Unlike other countries, a mass shooting may not change gun laws in U.S.

Why is the U.S. so different from Australia, Switzerland, and the UK?

By Nicholas Nehamas

A man leaves the burial service of Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting victim Noah Pozner at B’nai Israel Cemetery in Monroe, Connecticut December 17, 2012. (Reuters)

In most countries, when a deranged killer massacres civilians with a firearm, politicians tighten that nation’s gun laws.

After two school shootings killed 18 people in Finland in 2007 and 2008, the government made it harder to get a handgun. In 1996, when Martin Bryant murdered 35 people in Australia with a AR-15 assault rifle — yes, the same model carried by James Holmes in Aurora and used by Adam Lanza in Newtown — the conservative government there banned semi-automatic weapons.

But in the United States, Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert told Fox News that the tragedy in Newton could have been prevented if the school’s principal had been armed.

“I wish to God she had had an M-4 [rifle] in her office,” Gohmert said, “locked up so when she heard gunfire, she pulls it out  . . . and takes him out and takes his head off before he can kill those precious kids.”

Do we need more weapons?

Our rate of gun ownership is already the highest in the world. Americans own 88.8 firearms for every 100 people. The next closest developed country, Switzerland, has 45.7 per 100. But according to data compiled by The Washington Post, our rate of gun-related murders (around 3.2 per 100,000 deaths) is more than three times higher than Switzerland’s.

So what’s special about the U.S.? Is it the Second Amendment? Our gun-worshipping culture or our post-modern narcissism, as some pundits have suggested? Or is it a question of policy and regulation?

Janet Rosenbaum, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, tells Latitude News that acquiring a gun in Switzerland is much harder than in the U.S. — and because Switzerland has compulsory military service for males, most people there know how to use them properly.

“In Switzerland, there are very strict requirements for permits. You need to give a specific reason for having a firearm — general ‘self-defense’ isn’t enough — and, if you own a handgun, you have to get that permit renewed every three months.”

Gun advocates often cite Switzerland as proof that high rates of gun ownership can exist in a peaceful society, but Rosenbaum says that argument falls flat in the face of statistical evidence.

“First of all, there aren’t that many guns in Switzerland. Only about 30 percent of households there own a firearm. In the U.S., it’s around 50 [percent]. Second, a good number of cantons [Swiss provinces] require that guns be kept in a military depot, not in private homes. Third, guns in Switzerland do cause problems, so it’s not like it’s some kind of utopia where firearms are everywhere and people are totally happy about it.”

Rosenbaum explains how the Zug massacre in 2001 (14 people died) caused the Swiss to reconsider their attitudes towards guns. Although voters last year rejected a measure to ban army rifles from homes and further strengthen permit requirements, Rosenbaum says public opinion is steadily moving in support of more regulation.

Why are we not seeing the same phenomenon in America?

Rosenbaum believes people in the U.S. simply overestimate how much protection a gun provides in time of crisis. (Are you listening, Congressman “More-guns-in-schools” Gohmert?)

As an example, she points to Israel — also a country with mandatory military service, for men and women — where civilians are generally exposed to a much higher level of daily risk than Americans. You might expect everyone in Israel to be packing heat, given the threat of terrorist attack, but there are only 7.3 firearms for every 100 people.

As in Switzerland, permits are tightly controlled in Israel. Rosenbaum says Israel refuses guns to 40 percent of those who apply — the highest rate in the world — and only allows specific classes of people (residents of the disputed territories, bus drivers, jewelers, army officers, security professionals, hunters and a few others) to obtain them. Again, a general need for “self-defense” is not a sufficient justification for owning a gun. You have to name a specific threat.

“The Israelis have a much more realistic sense of danger than we do,” Rosenbaum argues.

Writing for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ben Sales explains a key difference between Israel and the U.S.:

Unlike in the United States, where the right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Constitution’s Second Amendment, Israel’s department of public security considers gun ownership a privilege, not a right. Gun owners in Israel are limited to owning one pistol, and must undergo extensive mental and physical tests before they can receive a weapon, and gun owners are limited to 50 rounds of ammunition per year.

Would restrictions like those in Israel infringe on Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms? That’s an open-ended legal question. Americans have a right to own a gun, but do they have a right to own eight assault weapons? Is mental and physical testing an infringement on the Second Amendment? Where do you draw the line?

It’s worth nothing that, in The New Yorker, the Harvard professor Jill Lepore argues that early American courts were much more likely to recognize that the Second Amendment gave government significant power to regulate firearms, while also guaranteeing the right of the people to bear them. That dynamic only changed, she writes, when the National Rifle Association and its financial backers got into politics in the 1970’s.

A wave of moral outrage

So will the tragedy at Newtown force the U.S. to reconsider its exceptional stance on guns?

Peter Squires, a professor of criminology at the University of Brighton in England, isn’t optimistic.

After sixteen children died in the Dunblane school massacre in Scotland in 1996, Squires says a “public wave of moral outrage” forced the government to withdraw its moderate proposals for safe storage in favor of a ban on most handguns and some rifles.

“But that sort of approach feels to me like a clash with the bedrock gun ownership position in the U.S. and the very powerful gun lobby there,” Squires explains.

Initially, Britain’s ban had little impact. In fact, according to Squires, gun crime increased by 105% in the four years after the ban’s passage in 1998, mainly because of a rising gang problem. “The irony is that gun crime is never just about guns,” he explains, although he adds the rate has declined in subsequent years because of targeted anti-gang police work.

Squires says he sees a cultural element at play in America’s wave of spree shootings.

“This case [in Newtown] seems particularly baffling,” he says, “but there’s often a kind of profile: lonely, detached people. We need to know what flips them. If American society was closer-knit, then maybe other people would notice someone going off the rails earlier, and help them and support them before they reach their awful conclusion.”

“Yes, it’s about assault rifles,” he continues, “because those machines are very good at what they’re supposed to do. But it’s also about a culture that doesn’t take care of the mentally ill. People shouldn’t be left to fester in private until it’s too late.”

But Squires also believes the U.S. must take concrete steps toward better gun control, among them: 1) a ban on all semi-automatic weapons; 2) a ban on large capacity ammunition clips; 3) better national mental health data for background checks; 4) a closure of the so-called “gun-show loophole,” which Squires says allows 40 percent of all gun transactions in the U.S. to take place under the radar.

If the response to Newtown is a reenactment of the Clinton-era assault-weapons ban, Squires argues, “I doubt it will be effective. And without a popular mandate, it’s all going to stall on Capitol Hill anyway.”

An Australian police detective adds another firearm to a pile of illegal rifles and shotguns. After the Port Arthur massacre, the government instituted a national buy-back program, ultimately paying around $527 million in exchange for Australians handing in nearly 700,000 weapons.(Reuters)

But it’s possible we might be seeing the beginning of a shift in attitude. And since we’re talking about American politics, of course, the first sign of change is money: the American private equity firm Cerberus has just announced it will sell its stake in Bushmaster, the company that makes the AR-15 rifle.

In the meantime, Americans who favor gun control are turning a hopeful eye to Australia, which banned semi-automatic weapons after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. Aussies have always shared an appreciation for guns and rugged individualism with Americans. And their prime minister at the time, John Howard, was a conservative and close ally of George W. Bush.

“The U.S. is a country for which I have much affection,” wrote Howard in an op-ed for The Sydney Morning Herald this past summer. “There are many American traits which we Australians could well emulate to our great benefit. But when it comes to guns we have been right to take a radically different path.”