10 myths about the Connecticut shootings

The horrific Sandy Hook massacre has prompted a wave of ill-informed comment about backward Americans.

Kevin Yuill

Topics Politics

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One of the most striking aspects of the horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, is the wild inaccuracy in much of the reporting. As Peter Preston in the Observer noted, it was not only the number of casualties that wavered, but also the name of the killer, the details of the death of the mother (whether it was at home or in front of her class), and, significantly, the type of weapon the killer used (at first, the weapons were identified as two 9mm pistols – later reports noted that it was a semi-automatic rifle).

But confusion over the details was nothing compared with the ridiculous myths and stories propagated as facts in relation to more general issues surrounding the tragedy at Sandy Hook school. Here are some myths we should challenge.

1. School shootings are a regular occurrence in the United States

School shootings are incredibly rare and, statistically, children are safer at school than they are at home, and they are far more likely to be killed by their parents than by anyone else. According to Gary Kleck, a child is more likely to be struck by lightning at school than a bullet. To put it in perspective, the homicide rate at primary schools in the UK – that nation most favoured by gun-control activists – is slightly higher than that in the United States, lest anyone thinks that school violence is endemic to the US. The fact that we have all heard of school shootings does not mean that there is much danger at all of them occurring.

2. Gun controls would have prevented such killings

Former UK home secretary Jack Straw, speaking after the Connecticut killings, said there is no doubt that tighter gun control laws would make school shootings less likely. ‘The more you tighten the law, the more you reduce the risk’, he said, taking credit for the lack of school shootings in the UK since he brought in legislation after the Dunblane massacre of 1996. Taking credit for the lack of incredibly rare incidents is hubris indeed. Had he put forward legislation concerning fatal elephant attacks, would he similarly take credit for the fact that the UK has been free of elephant attacks since the 1990s?

The children in Newtown were shot multiple times by a rifle; no legislation proposed in the US today proposes taking rifles away. The killer, Adam Lanza, was carrying two handguns, one of which he used to take his own life. But the children and teachers at the school were killed with a Bushmaster .223 semiautomatic rifle. There is no sign of apology or retraction of earlier diatribes about pistols when they were mistakenly identified as the weapons used at Newtown.

There is no reason to legislate against rifles, which were used in only 352 homicides in the US in 2009 (a figure steadily declining since at least 2000), compared with over 6,000 murders by pistols. Four times as many people were killed in the US by knife and twice as many were bludgeoned to death. Moreover, the seemingly forgotten attack in Whitehaven in England in 2010 (in which Derrick Bird killed 12 people), in the country with the most onerous gun controls, shows that Straw and others who claim controls would have prevented the Sandy Hook tragedy are simply wrong. Sadly, anyone determined to kill six- and seven-year-old children will be able to do it, controls or not.

3. Okay, people kill people, but guns are much more efficient at killing

They are not the most efficient means of taking the lives of children in a school and nor are they the only ones. The so-called Bath School disaster is the name given to three bombings by a 55-year-old school-board treasurer, enraged at tax rises, in Bath Township, Michigan, on 18 May 1927, which killed 38 young children, two teachers, four other adults and the bomber himself. At least 58 people were injured. Most of the victims were children between seven and 14 years of age.

Another school massacre occurred in a Catholic elementary school in the suburb of Volkhoven in Cologne, Germany on 11 June 1964. Walter Seifert, a 42-year-old schizophrenic, killed eight students and two teachers with a home-made flame thrower, lance, and mace.

The awful truth is that, where there is a will so warped as to kill children, there is a way.

4. These killings speak of a malaise peculiar to the US

Dani Garavelli, in a particularly odious column in the Scotsman, noted: ‘There are disturbed individuals in every culture. But for all the gun-lobby rhetoric, one fact is unassailable. Only one country experiences spree shootings on a gut-wrenchingly regular basis, the same country which arms its citizens with abandon.’ Wrong. As noted, the homicide rate at primary schools in England is slightly higher than in the US, though the figures are so low that the Newtown shootings will undoubtedly skew them.

As the two examples above indicate, there are many historical instances of school killings and by no means all are confined to the United States. A school shooting occurred on 20 June 1913 at St Mary’s Catholic School (St-Marien-Schule) in Walle, a quarter of Bremen, Germany. The gunman, 29-year-old unemployed teacher Heinz Schmidt, indiscriminately shot at students and teachers, causing the death of five girls and wounding more than 20 other people, before being subdued by school staff. If we include colleges, we must note the Erfurt massacre of 26 April 2002 in Germany. The gunman, 19-year-old expelled student Robert Steinhäuser, shot and killed 16 people, comprising 13 faculty members, two students and one police officer, before killing himself. The Winnenden school shooting resulted in 16 deaths on the morning of 11 March 2009 at a secondary school in Baden-Württemberg. The 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre also took 14 lives in Canada, before the killer shot himself.

The Kauhajoki school shooting occurred on 23 September 2008 in western Finland. The gunman, 22-year-old Matti Juhani Saari, shot and fatally injured 10 people with a pistol, before shooting himself in the head.

5. More guns mean more gun deaths

There is no direct causal link between gun ownership and homicide rates. Brazil, Argentina and South Africa all have much lower gun-ownership rates than the US but higher gun-homicide rates. Whereas the US has a homicide rate higher than many European countries, countries with very high gun-ownership rates, like Canada, Switzerland and Israel, also have some of the lowest gun-homicide rates.

As Gary Kleck has pointed out, in the first 30 years of the twentieth century, US per capita handgun ownership remained stable, but the homicide rate rose tenfold. Subsequently, between 1937 and 1963, handgun ownership rose by 250 per cent, but the homicide rate fell by 35.7 per cent.

6. The Second Amendment is outdated and meant something totally different

Some of the misinformation following the Sandy Hook shootings took issue with the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees American citizens the right to bear arms. Thus British chat-show-host-cum-constitutional-expert Piers Morgan lectured Americans on its meaning: ‘The Second Amendment was devised with muskets in mind, not high-powered handguns and assault rifles. Fact.’

Except it’s not a fact, Piers. The Second Amendment is about freedom and equality, not specific guns. Historically, a connection can be traced between the ascent of the Enlightenment man – born in liberty, equality and brotherhood – and the freedom of every man to possess arms. Citizenship has been linked to the right to possess arms, most infamously in the Dred Scott case of 1857, where escaped slave Dred Scott petitioned for his freedom after travelling to a free state in the United States before the Civil War. Denying Scott’s claim on the basis that blacks could never be citizens, Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney defended his position by saying that citizenship entailed ‘the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs; and to keep and carry arms wherever they went’.

Piers would do better to read the Federalist Papers, where founding father James Madison noted that ‘Americans have the right and advantage of being armed – unlike the citizens of other countries whose governments are afraid to trust the people with arms’.

7. Americans are increasingly arming themselves

‘For all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows’, political scientist Patrick Egan, of New York University, wrote in July. The decline is most evident in the General Social Survey, though it also shows up in polling from Gallup.

The bottom line, Egan writes, is that ‘long-term trends suggest that we are in fact currently experiencing a waning culture of guns’.

8. Guns have no valid purpose in society

Who determines the use of a possession? This assumption obnoxiously assumes that something that someone else does has no purpose. I may not understand the appeal of horses or dogs, but I leave those who wish to pursue these hobbies to decide for themselves whether or not they have purpose. Statistically, well over 99 per cent of firearms in the US are not used in the commission of a crime, so whatever the owners are using them for must be legitimate. Few gun-control advocates question the possession of weapons by the police, so they must accept the idea of weapons for the purpose of keeping the peace.

To follow through the logic of this argument, perhaps African Americans should have more willingly given up their weapons when forced to do so by Southern whites in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What legitimate purpose could they have possibly had for holding such weapons? After admitting she was armed following the lynching of one of her friends, the black journalist and civil rights activist Ida Wells Barnett noted: ‘[B]etter die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog.’ Was that a legitimate purpose?

9. The gun lobby is too powerful

With every gun-related tragedy, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun-advocate organisations suddenly don capes and acquire superpowers. Rather than admitting that most Americans, outside of the urban elite, do not wish to ban weapons, it is the impossibly wealthy and powerful NRA that must be preventing the ‘sensible’ suggestions like banning high-power rifles from getting through.

Underlying such sentiments is cultural snobbery, as if there is no reasoning with the sort of people who would possess weapons. As a Guardian writer noted: ‘What is worrying me as I contemplate the coming struggle around gun control are the radicals who have amassed personal arsenals and who seem eager to draw upon their strategic rage reserves.’ In a magnificent example of emotivism-dressed-as-intellectual-rigour, über-snob Gary Wills gave guns the ‘power to destroy the reasoning process’. Guns stop people from ‘making logical connections’, he said. Perhaps this gives a clue as to how the evil NRA manages to defeat the forces of good.

10. If only teachers were armed, the Newtown massacre would never have occurred

Larry Pratt, executive director of advocacy group Gun Owners of America, rivalled the most hysterical gun-control fanatics when he stated: ‘Gun-control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to insure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered.’

Pratt was not the only one to express such sentiments. In 2008, Harrold Independent School District in Texas became the first public-school district in the US to allow teachers with state-issued firearm-carry permits to carry their arms in the classroom. Participating teachers were required to undertake special additional training and to load ricochet-resistant ammunition. The teachers have, unsurprisingly, not used their weapons at all.

Whereas most of the nonsensical suggestions come from those who want more gun controls, this one can be heard from those resisting such controls. What it fails to take into account is how rare school shootings are, instead playing on the same fears that fuel demands for controls. On the same logic, children should be made to wear lightning-proof helmets.

It may be tempting to, as Barack Obama said, take ‘meaningful action’ in response to such the Sandy Hook tragedy, but sometimes a tragedy is simply that: an awful occurrence that no one could have foreseen or prevented. Let us leave the families alone to grieve rather than trotting out prescriptions that are simple and neat but wrong.

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 Politics


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