Gun-control laws don’t stop massacres

Blaming tragedies like the ‘Batman’ cinema shootings on the availability of guns is plain wrong.

Kevin Yuill

Topics USA

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Whenever a senseless mass killing occurs – like the shootings in Colorado last weekend – pundits seem determined to make sense of it. A plethora of causes and hobbyhorses are wheeled out, closely following the ambulances that attended the harrowing scene. Precisely because the event is senseless, anyone can speculate on the causes. Some have branded the Colorado massacre a product of a sick society. Cultural explanations abound, too. One Congressman has pinned the blame on long-term national cultural decline. But most fingers were pointed at America’s ‘gun-crazy‘ culture.

No one attending the Odeon 16 cinema in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, could have predicted the awful events of last Friday night. A 24-year-old PhD student, James Holmes, burst into a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, throwing a smoke bomb. Cinemagoers might have assumed it was part of the show. However, the heavily armed Holmes, clad in paramilitary gear, then opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. Had his 100-capacity magazine not jammed, he might have killed more. The victims of the random killing included a six-year-old girl and a young journalist who had survived a recent shooting incident in Toronto.

When the Virginia Tech College massacre took place in 2007, gun-control advocates were restrained in their comments. Perhaps because, as gun-control opponents pointed out, nobody could defend themselves against the shooter due to restrictions imposed by Virginia Tech, or perhaps because Virginia Tech students refused to implicate the availability of weapons for the killings.

Not so after the events in Aurora. Almost before dawn on the next day, the man who wishes to take dangerously large soft drinks out of the hands of New Yorkers issued a statement connecting the shootings to the availability of weapons. Billionaire New York mayor Michael Bloomberg asked ‘What do they stand for, and why aren’t they standing up?’ of the two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. ‘If we had fewer guns, we would have a lot fewer murders’, he told those still shaken by the killings.

Many other ambulance-chasing gun-control advocates on the East Coast concurred with Bloomberg, though neither US president Barack Obama nor Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney – both of whom have been comparatively liberal in the past on gun controls – would be drawn on the issue. To Obama’s credit, he refused to indulge in lectures to those who had lost loved ones, instead praising the heroic actions of a young woman who saved her friend who had been struck in the neck by a bullet. The Huffington Post and the Washington Post had no such restraint, however, both carrying articles linking availability of guns with the shootings.

British commentators, removed from the immediacy of the tragedy, offered sage and considered advice to their American cousins. In the Independent, Stephen Foley wrote a sensitive article subtly entitled ‘America and guns: when will they learn?’, noting that Aurora is only 17 miles away from the site of the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. An article in the Guardian noted: ‘How many gun deaths does it take for American politicians to crack down on the availability of deadly weapons? Seemingly no number is high enough.’ The Daily Mail’s Adrian Hilton wrote a long, ranting article directed at Americans in general, professing ‘sheer exasperation that the US government is seemingly unwilling to do anything to prevent such horrors recurring’. ‘Guns are part of the American psyche, securely embedded in the US cultural landscape in ways we can scarcely appreciate in the UK’, he lectured.

But this reaction is wrongheaded. First, crime rate and the availability of weapons are not correlated in any meaningful way. It is true that firearms-related homicides are much higher in the United States compared with Britain, the country with the most onerous gun controls in Europe. The US has the highest gun ownership rate in the world – an average of 88 per 100 people. That puts it first in the world for gun ownership. But Mexico has a much higher murder rate than the US, yet rates only twenty-eighth in the world for firearms deaths. Places like St Kitts in the Caribbean have a gun-homicide rate 10 times that of the US.

Moreover, Colorado has half the murder rate of Illinois, as adjusted for population. Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and New Hampshire, all full of guns, have far lower murder rates than gun-control states like New York, California and Illinois. The possession of guns simply does not correlate with the number of murders.

But we must also question whether any laws could possibly prevent such massacres. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper made the point that any individual as determined as James Holmes would be able to circumvent whatever laws or checks that were implemented. There was nothing in the 24-year-old’s past that would have alerted anyone looking for a potential maniac (though, of course, tales of ‘creepy’ phone messages soon made the news). As John McCain pointed out last year, Anders Breivik managed to kill 77 people in Norway, a country with far stricter gun controls than the US.

What almost nobody has mentioned – a particularly curious absence within those hectoring British commentaries so anxious to enlighten the colonies – was the deadly shootings at Whitehaven in the UK in 2010. Why have there been no comparisons between Derrick Bird’s atrocity in 2010, which also killed 12 people, and the massacre in Aurora? Perhaps it is because the Whitehaven shootings show that Britain’s draconian laws were absolutely worthless in preventing massacres.

And that is certainly off-message among most of the liberal elite.

Kevin Yuill teaches American studies at the University of Sunderland in England, and is author of Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action. Read a review of the book here, or buy it from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

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Topics USA


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