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.