Case in point: These days, there’s a lot less thunder Down Under.
A couple of weeks ago, I laid out my case that America’s status quo on gun violence is both unique and unacceptable. Something’s got to change, and while ultimately “people are the problem” – as I keep getting told – guns are a much easier fix than human nature. As I argued, the one-dimensional solution is the most effective one.
So let’s start there.
I’ve taken some deserved heat for my ambiguity when it comes to a real method for adequately disarming America, which some have taken to mean a solution doesn’t exist. It does, and if any one country proves that (lots of them do; all one needs for proof is to look at gun violence and gun restrictions elsewhere in the developed world, but I digress), it’s Australia.
The nation of criminals of old could teach us a thing or two about gun violence.
On April 28, 1996 a gunman opened fire on tourists at Port Arthur in Tasmania, killing 35 and wounding 23 more in the worst mass murder in Australian history. In response, 12 days later, the Australian government announced a bipartisan initiative to severely restrict guns.
See, we could be learning already.
The centerpiece of the new initiative was a ban on semiautomatic and automatic rifles and shotguns and tight restrictions on the type and caliber of handguns that may legally be sold or owned. The ban was accompanied by a nationwide mandatory buyback program, which over the space of a couple of years saw the country collect and destroy more than 700,000 guns – about one fifth of Australia’s private arsenal. The new law also prohibited private sales – which account for about 40 percent of America’s own firearm transactions – required that all firearms individually be registered to their owner and required that prospective gun buyers provide a “genuine reason” for needing to buy a gun. Self-defense does not count; reasons include pest control, hunting, target shooting or collecting. Purchase also requires a 28-day waiting period, similar to the one Canada recently enacted.
In the decade that followed, Australia’s gun-related homicide rate fell 59 percent, with no correlating increase in homicides unrelated to guns. The suicide rate fell 65 percent. In the decade prior to Australia’s gun crackdown, the folks Down Under lived through 11 mass murders accomplished with a gun. Since then: zero.
Unless you’re a zealot, those results are hard to argue with.
Granted, America’s problem is bigger and harder to solve. With 300 million or so guns already in private circulation, we’ve got many times as many firearms than have ever existed on the island country. A national American buyback would be much, much more extensive and expensive – 50 million guns or more to achieve a result equivalent to Australia’s. But it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar drop in gun-related deaths were we to copy conservative prime minister John Howard’s reforms. Would it solve American violence? No. As pro-gunners frequently argue, where there’s a will there’s a way.
But that, as former W. speech writer David Frum argues at the Daily Beast, is asking the wrong the question (and, I might add, an intentional obfuscation):
When thinking about gun measures and mental health measures, the right question to ask isn’t: will such-and-such a measure prevent all killings? The right question is: will it contribute to reducing the number of killings as we have previously successfully reduced automobile fatalities?
Ah! Auto fatalities. Let’s go there, next.
More times than I can count over the last few weeks I’ve seen the infinitely smug and infinitely stupid supposed-to-be-rhetorical “well, should be ban cars then, too?” question pop up to counter proposals of stricter gun controls. I guess this question is supposed to be the buzzer-beating slam dunk. Too bad it’s on the wrong basket. And that just makes you look amateur.
In 2010, 32,885 people died in motor vehicle traffic accidents in the United States, just higher than the number of people who died in total firearm deaths. That was the lowest number of auto fatalities since 1949. If current trends continue, gun deaths will overtake car deaths by 2015. Back to Frum:
Since 1960, the United States has reduced the rate of deaths in automobile accidents by about four-fifths: from about five deaths per 100 million miles driven to about one.
This reduction in the casualties from driving was achieved by a complex of measures: cars were improved, new safety devices were introduced, road standards were raised, trauma medicine advanced, and tough measures against drunk driving introduced. People still die on the roads and always will, but we no longer suffer the carnage of the early 1960s.
Few but the auto industry would argue that the “loss of freedom” wasn’t worth it.
If greater restrictions can work with cars, they can work with guns. In the same vein, people will still die by the bullet and always will, but by implementing laws akin to Australia’s we may one day no longer suffer the carnage of the early 21st century. Even if total annual guns deaths were reduced by just one-third, a fairly modest hope, it would mean 10,000 lives saved. And even if we didn’t see as drastic a drop in gun homicides as Australia, which already had a relatively low rate of violent crime and declining gun-homicide rate, the suicide reduction alone would be worth it.
Of America’s 30,000 gun deaths a year, nearly two-thirds are self-inflicted. The mere presence of a firearm in a house at least doubles the likelihood that a member of that household will kill themselves. Some studies put those statistical odds at 10 times higher.
Guns account for a mere 5 percent of total suicide attempts, but suicide attempts with a gun succeed 90 percent of the time. Sixty percent of America’s successful suicides are completed with a gun. Contrast that with the most popular way to attempt suicide: Drugs account for about 75 percent of all attempted suicides – they’re successful in less than 3 percent of cases. And just like the tripe that mass murderers will find a way to mass murder, people who attempt suicide once are not bound to succeed. It’s likely that a majority of suicides are impulsive, and guns make that impulse easier to scratch and much harder to reverse – a true tragedy, considering that 90 percent of people who attempt suicide and fail do not go on to die by suicide.
In Australia, the suicide rate fell by 65 percent. A similar drop in America would save 13,000 lives a year.
Freedom, indeed, is not free.
But why stop there? Australians aren’t the only cats with firearm solutions. Let’s take a trip to America’s favorite friend to learn a thing or two more.
As many of the gun lobby’s members are usually quick to point out, for its Middle Eastern darling, the best defense is an offense with overwhelming firepower. In the streets of Israel, though, the maxim doesn’t hold true. In addition to banning assault weapons except in the case of Greater Israel’s communal settlements deemed to be a security risk, gun owners in Israel are limited to a single pistol and must undergo an intensive battery of mental and physical tests in order to earn that capability. Because in Israel, where random shootings of strangers is virtually unheard of, the Right to bear arms is actually the Privilege. It’s not a privilege extended to many, either. Only those with two years as an IDF captain or lieutenant colonel, those who live or work in the West Bank settlements, or professionals whose job involves hunting or transporting dangerous goods can earn their one-pistol opportunity.
Perhaps that’s why only six people there were murdered with a firearm in 2011.
I argued in my first piece on this subject that restricting ammunition is just as critical as restricting guns themselves. A properly cared for gun has no real expiration date; ammunition does. Israel agrees. Israeli gun owners are limited to 50 rounds a year; Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter James Holmes bought 6,000 before he allegedly killed 12 people and wounded 58 others. An Israeli likely wouldn’t even have that many bullets.
But there’s an opportunity here to do what America often does best: commandeer the ideas of others, enhance them and lead on.
Restrictive measures like those in Australia undoubtedly would save American lives. More so when coupled with those in Israel. Or Japan, where possession of almost all guns is illegal excepting shotguns and air rifles, and the qualifications to earn ownership of those are intense. But why not make it our own? Why not set an example for the rest of the world to follow?
This would be my example:
A full ban on automatic and semiautomatic weapons – handgun, shotgun, rifle – that can hold more than six bullets or have a detachable magazine (speedloaders, too). No firing more than six shots at a time; no snap in and keep shooting. No private sales, and no new, unregistered guns following a massive buyback program to collect and destroy as many old guns as possible. After that, harsh prison sentences for those caught dodging the new law. Punishments for crimes committed with a firearm should be upgraded; the cost of committing a crime with a gun must be made too high to risk for the common criminal. This would be far more effective than the absurd assault weapons ban being introduced to Congress, which prefers to fret over silly technical specifics that serve only to make firearm-illiterate anti-gun people feel better and rile pro-gun people rather than seriously tackle gun violence.
Lives matter far more than the ease and speed of firearm entertainment; anyone who thinks otherwise has some severe moral deficiencies and serves as a case in point for gun control all on their own.
Only those who pass rigid mental fitness tests and background checks should be eligible to own a manually loaded, six-shot-maximum gun. Anyone who lives in a prospective gun owner’s household and might have access to the firearm(s) must do the same. Those who qualify to buy a gun must complete comprehensive education classes with strict tests before they earn the privilege to own one. The purchase of any gun should come with a waiting period of at least a couple of weeks, and laws should require that all firearms be stored in locked containers, separate from ammunition, which also must be stored in a locked container.
Why would anyone want the irresponsible, incapable or unstable to have quick or easy access to a tool designed for dealing death?
Next, limit the number of bullets an individual can purchase each year, register those bullets to the individual and mandate stamp technology to imprint a unique stamp created in the course of firing each individually registered weapon, in addition to making serial numbers much more difficult to remove from the guns themselves. Stamping technology soon could be law in California; it should be expanded nationwide. As a concession to target shooters, those learning to shoot and firearm enthusiasts, shooting ranges could sell unlimited bullets for use only at the range.
None of these solutions can happen overnight. It will take years of attrition to remove one by one illegal guns from our saturated streets, although if Australia is any indication, a large rapid buyback would result in a rapid decline in the firearm suicide rate. In Tasmania, which had the biggest and fastest buyback, the suicide rate dropped more than 3 per 100,000 in just five years. And no gun safety measure or restriction will ever eliminate gun violence altogether.
But that’s not the goal. The goal is to save lives and make society safer. Australia proved it can be done, as do the scores of other countries whose tight regulations do their best – and far better than our own – to make sure guns don’t result in crime, suicide, accident or murder. It works there; it can work here.
Sure, people, not guns, are the root of gun violence. But American society has a choice: solve a hundred of thousand years of human nature or solve the gun problem. Actually, with lives on the line, that’s not much of a choice at all.