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The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body

April 21, 2013

This week the United States Senate in its wisdom decided against meaningful reform of our gun laws. Unmoved by tragedy, cowed by uncompromising gun advocates, unconcerned about America’s unmatched levels of violence among the developed countries of the world, posturing around the Second Amendment, and standing against large majorities of the American public, the Senate was unable to muster the 60-vote supermajority that was required to enact even just one significant public safety measure.

The Senate could not even pass a provision that would expand background checks for people who buy guns from dealers to cover people who buy guns at gun shows or on the internet. Eighty-six percent of Americans were said to favor expanded background checks.

I could take you through the absurdist theater of the Senate debates, but my poor powers of narration would never do justice to the majestic nonsense that passes for policy debate in the United States Senate. So I refer you to Jon Stewart, he of the Daily Show. Only satire and farce can do justice to this week’s outrage.

On Thursday night, Stewart’s first two segments were devoted to the gun issue. The first segment began with clips of Senators making their arguments against expanded background checks. A common argument was that expanding background checks wouldn’t be effective in keeping criminals from getting guns, so therefore should not be tried. Stewart pilloried that argument by observing that the Senators, whose jobs exist in order to make laws, were saying in effect that only laws that everyone will obey are worth passing.

Just for fun, along the way, a pro-gun Senator complains that gun control advocates are more worried about imposing background checks on law abiding citizens than they are about Hollywood movies and violent video games, where people are “literally shooting at people.”

Stewart moves on to contrast the pro-gun Senators’ arguments with their arguments for anti-terrorism legislation. When the subject is terrorism, every effort must be made, every possible protection must be implemented, if it has even a chance to save one American life. In this context, Stewart plays a clip from MSNBC, reporting that more than 900,000 Americans have died by firearms since 1980, whereas the total number of Americans killed by terrorism since 1970 is about 3,400.

No one disagrees that we should work hard and long to reduce terrorism, and certainly nobody suggests that the failure of anti-terrorism measures to prevent all terrorism invalidates those measures. On the contrary, the gun control argument is that if we kill something like 300 times more of our own citizens with firearms than terrorists kill, then maybe we should put at least just a small fraction of our effort into preventing those firearms deaths.

Stewart acidly concludes the segment with the observation that protecting Americans from killing by foreigners is important, evidently, because killing Americans is “our job.”

In the second segment, Stewart sends John Oliver to interview a small-time gun advocate in Virginia. Oliver’s interview style is to accept the outlandish arguments of his interviewee with just enough knowing irony to invite us into the joke, which of course is completely on the idiot interviewee.

This particular interviewee relies heavily on the argument that gun control measures don’t work. Mr. Gun Advocate grasps for an analogy: criminals will always find ways to get crack cocaine, won’t they? Smugly certain that he has proved his point, he is visibly dumbfounded when Oliver deadpans, So unless we can get rid of all drugs, we shouldn’t bother with drug laws at all.  Mr. Gun Advocate’s discomfort is one of the great moment in TV satire.

Oliver also contests the premise that gun control doesn’t work, suggesting Australia as an example of successful gun control. After a gun massacre in 1996, the Australian government prohibited ownership of semi-automatic rifles and shotguns, instituted a tight regime of gun registration, and bought back the guns that citizens could no longer legally own. Similar restrictions were imposed on handguns in 2002, with another buy-back of newly illegal weapons.

In the 18 years leading up to 1996, Australia had 13 mass shootings – meaning more than four people shot. In the 17 years since, Australia has had no mass shootings. Firearm homicides are down and firearm suicides are down. Although some argue that the homicide and suicide decreases might have happened anyway, I’ve seen no serious argument that mass shootings would have taken a 17-year break without the 1996 gun laws.

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2 Comments
  1. Irish753 permalink

    By the way, we have the strongest gun laws in the country in Chicago and the worst violence (which is always the case – the more strict gun laws & violence rises proportionately & the reverse is also true – more lenient gun laws the less violence).

    Please explain this for me.

    • Thanks for your comment, Irish. You make your argument in two forms, one narrower and one broader. The narrower argument is one I’ve seen often from gun advocates: Chicago has the toughest gun laws in the country but the worst violence, or the highest homicide rate. The broader one is also common, but you put it much more directly than most, without any qualifiers: gun control increases violence, period.

      Let’s start with a look at Chicago. Chicago does have tough gun laws and a high homicide rate. I don’t know whether Chicago has the toughest gun laws in the country, and I’m not sure that could be quantified in any event. But Chicago’s homicide rate can be quantified.

      Of American cities with populations of a quarter million or more, Chicago has the 16th highest homicide rate. That sounds bad, but consider that the top 15 include a number of cities with much looser gun laws: Kansas City, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Memphis, and Miami, for example. In fact, the highest homicide rate in the country belongs to New Orleans. I’m guessing Lousiana does not have the country’s strongest gun laws.

      New York City is known for tough gun laws – Mayor Bloomberg considers it a bragging point. New York’s homicide rate is 45th out of 72 cities with 250,000 people or more. And homicides in New York so far in 2013 are down some 20 percent from last year – without any change in its gun laws.

      But the flaw in your argument becomes even more apparent when you look outside the United States. Chicago does not appear on Wikipedia’s list of the 50 world cities with the highest homicide rates. New Orleans shows up at #21, right below San Salvador, El Salvador. That’s pretty embarrassing. In fact, all 20 of the top 20 homicide cities are Latin American. You have to go down to #34, Cape Town, South Africa, to get to a city not in the Western Hemisphere. Mosul, Iraq, doesn’t show up until #44. Other than Latin America, only the United States, with five cities on the list, South Africa, with four, and Iraq, with one, are represented in the world-wide homicide top 50. That’s not OK.

      Now let’s look at whole countries. The American homicide rate is literally middling by world standards – Wikipedia lists us at #103 out of 207 countries. But here’s the thing. As a general matter, you find the toughest gun laws in the most industrialized countries: Europe, Japan, Australia. Guess what? Those countries have homicide rates that make us look like the Wild West – which, of course, we are.

      Only seven European countries have homicide rates higher than ours, and none of them are “old Europe”: Greenland, Russia, Moldova, Lithuania, Ukraine, Estonia, and Belarus. The other 37 countries of Europe have homicide rates lower than ours – mostly much lower. Monaco is the gold standard, with a homicide rate of zero. Iceland had one murder, for a homicide rate of .3 per 100,000 people. France, Britain, Germany, Italy – all of them have substantially lower homicide rates than the US.

      Japan comes in at .4 per 100,000. Even Afghanistan, Libya, Lebanon, and Bangladesh have lower homicide rates than ours. The US of A shows 4.8 homices per 100,000 people. Canada, arguaby the country culturally closest to us, has a homicide rate of 1.6 per 100,000 – two-thirds lower than our homicide rate.

      The United States is one of very few countries in the world where gun ownership is constitutionally protected. And we are at or very near the top of the industrialized world in homicide rates. So in short, Irish, I think the facts don’t bear out your argument.

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