The recent murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, SC, have highlighted once again America’s unique and problematic relationship with guns.
President Obama found himself in a familiar, dark place as he addressed the nation the morning after the AME church massacre took place. It was the 14th time during his administration that he had been forced to issue a statement in response to a mass shooting, and his frustration over having to repeatedly mark these morose occasions clearly weighed on him:
“Now is the time for mourning and for healing,” the President said, “but let’s be clear: At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. It is in our power to do something about it.”
So far, however, the US has not done “something about it.” In fact, we’ve not done anything about it.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), it appears, has so much power over politicians that even when 90% of Americans (including a large majority of NRA members) wanted universal background checks to be implemented following the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of 2012, not a single act of federal legislation ensued. Certainly, it’s unlikely that any useful legislation will emerge in the wake of the tragedy in South Carolina.
The NRA stranglehold on appropriate anti-crime measures is only part of the problem, though.
The gun culture’s worship of the magical protective capacities of guns and their power to be wielded against perceived enemies – including the federal government – is a message that resonates with troubled individuals from the Santa Barbara killer, who was seeking vengeance on women who had failed to perceive his greatness, to the Charleston killer who echoed the Tea Party mantra of “taking back” our country.
But despite its popularity among the pro-gun crowd, that narrative fails to pass even the most basic test of credibility. The fact is that if the gun lobby’s claims about the efficacy of guns in reducing crime were true, the US would have the lowest homicide rate among industrialized nations instead of the highest homicide rate (by a wide margin).
Rates of private gun ownership are higher in the US than anywhere else in the world – twice as high, for instance, as that of Yemen, a conflict-torn nation in the throes of a domestic insurgency. And our gun murder rate is off the charts: to find adequate comparisons, we need to look at countries like Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The stricter gun laws of other “advanced countries” have restrained homicidal violence, suicides and gun accidents – even when, in some cases, laws were introduced over massive protests from their armed citizens.
The state of gun control in the US
Eighteen states in the US and a number of cities including Chicago, New York and San Francisco have tried to reduce the unlawful use of guns as well as gun accidents by adopting laws to keep guns safely stored when they are not in use. Safe storage is a common form of gun regulation in nations with stricter gun regulations.
Naturally, the NRA has been battling such laws for years. But that effort was dealt a blow earlier this month when the US Supreme Court – over a strident dissent by (surprise, surprise) Justices Thomas and Scalia – refused to consider a case challenging the San Francisco law that requires guns not in use be stored safely. This was a positive step that will undoubtedly save lives; hundreds of thousands of guns are stolen every year, and good public policy must try to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children.
The dissenters, however, were alarmed by the idea that a gun stored in a safe would not be immediately available for use. They were, apparently, unaware of how unusual it is that a gun is helpful when someone is under attack.
For starters, only the tiniest fraction of victims of violent crime are able to use a gun in their defense. Over the period from 2007-2011, when roughly six million nonfatal violent crimes occurred each year, data from the National Crime Victimization Survey show that the victim did not defend with a gun in 99.2% of these incidents – this in a country with 300 million guns in civilian hands.
In 2012, there were only only 258 justifiable homicides involving civilians using firearms, compared with 8,342 murders by gun, according to a recent study by the Violence Policy Center. Put another way, for every justifiable homicide involving a gun, 32 criminal firearm homicides were carried out. And that does not take into account “tens of thousands” of gun-related suicides and unintentional shootings, the study said, which would bring that ratio to about one justifiable firearm homicide for every 100-120 criminal homicides, suicides, or accidental deaths at the hands of a gun.
Moreover, even if a criminal isn’t actually shot, the study found that civilians rarely use guns to protect themselves. Over a five-year period, “intended victims of property crimes engaged in self-protective behavior with a firearm” only 0.1 percent of the times they were targeted by a crook, the researchers found. These findings are in line with an extensive body of evidence showing that gun owners are far more likely to be hurt or killed by their guns than to use them for protection. “In fact,” the researchers concluded, “a gun is far more likely to be stolen than used in self-defense.”
Indeed, a separate study of 198 cases of unwanted entry into occupied single-family dwellings in Atlanta (not limited to night when the residents were sleeping) found that the invader was twice as likely to obtain the victim’s gun than to have the victim use a firearm in self-defense. The author of the study, Dr. Arthur Kellerman, Dean of the F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, concluded with a cautionary note that Justice Thomas and Scalia might well heed:
“On average, the gun that represents the greatest threat is the one that is kept loaded and readily available in a bedside drawer.”
A loaded, unsecured gun in the home is like an insurance policy that fails to deliver at least 95% of the time you need it, but has the constant and quite real potential – particularly in the case of handguns that are more easily manipulated by children and more attractive for use in crime – to harm someone in the home or (via theft) the public at large. No one would buy an insurance policy under those conditions — yet, in the US, most gun owners say the main reason they purchased a firearm was for protection.
More guns won’t stop gun violence
For years, the NRA and other anti-gun-control advocates have pushed for looser gun regulations — like allowing gun sales without a background check and expanding the scope of concealed-carry laws — by relying on the “more guns, less crime” hypothesis, which posits that increasing the volume of law-abiding gun owners will make the country safer.
Some early studies even purported to show that so-called right to carry laws (RTC) (or “shall issue” laws) did just that, but as the evidence accumulated it became clear that was not the case. In 2004, a landmark report from the National Research Council refuted the ‘more guns, less crime’ hypothesis, saying it was not supported by “the scientific evidence,” while remaining uncertain about what the true impact of RTC laws was. (An interesting side note: the pioneer of that earlier line of research, gun advocate John Lott, who wrote the book ‘More Guns, Less Crime,’ was later discredited when it was revealed that he had fabricated survey data, manipulated his statistical results, and created an elaborate ruse — including a fake online persona — to cover his tracks.)
Ten years of additional data have allowed researchers to get a much better picture of these impacts, which is particularly timely and significant given that the NRA is pushing for a Supreme Court decision that would allow RTC as a matter of constitutional law.
The new research on this issue, from Stanford and Johns Hopkins Universities, has provided the most compelling evidence to date that RTC laws are associated with significant increases in violent crime – particularly for aggravated assault, and also for murder, rape and larceny. Looking at Uniform Crime Reports data from 1979-2012, researchers found that, on average, the 33 states that adopted RTC laws over this period experienced violent crime rates that were 4%-19% higher after 10 years than if they had not adopted these laws. And the authors note these results may actually be understated: “Our analysis of admittedly imperfect gun-aggravated assaults provides suggestive evidence that RTC laws may be associated with large increases in this crime, perhaps increasing such gun assaults by almost 33%.”
There is also evidence linking stronger gun laws to less violent crime: In another study from Johns Hopkins University, researchers showed that the implementation of a law requiring people to apply for a permit before buying a handgun helped Connecticut reduce its firearm-related homicide rate by 40 percent.
Currently, 38 states have RTC laws, which force law enforcement officials to approve concealed carry permits for any applicant who passes a basic computerized background check through the FBI’s NICS database (which is missing millions of disqualifying records). Individuals with misdemeanor criminal convictions, DUI offenses, past domestic abuse restraining orders, and histories of voluntary commitment to psychiatric institutions can and do obtain permits legally. The NRA has also successfully lobbied for “Constitutional Carry” laws in five additional states (AK, AR, AZ VT, WY). These states allow individuals to carry loaded guns in public with no permit, no screening and no training.
In truth, there is no constitutional “right” to carry a loaded, concealed firearm in public, as the Supreme Court made clear in their decision in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. And the evidence cited above hardly makes a strong case for RTC as a constitutional right. At the very least more research is needed to estimate more precisely exactly how much violent crime such a decision would unleash in the states that have so far resisted the NRA-backed RTC laws.
In the meantime, can anything make American politicians listen to the preferences of the 90% on the wisdom of adopting universal background checks for gun purchases?
Gun control around the world
Much of the debate in the US has centered on whether or not gun laws could play a constructive role in reducing the number or deadliness of mass shootings.
Most other advanced nations apparently think so, since they make it far harder for someone like the Charleston killer to get his hands on a Glock semiautomatic handgun or any other kind of firearm (universal background checks are common features of gun regulation in other developed countries).
- Germany: To buy a gun, anyone under the age of 25 has to pass a psychiatric evaluation (presumably 21-year-old Dylann Roof would have failed).
- Finland: Handgun license applicants are only allowed to purchase firearms if they can prove they are active members of regulated shooting clubs. Before they can get a gun, applicants must pass an aptitude test, submit to a police interview, and show they have a proper gun storage unit.
- Italy: To secure a gun permit, one must establish a genuine reason to possess a firearm and pass a background check considering both criminal and mental health records (again, presumably Dylann Roof would have failed).
- France: Firearms applicants must have no criminal record and pass a background check that considers the reason for the gun purchase and evaluates the criminal, mental, and health records of the applicant. (Dylann Roof would presumably have failed in this process).
- United Kingdom and Japan: Handguns are illegal for private citizens.
While mass shootings as well as gun homicides and suicides are not unknown in these countries, the overall rates are substantially higher in the United States than in these competitor nations. In Japan, for example, annual gun homicides are usually in the single digits — in 2006, they had just two firearm-related murders — compared to over 12,000 in the US.
Australia’s bold stance on gun violence prevention
The story of Australia, which had 13 mass shootings in the 18-year period from 1979 to 1996 but none in the succeeding 19 years, is one worth examining.
The turning point for the nation was the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, in which a gunman killed 35 people using semiautomatic weapons. In the wake of the massacre, the conservative federal government succeeded in implementing tough new gun control laws throughout the country. A large array of weapons were banned – including the Glock semiautomatic handgun used in the Charleston shootings. The government also imposed a mandatory gun buy back that substantially reduced gun possession in Australia.
The effect was that both gun suicides and homicides (as well as total suicides and homicides) fell. In addition, the 1996 legislation made it a crime to use firearms in self-defense.
Based on the NRA’s logic, crime must now be rampant in Australia. Except it’s not. In fact, the Australian murder rate has fallen to close one per 100,000 while the US rate, thankfully lower than in the early 1990s, is still roughly at 4.5 per 100,000 – over four times as high. Moreover, robberies in Australia occur at only about half the rate of the US (58 in Australia versus 113.1 per 100,000 in the US in 2012).
How did Australia do it? Politically, it took a brave prime minister to face the rage of Australian gun enthusiasts.
John Howard wore a bullet-proof vest when he announced the proposed gun restrictions in June 1996. The deputy prime minister was hung in effigy. But Australia did not have a domestic gun industry to oppose the new measures so the will of the people was allowed to emerge. And today, support for the safer, gun-restricted Australia is so strong that going back would not be tolerated by the public.
That Australia hasn’t had a mass shooting since 1996 is likely more than merely the result of the considerable reduction in guns – it’s certainly not the case that guns have disappeared altogether.
It seems that the country has also experienced a cultural shift between the shock of the Port Arthur massacre and the removal of guns from every day life; today, guns and the myths surrounding them are simply less present throughout the country. Troubled individuals, in other words, are not constantly being reminded that guns are a means to address their alleged grievances to the extent that they were in the past, or continue to be in the US.
Lax gun control in one nation can create problems in another
Of course, strict gun regulations cannot ensure that the danger of mass shootings or killings has been eliminated.
Norway has strong gun control and committed humane values. But they didn’t prevent Anders Breivik from opening fire on a youth camp on the island of Utoya in 2011. His clean criminal record and hunting license had allowed him to secure semiautomatic rifles, but Norway restricted his ability to get high-capacity clips for them. In his manifesto, Breivik wrote about his attempts to legally buy weapons, stating, “I envy our European American brothers as the gun laws in Europe sucks ass in comparison.”
In fact, in the same manifesto (“December and January – Rifle/gun accessories purchased”), Breivik wrote that it was from a US supplier that he purchased – and had mailed – ten 30-round ammunition magazines for the rifle he used in his attack.
In other words, even if a particular state chooses to make it harder for some would-be killers to get their weapons, these efforts can be undercut by the jurisdictions that hold out from these efforts. In the US, of course, gun control measures at the state and local level are often thwarted by the lax attitude to gun acquisition in other states.
Reflections on Charleston
Our response to the Charleston murders speaks volumes about our nation’s dysfunctional relationship with guns.
In light of the racist motives of the shooter, we’ve seen widespread public support for removing the Confederate flag outside of South Carolina’s State Capitol in a sign of respect for the victims. And as a symbolic move, that’s an important one. It matters that the shooter was a resident of a state where a segregationist flag flies above a government building and can’t be taken down or lowered to half-mast without approval by the state assembly. It matters that, to reach the scene of his crime, he drove on highways named for Confederate generals. And it matters that he lives in a country where black people are disproportionately the victims of official and unofficial violence.
But it also matters that Roof lives in a state where you do not need a permit to own any sort of handgun. It matters that we live a nation with a unique and problematic relationship with guns, where it’s far too easy for anyone – a disturbed individual, a criminal or an ordinary untrained citizen – to obtain a gun, and where gun violence is an endemic public health problem. We can’t truly honor the lives of the Charleston nine without facing these realities. After all, the racism represented by the Confederate flag may have motivated the shooter to plan such a heinous attack, but it was the semiautomatic weapon in his hands that allowed him to carry it out.