by Frank Thomas
The Colorado, Arizona, Virginia, Columbine mass killings and now the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre bring up once again the fundamental differences in firearm levels, semi-automatic and automatic weaponry, gun-related and non-gun related homicides in the U.S. vs. Europe. America is a nation of guns. Our gun laws facilitate this as well as the indiscriminate sale of military-style semi-automatic weapons of myriad styles ... thanks to a pro-gun activist lobbying culture that never slows down.
It’s time to get serious on prohibiting gun acquisition or possession by people with a history of mental illness, by high risk groups such as felons, drug addicts or alcoholics. It’s time to get serious on limiting gun sales to one shot at a time pistols and rifles with limited cartridge capacities. It’s time to get serious on conducting thorough criminal and mental health background checks and publicized waiting periods for high risk people and first time buyers seeking gun permits.
The fact that our violent crime is so deadly has everything to do with guns. Unlike Europe, America’s 2nd Amendment has given support to a culture where the gun is designed, worshiped, and elevated to a sacred, efficient killing status. While our nation has had a somewhat constant, but very high, level of homicide violence, gun proliferation has enabled a greater portion of that violence to become deadly in sharp contrast to Europe. Pro-gun advocates like to say that violent crime is far higher in Europe as a result of restrictive gun controls. Nothing could be further from the truth.
How have we come this far?
It started in the 18th century when the Swiss “citizens ’militia” model was cited in support of passage of the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution on the rights of citizens to keep and bear firearms. Since its founding in 1291, Switzerland has allowed and even required its citizens to arm as a defense against Europe’s despots. For centuries a well-armed Swiss populace has kept its independence by defeating the mighty armies of European monarchs. The Swiss learned early that tyrannical invading foreign forces kill more people than do criminals or the deranged.
In 1791, U.S. Representative Andrew Jackson acknowledged the Swiss influence on the right to bear arms when he said: “The inhabitants of Switzerland emancipated themselves by the establishment of a militia which finally delivered them from the tyranny of the lords.” Similarly, the right to bear arms as part of a “well regulated militia” formed the original basis for our 2nd Amendment. General George Wingate, founder of the NRA, heaped praise on the Swiss militia model as being the ideal model for securing the country’s security.
However, under the banner of linking “freedom” to personal armed “readiness,” the NRA has long adopted the position that efforts to restrict gun sales – whether semi-automatics, AR-15s or AK-47s , machine guns, or hunting rifles – are an assault on our constitutional rights under the 2nd Amendment. In truth, the 2nd Amendment does NOT sanction the right to semi-automatic and automatic individual firearms. Further, the NRA propagates that inadequate gun control laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings. “People kill, not guns.” The way to make people safer is MORE Semi-Automatic Guns and better background control of society’s psychiatrically disabled.
Today, Switzerland has many guns but few murders … thanks to strict gun control laws and a popular recreational shooting culture. Swiss households use firearms mainly as a peaceful, sport-shooting family occupation at contest-festivals where eating, drinking, socializing abound. Shooting-range festivals have come to be recognized as a wholesome community activity. Well- enforced rules apply to permits, safety training, gun/ammunition handling discipline. Ammunition sold at ranges must be used there. Males aged 20 to 42 must keep their rifles and pistols at home. This culture fosters gun sanity. Over time, these social-attitudes have helped to keep Swiss total gun and non-gun homicide far below those of the U.S.!
England has a much stricter gun control culture with relatively few guns in households. You couldn’t get a more murder free society than England (or Japan) which has banned practically all guns. In contrast, America has as many firearms as there are people – a situation made irreversibly dangerous knowing that guns have at least a 100-year life cycle. While the original primary motivation for an armed populace under the 2nd Amendment was to defend against tyrants and invaders, America’s last 60 year accelerating gun ownership dynamic is now perceived and promoted as an absolute necessity to defend ourselves against outrageous, multiple crime subcultures and misfits.
The following data summarizes a remarkable story about fundamentally different gun cultural and social attitudes, resort to violence and how these relate to gun availability and controls.
TABLE 1: % of Homicides by Guns; Gun Homicide Rate Per 100,000 People; Guns Per 100 People in the U.S. and Selected EU Countries – 2010
% of Homicides Gun Homicide Guns Per 100
By Guns Rate/100,000 People People
United States 67.5% 3.2 89
Canada 31% 0.5 31
England (a) 9% 0.1 6
Switzerland 31% 0.2 46
Norway 7% 0.1 31
EU-17 Average 28% 0.3 26
TABLE 2: Number of Intentional Homicides vs. Homicides by Guns, and Intentional Homicides Per 100,000 Population – 2010
Intentional Gun Intentional
Homicides Homicides Homicides/100,000
U.S. 12,996 9,960 4.2
Canada 554 173 1.6
England (a) 638 58 1.0
Switzerland 52 16 0.7
Norway 29 2 0.6
Total EU-17 3,528 1,164
EU-17 Country Ave. 208 68
EU Equivalent 2,702 884
US Higher 4.8 Times 11 Times
SOURCE Tables 1,2: UNODC 2012, Small Arms Survey, FBI Data on Wikipedia _______________________________________________________________
(a) Includes Northern Ireland
An obvious FALACY propagated by U.S. pro-gun spokesmen and their associations is that European total homicides and crime under Gun Controls regime are much HIGHER than U.S. homicides. The same people claim European homicides are even HIGHER than they were BEFORE Gun Controls – all part of the standard gun lobby LIE that less guns mean more non-gun murders and violence using other methods … thus higher crime rates. What a fairy tale this is!
Tables 1 exposes this LIE by showing that much higher gun possession leads to far higher homicides with guns, almost 70% of all U.S. homicides vs. 28% in Europe. Contrary to propaganda by NRA universal gun advocates, European absolute numbers of total homicides for any country – intentional homicides including gun homicides – are very TINY.
Table 2 shows total British intentional homicides in 2010 were 638 of which 58 were gun murders. England’s total population is a fifth of the U.S. population. When adjusted for this, British total murders are equivalent to 3090 and 290 gun murders. Thus, versus England, America’s gun homicides are 34 times higher and intentional homicides are 4.8 times higher on an equivalent basis.
EU-17 country average homicide data in Table 2 was adjusted for population differences. In 2010, EU-17 total population is 412 million or average per country of 24.2 million vs. a U.S. population of 311 million or 13 times higher. Thus, U.S. intentional homicides are of 12,960 are 4.8 times higher and gun homicides of 9,960 are astronomically 11 times higher than equivalent EU-17 levels 2,702 and 884, respectively . One starts to feel we are so SATURATED with guns of all types and power and the MONEY that comes from it (like from drugs) that we may have well reached a point of no return.
FBI experience shows that guns are at least 20 times more likely to be used in a non-fatal crime than in a non-fatal defense. There is no proof that guns are used to kill more in self-defense than in a commission of a crime. A fear of getting shot back at will deter most murderers. There´s some truth here. BUT, the attacker has the initiative, gun power, and tactical advantage over defenders … surprise, planning, initiative. Still, given the deep gun culture and high robbery/assault crime in America, it´s true that overly restrictive handgun controls rob potential victims (e.g., households) of the most effective means of defending themselves against would-be attackers.
Some argue gun banning causes people to switch to other murder weapons (knives, clubs, poison, illegal guns) which are dangerous but in reality fortunately not as efficiently deadly as guns. The intentional homicide rate (see Table 2) provides a meaningful comparison of total homicides including gun homicides and homicides by other methods. Intentional homicide is “unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person.” Excluded are deaths from war, accidents, suicide, manslaughter, terrorist acts, etc.
Although 70% of U.S. intentional homicides are from GUNS compared to 28% for EU countries, EU-17 absolute numbers of intentional homicides and gun homicides are still substantially lower on an equivalent basis. Obviously, European social and cultural factors play a major role along with much more restrictive, broadly accepted gun controls. In fact, England's strict gun controls led to record low gun-homicides in 2011 and to its lowest intentional homicide level ever .
The correlation of gun availability and violence is an unending chicken and egg debate. Is the U.S. dilemma of extreme levels of violent crime due mostly to easy gun availability and an exceptionally high ownership level or to other intransigent societal factors? For example, England and Norway had achieved low gun-homicide rates even prior to having strict gun controls. Clearly, many confounding societal mechanisms – mental illness, uncensored violent TV films and video games, racial divides, alcohol/drug abuse, self-destruction, income inequality, jealousy, anger, physical abuse, youth gangs in urban cities – all are contributing root causes of gun injuries and homicide rates … much more so in America than in Europe.
Switzerland’s low gun homicide rate seems a contradiction upon first glance. Here’s a country with one of the highest gun ownership levels in Europe that also has a relatively low gun homicide rate! Same applies to Norway. In contrast, England has an exceptionally low gun ownership levels and gun homicide rates. The Swiss, Norwegian and even Canadian firearms experience refutes the belief that very low gun-homicide rates are due to strict gun controls on ownership levels … while British and overall other EU country experience confirms that belief.
SOME WHY ANSWERS ON WHY WE ARE WHERE WE ARE
WHY does America’s weakly regulated gun culture vs. that in Europe correlate to out-of-sight gun-homicide rates compared to Europe? One WHY answer is the many levels of U.S. criminality compared to England, Switzerland, Norway, and other EU countries … illustrated by the number of U.S. people in prison per 100,000 population of +-750 vs. +- 100 in the EU! (see European Institute for Crime Prevention & Control, “International Statistics on Crime and Justice,” 2010).
Our sub-cultures of violent and less violent crime justify for many Americans the constitutional argument of self-defense, thus allowing high-cartridge capacity semi-automatic firearms of all sorts to roll off producers’ production lines. We are at a crossroads … where it’s not only the high gun ownership level that contributes to high homicide rates but also the high level of crime and military-style killings by the emotionally unbalanced (as occurred in Newtown) that motivate more people to acquire guns for self-defense.
“Since there are so many guns, we need more guns,´´ This NRA self-fulfilling thinking only opens up more opportunities for homicidal maniacs to go on indiscriminate shooting sprees … killing children, adolescents, adults. In the end, what it all seems to come down to is that we are by nature a violent nation … and have always been so. Studies by the National Institute of Justice conclude that greater gun availability increases the rates of murder and felony gun use, but does NOT appear to affect the general U.S. violence level. In other words, the fact the U.S. is a violent society does not have so much to do with guns. The fact that our violent crime is so DEADLY has much to do with guns … e.g., resort to AR-15s!
Research I’ve examined makes a case that homicides are tied to the willingness and ability to resort to violence as an attacker or defender, not just to the mere existence of firearms. Studies show that our already horrendously high U.S. total gun homicide rates would be even higher it weren’t for right-to-concealed-carry state laws allowing individuals properly licensed to carry firearms for protection against crime. In right-to-carry states, studies reveal that violent crime rates compared to other states are +-25% lower, murder rates 50% lower, and robbery rates 50% lower.
Control of guns to reduce our tendency to violence remains critical. But complex social factors already noted cannot be brushed aside as they are also a powerful cause of violence. Why does Switzerland or Norway, for example, have such low absolute levels of violent crime and gun-homicides despite being among the most armed household nations in the world? Solving our violence dilemma lies in the social, cultural, psychological determinants of violence as much as it does in the widespread ownership of guns. The enemy is US and the battlefield is mostly in the urban areas and along racial divides.
The hunter world is clearly not where the gun problem and violence is. Hunters do not use semi-automatic assault weapons. Over many years hunting in the wild woods of northern Maine, I used a 30-30 lever-action rifle with less than six shells in the chamber. My father, as a State Police Officer, taught me well how to use a rifle safely and with respect.
Another WHY answer most people sense is that America has gone nuts producing and selling semi-automatic pistols and rifles that release dozens of bullets in seconds. Military-style assault weapons are really great for our soldiers in Afghanistan … but insane as everyday sold household defense products for the general public. Here’s where guns are indeed the major precipitator of a culture of violence. I can’t believe that General Wingate, founder of the NRA, had in mind a population armed with such deadly automatic big-cartridge weaponry that can be purchased almost at will by the teenager, the novice, the mentally and emotionally unstable. As pointed out, when guns are used they are almost always used for murder … this particularly applies to automatic weapons.
Another WHY answer explaining Europe’s very low intentional homicide, gun homicide, and crime rates is that guns are generally viewed here as anathema after so many centuries of human killing. That is why European countries do not see ownership of firearms as a constitutional right … as embraced in our 2nd Amendment. In Europe, one hears little of the U.S. pro-gun facile arguments that `gun control disarms law-abiding citizens.´ Controls are in place and enforced to limit the availability of firearms manufactured or obtained illegally. Strict selling, permit, and safety training regulations are constantly being improved. England and Switzerland are two of the safest places to be although each has an entirely different approach to gun control.
One researcher of Europe’s very low gun homicides and violence summed it all up pretty well:
“The bottom line is one of social attitude. Populations with training in civic virtue though armed heavily like Switzerland or lightly like England and other European countries generally do not experience massacres or high crime rates. Switzerland and Norway fit the mold. The U.S. does not.” (Note: even Norway had its first mass killer of young people last year).
As H. Rap Brown declared in the 1960s, “Violence is as American as apple pie.”
TABLEs 1 and 2 also show huge homicide and violence differences between U.S. and our neighbor, Canada. Canada has plenty of guns largely used for hunting. But U.S. firearm homicide levels at 10,000 a year or a 3.2 homicide rate per 100,000 people is at least 5 times higher equivalently than Canada’s +-200 firearm homicides a year for a 0.5 homicide rate. The 300 million U.S. guns in private hands vs. 7 million in Canada equates to 5 guns per 6 Americans vs. 1 gun per 6 Canadians. It’s clear again that European style social and cultural factors plus strict gun controls play a BIG role in discouraging crime and violence in Canada. We could learn a lot from our next door neighbor.
Another WHY answer is how the original meaning of the 2nd Amendment has evolved and changed. The 2nd Amendment is one long sentence with some key phrases that are a lawyer´s hell or paradise … depending on which side he or she is on. It says:
“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.”
First came a legal challenge in Aymette v. State (1840) where the court held that, “citizens have an unqualified right to keep and bear arms.” The court held this right is not just for those individuals who are members of the militia.
Then came the vague, poorly arrived and seeming contradictory decision in U.S. v. Miller (1939) where the court held that the 2nd Amendment “protects the right to bear arms only if the arms in question are those that would be useful as part of a civilian militia.”
Finally, Justice Scalia in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) held that the 2nd Amendment “protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in the militia.”
Then came a landmark case McDonald v. Chicago (2010) where the Supreme Court held the right to “keep and bear arms” under the 2nd Amendment applies also to the states. The District of Columbia v. Heller ruling was vague on the scope of gun rights in regard to states.
Over time under the 2nd Amendment, the right has come to be recognized that individuals may possess and use firearms in defense of themselves and their homes – but certainly not an aggressive right to inflict harm on others. But as one constitutional expert has said:
"The 2nd Amendment does NOT grant any right to keep and bear arms (writer's edit: certainly NOT automatic military assault weapons). Furthermore, the rest of The Bill of Rights does not describe any right to do so. These rights are thought of as natural rights or God-given rights. In the Bill of Rights, the 2nd Amendment is just a reminder to the government they should not try to stop people from having this right."
Little wonder the NRA and other pro-gun lobbying groups tenaciously support the 2nd Amendment on the basis that guns are the best deterrent of crime against individuals … under their facile philosophy: “As guns increase, we are safer. As guns decrease, there are more murders.”
So, argues the NRA president, "arm the school teachers and guards!" Of course maniac killer(s) can always go for these people first with the advantage of planning, surprise, and initiative.
I hope this article effectively argues the utter falsehood and incredibly dangerous social risk implications of this kind of thinking.
December 20, 2012