When I was 11 years old, a teacher from Idaho came to our school on a teacher-exchange program. One of the very first things he was asked was whether he owned a gun.
No, not a gun; plenty of guns. He reeled off a veritable armoury of weapons he kept at his home.
Being a bit of a class clown, I asked him: “Are you expecting trouble?”
The class tittered. It wasn’t a subtle joke but the teacher didn’t get it. He looked puzzled. A bunch of eleven-year-olds got it, but he didn’t.
That was my first real insight into the mentality of gun ownership in the US. The right to bear arms is enshrined in your constitution, engrained in your history, imprinted in your minds. While not every US citizen might own or want a gun, the concept of gun ownership seems as accepted a part of US society as Thanksgiving.
And, on Friday, we saw yet another example of the catastrophic effects of that mentality.
There’s so much to say on this issue it’s practically impossible to say anything. But let me straight away sound a dour note and say that this will never change. Mass shootings in the US will continue because there are too many unstable people with too easy access to too many weapons.
For anything to even remotely begin to change there needs to be unified political will, and that does not exist. While every right-thinking person condemns the killing of innocents, every right-thinking gun-owner seems to think it’s not their problem. I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it, so leave my guns alone.
At the heart of the argument against gun control is the spurious notion that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Maybe, but people who don’t have guns cannot kill as many people so easily and in such a short period of time. Even the NRA can’t argue with that one.
Then again, there are estimated to be up to 3 million firearms legally held in the homes of Swiss citizens. That’s in a population of 6 million. From around age 20 to 30, Swiss men are required by law to undertake some form of militia training and to keep their firearm at home.
And yet gun crime is so low in Switzerland that no statistics are even kept.
So, having a lot of guns in society doesn’t necessarily equate with gun homicide.
It all depends who is in charge of those guns.
I saw a quote from a Newtown resident who expressed shock that such an atrocity could happen in his town because it was considered one of the very safest places in the US.
That might be a nice epithet on the Welcome board into town, but it means nothing. Where there are freely-available firearms and mentally unstable individuals, as in the case of Adam Lanza, no place on this earth is safe.
An opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, written by a professor, suggested the US could legislate against the possibility of unstable individuals committing mass murder by making sure they are never allowed to own a gun permit. For a professor, that seems a remarkably simplistic and ill-informed opinion. The first sign that a person is mentally unstable often only surfaces after they’ve shot themselves in the head following a mass murder. Many mass murderers have never officially entered the mental health system to be classified as a genuine risk to life. Adam Lanza lived with his gun-collecting mother. Would the professor’s proposed law ban relatives and friends and acquaintances of known nut-jobs from owning guns as well?
The only way to rectify the situation is to remove all guns from within their reach, and if that means everyone has to lose their guns, however innocently-held, then so be it.
But that doesn’t address the problem, either, because there are so many firearms currently in circulation in the US that no amount of lawmaking can ever now effectively remove them from society.
And, sadly, I suspect that whatever action the Obama administration does take will amount to very little more than “no amount” of lawmaking. A law banning automatic weapons passed in 1994 lapsed in 2004 and was not renewed. What happened? Did all the crazy people suddenly get well in 2004? Did their Prozac suddenly kick in?
No, the political will had also lapsed, because banning guns – certainly retroactively – is not only logistically impossible, it’s also a massive election-loser. More than that, it’s downright dangerous. People wear t-shirts that say “You can take my gun from me when you prise it from my cold, dead fingers”. If that were a joke it wouldn’t be very funny. But it’s not a joke, which makes it bloody terrifying.
Gun ownership in the UK effectively ceased after the Dunblane massacre in 1996 which saw 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton burst into a Scottish school and shoot dead 16 children and one adult. The government reaction was knee-jerk and uncompromising. Now, a person can only own a rifle (small-bore) or shotgun in the UK if they can prove they need it for pest control on a farm or some such place. Even .22 sports pistols which initially escaped the 1996 ban were removed from circulation a year later.
The argument often trotted out, that now only the criminals have the guns and the average citizen is more vulnerable for not being able to defend himself, is deeply flawed: the UK has one of the lowest death rates from gun homicide in the world.
The furore in the press right now will fade away as it always does. Obama has said something must be done, but that was one day after his press secretary James Carney said now is not the time to start debating gun control.
Wrong, now is exactly the time.