Monday, 17 December 2012

The Vexed Question ...

Reactions to the tragedy in Connecticut have been interesting, some might say, in some quarters, insensitive. Predictably there have been calls for an outright ban on firearms, something I find myself, as a former gun owner, opposed to. I do not believe a "disarmed" public is safer. Plus, if the UK's crime statistics are to be trusted, the immediate effect of the Blair government's ban on the ownership of handguns resulted instead in a huge leap in the use of illegally owned guns in crimes. That is reflected in the Australian statistics as well since the introduction on a firearms ban there.

The fact is that many countries which do have a high proportion of gun ownership do not have the same high death rates with them as the US. Canada has as many gun owners per capita as the US, but less than a tenth of the number of gun related deaths, and the same applies to Sweden. Norway also has a high proportion of gun ownership and only one recorded "amoklauf" as the German's have it - that of the lunatic Brivik and most of the weapons he used were not "legal." 

The abuse of firearms is always a problem, just as is the abuse of any other lethal weapon. I suspect that in the day of William II "Rufus," there could well have been calls for the banning of Long Bows after one "accidentally went off" while he was hunting and killed him. I think we can be sure he wasn't the only such casualty either. Weapons of any sort are dangerous, but in the hands of someone responsible are no more than a threat. And therein, I think, lies the problem.

Samuel Colt, the man who created the .44 (and the later .45 "Peacemaker") calibre six shot revolver which became the best known handgun of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, called his guns "the Equalisers." No longer was the strongest man around able to enforce his will on others, with a Colt revolver in his hand, even a weakling or a woman had the same authority. The trouble is that this mindset seems to have become entrenched, and I can think of several popular movies where the possession (and the willingness to use it) of a firearm has swayed the outcome of a confrontation between a "baddie" and a much less powerful "goodie" in favour of the weaker party.

That is one aspect of what seems to underlie many of these incidents. But there does seem to be another element in play, one that is extremely sensitive. In fact it is, ironically the same lobby that demands the outright ban on weapons that refuses to assess or discuss the part this may play.

A study of the last such tragic shooting spree in the US turned up the fact that the perpetrator was a sociopath. A look by the same researchers found a similar pattern in other such incidents (indeed, it applies to Brivik as well) and there is another element to it, the use of antidepressant medications seems to increase the risk posed by some people with similar conditions. One researcher suggest these "amoklaufers" suffer from an Asperger's-like Syndrome and likens it to a form of Autism. Now, here is the super sensitive part, there are a lot of people who suffer from Asperger's and Autism, but the vast majority learn to manage their condition and don't go on murder sprees! So what could explain the few that do? 

The simple answer seems to be the use or abuse of anti-depressants. But even that doesn't seem to be the whole answer, there do seem to be other influences and triggers in play, as yet only vaguely identified and understood. OK, that seems to go some way toward explaining the sort of mass shootings, but it doesn't explain these statistics - 

An ongoing nationwide study by the Violence Policy Center documents that since May 2007, citizens legally allowed to carry concealed handguns have killed at least 14 law enforcement officers and 499 private citizens, including 35 shooters who killed themselves after the attack.

In Michigan, from July 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, 38 lives were ended by Michigan concealed handgun permit holders in non-self-defense deaths. In addition, conceal carry licensees have committed at least 23 mass shootings (three or more victims) that claimed a total of 103 innocent lives.   (With thanks to a lawyer friend in the US)

Other statistics show that the average death toll in the US is around 40 people per day in shooting incidents, and here the difference appears to be that in the US a lot of people seem to feel a need to carry their weapons on their person. Why? Those who defend this claim it is to "protect themselves." 

My friends know how I feel about the right to self defence and to defend my property and family and the useless UK legal position on it. That would see me charged with "assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm" if I dared to injure some scumbag breaking and entering my home, or who assaulted me, my wife or my family members in the street. The whole of that depends on whether some smart lawyer can convince the court that my response was "unreasonable" or that I used "disproportionate" force in my defence or even a weapon not available to the criminal. Either way, I could end up being convicted for defending myself. That said, the US obsession with the use of lethal weapons for self-defence does seem to go way beyond the realms of "reasonable" even in my book.

Reading the reports and the available information on previous massacres perpetrated by people like the young man in Connecticut, does suggest that there needs to be a much tighter control on the issue of licences to possess firearms and to use them. I would suggest that a great deal of careful thought needs to be given to the mental conditions of those who have committed these crimes, and then there needs to be a very careful appraisal of the conditions which pertain, politically and socially, that give rise to the feeling of insecurity that drives many to wish to own a firearm for "self-defence."

Care must be taken to get the right controls in place. These need to address some of the extremely tricky issues such as the mental state and the medications used among many other things. That may require a type of "profiling" of applicants. This must not be rushed and the emotions must not be used to guide the solution. Emotive responses are seldom either rational or, in the longer term, the answer.

And while it continues, we should all pray for the latest victims, the families and friends - and for those who must find the answers. 


  1. The Monk and I agree almost totally on the topic of gun ownership and control, it is not guns that kill people, it is people that kill people.

    I was, however, interested to hear that the US death toll per day is around 40! So in actual fact the Connecticut deaths were a mere blip in a background head-count of war-time proportions. I am also led to believe that Switzerland is another example of a country with a very high per-capita weapon ownership, but a vanishingly small number of injuries or deaths attributable to the use or misuse of firearms.

    I believe that the US has two, or possibly three inherent factors that contribute to the high death toll in firearms incidents; the half is the fact that in the lower 49 States, gun control regulation varies so dramatically as to make it senseless to refer to “the USA” in respect of gun-law. The two factors I consider to be high up the list of “contributory negligence” are:

    Firstly, the interpretation of the Constitutional “right to bear arms” read as if it were a Q'uranic verse, brooking of no possible change throughout the ages. That rule was written in a time where outside of the major East-coast cities, there was little if any, rule of law. Some might say there is little today if Chief Wiggum of Springfield is as representative of small-town law enforcement as I believe he is, and well supported by a thoroughly corrupt Mayor but saved by a benevolent judge. The rural areas of most of the US between LA & NY probably does require a degree of firearms ownership for a variety of reasons, but the “concealed carry” laws in Michigan worry me immensely, what proportion of suited businessmen in downtown Detroit are packing firearms in shoulder-holsters? I would much rather be next to a Texan with his pearl-handled Smith & Wesson revolvers openly on view in a classic cowboy-style gun-belt. I would suggest that in urban areas there is no excuse for any citizen to carry private firearms, if there is, vote in a new Mayor and Police Chief!

    Secondly, the apparent lack of investigation of a person's mental state, criminal record or social responsibility in granting ownership. This is not meant to be a way of saying “make it harder to get arms,” it is simply a plea to recognise that with arms comes a high degree of social responsibility; I am led to believe that the Connecticut incident was perpetrated using guns belonging to the attacker's mother. Does she leave them lying around like Homer Simpson? Does she let her Son “max-out” her credit card simply because she couldn't care less, or is she intimidated by him, or worse? (cont.)

  2. (cont.)
    Or perhaps, I should say “did she” as his mother was the first victim; I think that Matricide is somewhat more challenging as an act than random shooting, although both display certain psychopathic behaviours.

    Richard Novia, who was head of security at Newtown High School, said it was clear Lanza had "some disabilities", hinting at Autism and Asberger's, but he was also known as a shy and withdrawn personality. So then, since the weapons were not his and he was not an overt “killer-type” screening obviously wouldn't work.

    Most people in the UK heard that it was a “.22” rifle and assumed that it was some sort of “pop-gun”, they are probably not connecting 0.22 inch with 5.56mm, the calibre of the SA80 assault weapon used by British forces. In addition, soft-nosed hunting bullets appear to have been used; Connecticut medical examiner H Wayne Carver said on Saturday, "The bullets are designed in such a fashion that the energy is deposited in the tissue and so the bullet stays in," Our troops are expected to kill enemy combatants with full metal jacket bullets, big difference, they pass through for the most part; was his mother a hunter? It is hunting territory, how had the divorce of his parents affected the adolescent gunman, he is only just 20 now, the divorce was in 2009?

    So, the guns were available, why, we do not know, but an assault rifle for hunting should be cleaned and locked up when not in the hunting field; the gunman was potentially unstable and possibly had a grudge against the school for some reason. I remember a primary-school teacher of mine who used the ruler edge-wise across the back of one's fingers, perhaps I should have returned years later and liquidated her. (Mrs Wrenton, you know who you are!)

    We will never know the answers to these desultory queries, however, we do know what outrage is being voiced, can we have any hope that the 40 people who died in the US the next day, or the next, or yesterday, or who will start dying in an hour or two today as Monday morning hits the East coast... I fear not. Never mind rabid screams for gun-control, let us have some screaming about citizenship for a change, for responsibility.

    The investigator in me, however, still wants to know how he actually got his hands on the guns, unfortunately, the owner is unable to tell us.