Observing the gun-control debate here at the Times of Israel: some thoughts

The gun-control debate following the Newtown tragedy here at the TOI has been robust and spirited. Of the eleven people who have taken political stands on the issue, eight identify the problem with lax gun laws, and three saw other factors at work. Rina Ne’emen, the first to address the issue, wrote that America’s gun problems lay with “legislation, lobbyists and absence of sufficient regulation,” adding,

“[I]n the United States, the enemy is our own impotence and fear – fear of the formidable lobby of the National Rifle Association, fear of gun-toting, Second Amendment-invoking voters and our own unwillingness to bring about change.”

In this she was seconded by Rachael Rigby-Raz, who hoped that “the Americans will have the strength to empower their government to make the courageous decisions needed to change the gun laws in their country.”

Nancy Hartevelt Kobrin, James Adler, Marc Goldberg, Joe Wolfson, Karl Grossman, and Merav Ceren all expressed similar sentiments.

Emily Schrader was the first to unequivocally (and eloquently) reject that Adam Lanza’s crime was attributable to anything but evil. Ece Koc saw cultural factors influencing the situation negatively, rather than inadequate gun legislation, and Meir Lieberman, echoing right-to-carry advocate John Lott, expressed the view that what we need is not less guns on the street but “more guns in the hands of those that can – and will – use them responsibly.”

The debate in the rest of the media has been, well, less measured. Congressman Louis Gohmert noted on Fox News Sunday that if the Sandy Hook Elementary principal had only been armed with a gun, she could have killed Adam Lanza herself. The day after the Newtown shooting, Larry Pratt, executive director of the Gun Owners of America, intoned,

“Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands. Federal and state laws combined to ensure that no teacher, no administrator, no adult had a gun at the Newtown school where the children were murdered. This tragedy underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones. The only thing accomplished by gun free zones is to insure that mass murderers can slay more before they are finally confronted by someone with a gun.”

Gun control advocates and the guests and anchors of CNN and MSNBC, in turn, all hurled a blast furnace of invective at Pratt, the NRA, and its supporters. Yet, while hysteria and an intemperate tone was often understandably apparent, most people just wanted to see assault weapons with large magazines banned rather than repealing the second amendment.

Then, after seven days of silence, came the response of the NRA, via its executive vice-president, Wayne Lapierre. It did not go well. Lapierre blamed the media, blamed video games, blamed Hollywood, and all but demanded that the first amendment be sacrificed to protect the second. Lapierre, whose NRA opposes a national registry for guns, also advocated a national registry for the mentally ill, and a deployment of police at every school.

Passions run high on this issue, especially after a horrific tragedy of the kind at Newtown, but we are entitled to a more informed debate than we are currently getting. Any meaningful debate by our policy makers on both sides on the problem of guns and violence must, at long last, take stock of the following four  realities:

–The first is to admit, plainly and candidly, that we are hopelessly awash in a world of guns (estimated at some 300 million among a population of 315 million) from which there is no escape. Any such attempts to confiscate such a national arsenal would be impossible, would provoke large-scale violence bordering on insurrection in some locales, and any laws or legislation passed banning all firearms at this stage would merely drive tens of millions of guns underground with consequences to social order too horrible to contemplate.

Whatever laws are subsequently passed or even enforced banning or limiting firearms, we are still stuck with the guns we have, which are more than sufficient to sustain the current level of gun-related violence for many decades to come, and those gun sales that the law prohibits, the black market and the criminal underworld grant in abundance, minus the hassle of waiting periods and background checks, I should deign to mention. For those whom the background check poses a problem, there is always the straw purchase, i.e., purchasing a weapon through the service and identity of a willing surrogate. It is all a most distressing, unsatisfactory state of affairs, but there it is.

–The second reality is that efforts at weapons bans and voluntary confiscations (so-called “buy-backs”) are equally ineffective in reducing the overall crime rate.

The most famous buy-back initiative, the Australian effort cited by Rachael Risby-Raz that followed the mass shootings in Port Arthur, Australia in 1996, did not, in fact noticeably reduce gun-related deaths, her link citing otherwise notwithstanding.

Studies published by Jeanine Baker and Samara McPhedran in the British Journal of Criminology, and Wang-Sheng Lee and Sandy Suardi of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research have shown that gun-related deaths (including suicides) in Australia had been downtrending for well over a decade prior to the National Firearms Agreement (NFA) that followed the Port Arthur shootings of 1996, which banned all semi-automatic rifles,  semi-automatic and pump-action shotguns, imposed a tightly restrictive system of licensing and ownership controls, and launched the gun buy-back campaign of 1996-1997. This downward trend merely continued after the shootings, and is often cited by gun-control advocates as “proof” that the NFA and the buy-back were successful. But in fact it merely showed a continuation of the steady downward trend of gun killings that preceded the shootings and the NFA.

This was confirmed by Professor Don Weatherburn, the head of the Australian New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, who noted that

“There has been a drop in firearm-related crime, particularly in homicide, but it began long before the new laws and has continued on afterwards.”

And to gun-control critics who criticized his findings, the Professor answered,

“The fact is, however, that the introduction of those laws did not result in any acceleration of the downward trend in gun homicide…It is always unpleasant to acknowledge facts that are inconsistent with your own point of view. But I thought that was what distinguished science from popular prejudice.”

Weatherburn’s  sentiments were  also echoed in the conclusions of Baker and McPhedran:

“We recommend that firearms policy development should be based on empirical data, careful evaluation of that empirical data, and community understanding and acceptance of proposed legislation.  There is insufficient evidence to support the simple premise that reducing the stockpile of licitly held civilian firearms will result in a reduction in either firearm or overall sudden death rates.”

On the NFA, Lee and Suardi concluded:

“In this study, we reanalyze the same data on firearm deaths used in previous research, using tests for unknown structural breaks as a means to identifying impacts of the NFA. The results of these tests suggest that the NFA did not have any large effects on reducing firearm homicide or suicide rates.”

On the gun buy-back program, Lee and Suardi conclude:

“Although gun buybacks appear to be a logical and sensible policy that helps to placate the public’s fears, the evidence so far suggests that in the Australian context, the high expenditure incurred to fund the 1996 gun buyback has not translated into any tangible reductions in terms of firearm deaths.”

The failure of the NFA in reducing gun crimes in Australia had an unlucky companion in America in the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994-2004, which was similarly unsuccessful in reducing violent crime. According to federally funded studies done by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, the United States National Research Council, and two studies sponsored by the Department of Justice (those conducted by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, and the National Institute of Justice, respectively), the assault weapons ban of 1994-2004 showed absolutely no effect on gun crimes, largely because assault weapons are rarely used in such crimes.

Again, these were studies sponsored by the federal government, not the gun lobby.

The spokesperson for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, also stated that there was no evidence that the ban in any way reduced violent crimes.

The third reality to reckon with is that findings on the effectiveness of right-to-carry laws, which allow individuals to carry concealed weapons, those advocated by Larry Pratt of the Gun Owners of America and Wayne Lapierre of the NRA, are inconclusive and contradictory at best.

Economist John Lott, the most well-known advocate of right to carry laws, has published a wide array of statistical and anecdotal evidence purporting to prove the effectiveness of right to carry laws on violent crime. Lott’s methodology and conclusions are accepted by some, disputed by others. Law professors John Donohue and Ian Ayres have disputed Lott’s findings.  The National Research Council criticised the findings of both Lott and Donohue and Ayres and  concluded that “it is impossible to draw strong conclusions from the existing literature on the causal impact of these [right to carry] laws,” and found no causal link between right-to-carry laws and the crime rate; prominent social scientist James Q. Wilson disagreed with the NRC’s conclusions and published a dissent defending Lott’s findings. Donohue disputed the NRC’s findings; Lott disputed Donohue’s criticism of the NRC,  and disputed the NRC’s criticism of him. The debate continues.

There are obviously costs and benefits associated with both approaches concerning the efficacy of conceal-carry in any number of scenarios: it would seem to depend on the situation and the individuals involved. But the extensive and heated empirical back-and-forth seem to indicate that the data is too incomplete, ambiguous, and politically charged to establish the positive or negative effects of conceal-carry on crime.

The fourth and final  reality is to face the fact that we are a violent society, and that the presence and accessibility of such an abundance of guns in our society contributes directly toward making every sphere of criminal activity infinitely more violent and lethal than they would be without them. People may kill people, but guns help kill much, much more.

Marc Goldberg cited a study by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime which found that, proportionately, America suffered some thirty-six times the number of gun-related homicides suffered by England in 2012, but I’ll do him one better.  Criminologists Frank Zimring and Gordon Hawkins have found that while London and New York suffer roughly the same number of burglaries and robberies, robbers and burglars kill fifty-four times the number of victims in New York as in London, and that the non-gun-related homicide rate in America as a whole is three times what it is in England. Whatever the roots or the cause, we are a violent society even without guns, and our guns only make us more so.


For myself, I support an assault weapons ban, along with a ban on multi-round ammunition clips. I also fully support longer waiting periods and longer, more intensive background searches for any gun purchasers. None of these, in my opinion, abrogate our second amendment rights.

I support these measures because anything that contributes to keeping guns (especially assault weapons) out of the hands of those unfit to bear arms, is a good thing. Certainly these measures have prevented scores of dangerous psychopaths from legally obtaining weapons. But at the same time, let’s not pretend that they make so much as a dent in the rate of gun killings: a determined thief or murderer can always steal or illicitly obtain the weapon they need.

At the heart of the problem, of course,  is violence: stemming from crime, poverty, mental illness, moral relativism, the alienation of the individual from society, and the breakdown of the family–whatever the cause, violence is the engine of this problem.

Not too far behind, yet little discussed, is the ages-old problem of human evil, unchanged and uncured by centuries of apparent progress, so confounding to liberal social scientists whose work and pronouncements are heavy with the conviction that there is a therapeutic, regulatory, or legislative remedy to every societal ill, and whose dark and unnatural depths have been the fascination of writers dating back from the Greek tragedians to the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allan Poe, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Albert Camus. For this malady, too, the research, dating back some forty centuries, has also been inconclusive.

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.