Only drastic gun control could make a big difference. Small measures can help a bit.
ON DECEMBER 14th maniacs in America and China unleashed the horror in their heads on the most innocent of targets. In China’s Henan province, Min Yongjun burst into a classroom and hacked away at 23 children, severing ears and fingers. But in Newtown, Connecticut, the little ones suffered even worse. After a 10-minute rampage 20 of them were dead, as were six teachers and the killer himself. The American was armed with a semi-automatic rifle with an extended magazine and two semi-automatic handguns. Every country has its madmen, but Min was armed only with a knife, so none of his victims died.
If America is ever to confront its obsession with guns, that time is now. America’s murder rate is four times higher than Britain’s and six times higher than Germany’s. Only an idiot, or an anti-American bigot prepared to maintain that Americans are four times more murderous than Britons, could possibly pretend that no connection exists between those figures and the fact that 300m guns are “out there” in the United States, more than one for every adult.
Barack Obama does appear to be seizing the moment to push for tougher gun regulation; but America has heard such promises before, not least from the current president on the campaign trail in 2008. Nothing came of that; Mr Obama never even attempted to follow through, and no gun-control bill ever made even the floor of Congress during his first term, although the Democrats held bulletproof majorities there.
This time may–just–prove different. The crime in Newtown was so horrible that even the National Rifle Association is talking about change. Some form of new regulation does seem possible: perhaps a reinstatement of the assault-weapons ban which, between 1994 and 2004, prohibited the sale of a list of the most militaristic weapons, or an end to the “gun-show exemption” that allows people to buy weapons without the usual background checks that supposedly prevent the sale of weapons to criminals and the insane.
If you want to be safer, change the constitution
These measures will all help, though they cannot be anything like the panacea that the would-be regulators dream of. The great bulk of America’s murders are committed with “ordinary” handguns, not the sort that would be covered by any remotely likely ban; and the evidence that the 1994-2004 ban altered homicide rates is sketchy at best. The list of banned weapons was filled with loopholes, and was easy for gun-buyers to evade. It also referred only to the sale of new weapons, and made no attempt to tackle the mountain of killing equipment already in the public’s hands.
If Americans want a society where schools do not, as the one in Newtown did, have to drill their children in emergency lock-down procedures, more drastic measures should be contemplated. Handgun bans, such as those that operated in Chicago and Washington, DC, before the Supreme Court struck them down, would be needed on a national scale. Gun licences, obtainable only after extensive police and medical review as in most other civilised countries, would be needed for hunting and sporting weapons. Tough police action, coupled with an extensive “buy-back” programme, would be needed to mop up the hundreds of millions of guns that are already held. If, as seems probable, this is held to conflict with the constitution, then the constitution needs to be amended.
None of this is likely to happen soon. America can take some solace from the fact that, slowly, as a result of better policing and better treatment for gunshot victims, the number of murders committed each year is declining. But not much.
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