Monday, July 16, 2007

Firearm violence and gun control

Sure, guns don't kill people, people kill people. But what this popular (at least in the US) bumper sticker fails to convey is just how much easier killing is made by the culture of firearm ownership. I pretty much always agree with Penn & Teller's show on Comedy Central, 'Bullshit', till the one on gun control. While not a problem in Canada, for some reason even the US Supreme Court seems to take the First Amendment in a rather weird light.

The original Second Amendment states "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Penn (and presumably his usually silent partner Teller) complains that gun control advocates concentrate on the first part of the amendment and ignore the second. However, it is clear that Penn is concentrating on the second part and ignoring the first. The Founding Fathers were smart guys and didn't put the part before the comma in there for no reason. It's a caveat, dictating under what conditions the part after the comma makes it valid. Is there a necessity for a militia? I don't think so. This is just a holdover from when militias were a valuable military resource, hardly the case in modern warfare. But money talks, and the NRA certainly has a lot of that. I suggest that Penn and Teller get out of the 18th century and back into the 21st on this one.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine clearly demonstrated that you are more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. Penn counters that this study did not take into account the number of intruders that were scared off by a weapon-wielding homeowner, but this does not in fact change the results of the study, nor put them in a new perspective at all.

So let's take a look at some interesting statistics that Penn and Teller completely ignored. Firearms are involved in about 2/3 of homicides in the US compared to only 1/3 in Canada. Looking at violent crime rates in 30 North American cities shows some stark contrasts between cities that are separated only by the international boundary. In Toronto the homicide rate is 1.6/100,000 persons, while just across in Detroit it is 42.1. Seattle has 4.2 homicides/100,000, while in Vancouver it is 2.6. (Oddly, New York rates much better than most US cities at 7.0 homicides/100,000 persons. You wouldn't believe that from watching movies or television.)

So, on the surface, it appears that gun control legislation is a no-brainer. But, did I miss something? There was something that was not said at all in this episode of 'Bullshit', but was plainly obvious if you watch. Gun control can not work unless the culture of gun ownership (in particular, ownership of firearms which have no purpose other than killing fellow humans) is changed to allow gun legislation to work. I propose that the major reason that the difference between violent crime rates involving firearms in Canada and the US is cultural and not legislative in nature. I find it very hard to believe that gun control can work if the general population does not buy into it like we do here in The Great White North. The current Wild West attitude which pervades large swaths of the US doesn't make me hopeful that this will happen any time soon.

What do I mean a culture of gun ownership? Just look at the woman (7 min into part I) with the .357 under the counter, a pump-action shotgun behind a wall, a .45 by the phone, a 9 mm carbine behind a door and a .32 in her bra, and all easily accessible (except for the .32, of course) by anyone in her store. Why? Because she doesn't want to get mugged! She's a lawsuit waiting to happen when some kid finds them and starts playing around. You call this a responsible gun owner? I'm afraid to ask what percentage of gun owners she represents. I'll bet they didn't have to look far, at least not in Texas.

Let's face it, the vast majority of handgun owners haven't got the first clue about how to use one. Use of a handgun requires a great deal of training and upkeep of that training, and I seriously doubt that more than a few percent have this training. I know, I was in the Canadian military. (I gotta admit, firing off a submachine gun is an awful lot of fun.)

One part I totally agreed with was that passing 'feel good' gun legislation that doesn't work is a waste of time and in fact makes it harder for police to do their jobs. We've had our own bad law recently, the failed gun registry. I have absolutely no idea how they thought that registering every gun would do any good, even if you could register all weapons. The cost overruns were huge and the present administration is attempting to repeal the law. Simply put, we need legislation that works, but first the culture of firearm ownership has to change.

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