Guns in the hands of civilians. Something that challenges our perceptions and misconceptions every day, especially when gun deaths in some countries – the USA, for example – continue to blight lives and devastate communities on a daily basis.
There are in excess of 875 million small arms in the hands of civilians, law enforcement agencies, and armed forces around the world. I say “in excess of” because that study was conducted in 2007, so we only guess at how much that number has grown in the intervening years. Suffice to say, the current number will be even more depressing and alarming.
Of this total, 650 million – around 75% – are held by civilians. American civilians alone account for 270 million of this number. While 200 million are controlled by state military forces, gang members hold between 2 and 10 million small arms. Together, the small arms arsenals of non-state armed groups and gangs account for 1.4% of the global total. Cripes.
Let me take you back to the USA. If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you’ll get a population roughly the size of the United States. At the turn of the century, it had 32,000 gun deaths. The combined countries I’ve just mentioned had a grand total of 112.
Is this because Americans are more homicidal by nature? No, of course not; the sheer number of people in the country mean that there’s a greater proportion of people with mental health issues, for example, who will then have access to weapons that similar people in other countries couldn’t even imagine getting their hands on. But more importantly, those other countries something that the USA lacks in any effective way; gun control laws.
Here in the UK, we endured two significant gun-related massacres in our recent history that entered our national psyche and influenced the way we looked at our own gun control laws. Most people will recognise the names immediately; Hungerford, the 1987 massacre which is of the deadliest firearms incidents in the UK, and Dunblane, the 1996 school massacre which remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history.
The Hungerford massacre was a series of random shootings by Michael Ryan, an unemployed antique dealer and handyman. He fatally shot 16 people, including a police officer, before taking his own life. The shootings, committed using a handgun and two semi-automatic rifles, happened as Ryan moved between different sites, including a school he had once attended. Fifteen others were also shot, but fortuitously survived. No firm motive for the killings has ever been established, although one psychologist has theorised Ryan might have been motivated by “anger and contempt for the ordinary life”all around him, which he wasn’t a part of and didn’t feel connected to.
The Firearms Act 1988 was passed in the wake of the attack after a government-commissioned report; this act bans the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and restricts the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges.
At Dunblane, nine years later, gunman Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and one teacher before committing suicide. The Cullen Reports, the result of the inquiry into the massacre, recommended that the government introduce tighter controls on handgun ownership and consider whether an outright ban on private ownership would be in the public interest (though club ownership would be maintained). The report also recommended changes in school security and vetting of people working with children under 18. The Home Affairs Select Committee agreed with the need for restrictions on gun ownership, but stated that a handgun ban was not appropriate.
A small group, known as the Gun Control Network, was founded in the aftermath of the shootings and was supported by some parents of the victims of the Dunblane and Hungerford shootings. Bereaved families and their friends also initiated a campaign to ban private gun ownership, named the Snowdrop Petition. This gained 705,000 signatures in support and was supported by some newspapers, including the Sunday Mail, a Scottish tabloid newspaper whose petition to ban handguns raised over 500,000 signatures. 162,000 pistols and 700 tons of ammunition and related equipment were handed in by an estimated 57,000 people.
A Home Office study published in 2007 reported that gun crime in England and Wales remained a relatively rare event. Firearms (including air guns) were used in 21,521 recorded crimes. It said that injury caused during a firearm offence was rare, with fewer than 3% of offences resulting in a serious or fatal injury. From April 2015 to March 2016, there were 8,399 recorded offences involving firearms.
We’ve never had what you might consider a gun culture here in the UK. Gun Clubs do exist, although there aren’t any easy-to-find details about just how many there are. Granted, I’ve only done some limited research, but there’s no immediately-visible data that I can find online. Also, Brits don’t seem to have the same wide-ranging desire to have guns as part of their daily lives that a large percentage of Americans do.
While you can’t have a handgun in your home, there are some shotguns and rifles that you can keep at home as long as you have a licence. I remember one of my cousins been authorised to hold a shotgun and belonging to a Gun Club, but he was incredibly proud of being allowed to own one. He knew that he had to keep it tightly under control and respected the duty he’d got to keep it safe. I’m ten years younger than him, and I was never allowed to even touch the rifle or get anywhere near it; both because of my age and because I wasn’t authorised. There wasn’t any question about that, and wuite right too; seeing Mark treat his gun with reverence made me respect it as well, and I understood from an early age the potentially lethal consequences of a gun getting into the wrong hands … or even misfiring.
Overall, the UK has a common sense approach to arms. In fact, we have some of the world’s strictest gun-ownership laws, and it’s rare for civilians to own private firearms. If you want to own a gun, it’s very difficult to do so; the law has been designed to put as many barriers in the way as possible and to assume the worst, rather than hope for the best.
In the United States, you can declare that it is your constitutional right to bear arms and pick one up easily. But in the UK, you need to spend hours filling in paperwork and proving to police officers that you are not a danger to society. Many Americans believe that they have an inalienable right to own guns, and feel that one of their most basic freedoms is being undermined if it’s even whispered that some restrictions might take place.
One of the primary authors of the United States Bill of Rights, James Madison, considered the right to keep and bear arms “fundamental”. This was reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, when it stated, “By the time of the founding, the right to have arms had become fundamental for subjects.” However, American human rights law neither recognises a right to owning firearms nor a human right to self-defence, but requires individual states to regulate and restrict the possession and use of firearms to protect the right to life.
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution states, “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.” Gun rights advocates argue that this protects an individual right to own guns and reduces the risk of government tyranny. There’s a “Nazi gun control” theory which is very popular amongst gun supporters, which states that gun regulations enforced by the Third Reich rendered victims of the Holocaust weak, and that more effective resistance to oppression would have been possible if they had been better armed. This … interesting theory is not, thankfully, supported by mainstream scholarship.
After the tragedy of Sandy Hook, polls showed that the majority of people – gun owners and non gun owners alike – wanted the government to spend more money in order to improve mental health screening and treatment, to deter gun violence. More people are typically killed with guns in the U.S. in a day (about 85) than in the U.K. in a year, and still no improvements have been made to screening or treatment.
In January 2013, in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, then-President Obama announced a plan for reducing gun violence in four parts: closing background check loopholes; banning assault weapons and large capacity magazines; making schools safer; and increasing access to mental health services. However, nothing was done as a result of these proposals; literally nothing.
American should be ashamed of itself. Look at Australia, which enacted a ban and mandatory buyback of more than 600,000 long guns following a mass shooting in 1996, effectively ending the problem of mass shootings (already rare) and halving gun deaths. Why can’t the United States do that?
From one angle, the answer is complicated. It involves the powerful gun lobby, political partisanship, the hundreds of millions of guns already in US civilian hands, the fact that mass shootings, while horrifying, represent only a sliver of US gun deaths, and a national mythology attached to guns.
From another angle, the answer is simple. The United States could, in fact, adopt gun control – if the public felt strongly enough about it. “If public opinion does not demand change in Congress, it will not change,” Obama said in June 2014.
A majority of US gun owners – 74% – say the right to own a gun is “essential” to their freedom, while only 44% believe that the ease with which people can legally obtain guns contributes at least a fair amount to gun violence. The disagreements only expand from there.
Opponents of gun control feared new restrictions after the killing of 20 six- and seven-year-olds at Sandy Hook elementary school. The national outrage was intense, and elected officials who weren’t previously interested in gun control measures suddenly were.
Two senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey, sponsored a bill that would have imposed universal background checks for commercial gun purchases, including at gun shows and over the internet. Eighty-four percent of Americans favour such a law.
But after participating in initial negotiations over the bill, the National Rifle Association came out in strong opposition and falsely claimed the bill would lead to a national gun registry. Four Democrats defected, not enough Republicans came on-board and the legislation went down. “The gun lobby and its allies wilfully lied about the bill,” Obama said in a Rose Garden speech laced with anger and frustration that was entirely justified.
As this proves, the NRA is a powerful lobby. It has half-a-dozen or so full-time federal government lobbyists and claims a grassroots membership of 5 million. More importantly, NRA members are known for being politically active – showing up at public meetings, bombarding congressional offices with telephone calls, and voting for pro-gun and anti-gun legislation candidates.
From the revolutionary war to the genocide of Native Americans to the taming of the western wilderness to the ratification of the code of anti-government American individualism, US history is filled with guns. The future may be, too. What a tragic waste of life.