Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Gun laws the wrong target

The mass shooting at a cinema in Colorado has inevitably sparked comparisons in the British media between our murder rate and gun laws and those in the United States.

I find a lot of the analysis unconvincing. I'm not saying that everyone should be able to walk around with thousands of rounds, as it appears the killer in Colorado did, but I do have sympathy with those who say it would have been better if some of the audience in the cinema had been carrying firearms.

Some people also seem to think that America's higher murder rate is solely because of its gun laws and ignore social conditions. America is scarred by poverty, inequality, racism and a lack of access to housing, health care and education. It's hardly surprising that it has a high murder rate. Tightening up gun laws might reduce mass shootings like last week's but wouldn't remove the roots of violence that lead some people to kill. Switzerland with its high standards of living and social provision, and where miltary reservists keep automatic weapons and ammunition at home, has low gun crime and murder rates.

Britain's gun laws are relatively recent. Up until the 1903 Pistols Act, anyone could buy a gun and until 1920 carry it without a firearms licence. Gun laws are almost always brought in in times of industrial or social conflict. Before the First World War, striking Welsh miners defended themselves against the police with legally-held weapons, just as miners in West Virginia in the 1920's and 1970's and the Black Panthers in the 1960's did.

It would of course be better if no one carried a gun. If you say that some people - such as the police - should be able to carry guns but not others, you're basically saying that you trust them not to misuse their firearms. I don't. Incidents like Dunblane, Hungerford and the Cumbrian shootings show that even relatively tight gun laws won't stop people intent on mass murder getting their hands on weapons but do leave unarmed victims without the means to defend themselves. As William S. Burroughs said, "After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it. I sure as hell wouldn't want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military."

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