Australia’s experience with guns proves that America’s problems with guns are not natural, nor are these problems simply the price we must pay for freedom. Australia is no less free a place for banning guns and is quite a bit safer because of it.
Another month, another set of American gun massacres. This time it was the killing of three people at a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, where a right-wing gunman took it upon himself to open fire on theatergoers watching an Amy Schumer movie on July 23. Just a few days prior, a troubled young Muslim man opened fire on a military recruiting office in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four people.
Of course, a month prior the country experienced another such travesty at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, where, again, a right-wing gunman killed nine people.
Such incidents are so common in America that they barely register or provoke outrage anymore. Since 1982, there have been 71 such mass murders, defined as an incident where a gunman kills at least four people. We average just over two such incidents a year in this country, or one about every five months. Of course, this discounts the much larger set of incidents in which gunmen killed fewer than four people, or the staggering number of crimes committed with firearms every year. Whatever way you look at it, guns are a major source of American insecurity and crime — no matter which disgraced scholar the NRA types drag out to make hoary, long-debunked arguments about how more guns equals less crime.
A Guide to Mass Shootings in America, click on the dots or use the search tool in the top-right corner of the map to go to a specific location. (Zoom in to find cases located geographically close together in Colorado, Texas, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.) Sources: Research by Mother Jones. (With thanks to the Associated Press, Canada.com, and Citizens Crime Commission of NYC.)
Those arguments, quite simply, are not true, and the best available evidence points to the opposite conclusion — that the more guns there are in a society, the more violence, crime and deaths attributable to guns there happens to be. As one sophisticated 2012 paper concludes, “the most consistent, albeit not uniform, finding to emerge … is that aggravated assault rises when RTC [right-to-carry] laws are adopted.” Unfortunately, more empirical work demonstrating this isn’t likely to be very forthcoming, as the gun lobby has used its influence in Congress to block future federally-funded research into gun violence. However, suffice it to say that if you are angry enough at what science has to say about something to ban research, the evidence must not be going in your direction.
Only a comedian can speak the truth
Given that the NRA is cracking down on scientific inquiry into gun deaths and their right-wing stooges in the media and political office are always quick to clamp down the pro-gun political correctness right after a shooting, it may take a court jester like Jon Stewart to speak truth to power. Fortunately, a comedy routine by Australian expatriate and U.S. citizen Jim Jefferies now making the rounds on the Internet is doing exactly that, and his biting routine about the role guns play in American life and culture skewers any attempt to justify our loose guns laws, self-defense included. As for why America keeps all its guns, Jefferies points to the obvious: There are many Americans out there who just really like guns, and, come hell or high water, they will fight to keep them no matter how many innocent people die in the process.
Tragedy often makes for great comedy, and the comedian’s barbs points to the basic intellectual dishonesty at the heart of America’s pro-gun culture — that arguments in support of it simply don’t hold up to scrutiny once examined thoroughly. They just don’t, and at heart the crux of our problem lies in the fact that we have constitutionally protected a social preference for guns, not a need for them. This ultimately doesn’t make a very good argument for guns. Indeed, the Constitution also once enshrined slavery, and has been interpreted in the past to support such things as segregation, forced sterilization, and a host of other evil things that at the time were considered right and proper. Yet our worship of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers blinds us to alternatives, such as the one pointed out by Jefferies in his comedy routine.
Many years ago, Australia had a roughly similar position on guns that much of America did. True, they were not as widely owned, nor as legally protected as here in the U.S., but guns were largely obtainable for those who wanted them. This changed in 1996, when a deranged man by the name of Martin Bryant killed 35 people in the town of Port Arthur, Tasmania, with a semi-automatic rifle. Twelve days later, the Australian government proposed, voted on, and passed new legislation that restricted and prohibited the sale of nearly every kind of semi-automatic rifle and rapid-fire gun over two years. Through a buy-back program, Australia also simultaneously removed 700,000 such legally purchased weapons from its streets. In the years since, Australia has largely become a disarmed society, and while it is still possible to buy rapid-fire weapons on the black market, it is extremely expensive to do so.
A disarmed society is a safer society
The impact of this gun ban has largely been what the latest research here in America has found — it worked, more or less. A study published in 2010 demonstrated that the firearm homicide and suicide rate fell by 59 percent and 65 percent, respectively, without a corresponding increase in non-firearm homicides and suicides. Also important, the study estimated that buying back 3,500 guns per 100,000 people lowered the murder rate by 35-50 percent. However, the study wasn’t conclusive because Australia’s low murder rate meant some of these findings lacked statistical significance. Still, the direction of the finding corresponds with what we now know from studies carried out here in America before Congress choked off funding for them. And as time has rolled on Australian gun deaths and gun crime have become even rarer.
In America, on the other hand, guns are set to kill more people than automobiles this year. Yet those who support guns on every street corner and the arming of teachers in classrooms and ticket-takers in movie theaters would have us think that this is the way things are supposed to be, that this is the natural outcome of a free society. Australia’s experience with guns makes the case that this is simply not the case. Our problems with guns are not natural, nor are these problems simply the price we must pay for freedom. Australia is no less free a place for banning guns and is quite a bit safer because of it.
But, for many Americans, facts simply don’t matter. They like their guns, and no amount of science, reason or experience from abroad will move them from that position. One might as well ask the sun to set in the east or to command the tides to go out like King Canute as ask them to change their minds. That being the case, massacres in the U.S. will continue indefinitely. So, take this bit of advice: In the future it might be best to avoid movie theaters and to not send your children to kindergartens that aren’t guarded like fortresses.