Will the Newtown massacre finally force American to tackle its control of guns?
By: John Spain | Published Thursday, December 20, 2012, 8:15 AM | Updated Thursday, December 20, 2012, 8:15 AM
|The closest that the vast majority of Irish can get to purchasing |
a gun exists only in replica form, such as the fake
guns pictured inside a Dublin shop last year.
What is wrong with Americans, my daughter asked, her voice shaking with anger and frustration. She's 21, a third year college student, and she has a low tolerance for bull.
Like everyone else in Ireland, she was both upset and appalled by the slaughter of the innocents in the school near Newtown, Connecticut. But she was outraged as well, outraged by the failure of Americans to do anything meaningful about the situation that allows this kind of tragedy to happen again and again.
Why are they surprised that it's happened again? Are they all stupid? Don't they realize that gun control is the only way to stop it? She demanded answers.
Of course I didn't have any answers for her.
The gun situation in the U.S. is so bizarre to people in most other civilized countries that it is almost unbelievable. Yet so many Americans think it is defensible, necessary, even admirable.
To people on this side of the Atlantic, the fact that ordinary people in the U.S. can possess not only semi-automatic handguns but fully automatic assault rifles is seen as not just highly dangerous, but preposterous. It cannot be justified under any circumstances in a modern, democratic country. Yet so many Americans still believe that it is acceptable.
And then they claim they are surprised and shocked when a tragedy like Sandy Hook occurs?
My daughter and I sat together in Dublin on the day of the shooting watching the late night news from America, first CBS, then Fox News. Bill O'Reilly looked like he had been pole axed from behind.
There was no explanation possible, he said. There was nothing that could be done.
It wasn't a gun control issue, he said, because controls would not stop evil. This was evil and evil would find a way.
Other commentators talked about waiting for the full facts about this latest shooter. Or about tightening up on regulations to stop guns getting into the hands of people who are mentally ill or criminal.
But they all admitted that such moves might not have stopped Adam Lanza. It has been suggested that he had social issues, that he may have been borderline autistic. It was suggested by one or two people who knew him that he was unstable, or heading in that direction.
But at what point on the instability scale does being a shy, isolated loner, or a nerd, or someone prone to occasional outbursts of anger, register in an official way on public records that would disqualify that person from getting a gun? How obviously crazy do you have to be?
And suppose you got your assault rifle a year or two before you became visibly unstable? What is there in the present control system in the U.S. to deal with that situation?
All of this, of course, is irrelevant in the case of Lanza because the guns did not belong to him, but to his mother. This raises the question of what the authorities should be doing to prevent cases like this.
Does it mean that background checks and suitability checks would have to be done not just on someone who wants to buy a gun but on everyone in their family or even everyone who has access to their home?
The absurdity of this exposes the impossibility of making the present system of preventing gun massacres in the U.S. work. There is simply no alternative to a radical shift in policy which will have the effect of removing all semi-automatic and automatic guns from possession by the general public.
Indeed, if America was to follow the example of the rest of the civilized world even single shot guns, both handguns and rifles, would be removed as well and confined to very restricted use by legitimate hunters, sports people and gun clubs.
But that would probably involve constitutional change and we are all aware how difficult that is in the U.S., far more difficult than in Ireland, for example. Without going that far, although I am not a lawyer or a constitutional expert, it seems clear to me that it should be possible to introduce restrictive legislation at federal and/or state level setting out rules and regulations for gun possession in the US that would be constitutional but still would move the U.S. much closer to the norm on guns in Europe and most other developed countries in the world.
Much has been made out of the number of guns in circulation in the U.S. and the supposed impossibility of retrieving them. This is nonsense. A carrot and stick approach, with a buy back program and heavy penalties, including jail, for failure to take part within a time period would achieve results.
The American people have solved much more complex problems than this. The case for change is undeniable.
Niall O'Dowd quoted some statistics on IrishCentral a few days ago which tell the story -- murders with a firearm in one year: Great Britain 14; Australia 59; Canada 144; U.S., 9,369. He left out Ireland, which in the year in question had 12 gun murders.
The numbers tell the truth. The National Rifle Association and all the rest of the gun lobby can say all they want, but the message is clear -- gun control works.
Appalling as school shootings are, the bigger tragedy in the U.S. is the everyday body count due to the use of guns in ordinary criminality, drugs and domestic violence.
Last July, after the Aurora, Colorado massacre, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that 34 people were being killed with guns in the U.S. every single day.
"We've killed more than 400,000 Americans since 1968, when RFK and Martin Luther King Junior were assassinated. That is more Americans than died during WWII,” he said.
While this goes on in the U.S., the rest of the world looks on in disgust and disbelief. As other countries have shown, it's not impossible to change.
In Scotland, for example, there was a school shooting in 1996 in which 16 children aged five to six and their teacher were killed. One year later the U.K. banned the private ownership of all handguns of any size or type apart from airguns. There has not been a school shooting anywhere in the U.K. since then.
Writing in the wake of the Aurora cinema shooting, I suggested that the U.S. could do worse than look to the system in Ireland for direction.
As I pointed out at the time, there are young men under severe stress in Ireland and other countries in Europe right now, but we do not see gun massacres happening here. There are isolated, inadequate, resentful young men here, just as there are in the U.S. A proportion of them will become delusional and dangerous, just as happens in the US.
The difference is that here it is very difficult to get guns, and almost impossible to get automatic weapons and large amounts of ammunition.
It's not rocket science. It's simple. You stop gun crime by removing guns from the general population. Yet that is something that America refuses to do.
The idea that true freedom must allow good people to have almost unrestricted access to weapons so they can protect themselves against the bad guys is flawed, and the figures quoted above prove that.
It ignores the fact that if there are very few guns around, it is much more difficult for the low level bad guy to get his hands on one.
The gun lobby argument that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is also flawed. The fact is that the more guns there are around, the more people get killed with them.
The reason is simple. Killing someone with a gun is easy; killing someone with a knife is harder, and also, there are no automatic knives that enable you to kill 26 people with a slight pressure of one finger.
There's no point in grieving for the Sandy Hook children if America does not do something about this because it's going to happen again. America needs gun control.
That's the reality. It's a reality that almost all other developed countries have accepted, even somewhere like Ireland, in spite of our much more recent fight for national freedom and our rebel image as the fighting Irish. As I said, America could do worse than copy what we have done here.
In Ireland, you can't have a gun unless you can convince your local Gardai (police) that you are a farmer who wants to control vermin, or you want to use the gun for hunting in the countryside -- well over 90 percent of guns held here are shotguns and sporting rifles used for hunting or controlling vermin. These weapons are usually single shot and never automatic.
If your reason for wanting a gun is to do target shooting, you have to belong to a recognized gun club where very strict rules will apply. This includes where and how the guns are stored. Almost no handguns (pistols or revolvers) are allowed in private possession outside of gun clubs.
Anyone who wants a gun here has to get a license from the police, which specifies the type of gun, as well as a small quantity of ammunition. This has to be renewed every three years.
A separate certificate is required for each gun, and police are slow to issue more than one to a person without good reason. Handguns are severely restricted with very few in private possession, and those are limited to small caliber guns or air guns.
Similar regimes apply in other countries and no one seems to find it a problem. So why should it be a problem in the U.S.?
This week there are people all over America deciding on Christmas gifts for their children. Well here's an idea -- tell your children that one of your presents to them will be a promise that next year you will campaign for or support major change on gun laws in the U.S. And explain to them why this will be the best Christmas present the children of America will ever get.