Certainly, today’s sad news from Newtown, Connecticut — the site of a gun massacre that left, so far, 18 children and nine adults dead, will once again ignite a debate over the proper role of gun laws in the United States.
The reality is that, despite the efforts of officials such as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (pictured above) in favor of stricter gun control, after the horrific headlines fade, Newtown will join a growing pile of similar incidents — Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Aurora just earlier this summer — each one more numbing than the last, with no appreciable change to U.S. federal policy on firearm control. The last major effort was the federal assault weapons ban prohibiting certain kinds of semi-automatic weapons, in effect from 1994 to 2004. The ban hasn’t been subsequently renewed, not even in 2009 and 2010 when the relatively pro-gun control Democratic Party controlled Congress and the White House.
But the fact remains that the United States has one of the world’s highest firearm-related death rates in the world at 9 persons per 100,000 annually, which puts it in company with South Africa, the Philippines and Mexico. The United Kingdom’s rate, by contrast, is 0.22. That, Americans should agree, is a problem, although Americans remain split over gun control laws — even after the Aurora shooting, 50% of Americans said in an August CNN poll that they oppose significantly more restrictions on gun ownership.
The Second Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, is a one-sentence guarantee to the right to bear arms:
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
The amendment is informed by the precedent of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 that protected the right of Protestants against disarmament by the English monarch (at the time, the Catholic James II).
Since that time, the American devotion to the right to bear arms has become a peculiarly American sensibility, especially since the 1980s saw a rise in pro-gun activism among the American right and especially within the Republican Party — the National Rifle Association is now one of the most powerful interest groups in U.S. politics (as recently as 1969, the NRA was so relatively weak that Republican U.S president Richard Nixon disavowed an ‘honorary life membership’).
In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has strengthened Second Amendment rights. In 2008, the Supreme Court in its landmark District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment extends to the right to possess firearms for self-defense within the home, and in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in McDonald v. Chicago that the Second Amendment is ‘incorporated’ by the 14th Amendment to extend not only federally but within the individual states.
Despite the efforts of officials like Bloomberg, who have argued that, at minimum, the federal government should tighten up and enforce loopholes in existing gun laws, just today, Michigan governor Rick Snyder was set to sign into law a bill that would allow concealed weapons in gun-free zones.
Indeed, most pro-gun advocates argue that concealed-carry laws — allowing anyone to carry concealed weapons — provide disincentives to potential gunmen. Such state-level concealed-carry laws have become increasingly popular since the 1990s, and the vast majority of U.S. states now feature some form of concealed-carry permit law. Pro-gun advocates also argue that free-gun zone laws that designate schools, hospitals and other areas as firearm-free have inadvertently made those areas ever more tantalizing targets for would-be assailants.
But certainly there are lessons from gun policy in countries outside the United States that can inform a reasoned statistics-based policy debate in the United States, right? Maybe not.
What’s most astonishing is that throughout the world, even among the closest U.S. allies, gun control remains relatively uncontroversial. That makes the example of other countries fairly inapposite.
The general trend seems to be that in countries with relatively stricter gun laws, gun-related homicides are relatively lower, but pro-gun advocates note that there are essentially too many other cultural and political factors about the United States and crime in the United States to draw a straightforward line between the two. As Ezra Klein noted earlier this year, the United States –and the U.S. south where pro-gun sentiment runs strong — is generally a more violent place than much of the rest of the developed world, generally (with or without guns).
The other trend worth noting is that many countries have adopted stricter gun laws in the wake of a horrific shooting spree or gun violence incident, but despite a worrying proliferation of such mass shootings in the United States, such incidents have failed to dent a political consensus against major gun control reforms.
In the United Kingdom, the closest thing to a ‘pro-gun’ position is the silly House of Lords showdown with Tony Blair’s government in the early 2000s over the 2004 ban on hunting with dogs — the hopeless cause of a fox-hunting aristocracy that was more about farce than force. Otherwise, the United Kingdom has some of the world’s most rigorous anti-gun laws — if you want to own a firearm in the United Kingdom, you need to be prepared for a lengthy and bureaucratic process during which police determine whether you’re fit to own a weapon, and once you’ve obtained a permit, it can be easily revoked by the police.
In Israel, where security issues are something of a concern, gun laws were significantly tightened following the assassination in 1995 of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — you cannot own a firearm in Israel without a license, and like in the United Kingdom, there’s a lengthy bureaucratic process to demonstrate a lack of mental illness, substance abuse, criminal record — and you have to take and pass a weapons training course.
Even in Australia, with its background as a rugged frontier for the roughians, rakes and ne’er–do–wells, gun sales are tightly controlled and gun laws tightened following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre. In Australia, you may obtain a gun only if you have a ‘genuine reason’ to do so and even then, must apply for a permit from local police authorities — notably, self-defense is not a ‘genuine reason’ under Australian gun law (notably, New Zealand’s laws are much more liberal).
Japan, with incredibly strict procedures for firearm ownership, has just a 0.07 firearm-related death rate, essentially the world’s lowest. The country’s 1958 law, which reflects the historical campaign to disarm samurai, states plainly that “No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords.”
Canadians have relatively more liberal access to guns, and theoretically, the right for concealed-carry weapons exists, though in practice, concealed-carry permits are rarely granted.
Certainly, stricter gun control laws in Europe have not always stopped gun violence — the crazed gunman in Norway who killed 77 people at a summer camp in 2011 is a sad testament that gun laws cannot stop all gun violence. Nonetheless, Norway’s firearms-related death rate is 1.78, more than five times lower than in the United States.
Still, when was the last time you can remember hearing a center-right or even far-right European politician in Europe speaking out in defense of gun rights? Certainly not France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy, nor German chancellor Angela Merkel, nor even anti-Muslim parliamentarian Geert Wilders. With the exception of the Czech Republic, where anyone without a criminal record can obtain a firearms license and where concealed carry is allowed, most European gun laws are incredibly restrictive and European gun violence rates are among the world’s lowest.
Gun politics have been more politicized in Brazil, where gun violence has been a major problem and the firearm-related death rate is just over 19 persons per 100,000. In 2005, Brazilians voted in a referendum overwhelmingly not to ban the sale of guns and ammunition to civilians (63.94% of Brazilian voters opposed the ban in the compulsory referendum). Notably, the NRA took its first major role in an international politics fight over gun control.
American cultural values are a curious thing — despite the rugged independence that Americans like to think defines their culture, even Americans who howl at the mention of gun control are perfectly content to live with some of the world’s most unique impositions, including a Transportation Security Administration that has collectively, over the past decade, removed Americans’ belts and shoes and laptops — and even their clothes via x-ray technology that pushes the limits of Fourth Amendment protections. Americans typically cannot get a glass of wine without valid identification and proof of drinking age and cannot access even the most mundane drugs without bringing a doctor’s prescription to a heavily-regulated pharmacy. Decades after the Netherlands legalized marijuana, it remains a Schedule I drug in the United States, the most tightly controlled category under U.S. federal drug law.
But take away their guns? Notwithstanding much of the rest of the world’s laissez-faire attitude to gun restrictions, the United States is clearly set to remain an outlier.