After the mass shooting of children and their teachers in the United States of America a few days ago, some may say it is too soon to make a political point out of a personal tragedy.
In reality, it is far, far too late. With the shooting deaths of 15 people at Columbine High School in 1999, 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007, 12 people in a Colorado movie theatre and seven people at a Wisconsin Sikh temple in the last six months alone, the moment to take action on the issue of gun control was before 26 people were shot to death by a gunman who also took his own life, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The gunman’s mother was also found dead in her Newtown home.
Other governments around the world have learned from such tragedies. Australia’s government introduced strict gun laws after the shooting deaths of 35 people in the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996.
In the public debate on gun control, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and pro-gun activists rely on a few key arguments to justify an individual’s right to own firearms. But if you strip away the millions of dollars organisations like the NRA spend on selling these arguments, how persuasive are they?
‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people’
This sentiment is probably the best-known anti-gun control argument. But even on the most basic test of logic, it fails. The most that can really be argued is that people kill people, using guns. Pro-gun activists will argue that people also kill people using knives, but we don’t require them to get a licence before buying a kitchen cleaver. They also argue that people kill people using cars as a result of drunk or reckless driving, but we don’t ban automobiles.
Drawing an analogy between a gun and a car, or kitchen knife, is truly idiotic. The purpose of a car is to provide transport. If someone gets killed in a car, it is a tragic accident. The purpose of a kitchen knife is to chop food products. If someone gets stabbed, the knife is being used incorrectly. If someone gets shot with a gun, the firearm has fulfilled its purpose admirably.
If guns are so incidental to the act of killing, why then do we arm soldiers? Should we not instead send them into battle with a drunk driver, or perhaps a ceramic carving knife?
‘… the right of the people to keep and bear Arms’
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution declares that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”.
The NRA relies so heavily on this argument that they have established an organisation called the Freedom Action Foundation to lobby in support of Second Amendment rights.
This amendment should not necessarily be viewed as an automatic right to carry an automatic weapon. The constitution was created following a war of independence where citizen militias rose up against an oppressive state.
In this historical context, it is understandable that the right to bear arms in order to fight for freedom would be deemed necessary. Centuries later, could a “well regulated militia” simply mean a police force managed by an elected government?
Or does it mean that individuals should carry automatic weapons and stockpile nuclear warheads just in case one day they need to overthrow the government? Surely the opportunity to bloodlessly vote them out every four years makes the purchase of grenades and rocket launchers somewhat redundant.
Shooting and hunting as an important cultural activity
In Spain, bullfighting is an important cultural activity, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t cruel or highly dangerous. The right to sports shooting seems to have particular strength in a country where in 2006 US Vice President Dick Cheney shot a friend in the face on a hunting trip, and was as popular as ever.
Introducing strict gun control does not, however, need to mean the end of sports shooting. Australia has an active sports shooting culture, where athletes can access weapons through licensed shooting clubs. But do they need to keep these deadly weapons at home? After all, elite rowers don’t keep a racing eight in the driveway to get in some extra training on the weekend.
Owning a gun will keep you safe
This is the biggest lie of all. Many gun owners are very capable of acting responsibly. They can follow procedures like locking up guns, and keeping ammunition separately. The NRA will even educate children on what to do if they find a gun! None of this changes the fact that people who carry guns are nearly five times more likely to be shot than those who don’t carry guns. Gun owners are also in the dangerous situation of having their weapons used against them by a member of their own family.
Gun owners may feel that if weapons are going to be available on the black market, then they should be able to defend themselves. But with an average of 230,000 guns stolen in property crimes every year in the USA, with 80% of these never recovered by the police, the proliferation of weapons in homes simply fuels the amount of weapons in the community.
Safer without guns
In a country where it seems that just about everyone has a firearm, gun control is essential, but won’t be an immediate fix. Sweeping gun reform, and even a constitutional amendment, will not prevent gun deaths in the short term. Attitudinal change to accept the reality that we are safer not with, but without, guns will take a generation.
In the meantime, it won’t be long before someone suggests that the Sandy Hook tragedy would not have occurred if only every teacher carried a gun. This is the worst argument of all.