The shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown, August 2014, in Ferguson by an armed white police officer has increased public attention to many issues. Protests, both peaceful and violent, have followed, questioning the ideas of racism, classism and the relationship between the community and the police which are all seemingly factors in the incident. There is however, another issue that has been highlighted by this shooting that I will be focusing on: gun control. In the USA it is commonplace for police officers to carry guns, whereas in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland), policemen do not carry firearms unless in special circumstances such as in the event of terrorist alert or at airports. Consequently, a civilian is 100 times more likely to be shot by the police in America than in the UK – in 2013, the British police fired their guns only three times in total, with no fatalities. Why is there such a difference in otherwise fairly similar western countries? The answer lies entirely with the laws and attitudes towards gun control. The public has easier access to guns and the desire to own them is greater, therefore the police must equip themselves in response. This causes more people to want to own guns as protection from police and neighbours: a vicious cycle.
The controversy around gun control can only be appreciated by firstly understanding the arguments against tighter rulings. The American people have always had a very deeply entrenched gun culture, believing that it is a basic freedom to be able to carry the weapons required to protect oneself. This belief originates from the Second Amendment of the Constitution which protects the individual’s right to ‘keep and bear arms’. In addition to protection in the form of self-defence from fellow citizens, guns are also needed as a precaution against the government. There is a fear that with tighter gun controls the people would become vulnerable in a situation where the government becomes tyrannical and oppressive. Changing the interpretation of the Constitution in order to facilitate more gun control would remove a safe guard that protects the other civil rights outlined in the constitution; some may see this as the first step towards a feared undemocratic and dictatorial government. The idea that the federal government could impose universal restriction is highly disliked, with it being argued that individual state laws allow control to be enforced where it is both needed and wanted. For example, North Carolina has more relaxed controls than California. Furthermore, increased gun control is viewed by some as a futile exercise. Banning guns does not eliminate violence. Despite controls, there were still 765 murders in the UK in 2005 using knives or other means as weapons. This can be used to suggest that gun possession will actually make you safer: in a gun vs. knife attack, who would win? Removing guns won’t remove violence. It will, however, remove the likelihood of these violent actions resulting in unnecessary fatalities.
More guns do, sadly, lead to more deaths. The availability of the weaponry allows more homicides, more mass shooting (1982 – 2012 there have been about 62 in the USA, over half of which used legal weapons) and more spur-of-the-moment suicides. Evidence suggests that contrary to popular belief, guns will not make you safer. A robber is more likely to attack a homeowner if they believe that they are armed. Civilian interventions are also rarely successful – in 2005, Brendan McKnown and Mark Wilson tried to stop a shooter but failed, resulting in a coma and death for the vigilantes (respectively). Without the appropriate training, a real life situation that requires self-defense or intervention is very difficult to successfully negotiate. The majority of gun control proposals do not include a total ban; weapons for hunting or sport would still be allowed. Therefore it cannot really be considered a breach of the Constitution or American civil rights. In full, the Second Amendment refers to arms being needed in order to ensure that the formation of a peoples’ militia was possible in case of invasion. Unsurprisingly, the situation has changed since 1791 and this clause is no longer as relevant. The Constitution, therefore, ought to change as well. A large proportion of the American public support some form of increased gun control, and this support cuts across party lines, implying that it is a question of when the legislation will change rather than if. Ultimately, the most popular argument against control (that the weapons are needed to protect the people against a government turned ‘evil’) is unfounded. If the federal government were to become a dictatorship then untrained people with guns would not be able to realistically rival the military and financial (and nuclear in extreme circumstances) power of the government.
The case study of Australia exhibits how it is entirely possible for the American mindset to be altered. Like the USA, Australia had a gun culture and had varying gun laws depending on each state. The conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, within a period of 12 days in 1996 was able to enforce uniformity across the country – universal background checks and licensing was coordinated across states. The screening process was expanded beyond a computer survey in order to evaluate living circumstances and also assess the risk of the gun being accessed by other members of the household. The waiting period for a license increased, acting as enough of an irritation in itself for impulsive gun applications to be cancelled or for the hopeful owner to be persuaded out of their decision by friends or family. Unlike America, self-defence is not accepted in Australia as a justified reason for wanting a handgun. Despite the stricter controls, guns remain widely used in Australia for hunting and sport. The legislation is not perfect - there are still no laws to keep guns away from the mentally ill - but they have succeeded as, since their imposition, there have been no mass shootings and gun related deaths have decreased by two-thirds compared to the previous decade that saw 100 people become fatal victims of mass murders.
Why the sudden change of legislation and popular support (polls suggested 90-95% approval to the new laws)? Simply, it was due to the mass murder of 35 people by one gunman in 1996 at the popular tourist destination of Port Arthur. The horrific incident encouraged a response and reaction that finally stated: enough was enough. For the UK, it was Michael Ryan’s massacre of 16 people in Hungerford 1987 that triggered change – all modern semi-automatic rifles were consequently banned. British gun controls were further tightened to ban all handguns and inflict a mandatory 5 year prison sentence for possession following the Dunblane Massacre of 1996. There was public outrage and disgust in response to Thomas Hamilton entering the Dublane school, killing 16 children and their teacher and the government was rational to act accordingly. The nature of these devastating incidents is not alien to the USA, but still no drastic change has occurred. This prompts the question: how many have to die for America take effective action?
Obama has expressed his surprise that the 2012 Newtown massacre did not prompt the change that has been experienced by other countries. The President is for tighter controls, but the Bill that he supported in 2013 to increase background checks was blocked by Congress. The influential National Rifle Association has close ties with Republican members and is adept at instilling fear into the public that the government is too involved in their private life, giving cause for the need for guns. In retaliation, at this year’s State of Union address, Obama promised to take action to reduce gun violence “with or without congress”. Only time can tell if this promise will be realized though.