Tuesday, October 03, 2006

"Gun control"

Listening to the news last night of the horrible and tragic shooting at the Amish school in Pennsylvania in the US, brought back memories of the Dunblane Massacre in 1996. I was living in Glasgow at the time and despite Glasgow being maybe twenty miles from the town of Dunblane the day was filled with the wailing of sirens and the clatter of helicopters as police and emergency teams were dispatched to scene and the injured were flown or driven into the major hospitals of Glasgow. The noise seemed to go on for hours and a sense of sadness and horror was pervasive. The shootings in the US weren't on the same scale but the singling out of young children by an adult is just as horrifying. I also remember the Hungerford Massacre of 1987 clearly as well - I would have been 13 or so at the time and we were on a family camping holiday in Spain when we heard the news on a crackly BBC long-wave signal.

I follow US politics and culture rather closely these days, both for work reason and out of general interests (probably sparked by listening to lots of NPR news over the years that gets rebroadcast on FM in Helsinki - originally I listened just because I would with anything in English!) and these kind of tragedies hammer home one of the big differences that do exist between the UK (perhaps Europe more widely as well? Although not always...) and the United States: "gun control". "Gun-control" isn't really a word in British-English, only in the American version of the language. In 1987 Michael Ryan walked around Hungerford with an Ak-47 killing people. After the tragedy there was a collective sense both from people and politicians of "you can own a f***ing assault rifle!?!?" and they were rapidly banned. Anyone who tried to say they should be allowed to own a high-powered military weapon for fun was looked on as an utter loon and they folded to public pressure. A similar thing happened with Dunblane; Thomas Hamilton walked into a school with a number of revolvers and automatic pistols and proceeded to kill 16 children and and one teacher before killing himself. Again there was a collective and national sense of "what the f***!?!?" and, despite slightly more protests, virtually all handguns were banned in the UK.

Now, I don't really care about the arguments for and against. Clearly liberal-lilly-livered-pinko-totalitarian-Euro-weenies (or whatever) are never going to persuade the average NRA activist that you don't really need to be tooled up in this world to survive. Its just a different culture. Clearly a lot of Americans love their guns and aren't going to be persuaded differently - that is their sovereign and democratic perogative. But it is a cultural difference - intellectually I understand the pro-'armed society' arguments even if I don't agree with them - but on an emotional level I just can't understand how after four little girls are tied up and shot in the head that anyone could think that easily available firearms are a good idea. The amazing thing to me (as an outsider to the debate I guess) is that it keeps happening again and again and again and again and still the pro-gun sentiment remains.

Update: very sadly it seems one of the injured has since also died. The Washington Post reports that this is actually the third shooting in a school in five days:

"On Wednesday, a 53-year-old drifter took six girls hostage in Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, Colo., sexually assaulted them and fatally shot a 16-year-old girl before killing himself. Two days later, a 15-year-old former student allegedly shot and killed a principal in Cazenovia, Wis.

Elsewhere, three teenagers were charged in Green Bay, Wis., Thursday in an alleged plot to bomb and burn a high school and shoot students as they emerged. And on Monday, officials in Las Vegas said they locked down four schools after a student was spotted entering a high school carrying a gun."

Of course there are many thousands of schools elsewhere in the US where nothing newsworthyily-terrible has happened, but even keeping that in mind it is still rather disturbing.


Phil said...

I remember reading a while back that Finland had more guns per capita than the U.S.? And Switzerland has a law saying all men under a certain age must own a gun. Yet these two countries don't have the kind of gun-related problems the U.S. does, so it's not the amount of guns that's the problem.

I think you're right about it being a cultural thing in the states. You mentioned in your Hesari quote that Finland doesn't have as much terrorism-related problems because Finland has much fewer Muslims. So could the U.S.'s mixing pot of cultures attribute to the violence? It seems you believe a little homogenius society like Finland remains peaceful, but when they add Muslims it gets violent. Is it the same in the U.S. with guns?

Think about the Finnish population in the U.S. I'd be willing to bet that the gun-related violence amongst people with Finnish ancestry is much the same as native Finns in Finland.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

On Switzerland I did put a link in the text but if you missed it try this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/5355582.stm All swiss men who have done the military service have to take an assault rifle home with them. These are regularly used in domestic murders. It's a credit to Swiss civility though that the number still remain relatively small though - I hate to think what friday night in the UK would be like at pub-throwing-out time if 90% of the country's men had access to high powered military weapons. It would be a weekly Falluja! ;-)

I think the US situation is probably very multifaceted and deeply cultural. The US's founding myth was taming the frontier, (like Britain with the civilised Empire and the French with their idea that all universal ideas stem from their revolution) and guns played a central role in that. Then you have the Second Ammendment and the war of independence as another positive mental connection to guns. Then there is a long tradition of hunting with guns. The UK doesn't have any of these, and Finland only has the hunting. So there is just a normalcy to guns in the US that you definitely don't have in the UK. Remember in the UK it's only in recent years that we've got used to seeing police with guns in special places (airports, Westminster etc.) - and still the vast majority of normal British plods don't carry guns, just batons.

Now in the US guns are so much part of the culture it's probably impossible to persuade anyone to give them up. There is a history of violence in the US (for instance, segregation only really ended in our life times) that just seems to make you guys more 'edgy'. I remember chatting to an American professor who used to work with Condi Rice in her academic days. We were talking about people wanting her to run and I was asking him if he had any feel for what would be her domestic policies. He said that she is very anti-gun control because when she was a kid in Birmingham her dad and other men from their neighbourhood had protected their area from "nightriders" and Klansmen with their shotguns. Thats the type of history you can't easily get past.

So when guns are this common and normal they become common in crime, and when gun-crime becomes common its very hard to reasonably argue that people shouldn't be allowed to defend themselves with a gun! So overall, your screwed. I would just give up and get yourself one of these: http://www.desertcombat.com/Weapon%20Images/Mp5-Large.jpg 'cos if you're gonna get one, you might as well get a good 'un. ;-) Actually I know a bloke who sells them so I might be able to get you a discount, although I don't know if he will open a crate and sell a single...

Phil said...

Anti-gun advocates want guns in the U.S. to simply disappear, and that will never happen. Even if you ban all sales of guns, there's millions of them out there in cirrculation. Even if the state makes a law that takes away everyone's guns, only law-abidding citizens would comply, leaving only the criminals with the guns. One of the biggest deterrents to property theft is that fact that so many homeowners are armed and ready to shoot any intruder in their house.

U.S. anti-gun advocates are too unrealistic, banning guns and taking away guns will only see a rise to gun-related crimes. In the UK (or was it just London?) in 1997 there were much tougher gun-laws put in place, and the country (or city?) saw a 50% rise in gun-related crimes.

The gun problem in the U.S. is much more deep like you said in your comment above, and I believe it all starts with the War on Drugs.

KGS said...

I believe that the motto: "guns don't kill, people do", pretty much underlines the points raised here, in spite of the fact it is used by the pro-gun lobby as way to simplify the argument.

The American love affair with their guns, rivals the Finns attraction to knives, both types of weapons have made their mark in each society.

That a gun wound is more lethal than a knife wound may reflect a disparity in the murder statistics between the two societies, but if one could measure or gauge an assailent's intentions, then perhaps there wouldn't be much statistical differences between the two.