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Are Americans safer with more gun controls?

3rd September 2012

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The tragic events that unfolded in Aurora, Colorado, in July and the more recent shootings in New York were closely followed by the routine calls for tighter gun control which as usual follow in the wake of heinous, murderous acts involving firearms. But are these calls justified?

Making a political statement like “let’s have more gun control” is akin to saying “let’s tax the rich more.” Both are easy to make pieces of popular rhetoric which please voters.

Proponents of stricter gun control legislation often point to figures showing a greater disparity of firearm deaths in the United States compared to countries like Canada and the United Kingdom. The latter pair enforcing more stringent gun laws. Canada, we’re reminded, has many similarities with its southern neighbour; both originally settled by many hardy, independently-minded pioneering types who relied heavily on their guns. So why the difference when it comes to gun crime?

However these comparisons don’t tell the whole story. Russia and Brazil both have tighter gun regulations yet both have high rates of gun fatalities. Nor is there a definitive link between the number of guns per head in a given nation and firearm homicides. There are a lot of guns in the US - in 2007 the figure was placed at 88 per every 100 people and no other country has a higher rate of ownership. Israel and the Nordic countries are also gun-heavy lands yet all have low murder rates.

Academic John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime and a prominent opponent of gun control, has noted that incidents of gun crime doubled in the UK when a series of gun control measures entered the statute books in the 1990s. Lott also demonstrates a similar pattern in other countries, including Jamaica, with the island nation traditionally boasting unenviable crime figures. In the United States it is some of the cities with the tighter gun controls which have the worst crime statistics: New York, Washington DC and Chicago. The capital, known as the ‘murder capital’, had banned handguns until the 2008 Supreme Court Heller ruling officially deemed the prohibition an infringement of Second Amendment rights.

There is the simple explanation, which many would find reasonable, that a more armed society is a safer one. It is data in this area which is harder to come by. For example, cases where a would-be victim produces a gun and their would-be assailant/burglar flees are less likely to be reported.

Similarly, situations when armed, law-abiding people have confronted gun-wielding maniacs intent on murder and, by doing so, have prevented a potential massacre taking place do not grab national attention the way in which Virginia Tech, Columbine or Aurora did. In 2002, two Appalachian Law School students gathered their firearms upon hearing gun shots and successfully restrained the shooter until police arrived. Back in 1991, future Texas state legislator Suzanna Hupp left her gun in her car in compliance with Texas state law before entering a cafeteria and was unable to perhaps prevent the death of her parents and numerous others in one of the worst killing sprees in American history: Luby’s Massacre.

Crucially, the case of Luby’s highlighted the inadequacy of laws banning concealed firearms in protecting people. The carnage that took place at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Luby’s cafeteria, Fort Hood had another similarity: these all took place in ‘gun-free zones.’ This has been a popular ‘gun control’ measure although the naivety behind their advocacy and adoption is staggering. I don’t suppose Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold thought about dropping their weapons when entering their school on that fateful day in April 1999. The grim reality is that a determined individual will always find a way through extensive gun control laws. 

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