In his New York Times column on January 16, Nicholas Kristof related the story of two men back home in Oregon who nearly shot each other over a goose:
That goose would wander off to a . . . neighbor’s property and jump into the watering trough for his sheep. The sheep owner was furious that the water would be fouled, and one time he was so fed up he threatened to shoot the goose. He was probably just making a point, but, since he had a gun handy, he pulled it out and aimed it in the direction of the goose. Seeing this, the goose-owner (who had come to fetch his bird) saw the need to protect his property and pulled out his own gun. They faced off — over a goose!
The Twin City Star Tribune reported that, on January 13, a St. Paul man became upset that his teenage daughter brought home two Bs rather than straight As; during a confrontation over the grades, he got out his AK-47 and pointed it at his daughter (and at his wife, who perhaps made the mistake of opining that the world wasn’t ending). Dad "had recently purchased the rifle because he thought that such guns soon will be banned . . . ."8
These two stories illustrate one of the reasons for gun control: a gun transforms an argument over a minor matter into a life-threatening event.
On the same page as Kristof’s column was one by John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia; it addresses another problem: mass murders by the mentally ill. As Howard told it, on April 28, 1996, a psychologically disturbed man "used a semiautomatic Armalite rifle and a semiautomatic SKS assault weapon to kill 35 people in a murderous rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania." Howard, though leading what he calls a center-right coalition, was able to rally support for a ban on such weapons. That was not an easy task:
Because Australia is a federation of states, the national government has no control over gun ownership, sale or use, beyond controlling imports. Given our decentralized system of government, I could reduce the number of dangerous firearms only by persuading the states to enact uniform laws totally prohibiting the ownership, possession and sale of all automatic and semiautomatic weapons while the national government banned the importation of such weapons.
He succeeded. Imagine its happening here. Even with a stronger federal government, more modest reform is problematical. Howard noted that Australia had offsetting advantages:
Our gun lobby isn’t as powerful or well-financed as the National Rifle Association in the United States. Australia, correctly in my view, does not have a Bill of Rights, so our legislatures have more say than America’s over many issues of individual rights, and our courts have less control. Also, we have no constitutional right to bear arms.
I have difficulty with the notion that a Bill of Rights is a bad thing, despite Heller and Citizens United , but the Second Amendment, even as now misconstrued by the Supreme Court, isn’t the main issue; national will is. Howard makes clear that a national consensus for change was the crucial element.
The Australian program went a step further: a federally-financed buyback program. "Almost 700,000 guns were bought back and destroyed — the equivalent of 40 million guns in the United States."9
Enacting any sort of gun control will be difficult, but this is an urgent problem. There are in excess of 30,000 gun-related deaths, including accidents, suicides and homicides, in the United States every year. Gun deaths per capita are higher here than in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or any European country. According to one source, we have 10.2 per 100,000 population; New Zealand has 2.66, Canada 2.13, Italy 1.28, Germany 1.1, Australia 1.05. Obviously the number of guns contributes to that. Our ratio is about 88.8 guns per 100 population, by far the highest in the world. The other counties listed have these ratios: New Zealand 22.6, Canada 30.8, Italy 11.9, Germany 30.3, Australia 15.10 The ratio between gun deaths and guns ranges from 0.03 (Germany) to 0.11 (the U.S. and New Zealand), so in some countries factors other than fewer guns are part of their success in controlling gun-related deaths.
Kristof had led his column with this: "When I travel abroad and talk to foreigners about the American passion for guns, people sometimes express a conclusion that horrifies me: in America, life is cheap." I don’t think that’s the problem. Americans may indeed have a slightly lower regard for life, as evidenced by our fascination with capital punishment, but the problem in the context of gun control isn’t regard for life: gun-possession advocates claim that they are protecting life by arming everyone. The problem is that we haven’t become completely civilized. We pretend that we live on the frontier, and fantasize that the frontier was populated, and tamed, by gunslingers. Americans simply haven’t grown up.
9. Actually, the equivalent number would be even higher. Here’s the arithmetic: The U.S. has about 27,923,352 guns, Australia about 3,432,912.
700,000 ÷ 3,432,912 = .2039
27,923,352 x .2039 = 57,076,371
10. For population, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population , and for gun ownership, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_guns_per_capita_by_country .