Thursday, 17 January 2013

Weapons of personal destruction

In the aftermath of the shootings at Sandy Hook in Connecticut a vigorous debate is taking place about gun control and President Obama has just announced measures to put before Congress.  Outside America there is overwhelming support for much stricter gun control but inside the country opinion is more divided.

As an outsider it seemed to be a no-brainer to me until very recently; surely the case for gun control was overwhelming.  But two arguments in the debate have given me pause for thought.  Both of them derive from the obvious thought that what we should be trying to do is not restricting Second Amendment rights just for the sake of it, but preventing innocent victims being killed by guns.

The first argument is that there are already over 300 million guns in the hands of private citizens.  How can restricting the purchase of further guns have much effect?

The second is that nearly all the shooters in the depressing list of US gun tragedies are people with mental health problems.  Since the 1970s it has been US health policy to allow such people to be managed and cared for in their communities rather than under supervision.  Sadly, very little funding has been given to such communities.  The result is that a large proportion of homeless people are victims of mental illness.  Would it not be better to address the root cause of shooting incidents?

I don't maintain that these two arguments should necessarily carry the day in the debate but I would like to see it focussing on the actual problem: of preventing shooting incidents rather than bashing the odious NRA and perfectly responsible gun-owners.  That new debate would have to come to grips with the gun culture in the US and the glorification of ever more powerful weapons.

So how should one address a culture where so many people own killing machines, have easy access to them, where accidents happen (fatal or otherwise) together with deliberate abuses; all of them regarded as the necessary price for the freedom to own those machines?  Every developed country has faced such a problem in trying to make its roads safe from the automobile killing machine.  Can we learn anything from that parallel?

A generation ago there was a much laxer approach to the misuse of automobiles but there has been a sea-change in attitude.  It is no longer a lark to get behind the wheel of a car when impaired, and designating a safe driver has become routine.  In the last 20 years the number of road fatalities in my own country (New Zealand) has dropped by more than 50%; much of that decline is because of the attitudinal change to drunk-driving.  We know why this change has occurred: it is because of the far more severe penalties for driving while impaired.

There are other lessons also from the automobile parallel.  Many countries have regular safety checks on vehicles.  A road license fee is levied and is hopefully used to improve road safety.  Drivers themselves can be checked periodically when their own license is renewed.  Motoring organisations are strongly behind automobile safety concerns rather than (as the NRA) act as lobbying groups for the rights of their members.

I cannot pretend that to solve the gun death problem we merely have to imitate the solutions we have found to the automobile death problem.  The analogy is not perfect (not least because the automobile death problem is far more severe). The gun death problem will have some peculiarities of its own to reckon with but we have to stay focussed on solving the "gun death problem" not the "gun control problem".

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