Saturday, April 21, 2007

Gun control and massacres

We first heard about the Virginia Tech shooting Monday night. Couldn't miss it at that time, as it was on almost all the channels. I was surprised that ESPN didn't find a way to wiggle it into their coverage.

(Edit: CNN Headline News' sports coverage just managed a piece on the Virginia Tech baseball team...)

Tuesday morning we woke up in a Baton Rouge hotel to a radio jock explaining how the massacre would have been prevented, or mitigated, if the school had not put into effect a restriction preventing concealed weapons on campus. This argument has been repeated in the days since the massacre. I heard some gun ownership proponent on CNN spout the same argument this morning.

TV news has been arguing that the massacre has led to a gun control debate in the U.S. Interestingly enough, they started saying this on the day of the massacre when no one was talking about gun control. News outlets continue to say this in spite of the fact that almost no Democrats (and we know no Republicans will talk about gun control) have mentioned it. It seems like the only ones bringing up gun control are opponents of gun control who want to cut the debate off before it starts. Oh, and the other people bringing it up are the news channels themselves. You'll hear more about gun control (or the spectre of gun control) from Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace than you will from politicians.

I will start by saying that I don't believe gun control laws would have prevented this massacre. There have been a number of massacres in countries with strict gun control: the Nanterre massacre (France, 2002), the Erfurt massacre (Germany, 2002), the Dunblane massacre (Scotland, 1996), and the École Polytechnique massacre (Canada, 1989).

Clearly gun control laws do not stop massacres. About the only way you can stop these shootings is not only to ban guns, but ban their creation, ban the creation of ammunition, and confiscate all those out there; all of which is impossible. Even if you did all that, massacres would still occur. The deadliest school massacre in U.S. history — the Bath School disaster — was the result of several bombs placed in a school in 1927. The Osaka school massacre in Japan in 2001 was conducted by a mentally ill man armed with a kitchen knife.

From what I can see, though, there are more killings of this type in the United States than in other Western countries, most of the killings in the U.S. involve firearms, and the United States has the most liberal gun control laws in the West.

A friend sent me this link. The article is "'Only in America?' Gunning Down a Claim". It's by Steve Stanek and posted on the TCS Daily web site (a seemingly conservative site dealing with "Technology, Commerce, Society"). The article is here:

Stanek states what I did above, that gun control laws do not prevent massacres. He goes further, though. He suggests that gun control laws don't work. He points to Australia's increasing rate of violent crime, for instance. I did a little Googling and found that Stanek was... well, let's be charitable and simply assume he didn't dig far enough.

Yes, Australia's rate of violent crime has increased in the past few years. However, homicides are down, and in particular firearm homicides are down. Assaults are way up, but sexual assault and robberies are likewise down.

In other words, the Australian data does not support the premise that stronger gun control laws have not had an effect on crime. In fact, you could argue the opposite: violent crime, for whatever reason, is up but there are fewer homicides, so something is happening such that fewer people are dying in Australia in spite of more crime.

Stanek spends a lot of time talking about trends, without talking about actual murder rates. He mentions mass killings in Australia, Scotland, the Netherlands, and Japan. He does not give the murder rates for those countries, as compared to the U.S. From 1998 to 2000 the U.S. had a murder rate of 4.28 per 100,000 people. This compares to 1.50 for Australia, 1.47 for Canada, 1.41 for the U.K., 1.12 for the Netherlands, and 0.5 for Japan.


Are Americans really three to four times more violent than Canadians, Australians, the Dutch and the British? Are they really 10 times more violent than the Japanese? Or do they have more problems with poverty than (in spite of a lower unemployment rate) and drugs which result in much more violence? Or do Americans tend to use weapons that are more likely to result in death?

I don't believe stronger gun control laws would stop this kind of nutcase who is determined to go on a killing spree. As this article shows, stronger gun control laws do not stop this kind of incident. As former president Bill Clinton said on CNN Thursday night, the killer passed all the Brady Law checks, which is how he was able to legally purchase his guns. I'm convinced that there was virtually no way authorities could have seen this coming without dedicating a huge amount of resources into investigating each potential gun owner who has a hint of mental instability. However, the question of whether or not a nation is safer with stricter gun controls versus more liberal gun control laws is an entirely different debate.

I don't like the argument that if the students at the university had been armed they would have prevented, or limited, the massacre. There is a possibility that, on the face of it, the argument is correct. I'm not entirely convinced of that. I've read enough accounts of combat and police shootings to know that trained personnel have trouble hitting targets at close range with pistols when they are hopped up on adrenalin. The killer in Virginia hit his targets multiple times; apparently "cold blooded murder" was a fitting description. Would the prospect of an armed campus have deterred the killer? Could other students with guns have shot at him with the same accuracy as the murderer before he turned on them? Could students have pulled out their weapons before he gunned them down? Even if concealed weapons were allowed, would enough students have been armed at the time of the shootings to make a difference? I'm not convinced armed students would have made much of a difference, but let's just follow the argument and say that yes, armed students could have stopped the killings.

This is part of the "an armed society is a polite society" argument. It doesn't hold water. The most "armed society" the U.S. has ever seen was the Old West of the late 19th century. It was anything but polite.

The fallacy with the "armed campus" argument is that it ignores the downside of an armed campus. No one knew that a massacre was going to happen at that school before it happened. It could have been at Virginia Tech. It could have been at any of Virginia's other school, or any other school in the nation. Up until last Monday no one could have said, "Let's arm Virginia Tech's students." You'd have to allow concealed weapons in all schools in the state, or even all schools in the country.

And therein lies the problem. The reason concealed weapons are banned from these schools is to prevent violence during the entire school year. Thirty-two students were killed on Monday (not including the gunman). How many students in the state of Virginia would have died of gun violence — potentially fuelled by alcohol consumption — in, say, the last five years if guns were freely available on campus? How many would have died in the entire nation if all schools allowed weapons?

The answer: we don't know. What we do know is that arming the students to prevent the massacre is a simplistic view that doesn't take into account the potential deaths that can result from ready access to firearms throughout the school year, year after year.

You won't see campuses allowing concealed weapons any time soon. You won't see any radical gun control in the United States either, at least not in my life time. Democrats won't try to ban guns, because they'd lose a reelection bid, particularly in the South. And of course Republicans won't put forth anything that restricts anything to do with firearms.

Instead, both sides will try to ban violent movies and television. One of the big ironies in American politics is that the same people who consider the 2nd Amendment (the right to bear arms) inviolate are often quite willing to chip away at the 1st Amendment (freedom of expression).

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