Friday, 14 December 2012

You say 2nd Amendment, I say, "Where's your well-regulated militia"?

The other week, New York City went over twenty-four hours without a serious violent crime happening, until someone was inevitably shot in Brooklyn. It was a momentous occasion. Much celebration ensued. Apparently. There was a brief moment when a 16-year-old Bronx resident shot himself in the thigh, but I guess that doesn't count.

I saw the whole thing as a metaphor for the entire country. A man shoots himself in the leg while the rest of the city ignores him and celebrates a lack of crime. And then a fatal shooting happens anyway. Someone, somewhere, is massively missing the point.

Then this happened. Every time a violent shooting happens in America, every time an innocent child is shot by a lunatic with a rifle powerful enough to bring down an armour-plated rhinoceros, there is exactly the same response: nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. What the rest of the developed world wants to know is, honestly, how many more times does this have to happen for the US to wake the hell up?

A few months ago, and tonight as well in fact, I got into rather heated debates on Facebook (the best place for a reasonable, balanced debate, I find) about gun control laws. Specifically, I drew comparisons between the US and the UK.

The UK has some of the strictest gun control laws around. All firearms must be licensed. The only kind of weapon you may carry is a rifle, and that is only if you belong to a recognised shooting club (or, presumably, if you're the Queen. I bet she keeps a rifle strapped to her back at all times). All assault weapons are illegal. You need a valid license to buy a gun, and you are questioned continually during the purchase to confirm your intent, your background, and your criminal record. It's also illegal to bring weapons into the country (duh).

On the other hand, there's this attitude to gun good, too.

The US has the highest gun ownership in the world, an average of 88.8 guns per 100 people. Yemen is ranked second with 54.8. With less that 5% of the world's population, the US manages to own 35-50% of the world's civilian-owned guns. Let's think about that the next time someone argues that the answer to the problem is "more guns".

In fairness, the US is ranked a lowly 28th when it comes to gun-related homicides per 100,000 people. Then again, when you compare the US rate (2.97 per 100,000 people) to the England & Wales rate (0.07 per 100,000 people), that doesn't look so good. That means that the US has a gun homicide rate over 42 times that of England (and Wales...but seriously, who cares about Wales?)

60% of all US homicides are firearm-related. 6% of all England/Wales homicides are firearm-related.

Annual total of firearms offences in England and Wales, falling thanks to gun control laws

The argument I inevitably encounter now is one I've heard many times before. I volunteered for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 and wound up in Indiana, in a hellaciously Republican neighbourhood outside Indianapolis. "People are getting stabbed in England, though," gun enthusiasts would argue. "Yes," I'd counter, "but they aren't getting shot."

Firstly, I challenge anyone to waltz into a cinema, or a school, and try to murder 20 people using only a knife. I mean, I don't actually challenge you to do that (Note: PLEASE DO NOT ACCEPT THIS CHALLENGE). My point, though, stands. You couldn't. Not unless the movie were so good that everyone in the movie theatre just sat there, gripped, in a catatonic stupor. Even then, I think your stabbing arm would get a bit tired.

Secondly, I've been mugged in London. Well, let me rephrase that. I've watched my friend get mugged. Three "youths", as I believe they're called, confronted us in a park, held a knife to my friend's stomach, took his wallet and phone, and ran away. I think I was deemed too pathetic to bother with, or something. I try to imagine that same scenario but with guns. It would have been mind-bendingly terrifying, especially as there's one thing a gun can do that a knife can't: it can just GO OFF. This is also the point in the story where I admit that, yes, one of them came toward me with a knife, and...I ran. I mean, just a bit, but I ran all the same. He lost interest relatively quickly, as I said, and fled. If he'd had a gun, running wouldn't have been much of an option. You can't long-distance stab someone (unless you're an Olympic javelin thrower).

Thirdly, yes, the most common method of killing in the UK is "by a sharp instrument". In 2009/10, 210 such homicides occurred (compared with the 9,146 annual firearm homicides in the US, which puts them fifth in the world). That year, the proportion of such homicides decreased, from 40% to 34% (let's remember that firearms account for 60% of US homicides). I direct you to this UK Home Office study, which has all the information I just quoted and also notes a general decrease in violent crime after the year of the UK's latest gun control reform (which was notable for banning handguns). You'll note that handgun crime fell 12% from 2008/9 to 2009/10. Also check out Figure 2.4.

Fourthly, it's true that the UK does have a higher "violent crime" rate than the US. Four times higher, apparently. You got us. Fair play. However, murders with weapons are much higher in the US, 4.8 compared to the UK's 1.23. In the UK and EU, violent crime is also counted differently. All assaults here count as violent crime, but in the US only serious, aggravated assaults do. Would you rather be punched by a drunken soccer hooligan know...shot?

This hooligan WILL punch you.

The final argument that gun-lovers put forward is that the US is just a more violent continent. Europe sees your supposed predilection for violence and raises you two world wars and a healthy dose of soccer hooliganism.

It still feels odd to me that, even in the SF Bay Area, my local supermarket had a sign on the door saying that firearms aren't allowed inside. Well, Jesus, if they aren't allowed inside, why are they allowed in the parking lot just outside? Why draw the line at an arbitrary barrier? For context, you can't light a cigarette within 20 feet of the door of a public building. Welcome to California: where guns are marginally more tolerated than cigarettes.

Look, I know the UK doesn't have the same gun culture as the US. There's good reason for this. Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night, I swear a good 90% of Londoners are drunk out of their tiny English minds. We are, if nothing else, a common-sensical people, and we recognise that introducing firearms into that level of unbridled alcoholism is probably unwise. Guns and booze, famously, like milk and whiskey, do not mix well. In certain parts of the US, meanwhile, people seem to be veritably stirring their mint juleps with the butts of their Smith & Wessons.

Just a standard night on the London Underground.

Americans don't want to get rid of their guns. Fine. Let's at least modify them, then. Beyond Chris Rock's expensive bullet idea, I have three other ready-made solutions to the crisis which I'd like Obama to carefully peruse:

1. Affix one of those annoying tiny metal puzzles to every gun, which you have to solve before you take a shot. Seriously, everyone hates those things, and no one can solve them. It takes away any heat-of-the-moment shootings, although some people might become so frustrated that they just beat the nearest person to death with the butt of the gun. Still, it's a small victory.

2.  All guns must be bought from IKEA and assembled at home. I just like the idea of would-be murderers sitting on their bedroom carpet, surrounded by gun parts, wielding a useless electric screwdriver, and trying to read an incomprehensible construction manual through bitter, frustrated tears.

3. Make all guns digital. Install Windows 95 on all guns. Every time someone pulled the trigger, a little message would pop up saying "Error: fatal exception" or "Please install the necessary gun drivers" or, perhaps best of all, "PC Load Letter: the bullet tray is empty".

You're welcome, Obama.


  1. Excellent blog. Always good to bring up you running away while Matt got mugged - good friend that you are!

  2. This article is a nice mixture of statistical facts, logic and humor. Nicely done! Meanwhile, there are lots of scary people in the US right now stockpiling their weapons and awaiting armed confrontation when the "liberals" come to take them away. I spent a half hour yesterday surfing around some websites that cater to these types and boy are the comments they post disturbing. This matter will not be settled easily.