We need to talk about the whole gun thing

I'm continually surprised to read the number of posts on Facebook of people (almost always so-called "conservatives") urging others not to discuss gun control in the wake of the latest mass-shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook, Connecticut.

They say that to do so would be to "point fingers" and "make politics" out of this tragedy. In other words, they're saying:

"You're not to discuss the 'elephant that has crept into the room', namely gun control.
It would be 'unseemly' and 'political' for you to do so."

It's as if they want a special dispensation not to discuss the most relevant legal, political and social issue impacting on this tragedy "out of respect for the fallen and their families".

Well I'm sorry: you can't silence the debate in relation to its most relevant issue – all on the basis of some purported "moral high ground". If we shouldn't talk about gun control now, when should we talk about it?

Now when I say that gun control is the "most relevant issue", I do so because the other issues pertinent to the Sandy Hook tragedy (things like mental health services, media involvement, etc.) aren't issues about which the people, or government, can do anything particularly concrete or meaningful if they are to prevent future, similar tragedies. Yes, they should form part of a wider study and program to understand human violence. But after more than 22 years advising on, drafting, implementing and enforcing legislation, I can tell you that we are really no closer to understanding these fundamental questions than we were a generation ago. Human nature and its interaction with society is, it seems, more complex than cracking the AIDs virus.

I suppose we might follow "Morgan Freeman's advice" as reported on Facebook (as if anything reported on social networking media concerning that actor is ever reliable!) and not watch the news when such tragedies occur. But despite it seeming to make perfect sense, on closer inspection it should become apparent to you that this is hopelessly naive and unworkable.

We won't stop watching the news. We shouldn't. We can't ignore reports about things like Sandy Hook. In fact, it would be callous and irresponsible to do so – as it would be callous and irresponsible of the news networks not to report it.

We need to know this sort of thing – to stand in solidarity with the survivors and families, to honour the victims and heros, and to find ways of making sure this never happens again.

Look closely at this purported "Morgan Freeman" quote: all you'll see is another red herring; a proposition that means almost nothing. At best, it serves as a seemingly intuitive, though false, premise. At worst, it is a deliberate tactic to distract attention away from a legitimate discussion about gun control – all under the false pretense of attacking a "deeper problem".

We can also follow, sympathetically, the many anecdotes and reports people post in relation to how people in the community are struggling to cope with violent mental illness as it manifests in their children. All of these accounts are no doubt true – and tragic in their own right. But they still don't really have any useful bearing on the Sandy Hook tragedy – in particular what the people, or their government, can meaningfully do about such tragedies.

By all accounts, Adam Lanza wasn't identifiable as a potential mass killer by anyone. So arguably such thought-provoking and heart-wrenching stories about kids with mental illness have no more bearing than, say, 9/11, Ted Bundy or the Unabomber. Yes, they might all broadly describe how mental derangement can lead to acts of violence – but, at least at this stage, such stories give us no insight into preventing the next murderous rampage from occurring. Discussing them might comprise at least some "deeper analysis" but it is hardly productive of concrete preventative measures.

So I say we should talk about gun control instead - or at least, as well.

Before I do, let me get something straight: I'm a martial artist of 30 years, so I like weapons generally. Specifically, I like guns. When it comes to firearms, I grew up with them – starting with air pistols and air rifles.

I remember feeling mortified when, as a fairly young child, I was told that I would not be able to own a machine gun or other automatic (or possibly even semi-automatic) rifle (ie. I could never emulate my action heros in war movies). This seemed so incredibly unfair – so meddlesome of the nanny-State. Why couldn't they let people alone to do what they pleased?

"Well, I suppose some things are too dangerous for ordinary folks to have," my older brother reasoned (even though he is and was always more gun-keen than I).

So I'm no "nanny-State" liberal socialist who hates guns. As an adult I've not been much into shooting, but I'm still a fairly good marksman (for someone who doesn't practise a lot). I don't own any guns, but I'll gladly go along to the shooting range with immediate family members and friends who do.

And I totally "get" that "guns don't kill people – people kill people". That is obvious. Toast doesn't get made by a toaster – someone has to push the button. Yes, I get that too.

But I'm in favour of gun control.

What?! How can that be?

It's simple really: it relates to what we mean by "gun control". And it is here that we get to first, and biggest, red herring clogging up the US "debate" – the "slippery slope of nonsense". What is this? Well essentially it is this (manifestly flawed) assumption:

Gun control = gun banning.

Er... no. That would be incorrect. That is so far from correct that it isn't even amusing.

Let me put it this way: In Australia (where I live) we have very, very strict gun control laws (by comparison to the US, in particular).

Yet one of my direct family members owns 3 guns. Another friend up the road owns 3 guns. A good friend a few suburbs up from him is a collector and has dozens of firearms. And I'm talking handguns as well as rifles. Before the changes to our laws made in 1996 (more on that in a minute) the collector friend of mine even had a semi-automatic (albeit low calibre) rifle.

So we Aussies have "gun control". But many of us still have guns. How can that be?

Well it's because "gun control" and "gun banning" don't mean the same thing. In fact, that whole line of reasoning is exactly what I foreshadowed:

A false assumption.

It is part of that "slippery slope of nonsense" – the kind that says: "If we get gun control laws, we'll lose all our guns! Oh no! Then the government will march in with jackboots and take my knives and pencil sharpener and make me work in a Stalinist gulag!" Yeah right. If it hasn't happened in far more "left-leaning" Western countries than the US (including the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada); why, oh why, would you even imagine this as a possibility in the good old "US of A"? This scenario wouldn't even make an acceptable plot for a B grade movie.

So talk of a "ban on all guns" is basically a total red herring. It won't ever happen (unless our entire society/democracy collapses).

Why do I say this? For a start, it would be totally unaffordable. What do I mean? Do you have any idea how much it would cost to buy-back every firearm - even in Australia (where we have far fewer privately owned firearms per capita)? Where is that money going to come from? The government budget is already stretched to the limit.

Even the limited buy-back of a very specific class of semi-automatic rifles in Australia in 1996 was incredibly costly (approximately $500 million for a category of gun that had a very low rate of private ownership).

Buying back every firearm would be on a totally different scale. Even if government decided to seize all guns without a buy-back, the enforcement cost would be enormous and the logistics totally unworkable. It would take far, far too many officers, resources and associated costs (collection, destruction etc.). "Banning all guns" in a modern Western democracy is a logistical and economic fantasy - period.

Then you have the fact that governments (for which I've worked in policy, legislation and enforcement my entire career) know only too well that firearms are necessary for certain occupations, trades and situations (vermin control being just one).

Governments also aren't ignorant or dismissive of the fact that many people enjoy legitimate sport shooting, lawful, responsible hunting and simple collecting. Never in my 22 years of working with firearms law have I ever even heard the suggestion that these things should be "outlawed" or even "progressively restricted". It just isn't remotely on the political landscape for any of our governments.

But, lastly, in the US it is also a constitutional impossibility. Whatever your second amendment actually says, or was originally intended to mean, it is clear from District of Columbia v Heller that it has been read to confer the right to keep arms for self-defence. In other words, if the government tried to "ban" guns, that law would, in the US, be manifestly unconstitutional.

Okay, so what is "gun control" then? Let's put it this way: if you oppose giving gun licences to convicted criminals or people who are mentally ill or otherwise have a history of violence etc. then you are already in favour of gun "control". You are in favour of controlling who owns what gun and in what circumstances. All that is left for us to discuss is the degree of that control.

So what is a likely "worst-case gun control scenario" for the US? Well I suspect that if you get any greater "gun control" than you already have (and you do have it – albeit in a form that is largely ineffectual, if not laughable, particularly in some States) you might experience it at a level which is still far, far less restrictive than in a place like Australia. In other words:

You will probably still be able to own almost any gun you like (except, I would guess, certain semi-automatic rifles – more on that in a minute).

You will probably have to meet certain (reasonable) criteria about age, criminal record, mental health, reasons for owning the firearm and secure storage, etc.

You will probably have to wait a while so that background checks can be conducted.

[You might (or might not) face restrictions on carrying firearms, but I'm not going to address this subject here: it is another issue, for another time. In this article I'm not making any recommendations on this issue. Instead I want to focus on the "gun control = gun ownership will be banned" assumption because it is a first, and central, fallacy that needs to be corrected. Moreover, a ban on the "carrying of firearms" has nothing to do with the discreet suggestions for gun control I'm proposing here.]

So this is what "gun control" means. As far as I'm aware, no one in the US (aside from a loony fringe) is suggesting the outright "banning" of all gun ownership. As I've explained, that would be impracticable and totally unachievable. Disregarding the policy and constitutional realities, it would never even get through Congress. Ever.

If you still don't believe me, consider that guns certainly aren't "banned" in places like Australia and UK (where even police don't carry firearms). This should give you some idea that "banning outright" is not, and has never been and never will be an option for any Western democratic government.

Now it is important to note that even if certain weapons are referred to as "banned" this is just a colloquial expression for "restricted"; because (speaking as a legislative drafter) there is always going to be scope for exceptions (police, military etc.) as well as special permits (either for individuals with particular needs or for specific events – eg. movie making). I have personally drafted such exceptions and permit provisions into Australian law over the last 16 or so years.

Yes, you might well have to jump through a few more hoops to get the licence (or special permit, as the case may be). And you might have to wait a while. But if you're a law-abiding member of the community with an interest in collecting or sport shooting, you won't be "prevented" from owning a firearm (or more than one firearm). Judging by the Australian example, you almost certainly won't be prevented from owning multiple firearms.

Now if my description of "gun control" already sounds familiar to you because of the laws of your particular State, hopefully any new "gun control" won't do much more than make some small changes to conform to uniform national requirements. The present hodge-podge of different (sometimes inconsistent) State laws needs to be "harmonised". The police should also have the benefit of shared background checking via a national database.

This uniform licensing scheme is the first thing the US needs to do. And it isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it is highly necessary – and long overdue.

Okay, so far I've painted a picture of "gun control" that I believe is far from "objectionable": a "control" (ie. regulation) of guns that is no more remarkable than the regulation of driving.

Let me leave aside Sandy Hook for just a second to point out that whether or not it would have prevented this particular tragedy is no reason to postpone a long-overdue, workable, responsible, national gun licensing system for the world's largest industrialised economy. You simply can't have the sort of hodge-podge system you presently have for implements as potentially dangerous as firearms. For crying out loud, the purchase of Sudafed is more highly regulated!

While we're on the topic of "objections" to "gun control", I reminded of that dreadfully simplistic "meme" that reads:

"Gun laws prevent shootings? Tell me more about how criminals follow laws."

If this argument impresses you, then you haven't understood the issues. I'll let this "meme response" try to explain what I mean:

"Gun laws wouldn't prevent shooting sprees? Tell me more about how we shouldn't have any laws."

If you really want me to spell it out, how about this: Just because criminals don't follow laws, this doesn't mean we shouldn't have them. We might as well repeal all laws relating to drivers' licences because some people drive without a licence. We might as well scrap theft laws because some people steal.

But that still leaves the question: "How could gun regulation have avoided the Sandy Hook tragedy in particular?" Now that is a good question. In fact, it is the pivotal one. Clearly, a gun regulation system on its own is not enough. To address such tragedies we need to look at more specific restrictions that could be implemented under such a system.

You'll recall that I mentioned above that the regulatory system might inevitably require applicants for firearm licences to "jump through extra hoops". What would this achieve? Basically it would function to reduce general access to firearms - access by the likes of Adam Lanza. This would happen not because guns were being "banned" - but because it just wouldn't be as "easy" to get one. Certainly people wouldn't have one "by default".

Under such a system, you would have to have a good reason to have a gun. Or otherwise be a genuine gun enthusiast. Or at least be someone who really wants one badly enough to jump through all the required hoops.

I know this will get some folks "up in arms". But having greater wait times and more forms to fill out etc. is hardly a major sacrifice if it means that people can't simply go into Walmart and buy whatever guns they like, whenever they like.

This might seem an odd and circuitous way to control guns, but it serves a valuable purpose: humans are inherently apathetic and they don't like "a whole lot of bother". Lawmakers in places like Australia have used this human tendency to limit the general circulation of guns in the community so that the country isn't "awash" with them. The Adam Lanzas of Australia aren't typically able to reach for Mom's gun cabinet and take out an entire arsenal, as well as copious rounds of ammunition.

It is by this means that you can slowly start to "diffuse the civilian arms race" you have going in the US (more on that in a minute). In a well-regulated system, the people who end up with firearms are generally those who are more industrious and responsible about them generally.

Why is it important to reduce overall circulation of firearms in the community?

Let me give you another recent news report by way of illustration:

On the day before the Sandy Hook tragedy (possibly the very same day, if you consider time zones) in Henan, China a man went into a primary school and slashed 22 children with a knife. Yes, that's right – he slashed them with a knife. Horrific right? Now on Facebook you have any number of other "muddled" anti gun-control activists attempting to make a rather pathetic argument out of this that goes something like this:

"People will always find a way to kill. You see – this fellow didn't have a gun, so he used a knife!"

Again, if this argument impresses you, haven't grasped the issues properly. Because the man in China slashed 22 children. He didn't kill them. In fact, every single child is, at the time of writing this essay, still alive. Okay, it's not a "good" result. But it scarcely compares with the lethal wounds from Adam Lanza's semi-automatic rifle.

I remember while studying criminology back at university that, statistically, knives were approximately 6 times less deadly in their effect than guns. And knives were the next most deadly implement to guns. So you see, the argument that "people will find something" doesn't wash. Yes, people will "find something". But they will usually find something far less dangerous.

Okay, it is possible that someone will make explosives (Timothy McVeigh) or fly airplanes into buildings after overpowering the cabin crew with boxcutters (9/11). But let's not get completely off-topic; these are terrorist actions – not domestic criminal acts. This essay is not about ways of controlling terrorism. It is about people who have a mental "snap", grab a weapon and start trying to hurt others around them. And it is about the common pattern of those instances – as seen in Columbine, Virginia Tech, Colorado, Sandy Hook and many, many others. It is not about the very small number of rare terrorist events like the Oklahoma bombing or 9/11.

And as for one of my friend's comments that someone "might realise they can drive their car into a crowd of people" - well that's true. But at least cars have a legitimate purpose that has nothing to do with mass killing of humans. We need cars. Find me a legitimate purpose for a semi-automatic rifle with a high magazine capacity - a purpose that isn't fulfilled by other (less dangerous) firearms (as I shall soon detail). Furthermore, the example everyone seems to be giving me is of the Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar SUV attack, in which 9 people were injured and none seriously: compare this with the "average" AR-15 mass shooting. Last, we need to look again at the number of such instances and compare them with the disturbing pattern of semi-automatic rifle mass shootings...

So the argument concerning Sandy Hook is this: What use would gun control in the form of background checks etc. have been in Adam Lanza's case? The guns he took (including the Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle which he used for all but the shot with which he killed himself) were licensed in his mother's name – not his!

Indeed, of the 62 mass shootings in the US from 1982 to 2002, 49 were effected by legally obtained firearms and only 12 were illegal!

I think the appropriate answer to this is to pose another question:

What in the world was someone like Adam Lanza's mother doing with so much firepower in the first place? Two handguns and a semi-automatic, "military-style" carbine (the AR-15) - for what? "Protection at home"? Was she a member of a "target shooting club"?

But let us disregard the handguns for the time being. What possible reason did she have to own an AR-15? Did she need that for inside the home - where a a handgun would be far more potentially useful (especially given the close ranges involved in a typical house)? Did she need or even want it for hunting? Or was she preparing to ward off LA-style rioters as per Suzanna Gratia Hupp's suggestion to the Texas Legislature? Really?

You understand, I'm not "blaming" the poor deceased woman. I'm asking how a system could allow the private possession of such a potent weapon (in terms of calibre, accuracy, rate of fire and magazine capacity). Why should citizens have access to such firearms? Here we get back to my childhood desire to have a machine gun or something similar. Yes, I get it – it would be a "nice" thing to have that right. But at what cost?

I submit that we're talking a "Sandy Hook sort of cost".

Okay, why do I say this? Simply put, automatic and semi-automatic rifles (which I shall call "rapid-fire" rifles) are supremely suited to the task of mass shooting. They aren't really all that useful or necessary to civilians who want to carry or store them at home for protection. They aren't really necessary or particularly useful for responsible hunting. They are, first and foremost, instruments for killing humans – en masse.

If you don't already know, handguns aren't terribly good mass shooting weapons. There's a reason why soldiers don't go into battle relying on handguns (at least, primarily). I am a fairly good shot, but I find it darn hard to hit a can at 10 paces, never mind 20. There's the recoil factor alone that draws you way off line. Rifles can, however, be braced on your shoulder. Rapid-fire rifles not only offer better aim, but of course they have two more, potent, elements for mass shooting: their rapid rate of fire and their large magazine capacity. So, combine:

* greater accuracy; and
* a higher rate of fire; and
* a much larger magazine capacity,

and you have a weapon tailor made for mass killing of humans. Which is exactly what the military might want. But it has precious little to do with what ordinary householders, hunters, vermin controllers etc. want or need.

I'll wager that most people who "want" one have the same reason I did way back when I wanted a machine gun: it would be "cool".

I'm sorry, that's just not a good enough reason to allow ordinary civilians to have such firepower. After all, I might well think it is cool to have my own nuclear missile. That doesn't mean I should be allowed to have one.

While this example might seem extreme, I raise it to illustrate that there is always going to be a cut-off point. Where should that be? Well you don't need to go to nuclear weapons; hand grenades and rocket launchers, for example, would seem totally inappropriate for civilian licensing. So why not semi-automatic military-style rifles?

[By the way, I'm fully aware that the Bushmaster AR-15 is not a true military weapon. It lacks a fully automatic function for starters (however, it can be ordered by military or law enforcement organizations with three-round burst or fully automatic capability). The point is however that this is precisely the sort of weapon "banned" - to great effect - in Australia following the Port Arthur Massacre - as you'll read below.]

Stage magician Penn Jillette is quoted as saying "Every time something really bad happens, people cry out for safety and the government answers by taking rights away from good people."

Okay, so what's the "right" being taken away here? To buy a gun without any kind of licence, check, waiting period, or other control (ie. gun control)? Hm, I don't think this is what he means. Frankly I don't think he's given it any thought at all. He's done the old leap from "gun control" to "all guns banned" – a preposterous position that doesn't exist in any Western democracy – including heavily gun-regulated Australia.

But back to the issue: what "right" might government take away from "good people"? The right to own a rapid-fire rifle "just because it would be a cool thing to have?" I'm sorry, this isn't really much of a "right". And if you can't sacrifice such a right for the benefit of society, then there's something manifestly wrong with you. Extreme selfishness and childishness is a partial diagnosis.

I hear the immediate retort: "But what good would a "ban" (read "heavier restriction") on rapid-fire rifles be? What's your data to support this? After all, massacres like the one at Luby's tells us that handguns can and have been used to similar effect.

Well we have good data – thank you very much. Data from Australia is directly apposite. Because we've done just that – banned rapid-fire rifles. We did it after our own infamous Port Arthur Massacre in 1996. For those of you who don't know, a fellow named Martin Bryant went on his own rampage with an AR-15, killing many. What did the Australian government do? Well the then Prime Minister – the conservative John Howard – announced a bold plan to "ban" (again, read "more heavily restrict") such rapid-fire rifles – the ones that are most easily used in mass shootings. He instituted a nation-wide buy-back and all of these weapons were crushed and recycled. My good mate Craig lost his beloved .22 semi-automatic in that buy-back and wasn't impressed. But he made the sacrifice. And it really wasn't much of one, in the grand scheme of things.

What is the net result of that "ban" and "buy-back"? Well in Australia it has been this: in the 18 years before Port Arthur, Australia had had 13 mass shootings. Since 1996 we've had – count them – exactly nil. Nada. Zip. Some of the other statistical results of that buy-back can be found in this report and also (in greater detail) here.

Yes, Australia's rate of mass shootings (as well as gun homicides) was already reducing - but surprisingly, this has also been the trend in the US since the '80s (albeit that America's gun-related homicides are still appalling for any developed nation - especially the world's largest, most industrialised, technologically most advanced and richest Western nation).

Furthermore, as I recall from studying criminology, there is good reason to expect that effecting a restriction of the semi-auto rifle kind we did in Australia at a time when firearm homicides are already falling will acclerate the decline even further - if for no other reason than simply by changing perceptions at a crucial point.

Now it's true that tomorrow someone might get a handgun or a hunting bolt-action rifle and start shooting people. But should this happen, the ease and speed with which people can be despatched will at least be reduced relative to a semi-automatic carbine. I submit that at least some lives are likely to be saved. As it happens we've had a few nutters lose it with knives and even pistols, waving them about. They get tazered by the cops and that is that. Had they had rapid-fire rifles things might have been very, very different.

So going back to Adam Lanza: What if the best he could do was secure his mother's glock? What if he couldn't even grab a bullet-proof vest (which he did – and which ordinary citizens can't have in Australia without a special permit)? Would he have gone to the school and tried to kill 20 kids and 6 teachers? Probably. But there's a chance he might not have been able to kill quite as many people as he did. Because you just don't have the accuracy or number of rounds in a magazine to do the "job" quite as "well". Some more people might have been able to escape or hide. Even with frequent reloading, fewer rounds might have been fired up to the point the police arrived. As unlikely as it is, he might even have been overpowered (as the principal and another attempted to do). Regardless, I believe that at least some lives would have been saved. This might not seem like much of a "solution" - but I never said "gun control" was some sort of panacea - merely the only practical thing anyone can do.

I think that people who know the bare essentials about guns also know that mass shooting with a hand gun isn't "ideal". Even if you're unlikely to be disarmed (especially if you've picked children and elementary school teachers as your targets) you have at least a slightly a greater propensity to miss and the slightly slower rate of fire given that you have reload more often.

I think this is at least partly why we've had no more attempts at mass shootings since Port Arthur; it just isn't an idea that comes to mind quite as readily to disturbed people (who usually have enough smarts to make a "plan" to carry out their horrific acts). And in a society where (as in the US) the overall gun homicide rate is reducing steadily, this is a significant factor.

Now it's true that a greater percentage of mass shootings have occurred using handguns than with rapid-fire rifles. While recent ones have involved weapons such as the AR-15, many more (particularly in the past) have not. But the trend for using rapid-fire rifles seems to have been set (Sandy Hook and the Colorado shootings are just two of a recent spate). Why ignore this trend - especially given the "suitability" of such guns to mass shootings?

Okay, so here's the last chestnut: if we take away the good people's guns, we're still left with the bad guys. What about that?

Well for starters, this wouldn't include Adam Lanza; he got his semi-automatic rifle from his (now slain) mother. I've already noted above the most mass shootings are perpetrated by legally obtained guns.

As to the "need for protection", this is a sentiment I understand. We all want security. But the statistics on this aren't really all that good. They certainly don't support the need for semi-automatic carbines. By those statistics, guns in homes account for a disproportionate number of accidental and domestic/neighbour dispute deaths - and not nearly the use in self defence you might expect. Look them up (see the preceding link from Harvard, for example) – I won't bore you with them in this article. They are actually depressing. And none of them support deregulated gun use.

Understandably, we all respond strongly and emotively to the argument that goes: "Just once I'd like to see one of these mass shooters walk into a place where everyone is armed to the teeth." But it is important to accept that this is not a realistic notion. Increasing the armament of civilians across the board (what I call a "civilian arms race") is very far from a "good" idea (despite whatever the NRA would tell us). Rather, criminologists will tell you that it is a very bad idea.

Imagine, for example, the Colorado cinema; what do you think would have happened if a firefight had ensued? And remember that such firefights really only occur in movies. If they were a statistical probability, they would be in the papers every day – instead, they mostly occur only in Hollywood scripts.

I'm not saying that guns can't or shouldn't be used in defence - I'm just saying that they are (surprisingly) unlikely to be. And if this is your rationale for keeping a sem-automatic, military-style firearm at home, then you're especially kidding yourself.

But, lastly, we need again to look at the Australian example. People had to hand in their semi-automatic rifles. Did this mean that the criminals got to keep them? Maybe. But illegal firearms don't have an especially long "life". In fact, they end up in police custody sooner or later. Let's just say that it is very unusual indeed for anyone to use a firearm of any description in a hold-up in Australia. It is the exception rather than the norm. Why? There are fewer firearms in the community.

This means there are fewer gun dealers, fewer on the black market, fewer in "circulation". And if criminals don't expect you to be armed with a firearm, they feel less pressure to hunt down an illegal one (ie. the opposite of an "arms race" which you have so patently experienced in the US). So what do criminals do? They hold up gas stations and convenience stores using knives and baseball bats etc. That's bad right, of course.

But not nearly as bad as facing a firearm!

In short, a "ban" (again, read "heavy restriction") on automatic and semi-automatic weapons tends (especially over a longer period) to reduce the number of such weapons in circulation. Deranged kids like Adam Lanza can't just grab one out of their parent's gun cabinet. They have to grab something that is much, much less suitable for the "job" of mass shooting/killing. And at least some lives are saved.

"But what about Switzerland!" I often hear people say. "They have military firearms in almost every home!"

And? Why is this relevant? Yes, I know I said the US needs to look outside it own borders. But is it really appropriate to take the data of a country with an old-world, conformist European culture that (aside from its captitalist foundations) has little in common with the "frontier" culture in the US?

Leaving aside the practicability/possiblity of "cultural change" (which I will discuss in a minute), is it not more appropriate to compare the US to another frontier Anglo-based society like Australia? One with a history of mass shootings (albeit only up until 1996?).

And is it fair to compare data from a country that has a population less than New York city. A population which is overwhelmingly affluent and largely homogenous? For what it's worth, you might as well note that there have been no mass shootings in Ivy League schools and their associated towns in the US! Both examples are next to useless because they provide:

* an inaccurate cultural comparison to the US as a whole; and
* an insufficient population base for meaningful statistics.

Similarly, someone recently argued to me that New Zealand has far laxer gun laws than Australia - yet they haven't had a spate of mass shootings. But again, the entire population of New Zealand wouldn't fit into Sydney. Even if they had the same annual, per capita mass shooting statistics as the US, at that rate you might have to wait a few more decades for even one to occur in that country.

And, by the way, New Zealand's gun culture is far more like the UK than the US or even Australia. For example, like British "Bobbies", New Zealand police don't generally carry guns. The rate of private gun ownership is also relatively low. Perhaps these cultural factors arise because that country wasn't settled by convicts or pilgrims with a "frontier" mentality. Whatever the reason, New Zealand and the US are not even close to a cultural match. Instead, that country is really more like its "parent" nation than any other. The same could never be said for Australia. Maybe that is partly why New Zealand declined to join our union in 1901.

Besides, gun laws in places like Switzerland have already been progressively tightened in recent years. Furthermore, other NRA favourites like Israel have never had the lax gun laws and rate of private gun ownership people assume. And if someone goes on a shooting spree those countries or New Zealand tomorrow, I think it is a fair bet that the governments of those countries will be restricting access to guns even more - just as we did in Australia. After all, Tasmania (where the Port Arthur Massacre occurred) had lax gun laws similar to New Zealand (Tasmania had the laxest gun laws in Australia at that time). The fact that they hadn't had a mass shooting of that kind up to 1996 was a function of low population, culture and... luck!

At Port Arthur, their luck ran out. The US ran out of the latter years ago.

In any event, maybe countries like Switzerland, Israel and New Zealand have cultures where they can get away with laxer gun laws. Very likely, you don't have such a culture. And neither do we in Australia.

Anyway, what are comparisons with Switzerland, Israel, New Zealand etc. intended to conclude? That we should "stop mass shootings by making gun laws more lax"? That we "don't really need to do anything"? Both notions are absurd.

Often people who draw these comparisons are saying that we need to "change our culture" or some equally nebulous concept. After 22 years of work in government policy, including advice, legislation and implementation/enforcement, I have never seen any government at any time succeed in "changing" a culture. It is one thing that just can't seem to do (despite our best efforts). The closest we have come in Australia is the anti-smoking campaign. But in every other respect, cultures seem to change at their own rate - regardless of what governments want/try to do and how much money they pour into programs (ranging from anti-discrimination, anti-bullying, women's rights, hate crime etc.).

Still others suggest that the answer lies in arming civilians "to the teeth". But, as previously noted, I hold it to be nothing more than a revenge/justice fantasy. For one thing, most elementary school teachers and other non-police/military folk are not suited to taking on a "defence" role. They have other, important, roles to fulfil in society. I doubt my own (elementary) school teacher wife would make a good "front line defender" - although she makes an amazing teacher. For another thing, the data does not support the notion that armed civilians tend to stop armed crimiinals. As I say, this is just fantasy: an appealing one, but fantasy nonetheless.

I suppose we could hire armed guards at increasing levels and at every likely "target" location (suggested by the very same people who likely talk of "small government"). But, ignoring the astronomical expense of armed guards at all schools and universities (not to mention other public places like hospitals or even Starbucks and Little League games), this is a short-term measure at best, undertaking in extreme emergencies. Patently, it isn't, and could never be, any sort of "solution". All it really constitutes is a civiian arms race.

This is precisely what has happened (and is still happening) in South Africa: Two decades into its "civil arms race", the citizens of that country are living in a more violent society than ever, with no abatement in sight. It just gets worse and worse, with violent criminals upping the ante and civilians responding with greater security - till they end up living in fortress compounds with safe rooms, razor wire, motion detectors, night vision surveillance and round the clock private militia protection. No one even stops at red lights any more in some parts of South Africa, since you just risk being shot and dragged out.

I'm afraid "civilian arms races" just don't work - as much as we'd love to give killers "a taste of their own medicine". I "get" this response - I truly do. And I share it emotively. But logically, I know it isn't the answer.

What is the answer? As is so often the case with managing violence, it is the opposite of what most people would want to do. Instead of bolstering potential or existing arms races, governments must negate/diffuse them. The most potent thing they can do in this respect is remove (as much as possible) from civilian circulation rapid-fire weapons especially suited to shooting of humans en masse. This is the only concrete thing a government can, or ever has, done. And it is what any responsible government should do.

So the next time someone tells you they are opposed to "gun control" because "guns don't kill people" and "criminals don't obey laws" and "the government just wants to take away our rights", think about this:

Common sense and hard statistics tell you that if you want to reduce the chances of a future mass shooting, removing from circulation a great deal of the weapons that are best put to that use (and that are not really necessary or particularly useful for anything else in civilian life) is going to save lives. This has happened here in Australia and there is no reason it shouldn't happen in the US which shares a very similar culture and background (the gun issue notwithstanding).

This has nothing to do with denying that "guns don't kill people, people kill people". This whole line of reasoning is irrelevant. It is about controlling/regulating some of the most dangerous implements in our society - the way we regulate explosives, the way we regulate pharmaceuticals, the way we regulate vehicles and traffic, aircraft, medical procedures, work safety... Blaming the implement has never been part of this calculus - any more than doctors/pharmacists "blame" drugs, factory managers "blame" heavy machinery or drivers "blame" cars. Governments regulate the use of dangerous implements because they are inherently dangerous. And this regulation saves lives. Period.

Remember also that gun control is not "gun banning"; it is the regulation of gun ownership. The "slippery slope" doesn't apply. You don't need to start frothing at the mouth and crying "from my cold, dead hands". Judging by the Australian experience no one is going to be taking all your guns from you. To leap to this conclusion is either misguided or dishonest. Yes, the government might require you to hand in a few military-style ones that are best suited to mass shooting. But (especially in the US) you'll be left with most - if not all - your firearms. I would be very surprised with any other result. In fact, it would be a remarkable result to expect the US to have gun laws as strict as, say, Australia - never mind stricter. As I've said, Congress would never pass such a law - even if it were constitutional and the government could afford the cost of implementing it. So don't worry about this "possibility". It is fanciful.

Like my mate Craig, you might become upset when your favourite exotic .22 has to be bought-back due to it being semi-automatic. And (fingers crossed) you might lose any military-style semi-automatic weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15. But you'll survive, trust me. And maybe, just maybe, some kids at a school, tech or cinema will also survive where they mightn't have otherwise. That would be nice, wouldn't it? Far nicer than me having that machine gun I always wanted. It's a trade I've been willing to make. How about you?

So, with respect, we (and you in the US) really do need to talk about gun control. This doesn't mean you'll forfeit your 2nd Amendment rights. It doesn't matter that people, and not guns, kill people. These are irrelevant statements; unfounded and irresponsible appeals to an absolutism that is not (and never has been) part of mainstream political debate.

In other words, you need to stop relying on the "slippery slope of nonsense" to block what is a long-overdue regulation of something that is at least as (if not more) deserving of appropriate regulation as driving a car, flying a plane or making pharmaceuticals. Dangerous things mightn't kill people. But we shouldn't be allowing everyone equal, unfettered access to them either. We need to control that access.

It's really not that complicated. I really don't need you to explain it to me. It isn't an uniquely "American issue". Appreciate that it doesn't have to be the way it is. Because nowhere in the developed world is the rate and severity of mass shootings so prevalent as it is in your country. No other Western nation comes close. It should be obvious that you're doing something terribly, terribly wrong. Generalised mental health and other social initiatives, while laudable, won't fix things. Nor will more "discussion". And nor will an ever increasing "arms race".

Hard data from a the Western culture most similar to yours (ie. Australia) tells us your situation will only improve with better, goal-directed gun control (ie. specifically, restricting the circulation, and general accessiblitity in the community, of rapid-fire weapons). Your own newspapers are starting to notice that this is the "road map" to reducing the occurrence of these tragedies in your country.

There has never been a more appropriate time to talk about this regulation. If you are really serious about honouring the victims of Sandy Hook and their families, you'll be part of that discussion – not try to suppress it. Because I can tell you now – from an entire career spent in government policy and legislation – this is the only thing that has any chance of making a difference.

[For 5 false assumptions in the gun control debate, see my next article.]

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic


Anonymous said…
You know I love you Dan, but you need to do a little more fact checking. Adam Lanza's mother had access to it, specifically because it was not an assault rifle. Assault rifles in the US have been heavily regulated for as long at they've existed and no new ones have been licensed for civilians since the 1980s. Those currently in civilian hands are bought and sold for thousands of dollars and none (to the best of my knowledge) have been used in violent crime. The M4 is a perfectly ordinary civilian .223 rifle, nothing military about it.
Dan Djurdjevic said…
I was aware that it wasn't a real military weapon, but rather a "military-styled" one. My point was that, as a semi-automatic rifle it was precisely the sort of weapon that was "banned" following the Port Arthur Massacre.

So maybe in the US the Bushmaster M4 passes as a "perfectly ordinary civilian. 223 rifle", but not here. And for good reason.

I've changed the references to avoid conflating the M4 with a real military weapon (which was never my intention).

Thanks for reading.