Monday, December 17, 2012

How do we stop mass shootings like Newtown?

The world watches in mute incomprehension as the USA undergoes another convulsion of gun-driven mass murder, this time of 6 and 7 year old kids - and the gun lobby springs back resolutely into its defensive position with a few well-rehearsed lines:
  1. It's people, not guns that kill. Blaming guns is like blaming obesity on spoons.
  2. The Second Amendment (Holy Writ) gives us the right to bear arms
  3. The problem is that the teachers and school (and the kids??) staff were not armed. They would have shot the murderer.
Let's look in more depth at their arguments.

1 It's the people not the guns.
By coincidence, there was a mass attack in China last week too. Someone went on the rampage in a school. With a knife. 20 children were injured. Not killed, injured. Get that, Republicans? Guns are designed to kill efficiently. That's why GI's are armed with guns, not knives or spears.

Yes, guns are an instrument, like spoons. Yes, guns are more efficient than spoons killing for the purposes of. It is undeniable that in a country that has easy access to guns, they will be used to kill.

2 The Second Amendment
Like any other appeal to Holy Scripture, this needs contextual evaluation. The Second Amendment is talking about muzzle loading muskets which need three minutes to reload, not automatic machine guns that spray 300 rounds a minute.

Here we need a Portia to come to judgement. The Second Amendment is all about the right to bear arms. It does not mention ammunition. This is the key point. Here is Chris Rock arguing that if bullets cost $5000 each, there would be no more "innocent bystanders". Every bullet would be a carefully planned operation.

The beauty of going for ammunition control instead of gun control is that ammunition can be identified by sniffer dogs, so it is harder to smuggle.

3 Not enough guns.
The right-wing Cato Institute has a "study" on this. Their "paper uses a collection of news reports of self-defensewith guns over an eight-year period to survey the circumstances andoutcomes of defensive gun uses in America."
Hmm. News reports. Not really an impeccable source of data for an objective scientific study. Anecdotes from participants, or maybe court witnesses. Their conclusion: "The estimates of defensive gun userange between the tens of thousands to as high as two million eachyear."

To balance this news-based Cato Institute "study", here are four scientific studies showing that more guns = more homicide.

So on this basis, the Cato Institute, the NRA, and the whole pandemonium of right-wing US demagogues successfully oppose gun laws.

OK. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that in some cases, a crime is stopped because some righteous citizen pulls a gun and kills or disables a would be mugger, killer or rapist. Let's assume that the "good" done in these cases outweighs the harm done in cases where an innocent person is mistaken for a criminal, or where the vigilante's shot goes astray and injures or kills a bystander.

Even in that case, is that a good reason to arm a large section of the population? Cato argues "The vast majority of gun owners are ethical and competent.". That still leaves a minority that are not. And of the morally upright vast majority, not all will be 100% accurate with a handgun, especially in a red-hot situation. Accidents will happen.

But still the gun lobby presses on with its propaganda. They spread the fear with images like this:

In short, the USA is addicted to guns. It is in a paranoid cycle. They needed guns to fight off the Redcoats in the War of Independence, and to fight off Native Americans who were justifiably unhappy at the invasion of their lands, and to fight off outlaws, and now they need them to fight off armed robbers, muggers, burglars and rapists. The country is awash with guns, so it needs
More guns to neutralise the threat posed by the guns already there. And the arms industry, of course, needs to sell arms - more each year, otherwise their shareholders will abandon them. The USA is in a vicious circle. It is addicted to guns.

Addiction is a powerful thing. Sometimes it can be managed by going cold turkey, but sometimes gradual withdrawal is needed. Obama needs to take a long view. Maybe this round he will limit assault rifles and handguns a bit more. He could even limit ammunition stocks. But he is not going to be able to change the fact that the USA is awash with guns.

But, in my opinion there is one thing that Obama could do that would significantly change the game. It is something that the NRA, the Republicans, the foaming libertarians and the rest cannot complain about, because it actually uses objection #1 - "it's people that kill, not guns".

Obama should legislate for psychological profiling of gun owners.

Mass murderers - the ones that go on a shooting spree, as in Newtown, or Columbine, or Dunblane -  have a well-defined psychological profile.

The term "pseudocommando" was coined by Dietz in 1986 for mass murderers, and has been added to since then. Traits include the typical male, loner, preoccupied with firearms, paranoid, bearing grudges, powerless, insignificant, a student of other mass killings, and capable of meticulous planning.

Now psychology is not a precise science, but it sure can put together a questionnaire. Salient questions can be gathered onto a couple of pages of A4, and the results can be processed. Of course, the gun licence applicant could lie. So they will have to gather a few - say 5 - friends and neighbours together to confirm their assessment of him. The process of gathering supportive backers will place a significant block in the way of the potential mass murderer among the gun license applicants, since they tend to be loners.

Of course, potential killers could get illegal guns. But once the police know of their interest in getting guns, and can pay random visits - with a sniffer dog who can tell us if there is any ammo in the house, or the shed.

Yes, this is an invasion of liberty, and libertarians will object. So the politicians will have to make a decision: should they invade the liberty of potential mass murderers every so often, or would they rather have occasional periods of national upset because 20 innocent children have been slaughtered?

It's a tough call. But hey, that's what politicians are for.

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