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Gun control and the price of freedom: Obama’s great challenge

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year…

President Barack Obama hinted at gun reform in his speech at Newtown. EPA/Olivier Douliery

Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom? – President Barack Obama at a vigil in Newtown, Connecticut.

An Onion headline accurately describes how many Americans have been feeling these last few days: “Fuck Everything, Nation Reports”. Not even the fact that there were six mass shootings earlier this year, including one in a cinema and one in a place of worship, could blunt the horror of a massacre in an elementary school. Friday, December 14, 2012 was probably the most nationally traumatic day for the United States since 9/11.

At this point, it is worth recounting some of the civil liberties Americans have given up since 9/11. The PATRIOT Act enabled the federal government to eavesdrop on citizens and intercept their emails. The Department of Homeland Security has devised increasingly invasive procedures for anyone who wants to get on a plane. As of this year, US citizens can be legally assassinated by their own government.

Apart from the occasional threat of an airport uprising, Americans have placidly accepted all this as the “new normal”. With the debatable exception of the Fort Hood massacre, there has been no terrorist attack on US soil in more than a decade, but terrorism continues to provide justification for new violations of civil liberties.

The contrast between this response and the response to mass shootings is remarkable. For a long time, both governments and citizens have seemed prepared to accept that a gun massacre – or a string of them – is no reason to violate the rights of gun owners. This includes the right to own and stockpile semi-automatic weapons whose only purpose is killing large numbers of people.

The National Review’s Robert VerBruggen has explained why Americans need semi-automatics. He wrote that they are “especially helpful” for hunting targets that are running. They make target shooting “more efficient and enjoyable”. And while he conceded they are not usually necessary for self-defence, according to VerBruggen a semi-automatic is “unquestionably helpful in the event of a shootout”.

These are the “freedoms” that semi-automatic owners refuse to give up.

But now, for the first time, it appears that Barack Obama wants to do something about gun control. His Connecticut speech was understandably vague about the details, but it seems he is abandoning his traditional excuse that “the politics are too hard”.

However, the politics are exceedingly hard.

Any gun control legislation, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to reinstitute Clinton-era bans on assault weapons and enlarged magazines, must get through the Republican-controlled House as well as the Democratic Senate, and be approved by the President. There may well be Republicans who are open to gun control measures, but they risk political suicide if they side with Democrats to support them.

Before every election and primary race, the National Rifle Association publishes “grades” for every candidate based on their previous votes for and statements on gun rights. Any Republican congressman who breaks with party orthodoxy on gun rights is likely to face an NRA-backed primary challenge from a candidate with absolutist credentials. In the past four years, Republicans have found that no incumbent is safe from primary challenges. This is particularly difficult for members of the House, who need to get re-elected every two years.

This is why it is hard to be confident that meaningful gun control can be implemented in the next two years.

Another obstacle is the impracticality of banning weapons that tens of millions of Americans already own. There is also the real possibility of lethal confrontations between law enforcers and gun owners who fear that an assault weapons ban will be the first stage in a plot to deprive them of all their rights.

But there will never be a better moment than this to attempt gun control. Even after an event as horrific as this, public attention tends to fade, leaving the debate in the hands of the well-organised minority who believe that nothing should infringe the right to own assault weapons.

The political courage required to act now will need to be much greater, and much more widespread, than anything we have seen before.

Join the conversation

54 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Someone owns a gun. So what are they going to shoot?

    Every person I have know who owns a gun, has shoot at something they should not have shot at.

    Such as native wildlife, water tanks, signs, trees etc.

    I think it would be the same in the US.

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    1. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      And everybody i know who drives a car has driven in a way they should not have: driven over the speed limit, undertaken ...
      What on earth is your point?

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      John Foley,
      There are probably far fewer reasons to own a gun than a car, and there should be a lot less cars also.

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  2. Comment removed by moderator.

  3. Trevor S

    Jack of all Trades

    I despair when I see articles like this. The tragedy of children being killed at the hands of a mentally disturbed individual doesn't escape me, what does though, is if the loss of young life is so important, why do we let 100's die all the time in PNG for lack of vaccinations when we could fix it ? Why is it that kids in Cambodia, Laos etc are still dying from UXO we condoned, by our very involvement, by allowing the US to drop then indiscriminately, why aren't we cleaning up the mess we created…

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    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Trevor S

      The easy answer would because we don't see grieving parents of PNG children on TV - I think the under-5 mortality is around 60/1000 children (down from 90/1000 in 1990 ).

      Having said that, I think even if we did get saturation coverage on TV we would just demand it got taken off - we probably wouldn't want to see it. Maybe because we find it very easy to identify with the parents in Connecticut as they look like us (or most of us) whereas we don't view Papuans as kin.

      It is just the way we evolved - we didn't evolve to be angels of rationality or universally compassionate.

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  4. Firozali A.Mulla

    PhD

    If we take all possibilities I think the rich boy would not take the life of any as he has the cash It takes the poor boy who sees small bread pieces taken from him and he has no chance of getting tese so he in turn takes the gun sad but that is is that the dog eat dog world is I AM THE FIRST you are never there now or ever I thank you Firozali A.Mulla DBA

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  5. Craig Minns

    Self-employed

    I have been a gun owner. In my youth I used to go hunting and I did quite a lot of target shooting.

    What cured me personally of the habit was a particular hunting incident in which I had to use multiple shots from a weapon that was too small a calibre and a long chase on foot to finish off a kangaroo. It made me sick to my stomach and I sold my guns shortly thereafter.

    Whilst I can see the need for some to own firearms, I cannot see the need for them to be widespread.

    The US is becoming a police state, with both public and private law enforcement growing larger all the time and their enforcement actions becoming ever more intolerant of the individual liberties that Americans espouse so loudly. The reason is simple: shoot first and you might not get shot yourself.

    Howard was a shockingly poor PM, but he was absolutely correct in taking steps to get rid of the guns in our country. It's a shame that our police seem to be following the US policing model nonetheless...

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    1. Keith Thomas

      Retired

      In reply to Craig Minns

      Good, thoughtful comment, Craig, backed up by experience. Refreshing.

      Not much chance of tighter gun control being implemented by a black president. Obama needs to hand over this job to Joe Biden and leave him to front the program. Either that or he has to - in some way I can't foresee - get the Sporting Shooters' Association to back his proposed controls and splinter some support away from the NRA. Without something like this, we'll meet again, same place, in a few months.

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    2. John Coochey

      Mr

      In reply to Craig Minns

      What induced you to shoot the kangaroo with an inadequate firearm in the first place"

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    3. Craig Minns

      Self-employed

      In reply to Craig Minns

      John, I've thought about that a lot. The weapon was a .22 magnum, which is a round that can bring down roos, provided the shot is well placed and the animal not too large. I didn't shoot well and I chose an animal that was way too big, trying for "bragging rights".

      In other words, stupidity.

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    4. Keith Thomas

      Retired

      In reply to Craig Minns

      If John Coochy would look at Craig's answer he will read an honest answer from someone who was prepared to change his mind and his lifestyle. Mr Coochy, in contrast, is impervious to evidence that might lead him to change. Obama has said that change is needed. What sort of change would Mr Coochy suggest that might prevent mass shootings? And I am not talking about bringing down the assailant before he does too much damage, but significantly reducing the likelihood that people like Adam Lanza will be motivated to plan such a slaughter, and have access to the means to implement their plans.

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  6. Andrew Pengilley

    Doctor

    If the politics are nigh on impossible, then I think someone should go for gold. Stop trying the legislate within the impossible contraints of a legal interpretation of the 2nd amendment which seems to protect the right of people to own armour piercing nuclear grenade launchers etc. Surely an appeal can be made to the supreme court for a ruling on the basis that the right to bear arms implies either some context in which that right is exercised e.g the well regulated militia or that it doesn't axiomatically state that the right to bear arms is equivalent to the right to bear any and all arms. Once that little conundrum is resolved, then the rest of the issue will fall into place. Without it, I suspect, it cannot progress. And if the constitution does actually say you can carry any and all weapons no matter how deadly - right up to when they invent personally concealable gigawatt lasers etc - then I guess that society has to live with the consequences or amend the consitution.

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    1. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to Andrew Pengilley

      Seriously? You shot a roo with the wrong gun and now you are 'cured'. Did you have a license to cull roos? Why do you need to use this example of your poor judgement to help justify banning guns, or to show that guns are bad? There are enough people who don't share your viewpoint who don't see themselves as being irresponsible or their past times as being something worthy of banning.

      In this country we has seen the pro and anti gun debates being waged by some very one eyed, opinionated people who care little for what the other side has to say. This is the enemy of rational and reasonable discourse. This is how you go from national gun reform to hunting in national parks in a relatively short period of time. So please, Craig, before we start down that track of telling stories like yours, can you please pause for thought?

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  7. Steve Drummond

    Retired (self funded)

    What can you say about a country that can not protect it's children because of fear of a certain political lobby group?
    Pathetic.
    The National Rifle Association (NRA) says "gun control" is hitting what you aim at.

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  8. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    David,

    It would be comforting and reassuring to think that after an event like this the political climate would never be better. But I'd suggest that the politics remains not just hard but is perhaps even more impossible. Some of the comments here underline the emotional (irrational) attachment some folks feel to their guns, regardless of any consequences.

    It will take more of these massacres - perhaps lots more - before decent folks are driven to act - or support action by any government…

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    1. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      " essentially the final act of the unfinished civil war."

      Well observed.

      Perhaps the 2nd amendment should specify that the "right to bear arms" be for the weaponry available in December 15, 1791 when this amendment was implemented.

      Had the authors of the above mentioned amendment had any clue of the deathly sophistication of contemporary weapons, they may have had pause for thought.

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  9. John Coochey

    Mr

    Rather ironic that this tragedy would have been averted by the simple action of having a suitable safe and locking it.

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    1. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey

      Yours is a simplistic comment.
      "Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study" found that:

      "...regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide...."; as Nancy Lanza tragically illustrates.

      However, firearm storage is important, but as the 2006 survey "Are Household Firearms Stored Less Safely in Homes With Adolescents?" demonstrates, safe storage practices of firearms are not widely used: with 22% of households with adolescents having a loaded firearm, 32% an unlocked firearm, and 8% having a firearm stored loaded and unlocked

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    2. John Coochey

      Mr

      In reply to John Coochey

      In reply to Peter Kelly, yes it is simplistic, very simplistic, if the guns had been kept under lock and key there would have not been a shooting, very simplistic.

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    3. Dianna Arthur
      Dianna Arthur is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Environmentalist

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey

      Oh so simple. Lock up the guns. Well knock me over with a feather, why don't people keep their weapons securely locked?

      The likelihood of needing fast access during a home invasion (which what these weapons are for) is so very remote. So remote why bother having guns at all? You can't get to 'em in time to protect the wife and kids and you can't leave 'em lying around in case the neighbourhood psycho gets his sweaty palms on 'em.

      Guns can't live with 'em can't shoot 'em.

      ;P

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    4. John Coochey

      Mr

      In reply to John Coochey

      In reply to Diana I cannot speak for the survivalist who was shot by her own guns but once again it is a truism that had they been under lock and key no shootings would have occurred. As for safe secure storage with quick access, assuming that is of interest to you, I would suggest a web search, please do not do an Alex or a Peter and expect me to do it for you as I have no interest in such equipment.

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    5. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey "... if the guns had been kept under lock and key there would have not been a shooting...."

      "...they been under lock and key no shootings would have occurred...."

      What a failure of logic, you obviously failed to read (or understand) the study I mentioned, as its results indicated that storage practice has little to no impact on the risk of firearm homicide.

      You also cannot say with any certainty (as you have done) that secure storage would have prevented this tradegy. Adam Lanza may have had the key/combination/code for the gun-safe.

      If secure storage is the panacea for preventing firearm homicides, then why do firearm dealers (who would presumable have secure storage) constitute 83.8 % of firearms stolen? http://www.atf.gov/statistics/ffl-theft-loss-reports/FFL-theft-loss-statistics-01122012-update-ii.pdf

      Secure storage is only part of the problem.

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    6. John Coochey

      Mr

      In reply to John Coochey

      I think people such as Peter Kelly are being rather silly by assuming facts not in evidence. If others have access to a firearms safe, it is by definition not secure. We could as well speculate that if he had not had access to the guns he could have taken a trip to Mexico and worked as a mercenary for a drug cartel and got paid in firearms. The fact remains had there been safe storage this particular shooting would not have occurred. By the way have you heard the ones about Climate Scientists receiving death threats and that New York has got the lowest murder rate in the US?

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    7. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Coochey

      John, how do you know the firearms weren't locked up? The woman was shot by her son, while in bed.

      Even the best security wouldn't stop a son, if he knew where the keys were kept. Perhaps you should reconsider your authoritarian prognostications.

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    8. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey "...by assuming facts not in evidence."

      The 'facts' in this instance is that the firearms were not secured; you positing that if they had been secured that the shooting would not have taken place is supposition and not fact (despite you claiming it as such).

      You have also not refuted the findings of "Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study".

      " If others have access to a firearms safe, it is by definition not secure."
      And now we descend to sophistry.

      "...By the way have you heard the ones about Climate Scientists receiving death threats and that New York has got the lowest murder rate in the US?"

      I have no interest in your irrelevant ramblings on other threads.

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    9. John Coochey

      Mr

      In reply to John Coochey

      In reply to Peter Kelly I suggest he read papers before he cite them rather than think because an abstract says what he wants his case is proven. I am actually familiar with "Guns in the Home.." and it did not study the issue of storage at all other than some references to previous conflicting studies however there are some interesting facts in the paper including

      Homicide victims were mostly male,
      less than 35 years of age, and of racial or ethnic minority
      status (Peter and Alex are not going…

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    10. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey
      "... it did not study the issue of storage...."

      Utter fabrication. Considering firearms storage was the 'main exposure variable' of this study (p.931 Am J Epidemiol 2004;160) Tables 5 and 6 also illustrate that the study deals with firearm storage.

      I actually question whether you are familiar with study at all.

      "So we are talking about inner city, possibly involved in the drug trade or in violent neighbourhoods"

      Utter supposition and a completely untestable hypothesis based on the data available. Do you often substitute fabrication for evidence?

      "I have not read the adolescent paper...."

      Says it all really.

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    11. John Coochey

      Mr

      In reply to John Coochey

      Peter Kelly seems to have missed the key point yet again that over seventy per cent of victims knew their assailants meaning family or friends in presumably a violent community. If someone decides to kill a family member (or themselves) with pre meditation it does not matter if the firearm is safely stored. They simply take it out of the safe and use it. Once again guns do not kill people people kill people once again did you note the high representation of non whites?

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    12. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey
      "If someone decides to kill a family member (or themselves) with pre meditation it does not matter if the firearm is safely stored."

      Thank you for confirming the findings of the "Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study".

      "...seventy per cent of victims knew their assailants meaning family or friends in presumably a violent community....."

      Again, you cannot prove your 'violent community' theory, pointing out that 70% knew their assailant does not automatically correlate to a 'violent community'.

      "...did you note the high representation of non whites?"

      41.8% (non-hispanic white) vs 46.8% (non-hispanic other) is not a significant difference. I wonder if you're trying to push a racist line of argument here.
      Did you not note the high representation of white non-hispanics in the suicide via firearm data? 87.3% (non-hispanic white) vs 7.2% (non-hispanic other).

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    13. Keith Thomas

      Retired

      In reply to John Coochey

      @John Coochy

      I don't think most commenters here are as interested as you are in analysing what went wrong in this case. There will be more than enough microanalysis by people who conclude that the killer's mother being a "prepper" was to blame, that home schooling is to blame, that computer games create violent mindsets, that people with Aspbergers are a risk - and, now that if Mrs Lanza had used a safe, this would not have happened.

      This microanalysis misses the point. Surely, the point is…

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    14. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Coochey

      Keith Thomas: "... greater restriction on the access to weapons most often chosen for these attacks, and ammunition, ...". As the NRA says, guns don't kill people. But they sure make it easier.

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    15. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to John Coochey

      I've just finished watching a video on the National Geographic channel of a beaming - no ecstatic - father taking his daughter to her first shooting lesson. She was a good shot with a 22 pistol but didn't like the noise and moreover didn't like the idea of hurting anyone. The targets were police style silhouettes.

      Dad was absolutely beside himself. At last, he said, I know I can count on her.

      The daughter looked deeply unimpressed with the whole business. She was 8. And she was far more…

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  10. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    G'day Ms A.

    I've long suspected that the current conundrum is a typo... and that really the 2nd amendment was actually a response to the demands of slaves and field hands to work in comfort with their sleeves rolled up - the right to bare arms.

    If only.

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  11. Bruce Tabor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Excellent article David. I particularly like the contrast between the loss of civil liberties that Americans have placidly accepted since 9/11 and their intolerance of minor restrictions on gun ownership.

    The real toll of the US gun culture is not the occasional massacre, but the 9,000 murders and 15,000 suicides per year. Even gun murders alone amount to three September 11 events annually!

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  12. Leo Kerr

    Consultant

    Let's face it Obama has no chance of gun control - Congress is owned by the NRA - we'll soon seen the PR campaign go into full swing if and when Obama tries to do anything. With corrupt politicians the paid agents of Corporate criminals (well how else do you describe bribery and the corruption of democracy) there is fat chance of any legislation being passed in the US that will impact the profits of the gun industry. Remember folks "guns don't kill people - people do".

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  13. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    To control something, to ban something!

    In the US 1920/30’s prohibition did not work, all it did was create gangs/violence and more people drinking.

    The never ending war on drugs! More and more people are taking them and it is easier to get!

    If it was not a gun then it would be a knife or a stick!

    It’s people that are the problem, not the gun or the knife and no matter what laws and bans you put in place, certain people are going to do what they do and only death will stop them harming other people. It is a very sad fact of life but also a very realistic fact.

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  14. David Boxall

    logged in via Facebook

    From what I've seen, the US is a violent culture. That's the first problem they need to remedy.

    The right to bear arms is based on a perverse interpretation of an 18th century document. That's the second.

    Basically: America, grow up and drag yourselves into the 21st century.

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    1. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to David Boxall

      In many ways the 18th century was considerably more sophisticated than the 21st century
      18th Century: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
      21st Century: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”
      Give me the robust intellectual realism of the 18th century to the speech-writer tele-prompter pap of the 21st century

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    2. David Boxall

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Boxall

      Sean Lamb: "21st Century: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans ..."". Even in the face of such human tragedy, you peddle denialism.

      Clearly, some minds are diseased beyond remedy.

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  15. John Coochey

    Mr

    Things get sillier and sillier! Now we have a shooter who could have used firearms which were securely locked away and which he did not have access to. I am surprised that no one has suggested he could have been a lock smith. Regarding death threats and NY having a record low murder rate they were put in to show how worthless much of the false data asserted her is, particularly by two particular writers one of whom claims to be a doctor, obviously with time on his hands

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    1. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey
      "Now we have a shooter who could have used firearms which were securely locked away and which he did not have access to."

      Considering that firearm dealers are required to secure their wares, why do 83% of firearms thefts occur from firearm dealers? http://www.atf.gov/statistics/ffl-theft-loss-reports/FFL-theft-loss-statistics-01122012-update-ii.pdf

      Secure storage is not the be all and end all (though it is incredibly important).

      "...show how worthless much of the false data asserted her (sic) is...."
      Agreed, your constant use of irrelevant ethnic data and hypothesising about the drug-trade is illustrative of that.

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  16. John Coochey

    Mr

    In reply to Peter Kelly's latest utterance I have re read the article and yes there is one line which shows three times as many firearms were kept unlocked as locked, as I have pointed out in the case of premeditated family murders it is irrelevant but in any case proves my point as does the second article that people in the US generally have any adequate storage facilities I do not have unlimited time to read articles which support the obvious.

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    1. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey

      If you don't have the time to read the relevant research then you argue from a position of ignorance (as you aptly demonstrate).

      That you deliberately choose to distort how the article reports on firearm storage (it is more than just one line) is interesting.

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  17. John Coochey

    Mr

    I have to thank Peter Kelly for reminding me of an article which shows what proportion of firearms are secured in the US, one in four so we must assume that there was a three to one likelihood that the guns used in the recent school shooting were not secured (in the absence of any other data) If the perpetrator had been the owner the storage would have been irrelevant the issue was unauthorised access allowed

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    1. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey

      Correct firearm storage is only one issue. What about acces to high capacity magazines, access to semi-automatic and automatic weapons?

      How about the ability to purchase silencers (ableit with a NFA Class III license).

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  18. John Coochey

    Mr

    In response to Peter Kelly's more recent communication what on earth has the issue of silencer got to do with the recent killing? In any case you cannot silence a supersonic bullet (trans sound barrier crack). The fact remains in this particular case a safe would have averted the tragedy, you cannot kill with a gun you do not have access to any more than you can be killed by one that has already been destroyed but don't tell Andrew Leigh or Simon Chapman that, both have published articles saying you can.

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    1. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey

      Silencers are encompassed under the wider umbrella of the 'gun control' debate. I note that you don't question why a non-military shooter would require a silencer though.

      Again, you cannot assert that a gunsafe would have averted this tragedy, it MAY have averted it. You wish to make the gunsafe=no shooting a logical absolute when it is not.

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  19. John Coochey

    Mr

    Once again I am challenged to read research which completely supports my position. Not enough Americans have proper storage facilities, Peter we agree on this!

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    1. Peter Kelly

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Coochey

      @ John Coochey

      Why do you continue to make new posts and not reply in the existing threads?
      I agree that firearm storage is important, however I do not agree with simply saying a gunsafe would have averted this shooting.

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  20. John Coochey

    Mr

    Peter please explain how you can operate a firearm which is in a safe because I do not know how and also what are the security requirements for pawnbrokers in the USA? I would imagine that firearms are stolen from dealers for much the same reason people used to rob banks "Because that is where the money is". The issue of security is relevant to the most recent shooting but it would not have mattered a toss whether Martin Bryant had kept his guns in a safe or not, perhaps if he had not someone might have stolen them. To go back to the US study you mentioned earlier from memory fifteen per cent of deaths involved a robbery, I would assume it was the home invader that got shot. Is that correct?

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    1. John Foley

      Various ...

      In reply to John Coochey

      Safe storage of firearms in a safe is only part of a persons responsbility in this country - and its well accepted here. But it is only part of a persons responsiblity. You have to ask yourself, if a child was clearly suspected of being mentally disturbed, would it be a good idea to remove the guns n ammo from the house? Surely a friend would hold on to them? And importantly, this is only part of a larger issue of which guns are a part.

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