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Cheers - AE

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Aiming at the wrong targets.

As I mentioned when talking about computer games and the killings in Germany, Alabama and Illinois (which I’d missed the other day) these tragedies inevitably push the debate about gun laws back into people’s minds. Without looking particularly hard I’ve found this, this, this, this, this, this and this. Reading through those it came as something of a surprise that getting on for half were either against more gun laws or were at least equivocal – I’d expected most of the media to be in the ban ‘em and ban anything that even looks like ‘em camp. Personally I think gun laws don’t work and if you want to hear why grab yourself a mug of coffee, put your feet up and read on. It’s not going to be brief I’m afraid.

Bit of personal background and a declaration of interest. Like the majority of men my age I played with toy guns as a boy, the usual sort of stuff kids got up to before computer games. As an adult who has fired real guns I look back on that with a certain amount of discomfort. I first came across real guns in my teens when I spent a few years in the Army Cadets, which introduced me to shooting as a competitive sport rather than Hollywood glamorised violence. Predictably before we were even allowed within 10 feet of a gun we had to be taught safety. I won’t go through it all and it varies a bit from one firearm to another anyway, but the main thing is that it was kids and guns together in a safe environment. All the shooting I did, which was mainly single shot small and full bore with some ex-army bolt action .303 rifles and light machine guns, was closely supervised by trained adults and was always at paper targets. I’m telling you all this to explain how I came to learn at a formative age that guns need to be respected and treated with utmost seriousness. Since that time I have disliked the casual attitude to guns fostered by some TV shows and films as well as letting kids have toy guns. Personally I don’t even like seeing the words toy and gun in the same sentence and when we have kids they won’t be allowed toy versions. I’d rather they were around real guns and learn to treat them seriously early on than got the misguided impression that guns are in any way toys that can be played with. At the very least I’d make really fucking sure they knew the difference.

Anyhow, the Cadets experience didn’t sell an Army career very well so inevitably I gave it up and that was it for me and guns for the best part of twenty years. It wasn't till only a few years ago that I tried clay pigeon shooting (or clay target shooting as it’s often called in these more politically correct times) and started getting back into the whole shooting thing. So I think I can honestly say that I wasn’t a shooter at the time of the notorious Dunblane massacre. I wasn’t even thinking of taking it up because I was happy with being useless at golf. All the same I felt the same then as I do now – existing legislation that might have prevented some or all of the murders was not used and knee jerk legislation that would achieve little or nothing in terms of genuine public safety was brought in afterwards. In the wake of Dunblane there was national and international shock and outrage, and quite appropriately a Public Inquiry was set up under a senior Scottish judge, Lord Cullen. One thing that came out was that Thomas Hamilton had been able to renew his firearms certificate despite concerns from local police about his suitability to own guns. Attempts were made after the Inquiry to justify this decision on the basis that there were no legal grounds to refuse the renewal. However, even if this argument is accepted it seems that this was not the only opportunity the authorities had had to disarm the maniac under existing legislation long before the massacre. At the time the police were supposed to check that the applicant was a member of an approved gun club which had suitable facilities for the type and calibre of gun being applied for, and that the applicant had shot there under supervision for a probationary period of at least three months, before granting a firearms certificate for handguns. Hamilton apparently lied on his first application – he was not a member of the club he named on his application and that club did not have an appropriate range for use with the calibre of gun for which Hamilton applied. He fucking lied and it could have been stopped there if anyone had made the appropriate checks. Hamilton would not have had a firearms certificate granted in the first place. Subsequent lies were told on subsequent applications and Hamilton was able to renew his right to keep guns time and again when cursory checks by the authorities would have given ample reason to withhold the renewal of a firearms certificate that should never have been granted in the first place. Existing legislation was quite sufficient to have prevented Hamilton’s use of guns at the Dunblane Primary School had it been acted upon. In the grief and outrage following the massacre this was overlooked by the majority of the public and media.

I believe that the legislation that followed Dunblane was, like Hungerford before it, at best gesture politics designed to appease a shocked nation and at worst pandering to the baying tabloids for political advantage. It was an election year and so Cullen's report was withheld until afterwards to prevent it becoming a big election issue, but predictably Punch and Judy politics took over and with the media driven public demand for a ban it was inevitable that the political parties would jump on the band wagon. The incumbent Conservative government could see electoral defeat looming over them for a number of reasons, so being tough on guns was a roll of the political dice for them. They banned almost all handguns apart from .22 target pistols. Still, it was futile since they were so deeply unpopular it was probably still not enough to win and by leaving those target pistols unbanned they left room for Tony Blair and New Labour to be “even tougher” and leave only a small number of historical handguns, starter pistols etc. But it was all political one-upmanship, nothing more. Certainly the next Michael Ryan or Thomas Hamilton will not be prevented from killing by the UK’s strict gun laws when they can achieve as much carnage or more by means of a home-made bomb constructed from legal, easy to obtain products. The IRA have proved that with diesel/fertiliser bombs, David Copeland proved it with bombs made from fireworks, and of course more recently the London suicide bombers in 2005 murdered more than 50 with peroxide based bombs followed shortly after by a similar unsuccessful attack and further attempts in 2007 using gas cylinders in cars. Frankly if I went nuts and wanted to maim and kill as many people as possible guns look like the second best choice anyway. So what do we do if we are trying to legislate away the dangers of madmen? Ban motor fuel, fertiliser, fireworks, hair products and barbie cylinders? That’s obviously ridiculous, though there’s perhaps an argument for restricting fireworks to professional displays in Australia where the whole bloody place might go up in smoke. The only real difference is that such things, along with the more mundane items like golf clubs and kitchen knives used in one-off murders, lack the emotive element that has been attached to guns in relatively recent times (more on that later).

Get yourself another coffee if you like. I'm having one.

But let’s assume that deranged lone psychos are different. I think there’s some justification for it. Mostly they almost certainly intend to take their own lives and to murder as many people as possible beforehand, and I think that creates a terrible freedom inside their own heads. Laws and morals and the ability of the criminal justice system to arrest, try and imprison them have absolutely no meaning anymore, and that sets them aside. The IRA and similar terrorists are politically motivated and generally intend both to live and to evade arrest, unlike the gun wielding nutjobs. Copeland had more in common with the Ryans, Hamiltons and Kretschmers of this world in that his crimes were driven by an insane hatred but again, it’s likely that he intended to get away with it. The London suicide bombers certainly intended to die in the process of committing their murders but differ from gun wielding nutcases in that their chosen means of murder prevents them from seeing the results. I suspect the lone psycho likes guns as they derive a twisted pleasure or sick satisfaction every time they aim at someone and pull the trigger. While this initially sounds like a good argument for removing guns as a means for these maniacs to commit mass murder the best such laws can achieve is to make them choose what they would view as a less satisfactory method. I doubt they’d be too disappointed if they listened to an explosion they’d caused from a distance and maybe got the kicks from watching the news reports. But let’s say they really want a gun. Well since they’re planning to break laws about killing people should we believe that the law banning guns is going to put them off for one nanosecond? If a gun is what they really want then won’t they simply try to get one (or more) illegally? It’ll be harder, but how hard is it really? Currently this guy is on trial for ordering gun parts from outside the UK and having them mailed – yes, mailed – to him. He says he planned to kill himself and while he may well honestly not have intended to hurt anyone else you have to wonder a bit about his state of mind. Still, the point is that he succeeded in getting a couple of guns and was in the process of getting at least one more. This kid bought a Taser, illegal under firearms laws in the UK, on holiday and simply brought it home. From time to time investigative journalists in the UK have shown that getting illegal guns is far less difficult or expensive than we’d like to think, and I think it’s safe to assume that the Northern Irish Peace Process didn’t allow legal ownership of the weapons used to kill two soldiers (and injure a couple of pizza deliverymen) and a police officer recently. So illegal guns are there for those who really want them. Now since we are talking here about someone who is planning nothing less than a massacre should we imagine that the fact that guns are illegal would put them off? They won’t care what’s banned - that terrible freedom they have renders all laws impotent. The absolute best society can hope for is that by trying to get illegal guns they would come to the attention of the police (like the guy in Scotland ordering gun parts, though remember he did get two guns before he was caught) and be stopped in time, but in the real world the ability of law enforcement to control the supply of illegal guns is a numbers game. If only a tiny number enter a given country the odds of stopping the majority are good, but it’s a numbers game. If enough come in some will get through, and if a small, heavily populated and fairly wealthy island nation like the UK can’t prevent it then what country can? Australia has over 25,000 km of coastline, much of which is usually deserted for hundreds of miles. How do you stop a small boat with a load of guns from pitching up on some unoccupied beach? Passing a law won’t help when there are people willing to ignore it and no police near enough to enforce it. Look, I know it’s a cliché to say that when guns are outlawed only outlaws possess guns, but it’s broadly true all the same. There may not be huge amounts of illegal guns getting into Australia or the UK but the point is that if criminals really want them they will get them. Generally that’s going to be armed robbers and gangs, ordinary criminals if you like, but the murderous lone gunman could too.

Okay, since we don’t try to ban or restrict other items misused for murderous purposes why does society treat guns differently? Well guns kill people, the banners say. Pro gun people invariably reply that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. A variation is this:
"You take two people. You give one a gun, you give one not a gun. The guy with not a gun goes up to the person. 'Bang,' he shouts. 'Bang, bang, ratatatt, bang. Boom. Explosion. Your hair's exploded. Bang, you're dead now.' The person is still alive. Then the person with the gun comes up. Boom - they're cut in half. And I think the gun may just have helped with that." – Eddie Izzard
Well yeah, Eddie it did help, but that’s all it did isn’t it? And are you forgetting the role of the guy who pulled the trigger? I guarantee the gun didn’t pull it’s own trigger and only wanted the guy there to carry it around. And what if it wasn’t a gun at all? What if we say:
You take two people and you give one a cricket bat and one not a cricket bat. The guy with not a cricket bat goes up to the other one and says ‘Thump. Thump, thump, crunch, splat. Squelch. Your head’s split open. Thump, splat, you’re dead now.’ The person is still alive. Then the person with the cricket bat comes up. Wallop, their skull’s caved in. And I think the cricket bat may just have helped with that.
Substitute gun with cricket bat, golf club, car and a million other things and you can always say that those other things helped, but it doesn’t make anyone but the user culpable. Never mind, Death Star Canteen was hilarious. Perhaps Eddie or someone else trying to prop up this argument might say that guns are different because they’re designed with the sole purpose of killing. Nope, sorry but that does not hold water either. Even ignoring guns intended for defensive/non-aggressive use against people (e.g. police weapons, sidearms for military aircrew or other vehicles where they don’t have room for rifles) when sporting guns are considered in detail it falls apart. Yes they certainly can be used to kill, but so can kitchen knives, golf clubs, broken beer glass or even a heavy ashtray. Yet the kitchen knife is not a sword, the beer glass is not a dagger and the ashtray is not a club. So it is with sporting guns, which I believe should be distinguished from true weapons since their designers clearly made them with something else in mind. I could go into why and what the differences are but this is going to be long enough as it is. Maybe another day. What if the anti gun people suggest that since the first guns were intended to be weapons all guns should be banned? Sorry, but we should no more hold that against their sporting descendants than we should blame 21st Century Germans for the Holocaust or the current Pope for the Crusades. If we do we might as well consider that the javelin was a weapon before it was an athletic event and that Olympic archers are use bows not fundamentally different from those that killed thousands at Agincourt alone. But neither javelins nor archery attract the emotion attached to guns. And I can’t think of anything but that emotion that causes people to want to ban one thing with a deadly use and ignore vast numbers of others.

I’m going to speculate about when and how the gun became the emotionally loaded issue it has. Ever wondered if, before the invention of the gun, people had the same concerns about swords and bows? I doubt it. Swords can’t be used to inflict injury or death from a distance, despite being deadly at close range, so not frightening if you can stay out of range. I think bows also lack the scare factor of guns, partly because they would commonly have been used for hunting but also because, unlike guns, not everyone can make use of them. The fact that a gun can concentrate deadly power in the hands of even a child concerns even me, and as such I support measures that will keep guns out of the hands of those too young to handle them (and anyone else unsuited for that matter). But I doubt that medieval people were too worried about children and longbows – how could a child shorter than the bow itself hold the thing properly? And even if they could they wouldn’t have the strength to draw it let alone loose an arrow with any accuracy. Crossbows might have been closer but many also required some strength to cock the bow, and since they require manufacture were probably fairly thin on the ground and too expensive for Joe Peasant to be able to afford and leave lying around for the kids to play with. But anyone can use a gun to deadly effect and they’re relatively cheap. On top of that in the last 100 years we’ve had two World Wars and numerous smaller conflicts, and millions of participants killed millions of others with guns (sadly still going on). On top of that we have media coverage our medieval ancestors couldn’t possibly have dreamt of, which flashes news of every murder around the airwaves and internet at the speed of light. By our standards life was pretty damn cheap a few hundred years ago but if an incident didn’t occur in your part of town or your village it might as well have happened on Saturn. People now can grow up in the most peaceful area but see and hear news of violent death on a daily basis in their living rooms, and the media have a fixation when guns are involved. Even in the “culture of gun ownership” that many Europeans view the US the media have been known to report gun murders luridly and overlook similar body counts achieved by more mundane means. For example, on August 10th 1999 a racist madman in California by the name of Buford Furrow wounded 5 people, 3 of them children, at a Jewish community centre and murdered a Hispanic postman about an hour afterwards. This was barely 4 months after Steven Abrams, also of California, killed 2 children and injured 4 others along with a teaching assistant, apparently on the spur of the moment. Were we to go by the numbers of victims we would expect roughly equal reporting with perhaps slightly more given to the Abrams case just because of the body count. In fact one received nationwide media coverage and the other barely made any news outside California. One of these headcases has a Wikipedia entry and one doesn’t. The difference – Furrows used a sub-machinegun and pistol while Abrams simply drove his car through the playground fence and mowed down as many as he could before crashing. It seems that even in the supposed home of the gun the means of murderous crimes are what makes the news rather than the number or age of the victims. Between war, war movies and an unbalanced media view it’s hardly surprising that society as a whole has become gun phobic despite the plain fact that though guns have been the means by which many people put many others to death, a gun itself is little more than a few lumps of metal, wood and plastic if not actually being held. If this sounds strange consider that a parked car with the engine off and the handbrake on is physically incapable of crashing into anything, but when driven can be quite deadly either through design (e.g. Steven Abrams) or negligence (e.g every careless twat on the freeway). By the way, I’m optimistic that this morbid and paranoid media fascination with the gun won’t last, though it might not change this generation. The gun will eventually become obsolete as a weapon, at least in its current form. Matchlocks gave way to flintlocks, muzzle loaders gave way to breech loaders, and bolt action rifles gave way to machine guns. And some WW II era bolt action designs have been adopted for hunting or competition (though rarely ideal for the latter I’d have thought). As it is the cruise missiles and unmanned planes seem to go in alongside or even before the troops these days, and of course the superpowers fought the Cold War by not actually firing weapons so obscenely powerful that they make guns look feeble in comparison (not counting all the little “proxy wars” of course). I find it strange that there are people who lived through the Cuban missile crisis feeling that they were present for the end of fucking everything on the planet, and who now get worked up about guns. How will guns that fire shot or bullets by means of explosive propellant be viewed in 2109 if wars are fought with laser beams and magnetically launched projectiles? The same way we think of archery perhaps?

Still awake? Congratulations for making it this far. Bear with me. We're on the home straight now but feel free to get another coffee. Smoke if you've got 'em.

Probably the best argument against privately held guns, recreational or otherwise, is that the needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few and that it’s necessary for public safety, but if you think about it that’s not an argument that’s healthy for civil liberties because you can apply it to so much more than just guns. Where do you want to draw the line and what’s to stop it being moved by someone else in the future? I believe that the individual has the natural right to do whatever they want providing it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s right to do likewise, and I rank that principle rather higher than the idea that the many need anyone who wants a gun to be presumed potentially guilty of a future gun crime. Still, I might be swung if it could be demonstrated that high rates of gun ownership inevitably accompanies high rates of gun deaths, and that’s where it goes a bit wobbly. We should count only homicides and maybe accidental deaths because a fair number of gun deaths are suicides, and it’s a reasonable assumption that in the absence of guns they’ll just stick their heads in the oven or something and the number of deaths won’t change. Normally the rate of gun violence in the USA is brought up at this point, and it is true that America has both a very high level of gun ownership and a much higher rate of gun deaths than most western nations. However, when looked at in detail the correlation between gun ownership and violence breaks down. Firstly, if 2001 is a typical year, and I don’t know of any reason why it wouldn’t be, well over half are suicides. The level of accidental deaths is about 2.5% of the total, which is pretty bad but arguably could be improved with better training for gun owners. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s very very low compared to car crash deaths, almost all of which are going to be unintentional. That’s despite there being more guns (PDF) in the US than cars, bikes, trucks and buses put together. Secondly, while the famous Second Amendment and various federal gun laws apply in all states, both local gun laws and rates of gun violence vary from one state to the next. Washington, DC has a shocking homicide rate (nearly 6 times the national average and about 400 times that of the UK), often involving the use of guns, and yet until recently had extremely strict gun control laws that were comparable with those in the UK. In fact handguns were effectively banned there two decades before the UK, although it’s only fair to point out that the UK has never had a rate of gun ownership comparable to that in the US. Conversely some states with very relaxed gun laws have a far lower rate of gun crime. Vermont has virtually no gun control law at all and the total homicide rate is less than half the US national average and gun homicides make up only a fifth of those – it has the second lowest rate of gun homicides the US. How is it possible to argue that tough gun laws make us all safer and very loose control is dangerous when Washington is a relative bloodbath and Vermont isn’t? Or to put it another way, how is it possible when the murder rate is roughly the same in Vermont as Scotland? This is used by some pro-gun people to argue that more gun ownership actually increases public safety and fewer guns just allows criminals with illegal guns a free rein to terrorise the innocent. Personally I think there may be something in that but it’s a bit of a stretch since the relationship across all states doesn’t seem to be linear, and in any event correlation no more proves causation than do correlations between high gun ownership and high gun crime. But a poor correlation should certainly dent any confidence in causation, and Vermont, Scotland and Washington show that the correlation between liberal gun law and gun crime just doesn’t exist. There are other places in the world where there the expected trend doesn’t happen. Many nations with tougher gun laws than the US have significantly higher murder rates, while the relatively Swiss are armed to the teeth since they retain National Service in the form of a civil defence duty for all adult males, and it’s the accepted norm for them to take their assault rifles home with them. And I’m not talking about “assault rifles” as usually used by the anti-gun lobby, but a proper military weapon capable of selective fire (automatic weapons were banned in the US in the 30s so any talk of “assault rifles” legally in private hands is largely bollocks). The gun murder rate in Switzerland is higher than that of the UK or Australia but far lower than that of the US overall, and that ignores the fact that some particularly violent states and cities are skewing the trend in the US. And leaving aside political violence the situation is similar in Israel – loads of armed citizens not killing each other very much. Looking to the past, the UK has not had gun laws for as long as many people suppose and had far less gun crime than it does now. Pre gun control Britain was, believe it or not, a safer place to be. Well, not safer as such, but despite guns being legally in private hands you were very unlikely to be shot before the cholera or something got you.

It might come as a surprise to a lot of Brits that actually guns have not always been banned, but it’s true all the same. The 1689 Bill Of Rights states:
“That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.”
Think about that. But for those last five words the UK today might resemble the USA far more closely in the numbers of privately held guns, but since that last clause implies a changeable law it has been altered so as to allow practically no arms at all. Yes, the “which are Protestant” bit is unfair but I think it was dropped a while afterwards, but in practical terms the whole sentence has become irrelevant now. The Bill Of Rights is still law so subjects may still have weapons “as allowed by law” but practically nothing, and certainly no firearm, is “allowed by law” now. UK gun control began in 1903 when an act was passed that made a licence necessary for possession of some handguns, although getting one wasn’t expensive. Before then obtaining a gun, even a handgun, was a trivial exercise since common law accepted arms for defence as a right. Even after 1903 those whose guns required licences could get them from the Post Office. While guns were not possessed by a majority before then people certainly had them in significant numbers even while the police did not. On one occasion unarmed police chasing armed robbers borrowed guns from passers-by, and were actually joined in the pursuit by other armed citizens. Can you imagine that happening today? Most C21st Brits would be aghast that citizens were armed, and the relationship between police and citizens has deteriorated enough that some would be equally amazed that people risked their lives to help the officers. And yet gun violence was lower than in today’s UK. Again, I stress that I don’t claim that this proves that more guns equal less crime but it does, aha, shoot holes in the argument that more guns means more violence.

I think what’s happening is probably that the true correlation is between rates of gun violence in a given area and the number of people prone to violence that live there. I can’t think of an easy way to test this unfortunately, but it would explains why gun laws and gun violence do not necessarily correlate well. It is also interesting to compare the gun homicide and total homicide rates in the USA to that of the UK or Australia. The UK has very strict gun controls, Australia a little less so and the US as a whole has quite liberal gun laws, though quite strict in certain places. While the gun homicide rate in the US is about 10 times that of Australia and 25 times that of England and Wales, the total homicide rate there has fallen in recent years (PPT) while in the UK it’s increased significantly and in Australia remained roughly the. During that time additional gun control legislation was introduced in the wake of massacres in both Australia and the UK, yet many US states have relaxed their laws in spite of America’s history of such killing sprees. Ah, but what about the Federal ban on “assault weapons” during the Clinton Presidency? Well, as I said before it was a fairly meaningless term and so the ban was mostly gesture politics. It basically just banned the scariest looking guns regardless of what they were actually capable of, which was generally no more than almost identical but less scary looking guns so manufacturers were often able to continue to sell affected firearms with minor modification. The ban had a sunset clause and expired without renewal in 2004, and without having saved one single life or injury that anyone seems able to identify. If Obama is pressurized into bringing it bear in mind what a waste of fucking time it was before.

Direct comparisons between nations and states are difficult due to the subtle and not so subtle differences between them and such gun control laws as they may have, but we can see that there’s no clear relationship between rates of gun ownership, levels of gun control and rates of gun violence. Some places with loose laws have a lot of violence and others with similar laws are fairly safe and peaceful. Some places with very strict laws have low violence and while others have a bloodbath. Where there are violent people and guns there will be no doubt be more gun violence, but where a culture of gun ownership exists within a relatively peaceful society you just don’t get high levels of gun related violence. So surely where there are many gun murders the problem lies not with the guns but with the violent people, and since there are so many alternatives for them to maim and kill banning the law abiding from having guns does nothing with the possible exception of preventing the law abiding from defending themselves effectively if they need to. Don't get me wrong here, I'm not sitting with furniture piled up against the front door, scared to leave the house because I can't take a gun with me. I'm not upset that I can't have a gun to defend myself because I don't really want a gun for that. In fact in both my countries the law doesn't mind me having guns for the purpose I do want them for, which is smashing clay targets to bits. I don't personally object to the requirements for safe storage as I'd take pretty much those precautions anyway for my own reasons, and I don't mind the compulsory safety course here in Victoria which isn't so different from what we expect of new drivers and motorcyclists. But I do think that my neighbour should be allowed to keep a gun in his desk (or wherever he likes in his house) to defend himself if he wants, which he doesn't as far as I know but if not him then the guy across the street, or someone I've never met on the other side of town... or even you. I've never met you but it'd be pretty presumptuous of me to fear you because of it - I trust you not to run me over in your cars, so why shouldn't I trust you not to shoot me if you had a gun? But while the rights issue and the self defence issue are fair arguments for those that want to use them my main objection is far simpler: gun laws just don't make any of us safer and we're deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.
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