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December 21st 2012 print

Peter Smith

Guns, murder and misconceptions

The latest US massacre has inspired wonderment in Australia, where perceptions of  America so often remain uncoloured by a realistic appreciation of history, law and national character


It is understandable that people in the United States are looking for solutions following that terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Banning the sale of assault weapons and making gun ownership subject to more stringent background checks are high on the list, among liberals in particular.


Of course this is just a first, unarguable, commonsense step to most Australians. It is unusual to find someone here unopposed to private citizens owning guns of any kind. But America is not Australia. America has its constitutional Second Amendment upholding the right to bear arms.

Hundreds of thousands of semi-automatic guns (pull the trigger for each shot from the magazine), as distinct from the just about banned  automatics (hold the trigger for multiple shots), are already owned by Americans; and they won’t be handed in. Many of these would fall under the “assault” category, depending on how assault weapons are defined. Defining assault weapons is a difficulty in itself. Reportedly, gun producers and owners showed themselves to be adept at working around the definition when assault weapons were banned in the past.

Americans take responsibility for their families’ personal safely. They know that the police will arrive only after they are dead. We know that too, but take the risk. Americans believe that the risk is too great. The murder rate in the US is over four times the rate in Australia (recent UNODC figures). Social cohesion is weaker and gangs are more prevalent.

Americans also seem to like less being unarmed while the apparatus of the state becomes better and better armed. We, on the other hand, seem relaxed about the police getting bigger guns and tasers. History is too replete with despotism to conclude that Americans are necessarily wrong. But right or wrong, the gun culture runs too deep to ever change it.

President Obama said that “we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics. He also said that “we can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change”.

“These tragedies must end”. No they won’t; whatever is done. Yet again we have a modern politician holding out the possibility of the feel-good unattainable. We no longer can stomach real leadership and the truth apparently. We have to be fed fairy tales.

Can society ensure that any one of many unknown deranged men (it is invariably a man) intent on harming the defenceless will do no harm somewhere at sometime? The answer is self-evident. No it can’t. The deranged will harm the defenceless in the future whatever is done.

This is not to say that nothing should be done. But bad things will always happen. False hopes of effective counter measures simply lessen personal vigilance, which at times is the only hope. Furthermore, the forlorn pursuit of unattainable safety can easily morph into tyranny.

In China, over the past three years, primary schools have been subject to numbers of attacks by deranged men wielding knives, a meat cleaver, an axe, a box cutter, and a hammer. Eighteen children were killed in four separate incidents in 2010. Guns were not involved.

Guns make it easier to kill. There is no doubt of that, but Switzerland has a high rate of gun ownership, albeit much more heavily regulated than in the US. But its murder rate is low – 0.7 per year per hundred thousand people, compared with 1.0 in Australia and 1.2 in the UK.

Some say, yes, but the rate of gun murders is higher in Switzerland than in other modern European states. So it is. That simply means guns are handier to do the job. It doesn’t alter the fact that the overall murder rate is low despite access to guns. Mexico has four times the murder rate as the US; over sixteen times higher than here. Does anyone think this has much to do with readier access to guns?

Jewish schools employ security guards. Better security might help protect young children but this will come at a cost across thousands and thousands of schools. Some evidence exists that deranged shooters are not so deranged as to pick strong targets. This means they will attack weak points. Such points will always exist.

Maybe two or three selected teachers in each public school in the US could be trained in the use of firearms in emergency situations and have access to guns on site. Some on the conservative side of the fence would favour that strategy or something like it. It sounds to me to be more effective than trying to prevent bad guys getting guns in a country awash with guns. But it simply doesn’t have that feel-good factor.

Why in the world do something which might at least mitigate the problem to some degree in some circumstances when you can do something morally satisfying but totally ineffective?

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics

Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics