Since the Newtown school shootings it’s hard to remember such an outpouring of antipathy towards guns in the United States. After Columbine maybe, but I’ve never heard a right-of-centre US politician be as forthright as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the killings at Sandy Hook:
“And it happens again and again… We kill people in schools. We kill them in hospitals. We kill them in religious organizations. We kill them when they’re young. We kill them when they’re old. And we've just got to stop this.”
It’s beginning to look like President Obama will produce a more concrete response than tears, and the fight for restrictions to gun ownership laws is likely to be one of the defining political battles of this coming year in America.
It’s not clear that there is a straightforward link between outlawing gun ownership and a fall in gun-related fatalities. Changed laws in Australia have provoked impassioned debate over what the effects have been and why. What is clear is that firearms availability (legal or otherwise) is associated with high rates of death by shooting (see a useful summary here). The lesson from the Australian example is that legislation is not the only priority. If people still want guns, then gun-related death rates may remain very high, even in a situation where restrictions on availability are in place. A more productive strategy is to change the law and seek to develop a different culture around firearms. Changing one may help to change the other and vice versa. In the case of America, to achieve both of these aims it would help to understand the attachment of many US residents to guns. From the perspective of someone who lives in a society with highly restricted gun ownership this can be absolutely mystifying. Why does the US love-affair with deadly weapons continue? After wading through coverage of the Newtown shootings I’d propose two main reasons.
The first is the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, with all that stuff about the peoples’ right to bear arms. How much do people care about this? A lot it seems. An anecdote from a colleague of mine who worked as a psychotherapist in South Africa (different country but similar problem) suggests something of the depth of feeling. Her client was a man who had shot and killed both (both!) his children in separate gun accidents. In two years of working through the aftermath of these events his commitment to the freedom to possess arms was unshaken. While it’s tempting to dismiss this view as simply bizarre, it might be helpful to try and understand it. Just a little. Since hearing that story I've wondered if, say, I accidentally killed one of my kids with my car, would I ever drive again? I don’t know. I hope it’s a situation I never face. Would I campaign for cars to be banned? I probably wouldn't And even if I did, I suspect no-one would listen. Drivers would be unlikely to see my tragedy as their problem. For some people, I think, owning a gun may feel as much of a right as owning a car. And the regular incidents that flash across our TV screens every few months? They’re easy to dismiss as someone else’s problem. And, let’s face it the someone else is probably crazy too.
Whatever the strength of attachment to it, the Second Amendment was originally intended to maintain a citizen militia to tackle the Brits. As paramilitary organisations are mostly superfluous these days, this seems a thin justification to own private weapons. I'm not completely convinced it’s the whole story. Why would you hang onto a constitutional provision if sufficient people didn't want it ? Equally, why would the National Rifle Association be so influential unless it spoke for a significant number of voters? A further explanation is necessary, for why so many people want the right to have guns.
A reading of the justifications for private gun ownership offered up following Newtown (and there are plenty) suggests the second reason for the continuing appeal. It’s not a constitutional explanation but a personal one. People want firearms because they feel that owning deadly weapons protects them. Recent comments by a congressman suggesting arming school teachers may have appeared extreme, but he was essentially making the same point. It’s only if you believe that guns are protective that being allowed to own automatic assault weapons (which are not used for hunting or sports) makes any sort of sense. It also may account for the 49 states that allow concealed weapons to be carried. How realistic is this perception of safety? Figures, repeatedly cited in the last few weeks but still shocking, show that the level of gun-related deaths is far, far ahead of that in European countries with tighter laws. This makes it difficult to argue that having a large number of firearms in circulation enhances public safety. However, similar figures have been around for decades and don’t always have an impact on policy. As the NRA president recently argued, if a bad guy is coming for you with a gun you need to be tooled-up too, no matter what the stats say. A more nuanced version of this view was put forward by the writer Sam Harris. The argument is the same though. The world is seen as a Hobbesian trap, and other factors which may contribute to a more peaceful society aren't considered.
In the face of such entrenched beliefs, how can the right to bear arms be challenged? One way may be to break down exactly what people think they are going to do with their gun. The implication of seeing guns as protection is that, in extremis, people can be their own police force (and in fact judge and executioner). It is an easy fantasy to fall into and we have seen hundreds of films that reinforce it. However, accounts from people who actually use firearms against others suggest that this is, at best, a highly simplistic view. Confrontations involving shooting (or just the potential for shooting) are actually quite breathtakingly stressful for the person wielding the gun. This makes it very difficult to operate a firearm effectively. Even trained police officers make inadequate appraisals of threat and poor decisions in situations of extreme fear and arousal. Some of the most interesting developments in US police policy in the last few years have concerned developing training and operating protocols to the point where potentially deadly confrontations can either be avoided, de-escalated or managed in a more controlled fashion. These are intended to lower the risk of armed police getting involved in high-risk confrontations simply because they are packing heat. Such de-escalation and avoidance also helps prevent officers getting into a state of confused hyperarousal and pulling the trigger when it may not be necessary. As well as the difficulty of actually wielding guns with any efficiency in a threatening situation, research on police officers who have shot someone suggests that they don’t simply blow the smoke from the end of the barrel and make a laconic remark. They are far more likely to have a traumatic reaction.
If civilians are to be their own armed response unit it seems they will do very badly and will pay a huge price in emotional trauma. Of course the NRA has an answer to that: give nursery teachers and the like a high level of firearms training and have armed guards to protect schools. It’s one logical conclusion to reach in a society with a load of guns sloshing around. The right to bear arms becomes a duty with the additional obligation to train yourself appropriately.
It may just be however, that America has reached a point where they are ready to pass on that vision of society and explore alternatives. If this is to be a watershed moment in US gun availability it’s clear that a revolution of sorts is required. The political calculus is clearly tricky as many elected representatives have gun-owning constituents. If not after a tragedy like Newtown though then when? However, if change is to come I’d suggest the first fatality needs to be the idea that guns make you safer.