The right of the people to keep and bear arms: Part IV

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Pros and cons of gun laws across the world

Photo: Re-enactment of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, conducted by the coroner's office. Provided by the Chicago History Museum.

April 18, 2018 — “There are countries that have only the tiniest fraction of gun deaths that we have because they’ve taken steps to make sure they don’t proliferate and don’t get into the wrong hands,” said a gun reform demonstrator at the Florence March for Our Lives support march last month. “In Australia, they did a gun buyback and that was their last mass shooting. After their last mass shooting, they had a law that essentially recalled virtually all weapons.”

The debate over gun laws in America often turns to how other countries handle the issue, with either side pointing to a country that most mirrors their political belief in hopes to sway opinion. If it works there, the argument goes, then it can work here.

But are the laws implemented in other countries really as helpful as people say? This article seeks to look at how they compare in relation to the U.S.’s gun laws and gun culture by looking at the effectiveness of weapons bans, buyback programs and gun-free zones.

In addition, what are the responsibilities of gun owners in America in relation to these laws?

Part IV of this series will examine gun laws in other countries, starting with Australia.

 

Australia and Switzerland

In 1996, a man killed 35 people and wounded 18 at the tourist town of Port Arthur using an AR-15 rifle. That was the second mass shooting that year, following a rampage killing in Hillcrest, Queensland, where a man killed six members of his family.

Just 12 days after the incident, the government introduced sweeping gun control legislation that would ban importation, ownership, sale, resale, transfer, possession, manufacture or use of all self-loading center-fire rifles, all self-loading and pump action shotguns and all self-loading rimfire rifles.

There was a compensatory buyback scheme, where Australians sold 640,000 prohibited firearms to the government, and voluntarily surrendered another 60,000. All firearms had to be registered, and gun owners had to prove a “genuine reason” for owning a firearm, including occupational uses or memberships in target shooting clubs.

Since then, it has been claimed that there have been no mass shootings in Australia, though that depends on one’s definition of a mass shooting. There have been shootings, including a school shooting in 2002 and an ISIS-inspired hostage attack in 2014. But under many statistical models, these incidences would not be considered mass shootings — the majority were either family/friend disputes, or terrorism, which often gets left off of mass shooting lists. And they also did not have the general baseline of four or more people dead. If that metric is included, there were zero mass shootings after the ban.

But even if the loosest definition of mass shooting was used, the numbers are still lower than they were before the ban was put in place.

In the 14 years before it, there were approximately 13 gun massacres. Fourteen years later, there were only six.

Was the gun ban the cause of the reduction? Possibly, though it’s hard to prove definitively.

In March 2018, the non-partisan publication Science Daily looked at a new report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on the issue.

“Most people hear these starkly contrasting numbers and conclude that Australia’s gun law reforms effectively stopped firearm massacres here,” Science Daily reported. “However, some scholars and members of the gun lobby have argued that since mass shootings are relatively rare events, the concentration of incidents in one decade and their absence in another decade is merely a statistical anomaly. The long gap between incidents post-1996 may simply reflect a return to a more ‘normal’ state of affairs.”

The article also pointed out that some argue it is a big leap to believe a 22-year decline of mass shootings is simply an anomaly. In fact, the odds against that hypothesis are 200,000 to one.

In 2017, the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org stated that there was no hard evidence for the argument either way. The site did admit that there was a drastic decrease in homicides after the gun ban, dropping 23 percent from 1996 to 2013. However, that decline began before 1996.

There was a study done in 2011 that showed the average firearm homicide rate per 100,000 before the ban was .43, but dropped to .25 seven years after the ban.

“No study has explained why gun deaths were falling, or why they might be expected to continue to fall,” the website reported. “That poses difficulty in trying to definitively determine the impact of the law.”

While Australia is often pointed to as a bellwether for less guns, gun-rights advocates point to Switzerland as a reason to actually have more guns.

According to the research group Small Arms Survey in 2007, Switzerland ranks third in gun ownership per capita throughout the world, and has a lower rate of violent crime.

The country ranks 147th in the world for violent crime, per the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2010.

But Switzerland also has stringent gun ownership rules, many of which some American gun rights advocates would strongly oppose. For example, to purchase most guns, the government fully vets a potential buyer, including consulting a psychiatrist.

People with alcohol addiction issues are prohibited from owning a gun, and purchasers must pass a handling and shooting test if they are going to buy a gun for defensive purposes. Many owners have also had training from mandatory military service.

But as people point to different countries to uphold their arguments on gun control, there are a multitude of factors that get lost in the argument, from social support systems and universal access to mental health care, to systemic problems like drug trades and sectarian violence.

Ultimately, there are many elements that can influence a country’s crime rate when it comes to firearms. This is not to say that researching other countries’ attitudes and laws surrounding guns can’t be helpful when crafting U.S. policies.

There are multiple tactics used around the world that could potentially help the U.S. determine a path to reducing mass shootings — but no one country can act as a solution, because no one country mirrors the laws of the United States.

In fact, many of the laws that Australia passed have already been put in place in America. Some still exist, while others were found unconstitutional. To understand why, we have to go back to Al Capone.

 

Unwanted guns

While it may seem that the recent rash of public gun violence in America is a new phenomenon, mass shootings and other acts of public violence goes back nearly a century. So too does the tug of war between gun rights and gun control. One of the first modern debates happened during the era of prohibition.

In 1929, the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago left seven dead as mobster Capone sought to consolidate control by eliminating his rivals in the trades of bootlegging, gambling and prostitution. While the massacre was never linked to Capone, the victims were associates of the Irish gangster George “Bugs” Moran, a fierce competitor.

That massacre wasn’t an anomaly during the time. There was a constant barrage of gangland warfare reports spread across nation, horrifically displayed in newspapers and idolized on screen with stars like James Cagney.

America was just as scared of gun violence then as it is today.

In 1934, the National Firearms Act (NFA) was passed to restrict access to certain firearms, including submachine guns, like the popular “Chicago Typewriter” Tommy gun, shotguns and rifles having barrels less than 18 inches, and firearm mufflers and silencers.

The NFA didn’t ban these firearms and accessories outright, but put a $200 tax on the them, which is equivalent to $3,500 in today’s currency. In addition, the firearms had to be registered with the Secretary of the Treasury.

While the act was used as a deterrent to purchase these firearms, it was used even more to prosecute those who were found with them; if a gangster was found with an unlicensed weapon, then more fines and jail time could be lobbied against them.

But that practice brought up some very difficult constitutional issues that have little or nothing to do with the Second Amendment.

In the 1960s, Miles Edward Haynes was charged with failing to register a firearm under the NFA. Haynes argued that, because he was a convicted felon, requiring him to register the weapon and making an open admission to the government that he was violating the law, he was being forced to violate his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.

In 1968, the Supreme Court agreed with Haynes, and mandatory gun registration on a federal level was stricken.

The year of the Haynes case was yet another period where gun violence was sweeping the nation. Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963. Urban riots began flooding the streets in 1964.

A whole host of crime legislation was passed in response, including the controversial Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, which clarified rules for wiretap orders, and the Gun Control Act (GCA).

While the GCA couldn’t create a blanket registration requirement because of the Hayes decision, it could prohibit certain classes of people from owning a firearm, including felons and those who were involuntarily committed to a mental institution.

This was constitutionally legal because it was a punitive extension of a crime already committed.

More controversial portions of the Safe Streets Act put restrictions on gun sellers and interstate sales, and led to accusations that the government used those rules to drive sellers out of business. To counteract that, in 1986, the Firearm Owners Protection Act was passed, rescinding many of the gun sellers’ restrictions from 1968. That bill also marked the first times that gun legislation officially banned a weapon that was widely distributed: machine guns.

(That law was covered more extensively in Part I of this series.)

In 1993, America was under yet another sustained barrage of crime reports. The crack-cocaine epidemic had been rising and racial tensions in cities like Los Angeles were turning into mass riots.

In response, the Brady Handgun Violence Act was passed, creating the National Instant Criminal Background Check System that would help gun sellers find those who are already deemed unable to buy firearms. It should be noted that the Background system does not act as a national registry; once the checks are completed, any information regarding individual gun ownership is to be deleted.

In fact, the 1986 act prohibited any governmental agency from creating a registry that ties firearms directly to their owners.

These examples are a sample of the myriad of different laws throughout the country and can create confusion among gun owners as to where and how they are able purchase or own guns. Volumes could — and have — been written on these laws, but it shows just how widely gun control has been attempted throughout the last century.

Taken as a whole, most of these laws mirror Australia’s laws, in one way or another.

One of the major actions of Australia’s gun control effort, the buyback program, has been put into motion in the U.S. multiple times by different states — but none have been considered wildly successful. Austin, Texas, has held two buyback programs, one in 2010 with $100 VISA gift cards for each handgun or rifle, and $200 for what they determined to be “assault weapons” were offered.

All told, 736 firearms were brought in, but only seven “assault rifles.” None of the guns had been involved with crimes, and it was found that “most of the firearms received were unwanted guns that were gifted or bequeathed by will,” according to a report by the Hawaiian Attorney General’s office, who looked into the efficacy of these programs.

It is unclear if the Austin buyback programs, which cost The Greater Austin Crime Commission $70,000, led to any decrease in crime.

The cornerstone of Australia’s law, the banning of “assault weapons,” was attempted in 1994 with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a sweeping crime law that included a 10-year, temporary ban on certain firearms, including some semi-automatic rifles and pistols and magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

After the law sunsetted, both sides of the gun debate claimed victory, with reformers saying it reduced crimes with assault weapons — and gun rights advocates stating that it was a failure. While both of these arguments have merit, neither are completely accurate.

In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice looked into the effectiveness of the program and found fixed messages. When speaking with Factcheck.org, the lead investigator for the study found that while there were less incidences of the “assault weapons” being used after the ban, the benefits were outweighed by the rise in frequency of crimes using  non-banned semi-automatic weapons.

Criminals were just swapping out the types of guns they used.

Lethality of the injuries were also not being affected by the ban.

But that’s not to say the ban could not have had a greater effect if it had been put in place for a longer period of time. Because the ban allowed existing “assault weapons” to remain, it’s possible that over time these guns could have become so scarce that they would eventually be non-existent, as happened with machine guns.

The 10-year ban didn’t have time to make that kind of a statistical impact.

But still, Factcheck.org also pointed out that only 2 percent of all firearm-related crimes involved the listed “assault weapons.”

So even if the ban was able to play out, it wouldn’t have had a drastic effect on overall crime. But, proponents would argue, some progress is better than no progress at all.

Putting general violent crime aside, would getting rid of “assault weapons,” or the accessories involved in the shootings, work to curb the death toll of mass shootings?

Much was made about “bump stocks” after the Las Vegas gunman used them to gain more rapid fire with his semi-automatic rifles. But a stock is not needed to bump-fire a rifle. The same effect can be used just in the way a gunman holds their rifle.

In fact, bump-firing a gun, stock or no, decreases accuracy because the entire firearm needs to move in order to reset the trigger during bumpfire.

And what about banning an “assault rifle,” like an AR-15?

“The AR-15 has become the weapon of choice, but there are other weapons that you can use that will cause as much damage,” Florence Police Commander John Pitcher said. “If you had two pistols that carry 15 rounds each, you could shoot as many rounds out of that as an AR15.”

Pitcher also brought up armor-piercing bullets, which can be equally devastating no matter what gun fires them.

With 20 years of experience on the force and an avowed bipartisan on the issue, he sees both sides of the gun debate without bias.

“You’re never going to get rid of all guns,” he said. “That’s never going to happen. Even if they did a ban right now, there’s millions of guns out there. I don’t know anybody who’s going to go to someone’s house and start taking their guns away.”

If getting rid of all the guns isn’t the answer to mass shootings, what about arming more people?

 

“Good guy with a gun”

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, National Rifle Association (NRA) Vice President Wayne LaPierre stated, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.”

The suggestion was to get more trained personnel, like resource officers, into schools to help prevent school shootings. But the debate has dovetailed into an even broader question: Do “good guys with guns” make society safer?

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Pitcher said. “I think, just like everything in society, most people are good people. If they have a gun, they’re not going to use it illegally. But you also have that percentage that aren’t good people, and those are the people that scare me.

“It’s not like TV, where I can see, ‘This is the good guy, this is the bad guy.’ In real life, the good guys and the bad guys look the same for the most part.”

However, there are multiple examples of good guys with guns making a difference.

In May 2017, a gunman entered a sports bar in Arlington, Texas, with two loaded guns and two knives and began yelling at the bar’s manager before killing him. At that point, a man with a concealed handgun permit shot the gunman, and is credited with saving lives.

In June 2016, a man opened fire in a South Carolina bar, shooting and wounding four before a man with a concealed weapons permit fired back, wounding and stopping the gunman.

But there are tragic incidences where good guys with guns don’t make a difference.

In July 2016, a man in Dallas targeted a massive crowd protesting the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police.

There were nearly 100 armed police officers at the protest, yet the shooter killed five officers in total and was only stopped by a remotely detonated bomb after a lengthy standoff. Adding to the chaos of the scene were about 20 protesters with ammo gear, protective equipment and rifles slung over their shoulders.

The police didn’t know if any of them were the shooter, so they began rounding up all of them.

“When the shooting started, at different angles, they started running and we started catching,” said Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, as quoted by the Dallas News.

The mayor questioned if the shooting could have been stopped sooner if there were not so many armed citizens in the middle of the fray.

It was also noted that those civilians who attempted to fire back at the shooter created more chaos for police, attempting to figure out who the shooter actually was.

In 2005, a civilian and firearms instructor fired upon a rampage shooter outside a courthouse in Tyler, Texas, but was instantly killed by the heavily armoured shooter.

And then there are examples of armed civilians choosing not to engage gunmen.

During the 2015 Umpqua Community College (UCC) shooting in Roseburg, Ore., an armed veteran who was on campus during the shooting said he avoided getting involved because he didn’t want to open himself up to being a potential target by the police when they arrived.

The UCC shooting became a point of controversy over the “good guy” debate when Florida State Rep. Greg Steube sponsored a bill in his state allowing open carry because UCC was a “gun-free zone.”

In fact, the college wasn’t.

Oregon allows students to bring guns on campuses, as long as the college permits it as well.

Gun rights advocates often point to “gun-free” zones as a cause for mass shootings, arguing that shooters specifically target these areas because of their supposed lack of guns. But that assumption shows an inherent misunderstanding of mass shooters.

A 2013 FBI study on active shooters found that the majority location for a shooting was a business, with 45.6 percent of incidents occurring at them. That was followed by schools at 24.4 percent. Only 9.4 percent of shootings occurred in open spaces.

A quick look at the most deadly workplace shootings shows that the shooters had a direct connection to their target locations. The deadliest shooting was in 1986 at the Edmond, Okla., U.S. Post Office, where a disgruntled employee killed 15 and injured 6 after being verbally disciplined.

The Atlanta day trading spree killings of 1999 took place at the shooter’s home as well as two trading firms the shooter had worked for.

As for schools, the Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School shootings were all carried out by current or former students. Even shooters with no personal connection don’t appear to base plans on “gun-free zones.”

An often-stated claim is that the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooter chose his location because it was specifically a gun-free zone — the other movie theaters in the area did not post gun restrictions, therefore the shooter must have chosen that particular theater because it was “gun-free.”

But gun advocate publication The Truth About Guns disputes this claim in a 2015 article. The shooter had narrowed his locations down to two places, an airport or a movie theater. He originally wanted to attack an airport, but along with concerns about federal security, he was worried about his actions being mistaken for terrorism.

So he opted for the theater.

The shooter never mentioned gun free zones and was wearing heavy armor, suggesting he was expecting crossfire. But more importantly, he had no intention of leaving the scene alive. In fact, of those mass shooters who leave behind records, few had escape plans; they knew they would either be killed by someone else or take their own life.

In regard to a good guy with a gun, Pitcher stresses the point that, “If you’re going to put yourself in the position to help people and prevent these things, you need to have that training. There’s different types of training you can do, video training, firearm experts. It’s a lot for your average citizen to put themselves through that training, but if you decide to do it, you need to train, on an ongoing basis.”

But the data shows that not all gun owners are as responsible in their training, even the good guys.

While research on whether or not owners train in firearms is scant, in August 2017, Reuters reported that a University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle found only 61 percent of firearm owners in the U.S. received formal training. Individuals who owned both handguns and long-guns for multiple purposes, like hunting and protection, were more likely to have training.

But many of those who only used firearms for protection did not get training.

So are more guns really an answer? Even for those who are comfortable and familiar with guns, the very presence of one can create hesitation.

“In any situation where someone else has a gun, they’re going to be nervous,” Pitcher said.

Just because Americans have the right to bear arms doesn’t necessarily mean more guns is the solution to gun violence. The answer to that lies in the cross section of politics, taxes, the media and culture — all of which will be explored in the final part of this series in the April 25 edition of Siuslaw News.

 Note: This is part 4 of a continuing series. Find additional installments in the Special Series Archive, located here.