America: It’s time to talk gun control

Once again we find ourselves observing America and its gun problem. The killing of nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina has brought to the foreground the debate around gun control alongside race relations.

The sad thing is that with all the emotion surrounding these attacks it is easy for logic to be ignored in favour of fear, frustration, anger and to an extent blind patriotism. By that I mean commentators hiding behind the Second Amendment of the US constitution (note: it’s amendment, so it can be changed).

This amendment in itself is the subject of much debate, right down to the punctuation. The version that was ratified by Congress reads:

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 version ratified by the states and signed by then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson reads:

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 thing about the Gun debate in America is that it can be likened to the definition of insanity. ‘Doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.’

Every time there is a mass shooting the media looks at the debate on gun ownership laws, the government pledges change, and any suggestions for reform are then beaten down to a near nothingness by Congress. This usually results in a poor compromise – such as banning the sale of certain bullets, for example – until the whole process starts over again at the next mass shooting.

The debate comes down to the pro-gun control side arguing that it’s not right that any person can gain ownership of a gun legally and go ahead and commit such crimes. The anti-gun control side will then argue that with people like this in society guns are needed for protection.

Sadly it is the extremes that get the debate air time. Any attempt to increase gun control is seen as anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-self-protection. All this shouting suppresses the voice of the moderates.

Let’s look at some figures.

In America there are some 300 million civilian firearms in circulation. With a population of 318.9 million. That’s the equivalent of 94% of the population owning guns (or, more correctly, 94 guns for every 100 people).

Their neighbour Canada has 9.95 million guns for a population of 35.16 million people. That’s equivalent to 28% of the population.

Mexico has 15.5 million guns for a population of 122.3 million, that’s 12% of the population. Look beyond America’s neighbours. The country that comes second to America in civilian gun ownership is the war-torn tribal country of Yemen. They have 11.5 million guns in civilian hands for a population of 24.41 million people. That’s 54.8 guns for every 100 people or 47% of the population.

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Now I will concede this to the pro-gun side: the statistics show that America does not have the worst gun related death figures in the world. That title goes to Honduras with a total of 68.43 gun related deaths per 100,000 in 2013. America had 2.97 per 100,000. America is actually 28th in the world rankings. However America is at the top amongst developed nations – and that should be cause for concern.

It just amazes me that America as a nation feel it is normal – indeed a natural right – to own a gun.

America, you may look at Britain and think how pathetic we are, that we would entrust our lives to the state. That we become prisoners in our own country and are powerless to stop any tyrannical government.

After all, you have the right to a ‘well-regulated militia’ in the event that your government becomes too big and tries to become a dictatorship. Yet guns are not used to shoot politicians. The definition of a well-regulated militia doesn’t read to me as a free-for-all on gun ownership.

In fact the Supreme Court argued it meant nothing more than proper discipline and training. Yet this case was used to quash a ban on carrying pistols in public. The debate around the term ‘the people’ is in debate too. In the same case Justice Antonin Scalia said that all other provisions of the constitution when referencing ‘the people’ referred to all members of the political community. A contradiction to the phrase ‘militia’.  

When it comes to ‘keep and bear arms’, in dissent Justice Stevens along with Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer, argued that the amendment justifies a ‘different limitation’ where the ‘right to keep and bear arms’ protects only the right to use firearms in connection with service in a state-organised militia. They added that had the writers of the amendment wished to expand the right to individuals through civilian possession they could have done so by including a phrase such as ‘for the defence of themselves’.

Legal argument aside. Bring back the emotive argument of self-defence. We all have a right to self-defence, even us, over here in ‘liberal Britain’ have the right to defend ourselves. However the force we use in defence should be reasonable.

In one case from 2009, a judge ruled that the courts must make it clear that excessive conduct is criminal and unacceptable. ‘If persons were permitted to take the law into their own hands and inflict their own instant and violent punishment on an apprehended offender, rather than letting the criminal justice system take its course, then the rule of law and our system of criminal justice, which are hallmarks of a civilised society, would collapse.’

Guns by their very nature are designed to kill. They serve no other purpose. They are not multi-use like a knife, axe or hammer. Hand guns are no use when it comes to hunting.

This would imply the only use for a handgun is for the killing of people. If America values the sanctity of life, surely these weapons should be restricted. Laws should promote the greater good for its citizens whilst limiting harm.

Countries restrict drugs, alcohol, tobacco and gambling, for example, to protect their citizens. So why not guns? Why does America allow this harm to be within the reach of the young, elderly, vulnerable and even blind in society?

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Yes, universal background checks are performed, however this system is flawed. Universal background checks look at three databases of the National Instant Criminal Background Checks System (NCIS). People that are prohibited include:

  • 1. Anyone convicted or under indictment in a criminal court of a crime that carries a sentence of more than one year.
  • 2. An unlawful user of/addicted to any controlled substance.
  • 3. Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution.
  • 4. Has been discharged from the armed forces under dishonourable conditions.
  • 5. Is subject to a court order that restrains them from harassing, stalking or threatening an intimate partner or child of such an intimate partner.
  • 6. Has been convicted of a crime of domestic violence.

The NCIS check is only effective if records have been submitted to the national record. Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 people and injured a further 17 in 2007 passed not one, but two background checks, even though he had a history of depression, anxiety and autism. This was not passed onto the national database. In fact a reported 30% of the 4.4 million estimated mental health records in the U.S are found in the NCIS database – which shows a lack of political will or resources.

The thing with this is, the background check only applies to guns bought at licenced dealers. The Whitehouse argues 40% of guns are bought from gun shows or private sales where no background checks are required (except for 16 states which require background checks for guns purchased at gun shows). That is an awful big risk to take, is it not?

Assuming that someone wants to purchase a gun from a licenced dealer, they submit to a background check. The FBI has three working days to report back. If they don’t report back within this time the dealer is legally allowed to continue with the sale.

14 years after the Brady Act was introduced in 1994 requiring these background checks, there were 97 million applications with only 1.8 million rejected. That’s 1.8% of applications over FOURTEEN years.

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I don’t buy the argument that guns protect people from guns. That the 20 children of the Sandy hook massacre would have been safer had the six teachers killed had guns, Adam Lanza would not have thought about attacking the school and would not have killed 26 people in 10 minutes. This seems like nonsense.

Why do I think this? Well, before Sandy Hook, America suffered a mass killing at a Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., when lone gunman Aaron Alexis killed 12 and injured three more. With all the military hardware to hand – all those arms people had a right to bear – Alexis was on a killing spree for just under an hour.

If as a nation you are concerned about personal safety, why make it easy for people to get access to the one kind of weapon that causes so much harm? That threatens your personal liberty.

U.S. statistics show violent crime is at an all-time low – however in 2014, 1,100 people were killed by police, which averages out at three a day. That’s an increase of 43% from 2013. That’s 43% in one year. Not a decade. One Year.

Putting this into context, in 2014, 58 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. American police killed almost NINETEEN times more Americans than the Taliban.

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In Canada, 14 people were killed by the police, 78 times less than America. In Britain the figure was 1 for 2013 and 14 combined.

China – with an oppressive regime and a population four and a half times greater than America – had 12 deaths by police shooting. Germany had zero deaths. And Iceland has had one in the entire history of the Icelandic police.

Are these figures not shocking? They are to me. How can it be argued that guns are good? Surely the lawmakers must see this and think they need change?

In 2011, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot in Tucson, Arizona. This attack by Jared Lee Loughner killed six people with Congresswoman Giffords being shot in the head. I would have hoped that this attack would have burst the Washington bubble, would bring home the dangers of unquestioned gun ownership.

How would you feel if one of your colleagues was shot in the head? How would you feel if you had the power to make a change for the better yet your inaction may have indirectly facilitated such an attack on your colleague?

Gifford’s emotional return to the House was preceded by her sad resignation to focus on her recovery. The resignation that saw Speaker John Boehner in tears. She couldn’t change the law. Couldn’t change the views of her colleagues. How is that a proud moment for the land of the free?

After any mass shooting the debate returns to gun control yet the right argue that the left are using a national tragedy as a political football. They argue this is not the time to discuss gun control. So I ask them, when is? When is the right time to get you round a table and talk like adults?

Was it back in 1999 when two gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School, Colorado? Was it in 2005, when 16 year old Jeffery Wise killed five students and two members of staff at Red Lake High School, Minnesota? Was it after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 which saw 32 people killed? Was it in 2009 after the Binghampton shootings in New York, where Jiverly Wong shot dead 13 people? What about in 2012 when James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado? Or maybe it was in 2013 when 23 year old John Zawhari killed six people at Santa Monica College, California? Was it in December 2013 when 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Primary School in Newtown, Connecticut? Was it in May 2014, When Elliot Rodger aged 22 went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California Shooting dead 3 and stabbing 3 more? It would seem there isn’t much time in-between to talk about it.

Not talking about reasonable gun control is a quiet endorsement of this violence and these crimes. Instead you turn the story around on those wishing to ‘infringe upon’ your second amendment rights. After all your constitution has never been amended since, isn’t that right?

Trust me, America, when you make Piers Morgan look reasonable and right to the British you should know something is wrong!

Please stop the violence. Be grown up. Have an open discussion. Look to how other countries have tackled similar problems. Don’t demonise those that seek change for a safer country. Please, I beg you.

About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. Northumbria University graduate. Opinionated, my aim is to fuel debate. My favourite questions in life are Why? How? And What? My Favourite answers tend to start with It depends or Yes & No.