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Guns don’t kill people?

January 9, 2011

I was hanging around on Twitter as I usually do last night when I saw the first breaking news of a shooting in Tucson, Arizona.  More and more information followed thick and fast.  Representative (Rep) Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and a number of other people had been shot.  Initially Rep Giffords and 6 others were reported to be dead.  Shortly after that, Rep Giffords was confirmed to be alive, but in critical condition.  As I write now, Rep Giffords is in hospital and 6 people are dead, including a 9 year-old girl.  Rep Giffords was shot in the head at close range with a handgun and it is not clear to what extent, or even if, she will recover.

A local man, Jared Loughner, aged 22 has been arrested and charged with these shootings.  He has been described in the media as a ‘cannabis smoking loner’ and was rejected by the US Army when he tried to enlist, having failed a drug test.  He was suspended from his college in September last year amid concerns he might be danger to himself or others.  In November last year he legally bought a 9mm pistol in Tucson.  Yesterday he used it.

Loughner’s motivation is unclear.  He is known to have posted a lot of material on the internet expressing his distrust of politics and religion.  A possible connection with a white supremacist movement is being investigated.  He is not co-operating with police and we may never know what processes in his mind led him to take the action that he apparently did.  I’m not even going to speculate on the possible influence of the campaign run by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party last year, in which a crosshair was placed over Arizona and Rep Giffords was named.

Gun laws in Arizona are, to British eyes, staggeringly relaxed.  Any person over 18 can buy and carry a handgun and any person over 21 can carry a concealed handgun, without any kind of permit or licence.  There are a few exceptions to this, including convicted criminals and anyone who has been found to be a danger to himself or others.  On the face of it, Loughner may have slipped through the net there.

Supporters of the right to bear arms in the US are fond of saying that guns don’t kill people, people do.  I can only assume that the people who say this haven’t had much experience with guns being used against fellow human beings.  I have been involved in a certain amount of that sort of thing and I can tell you that they are talking out of their hats.  Obviously it is people who form the intention to kill and who pull the triggers, but how many people do you think this man could have killed using a knife?  How easy would he have found it to conceal a bow and arrow about his person?

Guns make it easy for people to kill.  When they are readily available they will be used, often on impulse, by people who would otherwise find it very difficult to carry out their wishes.  It is very easy to pull a trigger.  It is quite a lot harder to kill people in other ways.  In the UK in 2008 there were 38 fatal shootings.  In the US there were 9,484 in the same year.  The population of the UK is about 61 million and the US population is about 307 million.  This means there were roughly 0.062 firearm murders per 100,000 in the UK and roughly 3.09 per 100,000 in the US.  By these (admittedly seat-of-the-pants) numbers the US firearm murder rate is nearly 50 times that of the UK.

It cannot be a coincidence that the US has far laxer gun laws than the UK.  In the UK nobody can legally own a handgun at all, nobody can legally own an automatic weapon and all other firearms are rigorously controlled and licensed.  This situation is almost entirely reversed in the US, where in many states the situation is similar to Arizona.  Even where guns are more controlled, the situation would be unrecognisable to a citizen of the UK.

I have worked with firearms all my professional life and the bottom line is that guns in the hands of disturbed or angry people do kill people.  I’ve seen it happen and I’ve picked up the pieces.  There is no place for widespread gun ownership in a modern, largely urban society.  While Americans continue to hang on to an outmoded sentence in a 200+ year-old document, they will continue to suffer thousands of gun deaths every year.  Every single one of those deaths will represent another family or families shattered, every one will be a tragedy just like the one in Tucson.  It doesn’t have to be.

My thoughts are with Rep Giffords and her family and the loved ones of the other victims of this pointless, wasteful incident.

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