Gun Control, Stage Left.

It’s a bit of a toss-up as to which side to analyze first (If you are coming to this late enough, which is highly likely, then I may have the other view done, and you can chose which order you want to read).  Remember, it’s not helpful to sit about with people who have the same view as you and commiserate on the stupidity of the other side.  Instead, read both, and try to put yourself in the shoes of the other person to see where they are coming from.  That’s the only way to find middle ground.

Statistics on gun ownership and death rates in the US are a little grey, but a couple of things are irrefutable: as a high-developed nation, we unquestionably have the largest stockpile of privately held guns in the world.  Estimates generally exceed one per person, and I find that pretty easy to believe.  Of course, not every person or house has a gun, but a subset of people have multiple guns; part of the “pro-gun” mentality often includes wanting a variety.

And one thing about these weapons is that they don’t wear out or become obsolete in storage.  The M1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol was adopted into service in the 1920s, and is just effective today as it was then.  That’s important: these things aren’t going away.

Homicide rates involving guns appear to be in the neighborhood of 8000 per year (2014), and there are even more deaths related to suicide and accidents.  Putting that in perspective, deaths from car accidents (which are actually decreasing as cars become safer) run about 32,000 per year.

One thing about statistics: these rates don’t have much meaning if you are directly involved.  There could be only 1 person killed with a gun each year, and if it’s your loved-one (or you), it is going to have the same impact.  Any preventable death, especially that of a young person or child, is a tragedy.  And by definition, gun-related deaths are 100% preventable; it is not the same thing as cancer or falling down the stairs.  Yes, there are other ways to kill people, but guns make it much, much easier; that’s what they are designed to do.  So flippantly dismissing this fact as meaningless, or as a necessary evil in a free society, that’s ridiculous.

Other countries have managed to successfully enact much stricter gun regulations.  In fact, we appear to be relatively unique.  It’s not as if I have checked the validity of everything at this link, but this gives an idea of the different philosophies around the world:  Wikipedia on gun laws.

In response to a school massacre in 1996, England outlawed private handguns the following year.  At a similar time – and also in response to a mass shooting – Australia enacted reforms that dramatically limited private ownership of types of guns that can be used to kill large numbers of people (semi-automatic rifles and shot-guns).  Statistics in both countries are hard to ignore: per capita gun deaths are vastly lower than in the US, and both countries have done better statistically after the enactment of the laws vs. before, with decades of time to accrue data and watch how things shake out.

One thing of note is that in both of these countries, gun ownership was already low, and there is unquestionably a difference in the underlying culture.  Where many in the US speak of our current status with pride, other countries hold us up as an example of what not to do.

So we need to compare ourselves to another country with a similar philosophy about privately held firearms, and Switzerland may be the closest.  They also have a strong national identity associated with shooting.  Here is an article from Time that explains a little of the Swiss mentality.

Participation in the military is compulsory for able-bodied men and voluntary for women.  Some 30% of Swiss households have firearms.  In comparison, about 36% of US households have guns in the house (which is down from 50% in the 80s and 90s).

So what about those pesky stats?  It appears they have about a tenth the rate of firearms homicides per year, 0.5/100,000 vs. 5 per 100,000 in the US.  Ouch.  But why?  That’s a harder question, and it means you have to look at the many differences, and see if you can make a change to better emulate their results; it’s not going to be just one obvious (and easily fixable) difference.

Unfortunately, we have little in common with Switzerland in terms of our demographics.  Switzerland has a population of 8 million people.  That’s less than New York City alone, and you can’t ignore the impact of how the population is distributed.  You can look at stats per capita, and you can point at the great expanses of empty land in the US, but you can’t discount the fact that we have millions of people that live really close to each other.  We also have higher poverty rates (though these things are also difficult to compare).  It is said the US poverty rate is about 14%, vs. 7% in Switzerland.  But we put the poverty line at about $24,000 a year for a family of four, whereas a single person living alone in Switzerland would fall below the line, making those stats appear much closer than reality.  I hope you see my point: we have a lot more desperate people living in tight quarters than many other countries.  Certainly Switzerland.  (You show me a social issue, and I will show you how addressing poverty will go a long way to correcting it.  But that’s for another day).

Like virtually every other country, they have regulations on gun ownership.  You have to have a permit to buy a gun, and you have to have a permit to buy ammunition.  (Interestingly, they specifically deny permits to citizens of 9 specific countries like Serbia and Bosnia. That sounds almost racist, doesn’t it?)  That permit includes a mental health exam, and other security safeguards.

As you look through the huge variety of philosophies around the globe, one thing is definitely glaring: we have far and away the most relaxed regulations.  And we have a giant loophole: in the United States, we can buy and sell firearms as one private citizen to another without a single shred of scrutiny.  That is a big deal.  Because it essentially neuters any and all regulation of gun and ammunition sales by dealers, no matter how strict or comprehensive those rules.  If I want to get a gun and I have something to hide, I just buy it from some other person, and then, watcha gonna do?

The vast majority of crimes are committed by a small minority of people.  But that only increases the need to close those loopholes: the evil deeds of the few cast a dark shadow on the rest of us.

We are a unique country, with a relatively new and special history, with a government that broke new ground.  But we definitely have an issue that was not foreseen by the founding fathers: we have a crap-ton of guns, we have little to no functional regulation of those guns, and we use them to kill vastly more people than other nations around the globe.  We can be proud of our heritage, our philosophy, our freedoms, our success.  But we should not be proud of that statistic, nor should we take the position that there is nothing that can be done.

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