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Wednesday, 3 April 2013

100 days after Sandy Hook and guns still protect you (apparently)

John McGowan

Even modest gun law reform in the USA is faltering. Despite there still being plenty of outrage around, and national support for change, not enough members of Congress in areas committed  to gun rights see the benefits of voting against the will of their constituents.

Looking less and less likely.
Image: Arthur Smart (Talk)

The pro and anti arguments are lined up very much in the way I described in January. President Obama, Michael Bloomberg, and the more progressive commentariat are leading the charge for increased restrictions with the idea that a large number of firearms in circulation is ultimately bad for public safety. This is compounded, they argue, by some of these weapons being automatic, high capacity guns, sold without thorough background checks on buyers. The opposing position, articulated by the National Rifle Association, values freedom, training people to use firearms and, crucially, a need for personal protection, if necessary by lethal force, in a world where criminals may be armed.

Unfortunately the case for cutting the number of firearms equalling cutting danger isn’t getting any more traction than it has in the past. Proponents of greater control cite lower rates of gun death in countries like the UK (where availability is low). Antis feel less safe without guns. Legislation has become bogged down in a conundrum of societal gain versus individual interest. The problem (well described here by the philosopher Jeff McMahan) is that what is good for the wider population - less guns - may leave individuals feeling more vulnerable in the face of armed attack. And who is to say this position is entirely invalid if you live in a dangerous place? The recent Oscar Pistorius case showed us a South Africa that is highly fragmented and violent and where, if you have the money, the temptation to live in a gated community with armed guards must be huge. Owning a gun yourself may complete the sense of security - though if your first response to a noise in your house is to strafe the place with bullets, it might be argued that this feeling may not always reflect reality.

Politically perhaps the two positions cannot meet. The Obama/Bloomberg argument ultimately doesn’t take on the notion that guns may protect you when faced with threat.

However, as I also argued previously, psychological research on the use of guns suggests the argument that firearms protect you is, at best, simplistic. For most people using a gun against another human being is enormously stressful, incredibly difficult to do effectively (Oscar Pistorious is a standout example), and potentially hugely costly in terms of emotional trauma. There is no simple equivalence between owning a gun and being able stand up for you and yours.

In the face of resistance President Obama is again using the heavy artillery of dead children and public shame. It convinces me, but clearly not everyone has drawn the same lessons from Newtown. I wonder if perhaps he needs to shift his aim.


  1. I can't believe it's not going to happen! I lived in the US for five years when my children were young. The idea that having a gun in the house would make them safer is still one I can't get my head around.

  2. I tend to agree Rosie. I'm trying to get my head around it. On this side of the pond if feels a very alien mind set. I think it's important to try and understand though.
    John McGowan

  3. I’m currently living in the USA. It’s sobering to be part of clinicians’ conversations about gun culture here. The concerns are wide ranging, and include awareness of the link between guns and suicide (apparently two thirds of gun-related deaths are suicides) and grappling with notions of rights and stigma. On the latter issue, for example, some proponents of gun control also fear that stricter control of one sort could lead to overly restrictive measures for those with any history of mental health issues, compared to the general population. It is clear that change is needed but it is easy to be paralysed in response to violence, by the work involved to bring about change, the complexity, and by contrary opinion. As a way out of paralysis, some people in this city are facilitating community actions towards reducing gun violence, as well as campaigning at a national level for greater gun control. As ever, it seems that both are necessary, policy changes, as well as grass roots changes, but it's still a long road ahead.

  4. There are advantages and disadvantages of handgun to keep at home securely. The main intention behind keeping handguns at home is only to protect children and other family members against strangers and the disadvantage is that misuse of a handgun which is harmful for another human being.

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