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Newtown Tragedy Prompts National Soul-Searching on Guns

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The massacre in Newtown, Conn., in December that left 20 schoolchildren dead has struck the American consciousness where other mass shootings have not. It is causing lawmakers who are avid hunters and military veterans to reassess a culture of gun ownership that is among the highest in the world.

"This tragedy is different than what we've experienced in the past," Congressman Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) recently told The Washington Diplomat. "I've had people in my district, lifelong NRA members who have never talked to me about gun violence, approach me and say, 'We should do something about assault weapons.'"

The NRA, of course, is the National Rifle Association, one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country. The challenge for those crafting a policy response to the tragedy will not only be to go up against the NRA, but also to reconcile America's love of hunting and its deeply cherished constitutional right to bear arms with sensible measures that reduce the likelihood of another Newtown.

New Frontier?

Thompson thinks he is up to the task. He is an enthusiastic hunter from pastoral northern California whom House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) tapped to head the congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

Thompson has met with NRA leadership and with House Republicans because, he explains, "everyone needs to be part of the conversation" on curbing gun violence. There is a big difference, however, between talking with pro-gun groups and lawmakers and actively working with them to write legislation. You won't find any Republicans on Thompson's task force. It is up to the majority party in the House to form their own group on the issue, a slim prospect given how entrenched the pro-gun platform is with conservative lawmakers.

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Photo: Stephanie Frey / BigStock

It is no coincidence that public figures in favor of gun control like Thompson have been emphasizing their gun-toting credentials. For any legislative action to win broad support from the American public, it would have to be cast as being in gun owners' best interest rather than an attack on the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that pro-gun groups tend to paint these initiatives as. Thompson is convinced he can win this argument. "It would be very shortsighted" for the NRA not to participate, said Thompson. "They might win this battle on gun control but they would lose the war."

Nevertheless, the NRA is gearing up for battle, vowing it will wage "the fight of the century" in response to President Obama's recent gun-control proposals, which include a ban on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, universal background checks, eliminating armor-piercing bullets, tougher gun trafficking laws, and strengthening mental health and school safety resources.

Obama admits the opposition to what he calls "common-sense" gun-control measures will be fierce. "There will be pundits and politicians and special interest lobbyists publicly warning of a tyrannical, all-out assault on liberty — not because that's true, but because they want to gin up fear or higher ratings or revenue for themselves," he said, alluding in part to the NRA.

Formed in 1871, the NRA was largely a hunting, marksmanship and conservation organization for many years until about the mid-1970s, when it morphed into the formidable lobby shop it is today, with annual revenue of over $200 million.

The group has spent a good portion of that revenue on political races (about $20 million in the last federal election cycle, according to Opensecrets.org) and lobbying to prevent any gun-control measure it views as a threat to the Second Amendment, which states that, "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."

The NRA's base of grassroots support is strong, with 4 million members and growing in the wake of the Newtown shooting. But its critics say the NRA represents the interests of gun makers and sellers (a $12 billion-a-year industry) rather than the average gun owner, and that the new frontier in gun control may be enlisting hunters and gun owners disillusioned with the group's unyielding stance.

Obama personally appealed to this segment of the population when he rolled out his recent proposals. "I respect our strong tradition of gun ownership and the rights of hunters and sportsmen. There are millions of responsible, law-abiding gun owners in America who cherish their right to bear arms for hunting, or sport, or protection, or collection," he said at the Jan. 16 White House press conference.

"I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from inflicting harm on a massive scale."

Likewise, when former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly recently announced their organization to combat gun violence, Americans for Responsible Solutions, they, too, spoke of their understanding of America's gun culture. Kelly stated: "I've taken a gun to work. I flew in combat in Operation Desert Storm off the USS Midway, carrying a 9-millimeter. I certainly understand the importance and the right to own a firearm in our country."

The couple launched the group on the second anniversary of a mass shooting in which Giffords was gravely wounded. But whether the effort gains momentum in the wake of the Newtown tragedy remains to be seen. In a USA Today op-ed, Giffords noted that even after her own high-profile shooting, which "left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary — nothing at all."

Grim Statistics

For many foreigners, what's extraordinary is the sheer level of gun violence that seems to be an accepted fact of American life. Although homicides have been trending downward for years, the statistics on gun violence in the United States are staggering compared to other developed nations.

There are roughly 300 million civilian firearms in circulation in the United States, about one gun for every American — more firearms per capita than any other country in the world (Yemen ranks second). The United States also far outstrips other OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries in gun homicides. In fact, there are nearly 10 times more gun murders in the U.S. than all of the other high-income OECD countries combined. (Notably, when it comes to other forms of crime, such as burglary and assault, the United States is relatively on par with other developed nations.)

According to the National Vital Statistic Report, more than 30,000 Americans were killed by firearms in 2011, including about 11,000 gun homicides (the rest were largely suicides). That's roughly one gun-related death every 20 minutes. In comparison, the United Kingdom had 41 gun homicides in 2009, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Canada had 173, France had 35, Greece had 29, and Israel had six.

However, it's difficult to establish a direct corollary between the number of guns in circulation and gun violence. Finland, for instance, has 45 guns per 100 people (about half as much as the United States) but recorded 24 firearm homicides in 2009, UNODC reported.

Moreover, even though gun laws have actually been loosened in many states, homicides in the United States have decreased markedly since the 1980s. Today, the United States ranks in the mid-range of gun murders worldwide, with a little over three homicides per 100,000 people — versus, say, a gun homicide rate of 68 per 100,000 for Honduras.

But the numbers clearly show a yawning discrepancy when it comes to similar developed nations.

In Japan, which tightened already-strict restrictions after 22 people were fatally shot in 2007, there were 11 gun homicides in the country in 2008. To put this into perspective, that same year, nearly 600 Americans died from accidental gun discharges alone.

The United States also leads the world in mass shootings. The Associated Press compiled data on mass shootings and found that 15 of the 25 worst mass shootings over the last 50 years occurred in the United States. According to Mother Jones magazine, there have been more than 60 mass murders in the U.S. since 1982 — and in the majority of them, the killer obtained the firearm legally.

As such, many people from other nations are perplexed as to why even modest gun-control measures have become so taboo in the United States. The 9/11 terrorist attacks forced a massive restructuring of government security agencies and prompted two foreign interventions. Yet more Americans die from guns in a six-month time span than have been killed in 25 years' worth of terrorist attacks and the Iraq and Afghan wars combined.

The last major piece of gun legislation that passed Capitol Hill was the 1994 ban on assault weapons, which critics say was riddled with hundreds of loopholes, and the 1993 Brady Bill mandating background checks (though it exempted gun shows, where as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check).

Since then, even relatively noncontroversial measures have encountered stiff political resistance, such as allowing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to use computer databases to trace gun sales, or funding public health agencies to study the causes of gun violence (even doctors have been discouraged from discussing gun safety with patients).

After the Newtown shooting, Obama's instituted 23 executive actions aimed at, among other things, encouraging better information sharing among federal and local law enforcement and directing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to research gun violence.

Polls have indicated growing support for these and other measures. A Jan. 14 Pew Research Center survey showed that 85 percent of Americans favor making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks, with broad support across party lines. Similarly, 80 percent support laws to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing guns.

At the same time, polls have consistently shown overwhelming U.S. support for the right to own the kinds of guns that are responsible for the most deaths. Some 80 million Americans own a firearm, typically a handgun, which is used to commit a majority of the nation's murders — not the kind of semi-automatic weapons used in Newtown. And as research by Rand Corp. found, more than 95 percent of U.S. homicides involve a single victim. Mass shootings like Newtown, though tragic, are the exception, not the norm.

Yet there is dismal political will or public support to remove handguns off America's streets or, for that matter, amend the Constitution. Even Obama took pains to affirm that, "Like most Americans, I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms."

Comparison Caveats

Every country that engages in a meaningful national debate on gun violence does so on its own terms, through its own cultural code. In the United States, it is a matter of accounting for the deeply ingrained connection citizens see between guns and liberty. In Australia and Switzerland, two countries with high rates of gun ownership, the national dialogue after mass shootings was entirely different. Australians looked to unite behind the common goal of public safety, while the Swiss sought to restore popular faith in responsible gun ownership.

Proponents and opponents of gun control in America have cited these two countries in recent weeks to make their case for policy action or lack thereof. It is therefore worth clarifying the state of gun control in Australia and Switzerland and how the national debates took shape after mass shootings there.

In April 1996, a disturbed young man shot 35 people dead with a semi-automatic rifle in Port Arthur, Australia. Australians, who share with Americans a tradition of hunting and a frontier spirit, came together to support tight restrictions on semi-automatic weapons. Conservative Prime Minister John Howard initiated a large buyback program that is not feasible in the United States due to the proliferation of guns here (300 million guns in America versus 3 million in Australia).

"Overall, the mood in Australia was markedly different following the Port Arthur shooting compared to what I witnessed after the Columbine and Newtown shootings here in the U.S.," CNN International anchor and native Australian John Vause wrote in an email. "It was pretty clear to Australians that guns would have to be dealt with in some way.... As far as I can remember, there was never a suggestion that the answer to gun violence in Australia was to make guns more available," wrote Vause.

Prime Minister Howard's political coalition included farmers and rural Australians. "At a fair degree of political risk, Mr. Howard and Tim Fischer, the leader of the [National Party], took on their base," wrote Vause. "I vividly remember Mr. Howard wearing a bulletproof vest under his jacket when he met with gun owners and farmers to argue the case for gun reform, so there was this sense of both real and political danger."

Societal differences aside, Australians and Americans have made simple demands for solutions in response to the Port Arthur and Newtown shootings — namely restricting the kind of high-powered guns meant to maximize carnage. There was a policy debate in the Australian press, the kind of soul-searching now taking place in American media. It remains to be seen whether politicians like Mike Thompson can successfully persuade gun owners of the merits of gun control, as John Howard did with his base. Australia does not have any comparable lobby group like the NRA nor does it have a constitutional right to bear arms.

But it is hard to argue with the efficacy of the policies put in place by Australia. According to a Harvard University study, there have been no mass shootings in Australia since Port Arthur, compared with 11 in the decade before that tragedy. Moreover, a 2010 American Journal of Law and Economics report found that gun homicides in Australia dropped 59 percent between 1995 and 2006. The year 2009 saw a total of 30 gun homicides in the country, according to the United Nations.

Whereas gun-control advocates like to invoke the case of Australia, American opponents of gun control often point to Switzerland, where arms are rife and violent crime is low. The Swiss have more guns per capita than Australians, at nearly one gun for every two people, according to the Small Arms Survey. But the context is entirely different.

Switzerland requires all men to serve in the army reserves and there is a culture of communal responsibility tied to gun use. According to a recent Time magazine report, Swiss kids as young as 12 belong to groups that teach sharpshooting. The federal government tracks details of every licensed firearm and owner in the country, as well as all firearm transfers.

But, of course, a culture of responsible gun ownership is no guarantee against a mass shooting. When a gunman stormed a local parliament near Zurich and killed 14 people in 2001, the gun debate reopened in Switzerland. This debate did not come to a head until 10 years later when Swiss voters rejected a national referendum to ban army rifles from homes, opting to rely mostly on existing gun laws to tackle the problem. Like Australia, Switzerland has not had a mass shooting since this national debate (though a shooting an early January killed three people). But unlike Australia, Swiss gun policy remains largely unchanged.

Anyone wishing to apply the Swiss or Australian examples to American policy would be wise to consider cultural context. American gun violence is a beast unto itself, fueled by numerous societal and historical factors. But one positive sign after Newtown is that Americans are engaging in an open debate much the way Australians and Swiss did after their own gun horrors.

The Australian and Swiss embassies declined to be interviewed by The Diplomat for this story because of the sensitive nature of the subject. No ambassador wants to be seen as treading on an American political issue this delicate. But as the American press continues to invoke these countries' experiences with gun violence, it is worth remembering how open debate thrived at a time of national angst.


About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on January 31, 2013