Welcome to Quadrant Online | Login/ Register Cart (0) $0 View Cart
Menu
February 18th 2018 print

Peter Smith

Trigger Warning

If you ask after every latest mass shooting why the US won't 'do something, anything' about guns, a refresher course in American law and history is in order. Also worth bearing mind is that Americans, unlike Australians, don't see themselves as submissive subjects of the State

us gunApparently, there are some 300 million legally-held guns in the United States. Who knows how many illegally-held guns there are? Lots I imagine. In the wake of the latest horrific school shooting in Florida, the usual suspects are calling for tighter gun control. The Republicans and the NRA are blamed for having always resisted such calls.

For the first two years of Obama’s presidency, the Democrats had an overwhelming majority in the House and close to a filibuster majority in the Senate. For four months, they had 60 votes in the Senate and therefore absolute control. Why did they not act to impose additional controls on gun ownership, if the current laws are such a burning affront to public safety? There are, I suggest, two principal reasons.

First, beyond emotional cheap talk, it is very difficult to identify specific amendments to the law which would both reduce the risk of gun violence and be enforceable.

Second, it’s not the Republicans in Congress or the NRA that represents the biggest obstacle to imposing anything which smacks of seriously restricting gun rights, it is gun-owning voters. The latest Gallup poll (Oct 2017) reported that 42% of US households had a gun. That would clearly mean well over 50% of adults have access to guns. Moreover, many of those gun owners are passionate about their right to bear arms. “Out of my cold dead hands,” the late, great Charleston Heston put it, while holding up his rifle.

One further complication is that federal law overlays state laws, which differ from state to state. Federal law bans a convicted felon from owning a firearm, also someone who is involuntarily committed to a mental institution or declared mentally incompetent by a court or government body. The interpretation of this law can vary from state to state, which perhaps creates an opportunity for legislators at a federal and state levels to close off any obvious loopholes. Though this would have made no difference in this most recent school shooting.

Closing loopholes aside, the difficulties of taking substantive measures should not be lost from sight. Take mental illness, which has occupied the attention of commentators urging that something more be done.

The shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was a disturbed loner according to his fellow school students. He had been expelled from the school and reportedly had also, for a while, attended a mental health clinic. The problem is in determining whether someone, like him, is certifiably mentally ill or incompetent. It’s simply not tenable for any such determination to be treated lightly in a free society if it wants to remain free. The civil liberties of a lot of people would be put at risk if untoward behaviour was a ticket to the local asylum. Despotic regimes know how effective that can be.

Once again, talk is cheap. Effective action far more challenging.

You will notice if you tune in to US cable news that those on the left are fond of citing Australia’s gun laws — Howard’s confiscations — as a model to which the US might aspire, at least to some degree. And pigs might fly. The comparison is between a compliant population ready to do the bidding of government and a population (at least many of them) who regard government with deep suspicion. (editor’s note: name another country where the population meekly submits to state edicts on how bicycle riders must dress. You can’t.)

If you speak to an average Australian, almost any Australian, you will find them rolling their eyes at the US gun laws. We have been conditioned here to accept that our own self-defence is best handled by the police and the army. We are sheep reliant on the herder and his sheepdogs to protect us from the wolves. Many Americans are not so conditioned. This, almost certainly, goes back to the beginning and the revolutionary War of Independence and to the subsequent Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the Second Amendment reads as follows:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Commentators put a lot of emphasis on this amendment, and the difficulty in getting around it, in explaining the current status quo. They also say it has outlived its relevancy. They are right in a sense. But only in a sense.

What is often missing, in my view, is an appreciation of the cultural effect the amendment has had down through the centuries and decades. It has moulded a population of people of self-reliant and independent mind, who are simply unwilling to give up their “God-given right” to defend themselves and their families.

Even though in company I have never found myself other than alone, I happen to support the American model and the right of citizens to bear arms. In my view, we have a right to the means to defend ourselves if thugs break into our homes. The police will arrive too late. Take a broader view as well. Don’t assume things will always be as they are. History says they won’t.

By confiscating arms, Hitler knew that he had taken away a bulwark against his secret police hauling dissidents off in the middle of the night. And, to switch threats, with what exactly are we going to fight them on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets, if our meagre under-resourced defence forces are overwhelmed?

The counter to this point of view is encapsulated by the despair at fourteen students and three staff members being gunned down and killed by a deranged former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. What is the answer to that? Unfortunately, not all problems have a complete answer. Even if there were no guns at all; as we know, knives, bombs and vehicles in the hands of maniacs or fanatics can kill pretty effectively.

Part of the answer in the US is to introduce the kind of security around schools that they have in Israel and in Jewish schools in Australia. Armed guards, electronic security, high walls and barbed wire, only one entrance and exit, ID requirements. And probably this will be required increasingly in most countries in the future whatever gun laws are in place. That is the way the world is going. The internet of everything and the wanton killing of children. How much progress is that!

A final point: perhaps above all, good intelligence gathering is needed to identify threats and to act on them before they are realised. In the Florida case Cruz was promising to be a “professional school shooter”. This information was relayed to the FBI and nothing was done. Maybe they were too busy sending hate-Trump text messages between each other and chasing down his imaginary Russian liaisons to have the time.

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

Comments [32]

  1. Bill Martin says:

    A couple of points in this great article prompts me to comment.

    The first is the glaring difference between the attitudes of American and Australian citizens towards their respective governments. When compared to the feisty stance of the Americans, we are a meekly compliant bunch. Consequently, our politicians take shameless advantage of this less-than-admirable aspect of our nature. The more accepting we are, the more totalitarian they become

    My second point is the impracticality and downright uselessness of gun control laws, short of the outright totalitarian version of dictatorships. It does not take the tons and tons of guns vividly depicted during John Howard’s gun buy-back to commit a massacre, it only takes one single firearm in the hands of a nutter as per the Port Arthur or the Florida school tragedy. It does puzzle me, though, that the Florida shooter reportedly bought his rifle “legally”, in spite of his well known and obvious mental instability.

    • Peter says:

      Bill you wrote this:

      “It does puzzle me, though, that the Florida shooter reportedly bought his rifle “legally”, in spite of his well known and obvious mental instability.”

      When you say well-known mental instability, I am not sure what you mean. Well known by whom? Students thought he acted strangely. He had a troubled past. There were lots of things going on which pointed to him being mentally unstable; but, and it’s a big but, he was never declared by any competent authority to be mentally ill. He did apparently seek mental help but imagine how few would if they knew it would circumscribe their rights. People are not going to apply for a gun licence and admit that they are thought to be strange by others – even if the question were to asked, which it obviously isn’t going to be. So, I am not sure why you are puzzled. Nothing on his formal record disqualified him from buying a gun.

      • old44 says:

        How about the fact that police had been called out 39 times to his house to deal with him?

        • Peter says:

          OK then, frame an applicable law built around this to limit people’s right to own a gun. And anybody in their household? Before you start, let me say that it’s going to be hard.

          • Mohsen says:

            Peter,

            I think old44 is mistaken. (with respect, old44!)

            This “fact” adduced by old44 may not that much of a fact, and it seems it’s not that clear-cut a fact anyway.

            39 times story appears to be on certain types of websites—even it seems wording in their reports to be exactly the same.

            At the same time the report itself is: “Since 2010, Broward Sheriff’s deputies were called to the family residence 39 times. The reasons ranged from “mentally ill person” to ‘child/elderly abuse.’ Many of the incidents are unaccompanied by written reports, so it is unclear who was the focus of many of these disturbances and what the specific details were.”

            And also on FBI (by L.A. Times): “’I'm going to be a professional school shooter,’ a person identifying himself as Nikolas Cruz wrote in a comment beneath another user’s video in September. following a brief investigation, officials later said, the FBI closed the case, after apparently failing to identify the person who’d made the comment.” But your last comment on FBI is probably correct anyway!

            https://www.mediaite.com/online/police-reportedly-called-to-florida-shooting-suspects-home-39-times-since-2010/

            https://m.onenewspage.com/n/Entertainment/75ip98skr/Police-Reportedly-Called-To-Florida-Shooting-Suspect.htm

            http://commonsensenation.net/the-police-was-called-tp-florida-shooting-suspects-home-39-times-in-8-years/

            http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-florida-shooter-profile-20180215-story.html

          • Mohsen says:

            (My comment is awaiting “moderation”, so I’m posting it again—this time without the Net links. So I apologize if my comment appears again, if and when “moderation” takes place!)

            Peter,

            I think old44 is mistaken. (with respect, old44!)

            This “fact” adduced by old44 may not be that much of a fact, and it seems it’s not that clear-cut a fact anyway.

            39-times story appears to be on certain types of websites—even it seems wording in their reports to be exactly the same.

            At the same time the report itself is: “Since 2010, Broward Sheriff’s deputies were called to the family residence 39 times. The reasons ranged from “mentally ill person” to “child/elderly abuse.” Many of the incidents are unaccompanied by written reports, so it is unclear who was the focus of many of these disturbances and what the specific details were.

            And also on FBI (by L.A. Times): “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” a person identifying himself as Nikolas Cruz wrote in a comment beneath another user’s video in September. following a brief investigation, officials later said, the FBI closed the case, after apparently failing to identify the person who’d made the comment.” But your last comment on FBI is probably correct anyway!

    • ianl says:

      Yes, your second paragraph is exact. It is the reason that Aus politicians, bureaucrats and crony capitalists can destroy our power grids without much overt dissent and no covert dissent at all. Australians have no experience in, or understanding of, the point and means to rebellion.

      It has taken me a while to admit this, but it is exactly true and full of despair.

  2. LBLoveday says:

    Verily a man after my own heart. In my Australian home I have an armoury, all registered and legal, ranging from a single shot .22 to a 2-shot .458 Magnum.
    After the buy-back I wrote to Honest, but foolish, John, thanking him for paying me enough for my 5-shot semi-automatic .44 Magnum to buy a 9-shot lever-action – same firepower, more shots – with enough left over for dinner and wine for two, asking whether he’d ever watched The Rifleman where he would have seen that an expert could aim and shoot a lever-action almost as quickly as a semi-automatic

    But as they must be kept locked up, they are useless once an invader is inside, and in SA at least it’s a crime to have even a baseball bat for the purposes of self-defence, and at my age it would be stretching credibility to say I had it to play ball, so I have a pick-axe handle that I’ve not gotten around to fitting to the head. Oh, and my torch has a tube running under it from which, if I pull a lever, a gaseous spray emits courtesy of a pressurised container tucked in behind the batteries.

    And Mr Franklin, not everyone “meekly submits to state edicts on how bicycle riders must dress”. Maybe uniquely in SA I fought the law and the self-represented accused won after he was charged with riding a bicycle helmetless. Two JPs passed on hearing the case (they give penalties for people pleading guilty, as I guess most everyone does) and passed it to a Magistrate. But I’d found a loophole in the legislation, and the prosecutor ended up withdrawing the case rather than set a date for a hearing, call witnesses and listen to me pontificate. It was a joy to behold, him red-faced and shouting at me to not expect Medicare to pay for me when my head was shattered, to which I pointed out that I did not claim Medicare, and the less I had to do with the government, the happier I was.

    While I was sitting in court before the prosecutor took me outside for the discussion above, I heard a great defence argument from a woman charged with prostitution (or soliciting, I’m not sure) – she said to the beak “Look at me, who’d pay to f*** me?” Verbatim.

  3. Alex Sagin says:

    Had Jews had guns we wouldn’t have had a holocaust. Had Russians had guns we wouldn’t have had Leninism. Hundreds millions were killed by advocates of gun control. Governments killed more citizens then all wars combined.

    • whitelaughter says:

      The Jews had guns; Crystallnacht occurred before the Nazis got around to disarming them. The idea that a few guns could have prevented 1% of the population from being wiped out by the majority is absurd.

      The Russians had guns: the USSR was already established before the populace was disarmed.

  4. Alex Sagin says:

    Australia is a country where you go to jail for not wearing bicycle helmet.

    • Peter Dare says:

      Alex, in New South Wales it is a fine-only offence.

      • Alex Sagin says:

        If you don’t pay the fine?

        • Mohsen says:

          Well, Alex, if you don’t pay the fine, and if you end up in jail for it, then you end up in jail for not-paying-the-fine offence, which is not the same offence of not wearing helmet. (That’s to say you one reason to end up in jail is not paying the fines regardless of the cause of that fine being imposed!)

          But again, you might be right (I certainly don’t know!) : You mention “Australia”, Peter Dare, N.S.W.
          :-)

  5. Geoffrey Luck says:

    The Great Howard Gun Grab exemplifies two important things: How this nation can be stampeded into irrational policies by emotional claptrap, and how difficult it can be to argue logically and calmly against the tide. On second thoughts, perhaps they are just aspects of the same thing. Peter’s piece sensibly approaches the subject discreetly via the latest US atrocity, but of course his real message is that the tough-minded, independent, fearless, authority-hating prototype Australian citizen is pure mythology. This country went along with Howard’s confiscation programme without regard for the consequences. Many law-abiding citizens lost their weapons, others were put to ridiculous lengths and costs to retain them, the criminal vacuum has been filled by knives, and the soft tufa and latte society has been assuaged and cosseted. Self-reliant societies grow up learning to use guns and treat them with respect; stripping the right to own weapons – except under prohibitively onerous and expensive conditions – conditions a nation to a soft complacent pacifism that inhibits foreign policy and de-legitimises its armed services. At a time when (believe it or not) Australia is under deadly siege from militant Islam, I would rather be an American with an ability to defend myself.

    • LBLoveday says:

      “I would rather be an American with an ability to defend myself.”
      And not just from militant Islam – every statistic I have read on the issue indicates that the home invasion (viz occupants at home) rate in Australia is far higher than in Oz, and that of course makes sense. Here only crims have guns to protect themselves, there you don’t know who has, and if you break in and get shot, stiff.

      I loved this story of the young single mother in the USA:

      As one of the men was going from door to door outside her home trying to gain entry, McKinley called 911 and grabbed her 12-gauge shotgun.

      McKinley told ABC News Oklahoma City affiliate KOCO that she quickly got her 12 gauge, went into her bedroom and got a pistol, put the bottle in the baby’s mouth and called 911.

      “I’ve got two guns in my hand — is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?” the young mother asked the 911 dispatcher. “I’m here by myself with my infant baby, can I please get a dispatcher out here immediately?”

      The 911 dispatcher confirmed with McKinley that the doors to her home were locked as she asked again if it was okay to shoot the intruder if he were to come through her door.

      “I can’t tell you that you can do that but you do what you have to do to protect your baby,” the dispatcher told her. McKinley was on the phone with 911 for a total of 21 minutes.

      When Martin kicked in the door and came after her with the knife, the teen mom shot and killed the 24-year-old. Police are calling the shooting justified.

      “You’re allowed to shoot an unauthorized person that is in your home. The law provides you the remedy, and sanctions the use of deadly force” Det. Dan Huff of the Blanchard police said.

    • Biggles says:

      Remember that weak people (Australians) are inevitably pushed over by strong people.

  6. Matt says:

    The most fascinating aspect of this and similarly polarised subjects is that there is a direct correlation between the level of intelligence of people and the degree of polarisation. This is explained in a research paper: ‘Motivated numeracy and enlightened self-government’. No matter which side of the issue people sit on, the more intelligent they are the less objective they tend to become.

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioural-public-policy/article/motivated-numeracy-and-enlightened-selfgovernment/EC9F2410D5562EF10B7A5E2539063806

    Anyone who seriously wants to engage productively in highly polarised issues such as this one would be well advised to take in this research.

    • Mohsen says:

      Matt,

      Why would anyone “who seriously wants to engage productively in highly polarized issues” want to take in that research? The result will be that he will learn that

      –” even citizens of modest science literacy and critical reasoning skills will likely be able to form such beliefs without difficulty, because figuring out what view prevails among those with whom one shares one’s most important connections depends on a basic kind of cultural competence, not on an understanding of or a facility with empirical evidence. But those citizens who enjoy above-average science comprehension will not face any less incentive to form such beliefs; indeed, they will face pressure to use their intelligence and reasoning skills to find evidentiary support for identity-congruent beliefs the comprehension of which would likely exceed the capacity of most of their peers.”

      –” ICT views ideologically motivated reasoning as a form of identity self-defense that reliably protects individuals’ interests by guiding them to construe evidence in a manner that enables them to persist in culturally congenial or identity-affirming Persistent political polarization over policy-relevant facts that admit of empirical study is not a consequence of any deficit in science comprehension , but rather a consequence of the disabling impact of symbolic status competition on the disposition of individuals to use their ability to comprehend science in a manner geared to producing evidence-congruent beliefs”

      –” Individuals high in science comprehension have a special resource to engage evidence in a manner calculated to generate ideological congenial conclusions.”

      –“when policy-relevant facts become identified as symbols of membership in and loyalty to affinity groups that figure in important ways in individuals’ lives, they will be motivated to engage empirical evidence and other information in a manner that more reliably connects their beliefs to the positions that predominate in their particular groups than to the positions that are best supported by the evidence.”

      –“Also not surprisingly–given the growing literature on ideologically motivated reasoning – subjects’ likelihood of correctly identifying the correct response varied in relation to the subjects’ political outlooks when the experiment was styled as one involving a gun control ban. Subjects were more likely to correctly identify the result most supported by the data when doing so affirmed the position one would expect them to be politically predisposed to accept – that the ban decreased crime, in the case of more liberal subjects who identify with the Democratic Party; and that it increased crime, in the case of more conservative ones who identify with the Republican Party – than when the correct interpretation of the data threatened or disappointed their predispositions.

      – “ICT predicts that more numerate individuals will use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interests in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs.”
      – “If ideologically motivated reasoning is expressively rational, then we should expect those individuals who display the highest reasoning capacities to be the ones most powerfully impelled to engage in it. …ideologically motivated reasoning is not a form of bounded rationality, but instead a sign of how it becomes rational for otherwise intelligent people to use their critical faculties when they find themselves in the unenviable situation of having to choose between crediting the best available evidence or simply being who they are.”

      –” The reason that citizens remain divided over risks in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence, this account suggests, is not that that they are insufficiently rational; it is that they are too rational in extracting from information on these issues the evidence that matters most for them in their everyday lives.”

      And that’s not good! Since as you say if he believes he is intelligent then he knows he’s being nonobjective; and worse, those with whom he is engaged on the issue either consider him as intelligent or not: either way, if they’re aware of that research they will not consider him an objective reasonable individual; and that will be the end of the discussion of the issue.

      It claims: “ICT predicts that more numerate individuals will use that ability opportunistically in a manner geared to promoting their interests in forming and persisting in identity-protective beliefs.” I feel there is a problem with the research (perhaps you kindly can correct me!): The compilers of the research are firstly “individuals” themselves, and they have no escaping that; secondly, they are so-called intelligent intellectuals. Since they are “individuals” and “numerate and intelligent”, they themselves inescapably are exactly what they say individuals and citizens are (they are not objective and are motivated by self-interest!). Hence, seemingly the credibility of the research is affected!

  7. Mohsen says:

    (I apologize if my comment appears more than once; somehow I haven’t been able to post my comment!)

    While Ray Starmann’s “An Open Letter to Mr. Khizr Khan” is not specifically about guns, but Peter’s article above reminded me of the letter which perhaps shows the American attitude toward defending oneself being referred to! (The letter is an excellent statement by itself!)

    http://usdefensewatch.com/2016/07/an-open-letter-to-mr-khizr-khan/

  8. Mohsen says:

    While Ray Starmann’s “An Open Letter to Mr. Khizr Khan” is not specifically about guns, but Peter’s article above reminded me of the letter which perhaps shows the American attitude toward defending oneself being referred to! (The letter is an excellent statement by itself!)

    (Starmann is the founder of “U.S. Defense Watch” website).

  9. Jody says:

    Ben Shapiro has had much to say on this topic, and the Left has been in the usual paroxysms:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOi6bkFwObw

  10. hwka says:

    This is puzzling.
    In the US so-called celebrities and many politicians live in walled compounds and have armed security
    US Democrat leaders Schumer and Pelosi for example have taxpayer paid armed security details that accompany them everywhere.
    Large sporting events -NBA, NFL for example -have some serious security and firepower in the background which might explain why there have been no shooter incidents at such events.
    The liberals have organised marches and sit-ins for renewed gun control measures following the latest school shooting atrocity.
    Yet the following question is not even allowed to be asked in public…
    Why is it OK for the elites to have taxpayer paid armed protection for themselves but it is not OK to have any form of armed security protection for school children?
    Schools are gun-free zones in the USA.
    There are schools in the USA that have up to 3000 students but are not allowed a single armed security officer.
    This is not gun control – it is people control.
    Meanwhile the real nutter can enter a school armed to the teeth, safe in the knowledge that there is zero opposition.
    He knows that he has maybe 15-20 minutes to act out his evil fantasies before the SWAT team or any armed opposition arrives.
    So return to the question:
    Why is it OK for the elites to have taxpayer paid armed protection for themselves but it is not OK to have any form of armed security protection for school children?

    • LBLoveday says:

      I asked the same question when Howard appeared in public wearing a bullet-proof vest that I’m not allowed to have, and now ask why I am not allowed to have even a can of mace in my Australian home let alone a firearm not in a locked steel cabinet.

  11. pgang says:

    Peter I note that Trump is meeting key stakeholders on this issue. It looks as though, after many years of ‘cheap words’, there shall now be some practical solutions effected by the man of resolve.

  12. whitelaughter says:

    (editor’s note: name another country where the population meekly submits to state edicts on how bicycle riders must dress. You can’t.)
    Argentine, Canada(especially Newfoundland and Labrador), Chile, New Zealand, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Spain, Togo: and that’s just the countries where helmets apply to all ages. For children, triple the number of countries.

    • Tricone says:

      I just left Spain the day after you wrote that, whitelaughter, and there I saw many cyclists, none of whom, except the road racers in training, were wearing helmets.

      The enthusiasm with which Australians comply with and defend the helmet law is perhaps more troubling than the law itself.

  13. hwka says:

    Is it a coincidence that sickos choose the easiest target in the whole US of A to act out their sick fantasies?
    Schools are Gun Free Zones in the USA.
    There is widespread professional armed security servicing and protecting the “elites” – self-appointed and otherwise.
    Democrat leaders Schumer and Pelosi have full-time armed security – at taxpayer’s expense.
    If it is OK for them , why not for innocent children in the nation’s schools?
    Any number of studies have shown that psychopathic killers lack empathy not intelligence.
    It ought to be painfully obvious then that an armed sicko is well aware that he has maybe 10-15 minutes to carry out his sick fantasies
    before the arrival of anybody with the capability of shooting back.
    Of course the talking heads immediately offer a diversionary “solution” they know will never fly – ban all weapons or arm the teachers.
    What ?- a lefty snowflake teacher only a couple of years from nursing his last pimple in charge of life or death situations?
    Of course it will never fly – and the teachers would probably be the first to say “no way”.
    Professional armed security at every school.
    If not – why not?
    If it OK for Schumer and Pelosi , why is is not OK for the children?
    It could be put in place within weeks – no enquiries, no committees needed.
    It would almost certainly have widespread support.
    But of course the safety of children is not the real issue is it?