IT’S BECOME ROUTINE IN AMERICA, EVERY month or two, to restart the debate about gun control. The debate is inevitably kicked off by the most recent mass shooting (the most recent, as of this writing, being the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon), and then winds down within a week or two when it becomes obvious that the United States Congress isn’t going to do anything.
Americans can be incredibly fatalistic when it comes to guns. When Jeb Bush, one of the leading Republican candidates for the 2016 Presidential Election, was asked about the Oregon shooting and the possibility of pushing stricter gun control laws in the U.S., he said, “Look, stuff happens. There’s always a crisis and the impulse is always to do something and it’s not always the right thing to do.”
Even without the fatalism, America’s gun debate can get extremely heated very quickly: there are those who suggest that the solution to ending mass shootings is to make sure everyone everywhere is carrying a gun. As Wayne LaPierre, the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) said after the Newtown shooting, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” And then there are those who suggest that the solution is fewer guns, and stronger controls about who can get their hands on a gun.
With each new shooting, the satirical newspaper The Onion has taken to simply republishing its brilliant headline, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Country Where This Regularly Happens,” with an updated photo and location to reflect the latest shooting. Which of course brings up the question: Why is it that there are so few mass shootings in other developed countries? Is there anything we can learn from the world’s other countries when it comes to reducing gun violence?
Up until 1996, Australia had relatively lax gun laws. Then, in 1996, a man with severe psychological problems went on a rampage in Port Arthur, Australia, that ended with 36 people dead and 23 people wounded. In response, the Australian government implemented strict gun control laws that outlawed automatic weapons and shotguns and began a gun buyback scheme that saw hundreds of thousands of guns turned into the government. Since the laws were implemented, there have been no massacres in Australia (there were 13 mass shootings in the 18 years prior to the gun control reform), gun-related homicides have dropped 7.5 percent, and gun-related suicides have dropped as well.
There was political resistance to the gun laws in Australia, and the laws did politically harm the conservative government which enacted them, but unlike the United States, Australia doesn’t have constitutionally protected gun rights, and also lacks a powerful gun lobby like the NRA in the U.S.
A popular argument against gun control is that if criminals want guns, criminals can get guns. In the U.S., this argument often points to the U.S.-Mexico border, where drugs, money, and guns often cross the border illegally. So if you can’t totally protect yourself from what’s coming in from outside the country, what’s the point?
It’s worthwhile, then, to see how gun control has worked in Canada, since Canada shares a border with the gun-filled United States — a border which is less secure than the U.S.-Mexico border, and thus would be susceptible to gun trafficking from the United States.
Canada has had relatively strict gun control laws targeting handguns and automatic weapons since the 1930’s, and targeting rifles and shotguns since 1989, after a mass shooting. Those seeking a gun-owner’s license must take a safety course and pass a background check that looks at mental health, drug, and criminal histories. Canada also requires that the spouses of those applying for a gun license be notified of the application, and anyone with a history of domestic violence is denied the license.
The results are interesting: Canadians actually own a lot of guns: between 23.8 and 30 for every 100 people (placing them as 12th highest guns per capita in the world), depending on your source. But the number of gun deaths is relatively low, at 0.5 people for every 100,000. These numbers in the U.S., by comparison, are 88 firearms for every 100 people (the highest in the world hands down), and 3.5 gun-related homicides per 100,000. Canada, if anything, is proof that gun control does not necessarily have to mean a total absence of guns in order to significantly reduce gun violence.
Switzerland is an interesting case, because Switzerland loves guns. It has the fourth most guns per capita in the world, behind the United States, Serbia, and Yemen, with approximately 45 guns per 100 residents (about half as much per capita as the United States). But it’s overall gun deaths are only a seventh of what they are in the United States. Why is that?
In part, Switzerland’s gun culture is a result of their mandatory citizen’s militia, which conscripts men between the ages of 20 and 30, and gives them a gun to be kept in their home. These military-issued guns, however, do not come with military-issued ammunition. Instead, militia members are expected to go to an armory to retrieve their ammunition in the event of an emergency. Not including these government-issued guns, the actual number of guns per capita in Switzerland is around 25 per 100.
According to gun enthusiasts in Switzerland, the reason for the comparatively low crime rate is because gun culture in Switzerland is tied to its military roots: gun ownership is not attached to a sense of individualism, as it frequently is in the United States, but is rather tied to a sense of civic and social responsibility.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Japan. Since World War II, Japan’s culture has been marked by a pacifism not seen in most other countries, and their constitution forbids them from participating in war against other sovereign nations. Until recently, the military has only existed for self-defense.
Similarly, Japan’s gun control policies are abnormally strict. Civilians are not allowed to own weapons. Not handguns, not automatic weapons, not military rifles, not even swords. Even air rifles are difficult to buy. Don’t have a gun license? Touch a gun in Japan and you could spend 10 years in jail.
As a result, Japan has one of the lowest gun ownership rates in the world, with 0.6 guns per every 100 people. The number of firearm-related deaths is also one of the lowest in the world: 0.06 per 100,000.
Why is the U.S. so different?
Gun control, it should be said, doesn’t eliminate the possibility of gun violence. Countries with relatively low amounts of gun ownership can still experience mass shootings. The United Kingdom, for example, is 82nd in the world when it comes to gun ownership per capita, but has experienced two mass shootings in the past 20 years. Even Japan, with it’s comparatively draconian gun laws, hasn’t totally eliminated shooting deaths. So it’s very possible that eliminating gun crime just isn’t in the cards for any country.
But it’s worth comparing the numbers. Between 2000 and 2014, Europe (including Russia) had a total of 23 mass shootings. The U.S. had 133 mass shootings in that same time. The U.S. does have a unique gun culture, and most other countries in the world don’t have gun ownership enshrined in their constitution. And obviously there is more than simply gun ownership that drives gun violence: the highest firearm-related homicide rates in the world are in unstable Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador, despite those two countries being 87th and 89th in per capita gun ownership, respectively. Gun control is worthless if you live in a failed or deeply impoverished state.
That said, in developed countries, gun control policies work. We know this because dozens of other countries have succeeded in lowering gun violence and reducing mass shooting incidents. And there are interpretations of the Second Amendment that allow for reasonable gun control (also, as comedian Jim Jefferies points out, you can change an amendment: “It’s called an amendment.“). The rest of the world has given us case studies that show us our options: We can choose gun control policies that outright ban guns — which isn’t likely to ever happen in the United States — or we can choose gun control policies that make gun violence just a little more difficult without totally sacrificing our gun rights or attempting to change a deeply revered Constitution.
The fatalism is unnecessary. Some gun deaths may indeed be inevitable. But we can take steps to keep these deaths to a minimum. Other countries have, and lives have been saved.