The rights and wrongs of bearing arms


Difficult week to write topical humour, you’d have to say. The news this week has been dominated by the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. And, apart from noting that a state whose definition of tough gun laws is restricting people to buying one a month is lucky they haven’t had a problem like this before now, there isn’t all that much I can say about it. As Americans might put it – sad story, period.

But this is a good opportunity to think about gun laws. And the Americans who are whinging about the gun control lobby politicising the tragedy are very wrong. What better response to the needless waste of human life than to ask ourselves whether we can stop it from happening again?

Gun laws aren’t exactly a panacea, though. I’ve been wrestling with the issue since reading about Virginia Tech. I really want to believe that this massacre is linked to the state’s lax laws, which I’m intuitively against. And I strongly believe that the post-Port Arthur buyback is one of the greatest achievements of the Howard Government, and that our point of difference with America in our attitude to firearms is something to be proud of. But it’s been pointed out to me that there isn’t a necessary correlation between gun ownership and murderous rampages. In Switzerland, which has one of the toughest regimes of compulsory military service in the world, every male is required to have a gun on the premises for most of their adult lives. And yet, the Swiss somehow manage to avoid expressing themselves through the medium of hails of bullets.

The same observation was well made by Michael Moore in the Canadian sequence in Bowling for Columbine, where he said that despite having similar rates of gun ownership and a nearly identical culture, the US’ northern neighbours have a far lower gun homicide rate. Moore ultimately attributes America’s gun problem to a kind of post-Puritan paranoia. And you’d think that for a problem of this dimension there must be some sort of psychological explanation because wen it comes to guns, Americans sure seem crazy. We’re talking about a country that takes a movement headed by Charlton Heston seriously.

So, if there isn’t necessarily a correlation between the rates of gun ownership and gun massacres, should America have stricter gun laws? I’d still say yes, not because every society needs restrictions on gun ownership, but because it’s abundantly clear that America has a unique problem. America has similar crime rates to other developed countries, except for homicides, and most of their homicides are committed with guns. Gun ownership is incredibly casual in America – the scant Federal regulations that exist don’t even cover second-hand sales or gun shows. Astonishingly, a shop in Virginia is planning to hold a gun giveaway this week even after the massacre. Just as special restrictions have been introduced in the Northern Territory to reduce the sky-high rate of alcohol consumption, it needs to be harder to buy a gun in America than it is in Switzerland.

The difficulty is, though, that most gun control regimes wouldn’t have stopped Cho Seung-Hui. For one thing, he used pistols, as opposed to the semi-automatic shotguns that we banned after Port Arthur. For another, he was a clean cut college student, as the store owner who sold him a gun put it, who looked safe and didn’t have a prior record of gun violence – and clearly the whole thing was so premeditated that he would have taken the time to obtain a license anyway.

What tighter gun laws would probably prevent is not so much carefully-planned massacres by the seriously disturbed, or gangland shootings of the sort we’ve just seen in Nagasaki despite the extremely strict gun laws in Japan, but casual gun violence – a domestic dispute boiling over into a shooting, for instance.

I don’t know whether tighter gun laws really would compensate for whatever flaws in the American psyche are responsible for the massive homicide rate. There is some evidence to suggest that the introduction of tough anti-handgun laws in Washington DC in 1975 reduced the homicide rate, but it’s so easy to obtain guns from other nearby states that the statistics aren’t terribly instructive. Surely it would be worth experimenting with whether changing the law can reverse some of these appalling statistics.

But while the Second Amendment exists, and can be used to strike down laws such as Washington’s (which were ruled unconstitutional by a DC court last month), it’s unlikely we’ll see any change in the gun control regime. It’s an anachronistic law, dating from a time when well-armed militias were useful in warfare – whereas in an era of high-tech weaponry and nuclear missiles, the national self-defence argument seems to hold no water. Rednecks often argue that their guns are a means of warding off government tyranny – but again, it’s hard to imagine what hicks with pop-shooters could do against tanks. The Second Amendment is badly out of date, but there’s no telling most Americans – President Bush immediately moved to defend the right to bear arms.

Ultimately, Americans want to live in a country full of guns, and it makes them feel safe; even though they clearly aren’t. They’ve made the society they want, and it is one in which people get shot dead at a higher rate than anywhere else in the developed world. I guess that’s liberty for you.

So the rest of the world will continue to look on, appalled, as America continues to destroy itself with its precious, ubiquitous firearms. And the 32 victims at Virginia Tech will be commemorated not by efforts to prevent similar tragedies, as the victims at Port Arthur were, but by platitudes like the ones President Bush delivered at the memorial service. And that is a tragedy in itself.