Foreigners dreaming of US gun control


The Australian press are so desperate for a change in US gun laws and so in love with President Obama that they have started to make stuff up.  Yesterday the Sydney morning herald had the headline “Obama Says Time for Change on Gun Control”.  The ABC online had “Obama Flags Gun Control Changes” and The Australian had “Obama vows to act on gun control”.  What are they talking about?  Since the school shooting tragedy in Connecticut President Obama has not even said the word ‘gun’ in public.

President Obama is not going to spend political capital on changing gun laws because the US public is not much interested in gun law reform.  I am not criticising President Obama here – he has other fish to fry and could spend all of his political capital and still not enact meaningful gun control measures.

The reason that gun control is not a central issue in the US, even though over 9,000 people were murdered by gunfire last year, is because Americans don’t feel unsafe.  The murder rate per 100,000 people is about 4.0 in the US in 2012 (down from 10.4 in 1980) and about 1.0 in Australia.  However the murder rate among white Americans is about 2.0 because the murder rate among black Americans is nearly 20 (down from nearly 40 in 1980).  Half of all the victims of homicide in the US are African American even though African Americans are only 10% of the population.  In the figures quoted here ‘white’ means not African American.

I don’t know what the murder rate is among people who vote in the US, but I bet it is much less than the national average because voting rates are much higher among older voters who are much less likely to be murdered.  My guess is that murder rates, and the rates of other serious crimes for the group of white Americans who consistently vote in national elections is not much higher than serious crime rates in Australia.  White Americans who vote  are just not in much danger of being victims of violent crime.

The frontier mentality is still strong in much of the US and it is expressed in attitudes to violence.  In US history from the early 1600s until the late 1800s most European Americans lived in communities that they viewed as well ordered, peaceful and civic.  But, they recognised that outside these communities, in frontier parts of America, there was a lot of violence.  I think that attitude lives on in the US.  Most Americans live in well ordered, peacful communities and they are neither concerned, nor think it unnatural that other parts of America are riven by violent gangs and drug fueled domestic violence.

Many people outsider the US seem to think that the majority of Americans are desperate for gun control and that those reforms are just being held up by the “over my dead body” attitude of a small percentage of crazy people in the US.  But that is not true.  Most Americans are indifferent to gun control.  The majority of Americans who consistently vote don’t view their society as particularly violent.  There may be parts of America that are nearly lawless, but so what?  It was always thus.  Most Americans don’t have gun control high on their list of priorities for improving America.  I lived in America for seven years.  People hardly ever talk about gun control.  It is not a big issue.

President Obama knows this.  He knows that he has to utter some vague comments about changing things at a time of national mourning andd to satisfy gun control advocates in his party.  But, he won’t even say the word ‘gun’; that is how little capital he is prepared to spend on this issue.  Who can blame him.  For most Americans gun control is not an issue and for a small percentage of Americans it is the only issue.

9 Responses to "Foreigners dreaming of US gun control"
  1. Very astute, Sam.
    Let us know when Australians turn to consider the safety of their own children in our schools. According to some sections of the press, there’s a “flood of illegal handguns, etc, getting into the hands of criminals”, so it’s only a matter of time till a crazy gets hold of one or more weapons and heads for a school. How reasonable would it be to instruct school staff in procedures in the event of armed intruders on the premises?

  2. TGK My three kids are at a high school in Perth. The Principal recently installed a large alarm system that emits a very loud siren when the school needs to go into lock-down. I was not happy about it and I told him so (I am on the governing board of the School). The siren and lock-down procedure is now trialled every term — 4 times a year. The problem is that every time that siren goes off it tells the kids “be afraid”. There isn’t really anything to be afraid of, or very little, in the hills district of Perth (bush fires are an issue) but nonetheless we have to have this monstrous siren and siege mentality because of events in the US and elsewhere that really have nothing to do with our community.

  3. Sam, while I know as much about the issue as in this letter, it’s possible easily to see a wide range of threats to which groups of civilians may be exposed. For instance, (1) bombers (suicidal & extortionist) (2) hostage-takers (3) shooters. Of the last, there are the Breivik political types and the loonies who want to cause maximum damage with full expectation of their own death.
    They each require different sets of preventive actions & responses. But the last type (Lanza) is most difficult to deal with. Being a believer in Sutton’s law, I may suggest seeking out all the known loners with anti-social behaviours, but there could be a few practical problems there.
    At the other end of the scale, things can be done. But not before better understanding of how people behave under threat & duress. For instance, picture a shooter at work in a crowded mall. Schools are relatively controlled environments, staffed by eminently sensible people. I mean, it’s possible to bring into effect a set of proven methods that can be improved with training, providing there is consensus that the actions are useful & workable.
    Community confidence is an essential part of progress. It would be useful to know whether, for example, all people with records of firearms offences are visited regularly by police, and observations recorded. Also, in the planning for responses to school shootings by police, it would be useful for the wider community (especially staff & parents) to know what a response looks like.
    As part of planning, do responders (local police) have lists of trained marks-persons (ex military, ex SWAT) who may be residing or working near the incident? It would be tragic if a shooter kept plugging away, in the absence of long-arm expertise, when a sniper could be brought in under cover by police.
    To get back to the point, Australia is very different in some basic aspects from the USA. Rather than trying to tell them what to do, perhaps we could prove our credentials by coming up with innovative ways to improve our own public safety.

  4. You’re right that even with tight gun control the US would still have a high murder rate – which is not to say that it wouldn’t be a little lower than at present. Plus of course you’d have a much lower rate of accidental gun deaths (a significant killer that people are prone to overlook – guns are dangerous toys).

    But I reckon there’s a fair prospect of modest reforms that would improve some of the worst features. Before the latest incident 57% of USAnians agreed with controls on assault rifles, and that proportion must be considerably higher at the moment. As the previous post pointed out people are irrational to place so overreact to a rare but salient incident, yet overreacting they are so Obama may be able to strike while the iron is hot.

    And it’s always puzzled me why US pollies can’t use the 2nd Amendment language about “a well regulated militia” to insist on elaborate and extensive training for gun owners to get those accidental deaths down.

  5. tgk, I think Sam’s point is that while we can think of a wide range of things that could happen to a school, the likelihood of those things happening is very low in large swathes of suburban Perth. Those odds could change starting tomorrow. But right now it is hard to argue that current US probabilities should drive Australian policy.

  6. dd
    The Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
    Your point is well made. The Supreme Court could reasonably insist that only active members of a “well regulated” militia can keep and bear arms. But I just think the Supreme Court is interpreting the US Constitution in a way that suits a large percentage of Americans. Americans want to own and bear arms, or they don’t mind if others own and bear arms.
    Many people living outside the US think that there is a huge disjunction between the guns laws the the US has and the gun laws that most (voting) American want. But there is not. There may be a small disjunction, but not a large one, and nothing nearly large enough to overcome entrenched resistance to infringements on the right to keep and bear arms.

  7. depsite the recent supreme court court case, almost all present gun controls are lawful.

    the appeals courts even upheld a Chicago city law that required firearms training to obtain a gun permit that also banned shooting ranges within the City of Chicago.

  8. The other reason that gun-control would be doomed to failure is that there cannot be anyway of removing all of the guns, particulalry illegal guns. There are simply too many guns witihn the US that cannot be tracked, and would never be submitted. Unlike Australai where the level of gun ownership is low, the level in the US istoo high and dates too far back to allow tracking of guns. Again, registered guns are easily able to be controlled, but there are, I beleive a large number that have not even been registered and therefore cannot be ‘controlled’. And lest be clear, beyond registering and licensing, how do we see ‘control’ working, and being enforced” we have enough trouble in Australia with DUI and unlicenced drivers: how do you propose a search for weapons and license checks for even ‘targetted’ communities (ie areas where illegal weapons are likley to be common) – they cannot manage that now under current constitution (search privacy in the constitution).

    The current laws do not seem to prevent the right to bear arms: just that there should be some degree of training required and a license: all good things surely?

  9. I think this is the strongest explanation I know for why Australians don’t quite understand US gun laws. But I wonder if a disjoint will soon emerge. This majority of voting public may now include many of the minority groups harmed by guns. This seems possible given the apparent miscalculation recently made by Mitt Romney’s campaign.

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