather than the rule.

  • 7
    zut alors
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Agree with Paddy and Malcolm Street re the author’s “handguns for self-defence” comment.

    Gun control is, in one respect, a secondary issue here. The lust for gun ownership by US citizens is at the root of the problem. What is happening to their collective logic that guns afford them safety when the comparative statistics show their country to be a human target gallery by international standards?

  • 8
    John Walters
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Charles said “I’m a moderate when it comes to gun control; indeed by Australian standards I count as pro-gun because I believe those who want to should be allowed to own handguns for self-defence.”
    Charles you must first acknowledge that guns are totally useless unless you are prepared to use them. And guns are designed to have only ONE purpose - to kill. If you are not prepared to kill you might just as well wave a banana.
    So Charles, you are pro-gun, now answer me this. Who are you prepared to kill? And under what circumstances?

  • 9
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    @Bill: Yes, depressing indeed. I suspect it will need a Republican president to one day take it on.

    @paddy: That illustrates my point about the difference between the debate here and in the US. In Australia you can say that the belief that self-defence is sometimes a legitimate reason to own a handgun puts you on the lunatic fringe; in America, the denial of that proposition would seem equally extreme. So don’t use our experience as a guide to what’s politically possible there.

    @zut: I think you’re right about the insularity - there’s a collective failure in America to look at what they might be able to learn from the experience of other countries, which shows itself in a lot of other things as well.

    @John: Well, I hadn’t intended this to be a discussion of my views, but since you ask, no, I have no desire to own a gun and I don’t think most sensible people would. But if someone feels particularly threatened and is a law-abiding citizen and passes all the appropriate background checks, I don’t think that’s any less legitimate than owning a gun to shoot clay pigeons. I don’t think a totally disarmed citizenry is any healthier than the horribly overarmed citizenry in the US.

  • 10
    Posted Monday, 17 December 2012 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely agree with Malcolm on the difference between a “well regulated militia” and the madness of America’s guns-and-violence culture. I have the privilege of living in a country and a society in which I can walk down the street without the fear that I may need a gun at any point - and a good part of the reason I get to enjoy that privilege is that the more paranoid people walking down that same street are also not packing heat.

  • 11
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Tuesday, 18 December 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    @Malcolm & @Joel: Agree completely about the importance of training. Given the way the second amendment is worded, the argument that a requirement for gun owners to be properly trained would be unconstitutional strikes me as just insane.

  • 12
    John Walters
    Posted Tuesday, 18 December 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    @Charles. Without wishing to be discourteous as you are pro-gun I think my questions are valid. Surely that is the crux of the problem. If you are pro-gun you support the right to kill so you must articulate the circumstances in which you are prepared to do it yourself and by extension approve of others doing it.

  • 13
    Honest Johnny
    Posted Tuesday, 18 December 2012 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    I heard a citizen of Newtown being interviewed and he said “its people that kill people, not guns, cars kill people as well and they’re not talking about taking cars away from us”. Shouldn’t that depend on what a machine is actually designed to do? Assault weapons are designed to kill people, cars aren’t. For mass murder to occur you need a person with intent to kill, and a killing machine. If you take away the killing machine you are simply left with the intent.

  • 14
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Tuesday, 18 December 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    @John: Sorry, no I don’t see that at all. I don’t think what I approve of in others is just an extension of what I’m willing to do, because people are different - they have different values, experience, priorities, etc. The fact that I wouldn’t do something doesn’t necessarily mean that I disapprove of someone else doing it. But having said that, I don’t regard myself as pro-gun: I’m very pleased Australia has a lot fewer of them than America. I’m just not a prohibitionist.

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