Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A British perspective on gun control in the US

Upon hearing about the latest mass-shooting in the US, I decided to browse the internet to read about the terrible event and the reaction to it. I was not surprised to see many Americans again failing to understand and accept the association between events such as these and the ease with which it is possible to obtain firearms in their country. As this blog seems to attract a fair few views from the US, I thought I’d offer a British perspective on the issue of gun control.

For anyone reading this from the UK (or a country with similarly strict gun control) this probably won’t be that interesting. Gun control is simply not an issue here. Our gun control laws are amongst the strictest in the world, and that is just the way people here seem to like it.  In fact, there is some evidence that we’d actually prefer the controls to be stricter. Consider a YouGov survey conducted in 2010 which reported that 31% of respondents would like an outright ban on civilian gun ownership, 38% would like stricter restrictions, 23% thought that current restrictions were about right, and just 4% thought that the restrictions should be relaxed.

None of the main political parties propose to relax gun control and I can not even think of a fringe party who make this a serious policy of theirs.  The only example that springs to mind is the British National Party (BNP), a far-right nationalist party, who in 2005 proposed that adults who’ve completed military service should be required to keep an assault rifle and ammunition in a safe locker in their homes. But not only is the BNP electorally irrelevant, this policy was buried somewhere in a very long manifesto and was probably just a cynical attempt to prove their democratic (and thus non-authoritarian) credentials. Those who read about this policy would at best have thought the BNP were misguided, but if they’d proposed that people should just be allowed to wander into a store and buy a gun and ammunition with nothing more than a background check we’d definitely think they were insane. But that seems to be the state of affairs in most US states!

In my 28 years of life in the UK, most of which has been spent in London (a busy city with millions of citizens and many visitors) I’ve never seen a gun outside of the hands of specially trained armed police officers or military personnel. Having never seen a gun in the hands of a civilian, I’ve obviously never been the victim of gun crime. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone I know. Guns are things that I see in television shows and films, not in the real world. This description of life in the UK is probably one that the vast majority of people born here would agree with. It is on this basis that there is just no appreciable appetite for gun ownership. The desire to own a piece of equipment specifically designed to kill and maim is not one that the vast majority of people here have.

Of course, there is still some gun crime in the UK. In the year 2010/11, statistics for England and Wales show that there were 58 firearms offences resulting in fatal injury and a total of 11,227 firearms offences (almost 80% of which did not result in injury) in a population of over 55 million. By contrast, in Texas (which has a population less than half that of England and Wales) in 2010 there were 805 murders by firearm. The rate of murder  by firearm in the UK for 2010/11 is approximately 0.1 per 100,000 while the rate for the US as a whole was 2.84 per 100,000 in 2010. There have also been incidents of mass shootings in the UK, such as the Hungerford and Dunblane massacres in 1987 and 1996, respectively. More recently, in 2010, Derek Bird went on a killing spree with a shotgun and rifle, which he owned legally. However, since 1987 there have been many more mass shootings in the US. In 2012 alone, thus far there have been shootings at Oikos University in California (7 dead, 3 injured), a cinema in Aurora (12 dead, 59 injured), and a cafĂ© in Seattle (5 dead, 1 injured). In 2011, there was an attack near Tuscon killing 6 and injuring 14, an attack in Seal Beach, California, killing 8 and injuring 1, and a number of other attacks.

When confronted with the regularity of these attacks and statistics on murder by firearm, many Americans seem to react in entirely the opposite way to what I’d consider a sensible response. Instead of calling into question the ease with which people can legally acquire firearms and calling for greater restrictions, they often simply dismiss the problem with inane quips like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”. While technically true, it would also be true that “bombs don’t kill people; people kill people”, but no one (I hope) would want bombs to be available for general purchase when it’d be inevitable that some people would use them to blow up their fellow citizens. Allowing guns to find their way easily and readily into the hands of millions of people is asking for trouble – the purpose of guns is to kill and maim and it is inevitable that some people will use them for their intended purpose.

Others like to argue that, if they could not obtain weapons legally, would-be perpetrators of mass shootings would find weapons on the ‘black market’ with which to commit their crime. While there is perhaps an element of truth to this, I seriously doubt that Holmes could have acquired the small arsenal he used for his attack had he lived in the UK. By all accounts he seemed to be an introverted and socially-inept nerd who would almost certainly lack the social nous or wherewithal to be going to the criminal underworld to buy weapons. It is also probable that he’d be detected if he was in the process of stockpiling multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. His attack in Aurora would be branded an act of terrorism had he been Muslim, and the security services in the UK don’t sit idly by while people accumulate arsenals of weapons that could be used to, for example, mimic the Mumbai attacks of 2008.  Importantly, since guns are restrictively controlled here, efforts to obtain them in numbers would certainly be something that would arouse suspicion if detected, but in the US gun control is so relaxed that buying guns isn’t itself suspicious at all. I suspect that if Holmes lived in the UK, he’d not have been able to obtain the number of weapons and amount of ammunition that he did or that he’d have deemed it too difficult and tried to lash out at society in some other way. This is speculation of course, but it should also be pointed out that the UK doesn't have the kind of 'black market' gun problem that some Americans imagine to be a consequence of strict gun control. 

Others argue that, despite incidents such as these, to control gun ownership would be “unconstitutional” and therefore something that should not be done. I find this mentality somewhat difficult to understand. On what basis is it sensible to hold as a matter of necessity to something that was written in the 1780s/1790s? This doesn’t seem too different to certain Muslims who want society to be ruled in accordance with texts written 1,000 years ago. If the US still exists in 2790, would it be odd for people to hold necessarily to the Constitution regardless of other developments? I think so. So why is it sensible now? Things change… what was once a good idea might not always be a good idea. Having the flexibility to recognise and respond to this is how progress is made. On a more fundamental philosophical note, the way things are at present is just one of many, many ways that things might have been (assuming free will is true, of course). It just doesn’t make sense to hold as a matter of necessity to the way things are, especially when that way no longer works and things could be different. Unless something changes, the mass shootings in the US will continue to happen as will the many thousands of fatal shootings every year.

What I hope to have demonstrated in this brief post is not a watertight argument for strict gun control, but simply that there are examples of ways in which things can be different. The UK is one such example. Gun ownership is restrictively controlled here and we have a low rate of murder by firearm and just a few mass shootings in the last few decades and despite this strict control we’re not all barricaded into our homes living in fear of armed criminals or being ruthlessly exploited by a tyrannical government.