America must seek ways to control guns

Thursday December 20 2012


Easy access to guns in the United States leads to horrific murder rates relative to other highly-educated and wealthy societies. America needs to find a better way.

Other countries have done so. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, Australia had several mass shootings. After a particularly horrible massacre in 1996, a new Prime Minister, John Howard, instituted a severe crackdown on gun ownership, and forced would-be owners to submit to a rigorous application process.

Conditions for gun ownership in Australia are now very strict, and the approval process can take a year or more.

Yet the US still refuses to act, even after this year’s string of shocking incidents: the massacre in a movie theatre in Colorado, an attack on a Sikh community in Milwaukee, another on a shopping mall in Oregon, and many more before the ruthless slaughter of 20 first graders and school staff in Newtown.

The gun lobby in the US remains powerful, and politicians are afraid to counter it. Given the shooting of then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, perhaps they even fear that they, too, might be targeted.

The US homicide rate is roughly four times that of comparable societies in Western Europe, and Latin America’s homicide rates are even higher than in the US (and dramatically higher than Asian countries at roughly the same income level).

What accounts for staggeringly high rates in the US and Latin America?

American violence is rooted in history. The US and Latin American countries are all “conquest” societies, in which Europeans ruled over multi-racial societies. In many of these countries, the European conquerors and their descendants nearly wiped out the indigenous populations, partly through disease, but also through war, starvation, death marches, and forced labour.

In the US and many Latin American countries, slaveholding fuelled mass violence as well. The slaves — and generations of their descendants — were routinely murdered.

Militias anachronistic

The US also developed a populist belief that gun ownership constitutes a vital protection against government tyranny. The right of citizens to organise militias to fight government tyranny was a founding idea of the new country, enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which declares that the people have the right to bear arms.

Since citizens’ militias are anachronistic, gun-owners now use the second amendment merely to defend individual gun ownership, as if that offers protection against tyranny.

A reckless, right-wing Supreme Court has agreed with them. As a result, gun ownership has become perversely linked to freedom in the vast gun-owning American sub-culture.

But, instead of protection of freedom, Americans nowadays are getting massive bloodshed and fear. The claim that gun ownership ensures freedom is especially absurd, given that most of the world’s vibrant democracies have long since cracked down on private gun ownership.

The shooting in Newtown is part of an increasingly common pattern — a specific kind of murder-suicide. Loners, often with paranoid tendencies, commit these heinous acts as part of their own suicide.

They use carefully planned and staged mass murders of innocents in order to take revenge on society and to glorify themselves as they take their own lives.

The perpetrators are pathetic, deranged, and often have struggled with mental instability for much of their lives. They need help — and society needs to keep guns out of their reach.

Prof Sachs teaches Sustainable Development, Health Policy and Management, and is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. (c): Project Syndicate, 2012.