Saturday, 15 December 2012

People, Guns, Ammunition: Which Kills?

Before you read further I would like to make one thing crystal clear. I like Americans, and have many American friends. I think America does some things better than us in the UK, for example sentencing of criminals, and the government system has a proper separation between Executive, Legislative and the Judiciary in America. Not so in the UK.

Also, I am not anti-gun per se. In school I belonged to the gun club - air rifles, and have visited the local gun club, although only once about ten years ago. My interest is purely in the skill required to accurately place a small piece of metal in a paper target hundreds of feet away. In that respect sports shooting is no different to archery or darts, both being target based skills with projectiles.

However, in the wake of the tragedy in Connecticut yesterday, there is yet again the need to address the issue of gun laws and ownership. America is not alone in gun related tragedies; in the UK we have had Hungerford, Dunblane and most recently Rothbury in Northumberland and probably others that don't come to mind at present. Norway too with the rampage of murder perpetrated by Anders Breivik Breiling. Other countries have had their tragedies too.  So it is not a uniquely American problem.

That being said, there are three main areas requiring attention:

1.  The US Constitution. What is unique to America is the belief that a right to bear arms for all is enshrined in the Second Amendment of the US Constitution.

Let's have a look at the article in question:

As passed by the Congress:

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.

As ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State:

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 two are identical, bar a capital M and a comma. What both have in common is the clear link between a 'well regulated militia' and 'the right of the people to keep and bear Arms..' It does not anywhere state ordinary citizens may bear arms just because they want to.

In reading the Constitution, or any historic document, the reader must always bear in mind the circumstances under which it was written. In the late 18th century America had only recently won independence from the United Kingdom, and the separate states had not yet formed into the United States of America which we know today - the Civil War would not unite them for another 80 years or more. In the article linked above a clear point is made by those involved that

a) A land-owner should be allowed to hunt on his own land, requiring a gun to do so.
b) Each State had a legal obligation to operate a militia in order to quell insurrection etc. In fact there is a clear point made with regard to the military aspect of the right to bear arms.

2.  Even today America has wildlife capable of killing; bears, rattlesnakes, wolves, coyotes etc. Thus it makes sense that a person who commonly goes into the wilds hiking, for instance, should be allowed to arm themselves with a rifle for self defence. It even makes sense, to a slightly lesser degree, to allow people who live in cities to own hand guns for personal and home protection.

It does not make sense, in any conceivable scenario for a private citizen to own an automatic weapon, or semi-automatic larger than a handgun.

a) Automatic / assault rifles cannot be carried openly, even in America.
b) They are almost useless for home protection as the owner would spend too much time wielding a bulky weapon in a restricted environment.

Therefore at the very most, only handguns should be in the possession of private citizens, unless they can show a definite requirement for a rifle. In the latter case there is no justification for automatic weapons in private hands.

3.  There is an old saying, almost always used in these cases to justify gun ownership. 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.' This seems to be saying it's perfectly alright for everyone to have guns because only some of them will kill each other. When you realise that interpretation you realise how wrong the statement is. However, it is half right. In my opinion the full saying should be:

'Guns don't kill people, the ammunition in guns kills people.'

This brings up an issue which time after time is totally ignored and needs repeating. We are told that the killer in Connecticut yesterday had around 200 rounds of ammunition, an assault rifle and two hand guns. Point 2 above covered the aspect that there is no logical reason a private citizen should have had an assault rifle.

Current reports state 27 people died, which means about 1 in 7 of his rounds caused someone's death. Had there been stricter controls on the ammunition, and he'd only been allowed handguns, the situation would have been far less of a tragedy - still a tragedy for his victims' families of course and even one death in these circumstances is abhorrent. However, the average hand gun holds approximately 10 rounds, a revolver average of six; had be been armed with one of these and proper control of ammunition sales had been in force, with an average of 1/7 shots killing someone the death toll would have been one at most.

My speciality is in IT, specifically Software Development. It would not take a competent database developer very long at all to augment the existing gun owner database in America - presumably operated by the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) - to add a record for ammunition purchases. Under such a system it would be much easier, albeit not foolproof, to track ammunition purchases.  For example:

a) Purchaser enters store and shows gun licence (I would make this a prerequisite even for ammunition purchase). I would also place an upper limit on the volume of a single purchase.
b) Purchases ammunition and leaves store.
c) Purchaser enters another store and attempts to buy more. Upon seeing their gun licence and entering it into the system the owner would see the prior purchase and refuse the sale.

While it is not a perfect system by any means, it could be strengthened with safeguards, such as a requirement to justify why someone was making regular purchases, and a centralised system could be devised to detect unusual patterns in purchasing.

[Addendum: Following the first statement by the National Rifle Association - NRA - of America it seems appropriate to update this blog to reflect on their statements.]

They claim that designating schools as gun free zones tells 'every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk.'

There are two problems with that statement:

1. There is an assumption that all killers are insane and doesn't accept that some may have a motive for what they do, such as terrorism.
2. If gun control was tighter then the 'insane killers' couldn't cause their 'mayhem' as they wouldn't find obtaining guns and ammunition so easy.

Secondly they claim violence in video games and films is to blame for portraying murder as 'a way of life'. If this were true then tragedies such as Newtown would be a far more common occurence as everyone who saw a violent film would go out and re-enact their favourite scenes. This doesn't happen, and there are enough examples of mass murderers who didn't - in some case couldn't - have that kind of influence to refute the suggestion, for example these from the UK:

Myra Hindley and Ian Brady: - Active between 1963-65, they had no access to violent films or computer game - neither video players nor home computers had been invented.
Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper: - Active between 1969 (assault) and 1975-80; 13 murders - no link to violent movies was ever mentioned and his activities were prior to home computers.
Fred and Rose West: - Active between 1967 and 1987 first he, and then the pair murdered 11 young women and girls. Again prior to home computers, and no mention ever of violent movies.
Harold Shipman: - Active between 1975 and 1998 - 250 murders officially ascribed to him. A 53 year old doctor in 1998 who in at least one case killed a patient having had her change her will leaving £386,000 to him, therefore showing premeditation and a clear motive, ergo not insane. Unlikely that he watched violent movies or played computer games. Yet he was the most prolific mass murderer in British history.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is Jack The Ripper. I don't think it's necessary to give a link to his exploits as he is infamous, other than to point to the fact he was active between 1888 and 1891. No more need be said regarding computer games or movies I think.

The truth is that in order to kill, a person must possess a propensity to kill already. The stimulus for the act could be anything, a perceived slight, an attack, jealousy etc. Saying that violence in games and movies causes murders is like saying going to church makes a person want to join the priesthood. While a small minority who go to church may want to join the priesthood, the likelihood is that they already wanted to which is why they went to church.

People who murder may well play computer games and watch violent movies, but that is because they already enjoy the violence; it doesn't make them violent. They are unable to separate fictional scenes in games or movies from reality, and that is a mental illness which is not caused by the input they receive.

I will concede there is a possibility that the person who wants to kill may glean ideas on how from games or movies. However the obvious counter to this argument is that to the victim it matters little where their killer got the idea from, they are still just as dead.

The NRA say 'The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun'. Well now that's not entirely true, as there are many non-lethal methods of stopping an armed assailant from pepper spray and tear gas, to rubber bullets and tasers. Stopping him getting near his target is an obvious non-lethal method; simple security doors and metal detectors will achieve this aim. What the NRA's argument glosses over is the fact that if the good guy is shot and killed, his gun will be stolen and there is another illegal weapon on the streets - or in his hands in the school.

The NRA advocate armed security in every school, drawn from retired active and retired police officers, security professionals and firefighters. In a nutshell the NRA, instead of having one possible gunman with a handgun and limited ammunition - which is what the suggested ammunition control would result in - would have what is essentially a Private Military Contractor (PMC) conducting a firefight within a school. Now I know the Special Forces are capable of Hostage Rescue in situations like this with minimal loss of life to the captives, but really? A PMC in every school is the best option? In my opinion all this will do is add to the death toll, as any killer - insane or otherwise - will factor in the additional opposition, be heavier armed with protection, and the only difference is the armed guards will be the first to die.

As for their claim that a ban on assault weapons would not have any effect, perhaps they'd like to explain their reasoning on that one in detail. I have no idea what possible logic could lie behind that statement.

I'll end with a quotation. In 1937 a Spanish town named Guernica was virtually flattened by German bombers fighting on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In the aftermath of the attack a poster was created with the slogan;

'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.'

The warning, unheeded then, was stark.

'If you do nothing now, the next time it may be your children who die.'

Please America.. don't ignore this warning, don't let more of your children die..

[NB. If you recognise the slogan, yes, the Manic Street Preachers used it in their lyrics.]

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