Many surprises await the traveller in the US of A. However, no matter how much one expects to be dazzled amazed or stunned, no catalyst for instant culture shock can compete with the variety of guns and ammo offered for sale. Openly, even in some supermarkets. I still have a supermarket flyer, kept as a souvenir, which advertises a selection of rifles and pistols with the appropriate ammo for all.
It took me almost a week to stop looking for concealed guns everywhere, wondering who might be packing an equalizer. My fearful imagination battled thoughts that I might at any moment be caught up in the homicidal rampage of a mad gunman. Eventually I started to relax. And think. And talk to the armed citizens our foreign correspondents unvaryingly depict in their dispatches as symptoms of US society’s collective insanity. Casting aside preconceptions was a good start because, gradually, I came to understand that Americans view their right to bear arms in a somewhat different context than we Australians think they do. However, there are also some intriguing similarities, which, to me, signify a certain degree of an emotional affinity and conceptual confluence on the subject of gun control.
But first, just for some context, let me recall a bus trip I took with my wife in 1981 from Melbourne to Uluru (then still known as Ayers Rock). Ah, memories of a nose caked with red dust and those jarring, corrugated roads come flooding back! Likewise the spectacle of my fellow, full-to-burst passengers jiggling like a mob of St.Vitus Dance patients as they waited in line at the coyly named “comfort stops” along the way. One overnight stop was Coober Pedy, an unruly opal town where life has gone underground to escape the withering heat. We went to a supermarket, mostly because it was the only air-conditioned sanctuary that wasn’t a pub or a church. It was in that supermarket where an astonishing spectacle stopped me in my tracks.
Neatly stacked on easy-to-reach shelves, row upon row of red gelignite sticks and spools of fuse by the metre. It was a revelation — high explosives for sale just down the aisle from the lettuce and cheese. More than that, explosives in an Australian supermarket were treated as a fact of life. Nobody was shocked, surprised or outraged. Me neither, when I thought about it.
Now, let’s get back to Americans’ alleged “fascination” with guns, which isn’t the right word at all. Like Coober Pedy miners and their off-the-shelf high explosives, the Americans with whom I spoke accepted guns as a fact of life. Underpinning this was the conviction that the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms isn’t something bizarre, outlandish or provocative. Rather — and this is what Australians find hard to grasp — many felt it was a civic responsibility. When I heard that, I asked what kind of responsibility? To kill anyone you do not like? The response was hearty, indulgent laughter. Gently, I was advised to read the Second Amendment, which I did. Pasted it below, please do read it.
I had always sided with those who advocated a complete ban on weapons. I also accepted as an axiom that the gun ownership means crime, injury and the deaths of innocents. Every time a mass shooting occurred, whether here or abroad, I was distressed, thinking I or someone I love could have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. The closest I have come to being a victim was at the time of the Hoddle Street massacre. I was on my way to work, close to the stretch of busy Melbourne inner-city road that Julian Knight had selected as his killing ground. I heard the news and was shocked. But amidst my thoughts and concern for Knight’s victims, in the back of my mind were the words of the Second Amendment.
I thought, ‘Hang on, the Second Amendment says nothing of the right to shoot innocents or to rob banks — nothing of the sort.’ All it says is that Mr. and Mrs. American Citizen have the right to form militias and bear arms to protect both their democracy and freedom. The Second Amendment also implies that the maintenance of collective and individual freedom is the right and responsibility of the citizenry, and it likewise countenances the possibility that recourse to arms might be required to achieve as much. Those who misuse the right enshrined in the Second Amendment are criminals and the law takes care of them — or rather, should take care of them. This simple chain of reasoning changed the way I thought and felt about guns in private citizens’ hands. Who knows, had their victims had guns and thus were able to defend themselves, Julian Knight and Martin Bryant might not have slaughtered so many. Who knows how many victims of law-breakers and killers might still be alive.
Guns mean crime. Or do they?
But what about crime? What about the seemingly clear connection between gun availability and the murder rate? Actually, the connection is not at all clear. Let me give you two examples: Switzerland and Israel. According to UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime), the intentional homicide rate per 100,000 of population in various nations is as laid out below:
Canada and USA take different approaches, with Canada’s gun legislation much tougher than in the USA, but it is possible to own guns legally in both. Israel and Switzerland each require their respective citizens to keep military-service weapons in their homes. Both are small countries with extraordinary amounts of weaponry in the hands of private citizens. Both have remarkably low homicide rates.
It is generally agreed that one of the reasons Nazi Germany did not invade Switzerland during the WWII was the existence of a well-armed and ready citizen army. To be fair, the Nazis also factored in the difficult topography and Switzerland’s usefulness as a banking centre, but the readiness of the Swiss to defend their nation was certainly a consideration.
Israel, a small country surrounded by avowed enemies sworn to its destruction, is another case in point. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every family has at least one weapon at home, often more than that. While the exact rate of the personal ownership is not known, the intentional homicide rate in Israel is almost equal to the low homicide rate of Finland, which has 56 weapons per 100 people. Belgium, whose citizens do not have the right to bear arms, have a higher murder rate than Switzerland. However, Russia, which does not accord its citizens the right to bear arms, sees a higher homicide rate than Israel, Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Australia and New Zealand combined. As I found, the UNODC site makes for fascinating reading.
During my research I came across of an interesting study conducted by Cato Institute, a US think tank, dedicated to the preservation of individual liberty. The report, titled “Tough Targets”, examines the change in the balance of power between criminals, attempting to assault their potential prey and potential victims who, being armed, refuse to become actual victims. This study is extensively quoted by Forbes magazine in an article by Larry Bell, Houston University professor, who offers some interesting insights.
“The ostensible purpose of gun control legislation is to reduce firearm deaths and injuries. But authors Clayton E. Cramer and David Burnett believe these restrictions put law-abiding citizens at a distinct disadvantage to criminals who acquire guns from underground markets since it is simply not possible for police officers to get to every scene where intervention is urgently needed. They(The Authors, MG) also document large numbers of crimes…murders, assaults, robberies…that are thwarted each year by ordinary persons with guns.”
Another interesting feature of the Cato study is that home robberies in Canada and UK when a resident is present at home represent half of the overall number. In America, where many households are armed, these constitute only 13%.
Naturally, I was interested in the Australian statistics, especially the dynamics of murder-rate change (if any) after the Port Arthur massacre and the consequent tightening of Australia’s gun laws. According to the UNODC, a change did occur: from 1996 (the year after Port Arthur) until 2010 (the latest year for available statistics) the murder rate decreased from 1.7 to 1.0 per 100 000 of population. Whether this statistical decline reflected the ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons is anyone’s guess. It might just as easily be said to represent an overall downtrend of violent crime rates in the developed world — a trend which, if carefully examined, does not seem to be correlated to the existence of gun-control laws. Besides, I do not know of many instances of a murder committed in Australia using automatic and semi-automatic weapons before or after Port Arthur. This most horrific national calamity is indelibly imprinted on the national psyche; unfortunately it is also associated with the image of then-PM John Howard addressing an audience of gun owners while wearing a bulletproof vest. The precaution, in the light of the fresh aftermath of the slaying of innocent tourists is understandable, yet it was an insult all the same to one of the most law-abiding segments of the Australian population. I speak from personal experience.
Goondiwindi Shooting club.
I worked in this small Queensland town, joining both Toastmasters International and the local Shooting Club. Toastmasters is a great exercise in maintaining (or developing) eloquence, the ability to speak publicly and to think on one’s feet. It is also a lot of fun. Since English is not my first language, joining Toastmasters was an excellent way to practice and improve my spoken English. The Shooting Club was a different matter. I had served my conscription service tour of duty in the USSR many years before and was then rated a good shot. I decided to check my skill and see whether I could still shoot straight after all these years. I was not surprised to see that the shooting club was a family affair — couples with children in tow, oldies with their grandkids, and everyone buzzing with a common interest and the shared goal of teaching a new generation of shooters to use and handle their weapons. Safety rules were treated as holy writ, never to be trifled with. It struck me that women seemed especially safety conscious, their presence a moderating and stabilizing influence.
One day, when we were target shooting at a distance of almost one kilometer, the accuracy of fellow members astonished me, and I recall thinking that these gifted marksmen were an asset to the country. At the same time I recall silently bristling at the condescending, patronizing descriptions of these good people, representatives of the sort habitually denigrated as “red necks”. That insult seemed especially to come from Brunswick-type “progressives” who did not like guns and, in their insulated arrogance, deemed anyone who did not share their views to occupy a lower moral and and intellectual plain. No suprise, really. The same crowd I have also heard denigrating with their sneers members of the Army Reserve.
The reason I regarded my fellow Goondiwindi shooters as assets is that they were gun-savvy in general and ready-made snipers in particular — a pool of defense talent immediately available should war and conflict erupt. These people, at no expense to the taxpayer, maintain and develop one of the most valuable military and ecological skills known – sharp shooting. They are hardworking, law-abiding, family people whose association with weaponry taught them respect and caution while dealing with the deadly machinery. After the shoot I asked a member of the local police – how often these shooters cause trouble? The answer was short and direct, “Never.”
I used to work in Melbourne’s now-closed Pentridge Prison, where I expected a chaos of flying insults, attacks and continuous violence. That’s what I have expected, but I was wrong. Prisoners, even the most notorious and violent, spoke to each other with a degree of courtesy you don’t expect behind prison walls. I was astonished. Later on, I came to understand why this was so. In the emotionally charged atmosphere created by the artificial concentration of violent people, a wrong word, move or even tone of voice could get one killed. In other words, good sense prevailed and manifested itself as civility.
I am aware of the strong feelings engendered by the subject of gun control. I am also aware that some people, even those who otherwise like and admire America, regard their citizens’ right to bear arms as an obscene insanity. Guns equal murder, that is where their apppraisal starts and stops. Fair enough, that is their point of view and they are entitled to it, just as I am entitled to mine. Looking at the repeated tragedies, when mass shootings occur with depressing regularity, gun accidents happen and even children get killed in insufficient home storage accidents – it is easy to be on the side of the presumed angels and demand further restrictive measures, including outright prohibition of gun ownership. There is another side of this evergreen debate and this side I have attempted to put forward.
Throughout history, in order to subjugate, all tyrants were compelled to take away the right of the citizenry to be armed, to take away their capacity to defend their freedom. Romans did it, Greeks did it, Mongols did it, Nazis did it, Soviets did it. In their preparations for the Night of the Broken Glass, Nazis disarmed the entire Jewish population. Only after taking away the Jews’ guns did the Nazis go on their rampage, not worrying about the armed resistance.
Before Stalin attempted to nationalize Russian countryside and to create the modern serfdom, putting all Russian peasants into his notorious kolkhoz collective farms, he disarmed them.
Before Mao went ahead with his insane Great Leap Forward, which ended in disaster and deaths of tens of millions, he disarmed his population.
Before Pol Pot announced his Year Zero and started the genocide against his own nation – he disarmed his population.
We can be fairly certain that people of North Korea are disarmed.
By its Second Amendment, Americans have ensured that they will never be short of the means to defend their freedom from tyrants, foreign invaders, terrorists or criminals.
Fanciful, you think, no threat to democracy could ver, possibly arise on our quiet, law-abiding shores. Quite possibly so — and let us hope it is. Then again, a Jewish shopkeeper in 1930 Berlin probably shared the same opinion.