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About ownership policies – Do they really work?

1st October, 2017. A mass shooting in Las Vegas kills 58 people and injures 851 more.

5th November, 2017. A mass shooting in Texas kills 26 peoples, 20 injured.

14th February, 2018. Mass shooting in a high school in Florida, 17 people killed and 16 more injured.

Those are latest ones. The big ones.

Gun ownership is controversial. Every time following a mass shooting or any unfortunate incident concerning weapons occurs, debates are held about the efficacy of gun policies: Should we make the laws tougher and ban the ownership of firearms? Should we lessen them and let people posses their own arms to protect themselves? Both sides can be argued and defended.

The United States is one of the world’s most permissive countries concerning gun ownership policies. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states “a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” but individual states have their own laws and regulations, some of them more restrictive, some others more indulgent. The Gun Control Act of 1968, as amended by the 1994 Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, prohibits the sale of firearms to several categories of “prohibited persons, such as people under 18 years of age, those with criminal records, the mentally disabled, dishonourably discharged military personnel, people taking drugs, and others.

Apart from these, the U.S. has few restrictions when it comes to gun ownership policies. In fact, the country, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, has about 42 percent of the world’s privately-held firearms. This makes the U.S. the country with the highest per capita gun ownership in the world, and among developed countries, one with the highest homicide rates, of which great part of it is caused by gun homicides. It is not that America has much more crime than other countries (many other developing countries score higher on the homicide ranks), but it is that crime in the U.S. is much more lethal.

Why? The problem when it comes to gun ownership in the U.S. is how easy it is to get a firearm. Under European Union’s laws, firearms are classified into four categories based on their level of dangerousness. The acquisition and possession of these are subject to a license and other qualifications that must be met by individuals, such as having a “good cause” and not being a danger to themselves or to society. In addition, EU Members are required to establish a register of firearms, to which only designated authorities will have access.  Dealers are also required to maintain a register of firearms.

The table below illustrates selected conditions some developed countries require from their citizens when owning firearms:

As shown, all other countries require a license to purchase most guns and those purchases are recorded into an official registry. In order to get a license, people need to state a reason for why they want a gun. Additionally, most of those countries demand a safe storage and a safety training.

Note: some U.S. states have passed stricter laws. For example, California’s state constitution has no right to bear arms provisions, and all gun sales require a background check.

At this point, it would be logical to think there is a positive relationship between gun ownership and homicide rates among highly developed countries. Making it simple, more guns means more deaths; fewer guns, fewer deaths. However, the controversies of this issue are more complex.

First of all, can stricter gun regulations lead to decreased rates of violence? Looking at some data and examples, it is easy to find the existing positive relationship between the two concepts. Let’s take the example of Australia. After a mass shooting in Tasmania in 1966, the government banned and bought back all semi-automatic and repeating shotguns (about 700.000 of the total 3 million total guns), and imposed new restrictions on owning other guns. Many analysts have declared the effectiveness of these measures, citing declining gun death rates and the absence of gun-related mass killings in Australia since 1996. Because of this, Australia’s gun control efforts have been suggested as a possible model for the U.S. to follow. If these restrictions have worked in Australia, a country with very lessened laws concerning gun ownership before 1996, why would they not work in the U.S.?

The problem when comparing these models, making the assumption that these regulations would work in America, are two:

First, Australia did succeed with the tougher policies and ban the automatic and semi-automatic rifles, but research shows that among the various attempts that have been made to enforce gun confiscation around the world, only about one third have succeeded (this research was conducted in 72 countries by the Small Arms Survey, 2007). Furthermore, if failing to successfully implement the restrictions, the United States could expect a great amount of the current stock of firearms to flood the black market, which rounds the 325 million total firearms compared to the 3 million in Australia. Howard Metzenbaum, an American senator, resumed the issue stating “if you don’t ban all of them (guns), you might as well ban none.

The second problem is that we are not certain to which extent do gun policies reduce homicide rates. Some studies, and especially many conducted by the non-profit corporation RAND have not found a strong evidence on the causal relationship between specific gun policies and outcomes such as reductions in homicide and suicides. RAND studies state that the decline in violence in those countries that adopted stricter laws (in this case, Australia) is not a direct consequence of the laws adopted, or at least not entirely. On the contrary, they claim that levels of violence, homicide and suicide were already on a declining rate prior to the tightening of the laws.

The RAND studies have added more uncertainty to the present question; nevertheless, some types of measures have been found to really make a difference: policies meant to prevent children from getting access to firearms (e.g. safe storage of guns) reduce both suicide and unintentional injury and death. Also, policies that require a permit for the purchase a firearm reduce the rates of violent crime.

This might be the reason why America’s homicide rates rank so high compared to Europe’s or Australia’s rates (and also to Israel or Japan, as frequently compared developed countries). Do fewer guns therefore lead to less violence? There are many other factors contributing to violence, name poverty, drug consumption or urbanisation, and as most of the times when it comes to ethical issues, it depends. But certainly, among highly developed countries, more guns lead to more gun deaths.

As always, we as human beings should be aware of our need (and responsibility) to behave morally. Killing others, killing ourselves, to me it is still incomprehensible. After all, I believe, lives are priceless.


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