How to Drastically Reduce Gun Violence

by Benjamin Studebaker

Yesterday, 28 people were killed in a Newtown, Connecticut school, including 20 children, as most of you will have probably already heard. There has been an outpouring of emotional support and sympathy for the victims, their families, and the town more broadly, but this is wholly insufficient. Our sympathies are of no use to the next group of homicide victims. And let’s not kid ourselves–somewhere tonight, there are other children out there blissfully unaware that their lives will be similarly cut short by some vicious murderer whom they have yet to meet. Our inaction condemns these people to die, and we must not abide that. So rather than post Facebook statuses about how bad you feel after the children have already been killed and their lives and the lives of their parents already ruined, let’s get serious and have a serious discussion about how we can start drastically reducing the number of people killed by murderers with guns.

There are two broad groups of measures I’d like to investigate:

  1. Reducing the number of people with guns
  2. Reducing the number of people who want to kill other people

Both are important–while it’s often said that “guns don’t kill people; people do”, it is important to note that when people do kill other people, they usually do it with guns, and those guns enable them to kill much larger numbers of people than they otherwise would. If the Connecticut shooter had been armed with a knife, I very much doubt the death toll would have been nearly so very high.

First off, gun reduction. We are usually told in America that getting rid of guns is a futile business, that reducing the number of guns would have no impact on the number of criminals with guns, or the number of people killed with them. This is a theoretical argument, one which often people feel they do not have sufficient empirical evidence to either confirm or deny, so the argument tends to just go back and forth, with nothing being done. We cannot have that–it is imperative that we do something, so I shall try to resolve the empirical argument. Too often the guns issue is looked at exclusively with a view to American laws on guns and their effectiveness. None of these laws have been comprehensive in the way that European gun laws have been. In cities and states that explore gun bans, guns can still be imported from neighbouring towns or states. In Europe, the gun laws are national, with outside imports very much reduced as a result. Let’s explore the relationship between number of gun deaths and number of guns on an international level, then see which theory has the right of it:

Guns by Country

The data I used is easy to find online here, here, here, and here. I’m no statistician, but the two factors seem pretty obviously related to me. On the strength of this empirical evidence, we can throw out all the arguments that claim that decreasing the number of guns does not have a positive impact on reducing gun violence. It’s very clear that, if we could reduce the number of guns in the United States down merely to Canadian, let alone say, British, Dutch, or Japanese levels, we would see a significant decline in the number of people being killed with guns. Let’s really drive home the point here:

Country Number of Times Higher Death Rate in USA Number of Times More Guns per 100,000 in USA
Japan 128.6 148.0
United Kingdom 40.9 14.3
Netherlands 19.6 22.8
Spain 14.3 8.5
Australia 8.7 5.9
Germany 8.2 2.9
Italy 7.0 7.5
France 3.0 3.0
Canada 1.9 2.9
Switzerland 1.4 1.9

How did the poster children for safety–Japan, the UK, the Netherlands–get so many guns off the street? In the aftermath of World War I, Britain had a tremendously high number of guns. Here’s what they did:

  1. 1920 Firearms Act–Required certificates to purchase firearms, these lasted three years, and specified both the type of gun that could be purchased and the amount of ammunition. Allowed police constables discretion as to who could have the certificate. Made the right to bear arms, dated from 1689, conditional on permission from the police and the Home Secretary. Crime to own a firearm without a certificate, punishable by 50 pound fine (far larger than it is today) and 3 months in prison.
  2. 1933 Firearms and Criminal Use Act–Cannot possess a firearm unless the bearer can prove to the officer that it is being used for a lawful purpose. Crime to use a firearm to resist arrest, punishable by 14 years in prison.
  3. 1937 Firearms Act–Raised minimum gun age from 14 to 17, total ban on automatic firearms, “self-defence” no longer considered an acceptable justification to apply for a certificate, more policy liberty to fix conditions on certificates, extended certificates to more weapons left out of earlier laws.
  4. 1968 Firearms Act–Codified in a single document all firearm regulation.
  5. 1988 Firearms Amendment Act–Applicants must provide good reason for possessing a firearm (self-defence considered invalid), firearms must be locked up, ammunition must be locked up separately from the firearm, full ban on guns for criminals, firearms amnesties were declared in which guns were handed into the police.
  6. 1997 Firearms Amendment No.2 Act–Handguns banned with few exceptions.

What about in the even more restrictive Japanese case? In Japan, the only guns a person can buy legally are shot guns and air rifles and even to get those you have to do all this:

  • Take an all-day class and pass a written test, offered once a month.
  • Take and pass a shooting range class.
  • Take and pass a mental fitness class.
  • Take and pass a drug test.
  • Pass a background check.

Then you have to inform the police of the specific location of the gun in your home, along with that of the ammunition, store the two in separate locked compartments, receive a police inspection once a year to ensure compliance, and retake the classes and tests every three years. Rather than starting from a right to bear arms, the Japanese start from a prohibition and go on to add exceptions:

No person shall possess a firearm or firearms or a sword or swords

These are all policies the United States should emulate, starting with the removal of the second amendment so that courts cannot strike down these measures. Policies should be implemented by the federal government at the national level to ensure that guns are not just imported from other states or municipalities. We should target a gun violence rate first equivalent to the Swiss, then to the Germans/French/Canadians, and then finally to the British/Dutch/Japanese.

Now, some of you will note, and note rightly, that there is still room for discrepancy at a given level of gun ownership. The Germans, French, and Canadians all have around the same number of guns, but their gun violence rates differ. We should also target the sociological factors that influence people to become murderers in the first place by attacking poverty, social alienation, mental illness, lack of education, and so on down the line. The Germans, who manage to maintain Australia-level gun fatalities at a Canadian-level gun possession rate, are a good example in these areas.

But doing the one does not mean ignoring the other. We must reduce both the tendency of people to murder and the lethality of the objects with which they murder so that, when they do murder, they are less effective. You’ve seen the chart, you know it works. The rate of gun deaths in the United States is unacceptable, the data points to a clear and obvious policy solution, every day we delay in implementing that solution directly leads to more people, more children, dying as those in the Connecticut massacre, the Colorado movie theatre, Virginia Tech, Columbine, and the anonymous thousands on the streets of America’s cities and towns every year died. Think of the waste, the terrible loss to the nation that are all these murdered people. And for what? The right to bear arms? What value does that have? What positive social advantage comes from people having guns that countervails the thousands upon thousands of people who are killed every year in this country with guns?

Ban them, confiscate them, and melt them down. Do it now.