In the wake of the death of 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut, inevitable calls have surfaced for a re-examination of American gun laws. In a departure from the customary platitudes of American leaders, normally homeopathically watered down to complete emptiness in deference to the gun lobby, United States President Barack Obama said something that sounded like it might actually portend action on this issue:
"We can't tolerate this any more. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We cannot accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say we are powerless in the face of such carnage? That the violence visited on our children year after year is the price of our freedom?"
The Reuters news agency reported that:
"White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would support U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein's effort to craft legislation to reinstate an assault weapons ban and would also back any law to close a loophole related to gun-show sales, he said. "People have talked about high-capacity gun ammunition clips, for example, and that is something certainly that he would be interested in looking at," Carney added. Obama spoke earlier in the day with Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a gun rights advocate who said he would now be open to more regulation of military-style rifles like the one used in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday."
What's also extraordinary is the American gun culture, the fruits of which are visible not only in tragedies like those in Newtown and Columbine, but every day, in every American city, town, village, and state. It's an ongoing, never-ending, ideologically deadlocked carnage. It seems that the sad truth is that there is no tragedy horrendous enough to convince gun zealots that the promiscuous availability of guns in the USA is a colossal failure and that the slaughter should stop. Even after the Newton massacre, and then the arrest of a man with 47 guns and over $100,000 in ammunition who was planning to kill people at an elementary school in Cedar Lake, Indiana, the National Rifle Association will continue to intone that, "guns don't kill people -- people kill people."
In this era of Internet memes the Newtown disaster has inevitably generated pithy visual/textual ones like the "Stop Handguns" one pictured. Compelling numbers, but to make a meaningful comparison one needs to look at per capita statistics. For the sake of comparison, let's stay with these eight OECD nations.
The per capita mortality from handguns in the USA is 4.6 times that of its closest contender, Israel; 23 times that of Canada, and 265 times that of Great Britain. Are Americans 23 times as homicidal by nature as Canadians, or 265 times as homicidal as Brits? Of course not. The factor that differentiates these societies is that handguns are very strictly regulated (and generally unavailable to civilians) in both Canada and Great Britain, whereas they are easily available in the USA.
It would be instructive to compare the rate of handgun deaths to the ownership of handguns in these societies to see how close the correlation is. Unfortunately, statistics for the incidence of handgun ownership (as distinct from long gun ownership) are difficult to find. However, overall data for gun ownership (including both handguns and long guns) is readily available. A comparison of the two yields the following figure. [Note: these numbers are plotted at different scales: handgun deaths are expressed in numbers per million on the left Y-axis; gun ownership is per 100 people on the right Y-axis].
The different shape of the gun ownership curve for Germany, Canada, and Sweden reflects the comparatively large numbers of long guns owned in these societies. These are used for the purposes of hunting and play a much smaller role in homicides than do handguns. Handgun deaths in Switzerland are 4.3 per million, triple the rate in Canada, but only one eighth of the 34.4 per million death rate of the USA.
Switzerland represents a somewhat unique case because it doesn't have a standing army and relies on what are essentially people's militias for national defense. As such, all enlisted men are required to have a rifle and officers a semi-automatic pistol, which they keep at home. Thus, gun ownership is 45.7 guns per 100 people, in other words almost all the men in the country, but still only half of the 88.8 guns per 100 people in the USA. Swiss society and culture are, however, very different from American, and furthermore somewhere in the vicinity of half of the firearms in the country are army-issued property.
Moreover, virtually all of these guns are now kept (since 2007) without ammunition. Only approximately 2,000 special rapid deployment units and the military police have ammunition stored at home. Thus, of some 640,000 military long guns and handguns in service in the country, only some 0.3 % of these weapons stored at home actually have ammunition and could be fired. In the event of a national emergency, like the invasion of the country, other militia members would receive ammunition from an armory. Clearly, guns stored without ammunition have an extremely low probability of killing people.
Israel represents a somewhat different case, since it is the only country amongst this set of nations in which an active conflict is taking place, hence the relatively high incidence of handgun deaths of 7.47 per million, still only one fifth that of the United States, which has no domestic armed conflict on its home soil. On the other hand, gun ownership is very strictly regulated in Israel and is forbidden without a firearms license. It is limited to strictly defined categories, hence the relatively low rate of gun ownership in the country.
As for the United States, its incidence of gun ownership of 88.8 firearms per 100 people is almost off the statistical scale and is certainly off the rational scale. As the Washington Post points out: "Americans have nearly twice as many guns per person as do Yemenis, who live in a conflict-torn Arab nation still dealing with poverty, political unrest, a separatist Shia insurgency, an al-Qaeda branch, and the aftereffects of a 1994 civil war." The country that has not had a war on domestic soil since the Civil War (save for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) is internally armed to the teeth like a cowboy gone berserk.
How closely does the incidence of handgun deaths mirror the homicide rate overall? As the figure below illustrates, closely indeed [Again note that the graphs are plotted at different scales: hand gun deaths are expressed in numbers per million on the left Y-axis; homicide rate is per 100,000 people on the right Y-axis].
For most of the countries shown the correspondence of the curves is very close. Great Britain is somewhat of an anomaly. Despite the fact that its homicide rate has been steadily dropping for the past 30 years, it is still somewhat higher than might be expected from the incidence of handgun mortality (0.13 deaths per million). Handgun mortality in Great Britain, however, is exceedingly low as a result of the very low incidence of gun ownership (6.2 per 100 people, virtually all of which are long guns).
What does all of this tell us? In all societies disputes will inevitably arise and there will be people who are mentally and psychologically disturbed. The ready availability of handguns is what so often tips these into tragedy, as we witnessed in Connecticut. The fact is, guns do kill people. Guns in the hands of people. The evidence from virtually every other jurisdiction in the world makes it clear that making guns, and particularly handguns, less available results in less violence and tragedy. For instance, on the same day of the Newtown tragedy a deranged man attacked children in a primary school in Henan, China -- with a knife. Twenty-two children and one adult were injured - but none were killed. If this deranged man had had a handgun (and handgun ownership in China is almost completely prohibited) can anyone doubt that there would now be 23 corpses? With only a knife at his disposal, only nine had to be admitted to hospital and only two were badly injured.
Will it ever change? Polling in the United States since the Newton massacre has found a spike in those who support tougher gun control laws, up to ~50 per cent of those polled, but overall there has been a dismal decline of support for regulation over the past 20 years (from 78 per cent in 1991 to 45 per cent in 2012). Support for gun regulation briefly jumped 6 or 7 per cent after the Columbine massacre, but then soon continued its downward slide. I fear the carnage will continue.
Will prohibiting handguns by itself solve the problems of violence and fear? Of course not. But it would be a major step in diminishing the damage that is done by violence. No matter how assiduously we work, violence and mental illness will not be eradicated from this planet in our lifetime -- nor in the lifetime our children's, children's children. What we can constructively undertake are tangible measures that reduce harm, not making the world perfect, but making it better. Weapons -- from handguns to nuclear weapons -- don't achieve that objective, either on the personal or the global scale. If we continue to believe that force will make the world a safer or more peaceful place then we are destined to perpetual failure.
Christopher Majka is a biologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and arts advocate. He conducts research on the ecology and biodiversity of beetles. He is a research associate of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-NS and a member of the Project Democracy team.