Friday, 14 June 2013

The Gun Debate: Out of Control

I don't mean to depress you, but have you noticed how many children have accidentally shot themselves or their loved ones in the last few months? The list is staggering (and I probably haven't found them all).

  • Christmas was ruined for at least three families last December; firstly in Minnesota, when 2-year-old Neengnco Chong was accidentally shot and killed by his four-year-old brother. They had been playing in their parents' room and evidently found the gun that was stashed between the pillows and the headboard of the bed.
  • Next, Demetri Philips of Missouri died when a friend accidentally shot him with a gun he'd found under his grandfather's pillow when both 12-year-olds were playing in the house.  
  • Finally, in South Carolina 2-year-old Sincere Smith grabbed a gun from a table and killed himself on Christmas day.

Kansas hit the news in January when a 3-year-old boy shot himself with his father’s 9mm Glock. In March a Florida 4-year-old shot himself in the head while "playing" with a gun. Miraculously, he survived. In April, there were so many accidents that commentary became darkly comic, with headlines such as "Nation's toddlers are on a shooting spree."

  • On April 1st there was the 3-year-old in Georgia who shot his thumb after finding an "unsecured" gun under the bed at his dad's girlfriend's house.
  • 5 days later at a family barbecue in Tennessee, a 4-year-old boy shot and killed Josephine  Fanning, whose husband had laid a loaded gun on the bed "for a moment" while getting a rifle out of his gun cabinet to show it off.
  • The following day (April 7th), also in Tennessee, Reika Kid was shot by her 2-year-old when he found the 9mm she kept under her pillow. Thankfully she survived and neither of her two young children were hurt.
  • In South Carolina the following day, 3-year-old Qui’ontrez Moss killed himself when he found a gun belonging to his uncle – a law enforcement officer.
  • A few days later, Kansas 7-year-old Gavin Brummett accidentally shot and killed himself while on a hunting trip with his father and brother.
  • Yet more cautionary tales about keeping loaded guns casually slung into pockets: on April 20th a 2-year-boy in South Carolina shot himself seconds after reaching into his father's pocket and pulling out a gun. Miraculously, he survived. 
  • Another incredible near-miss occurred days later in Idaho when a baby survived being shot by a toddler when their parents left them alone in a car together.

You can keep an eye on the statistics of child shootings here...

The month of May also featured one tragedy after another: 
  • In Florida on May 4th, 6-year-old Angela Divin was shot in the chest by her 13-year-old brother while the siblings were home alone (she survived).
  • Then there was 3-year-old Jadarrius Speights (also from Florida) who accidentally killed himself with his uncle's handgun on May 7th. 
  • On the same day, a 7-year-old in Texas was shot by his 5-year-old brother, although his injuries were not fatal.
  • Days later, 2-year-old Texan Kinsler Allen Davis shot and killed himself just a few feet away from his father.
  • Yet another Texan, Jason Haley died on 13th May from a gunshot wound; the 5-year-old was shot by an 8-year-old friend when the pair found a .22 caliber rifle in a bedroom.
  • On May 25th, a gun carried in a Minneapolis child's schoolbag went off; luckily it didn't hurt anyone. (The student was a third-grader, so would be aged 8-9.)
  • On May 29th, 2-year-old Texan Trenton Mattis died after he shot himself in the head with a 9mm handgun he found on his great-grandmother's nightstand.
  • Most recently, in Arizona on 7th June Justin Stanfield Thomas was shot dead by his 4-year-old son when they dropped in unexpectedly on a friend whose gun was unsecured. 

Perhaps the most infamous case in recent memory is that of Caroline Sparks, aged 2. Her 5-year-old brother shot and killed her with his very own gun  the Crickett "My First Rifle". In their Kentucky town, a small child owning a gun is par for the course; coroner Gary White said "guns are passed down from generation to generation". He condemned the tragedy as "just one of those crazy accidents”.

Except it isn't really that crazy, is it? Giving a small child a gun and then being surprised that s/he uses it to shoot somebody is a bit like sitting them in the driver's seat of a car and then being surprised when they run someone over. Or locking them in a cage with a hungry tiger and then saying "Goshdarnit, who could have predicted that?" when they get mauled to death.  

(Actually, people pretty much do that when they keep a dog for "security" without considering how that dog will behave towards the small children it considers its subordinates. But that is a whole other blog.)

Probably the same people who say "So cute! The lion 
is trying to make friends with the baby!"

Some of the parents in the cases above have been charged with manslaughter or child endangerment for their negligence in leaving guns unsecured. But how will they explain to the surviving child that s/he is the one responsible for the death of their sibling, relative or friend? 

Oddly, some of stories apparently involve guns which discharge for no reason: for example, 15-year-old Saylor Slone Martine died after the gun she and her 12-year-old sister had been "handling" allegedly went off with no warning after being placed back on the counter. (County Sheriff Rob Seale blamed a "production defect.") But unless movies have lied to me, don't guns come with a safety catch which needs to be flipped before the gun will fire? Do they just malfunction on a regular basis?

After every accidental shooting, fans of firearms blame the parents for not teaching "Gun Safety". This theory is that if you teach children that guns are not toys, then it's perfectly fine for them to have their own little stash of weapons and bullets. Because they're learning to use them responsibly, right? Maybe there are lots of 3-year-olds who are dab hands with a shotgun in moose season, but I think all sane people agree that children should not be encouraged to use deadly weapons. 

But even if you keep your gun securely out of reach from your children, how can you ensure their safety when they go to play at a classmate's house? It seems that many of these tragic stories begin with some pals messing around, maybe showing off that they know where dad keeps the key to the gun cabinet... "See how cool I look when I'm holding a rifle!"  

So why do so many people own guns, anyway?  

In March, a Florida boy aged 16 accidentally killed his 12-year-old brother when he mistook him for an intruder. The two boys were home alone in the middle of the day.

In April, a 4-year-old boy in Virginia was shot in the leg by his 10-year-old sibling. Their mother Antonia O’Brien had left the gun outside of its usual lockbox because she'd "heard noises outside" the previous night. 

In May, a 4-year-old girl in Florida shot and killed her brother, 11-year-old Jarvis Jackson. She and her toddler sister had found the gun on the kitchen table while their babysitter (26-year-old Michael Norman) was asleep. He had brought the 9mm handgun with him as he felt the apartment complex "wasn't safe".

These tragedies support Michael Moore's stance in Bowling for Columbine; people who live in constant fear are more likely to buy guns. Whenever firearms make the news and the debate is re-ignited, the first defence of the weapons is that they're needed as protection for the law-abiding citizen, because danger lurks around every corner. The saying goes, "You don't shoot to kill; you shoot to stay alive". 

So are guns essential insurance against the ubiquitous armed intruder? (You could always start by locking your doors.) A 2010 report on US crime statistics suggested that under 40% of burglars are armed, which means that over 60% are NOT. Are millions of Americans cowering in the closet with a pistol for no real reason?

When London was rioting, I facetiously suggested that we could all take note of Miranda Lambert's song Time to Get a Gun. I can totally sympathise with those who feel they need protection. I've had conversations with friends about how nice it would be to feel safely armed when walking home alone at night – after all, "God made man and woman; Colonel Colt made them equal."

Americans are quite reasonably affronted at the idea of losing the right to bear arms that they have enjoyed since 1791 as per the second amendment, and I know there are many people who  use guns sensibly as part of that country lifestyle which involves stalking deer while getting some fresh air and maybe a few beers.

Nothin wrong with kicking back and listening to some Merle Haggard.

However, I'm still glad that most people in the UK don't carry firearms – not even bobbies on the beat. Even in cases as extreme and clear cut as the Woolwich murder of a soldier, police were shooting to injure, not to kill. One US website was horrified that nobody could stop the perpetrators because passersby were not armed. Apparently British heroics are less John McClane and more Mother Teresa; bystanders chose to attempt comforting the dying soldier rather than physically attack his killers. (What's more, when has one of America's mass shootings ever been halted by an armed bystander? Where are all these gun aficianados when you need them?)

But would it have been better if everyone was carrying weapons and could have stopped the attack? Would we feel safer if everyone had guns? Would it be prudent to just get over our distaste for civilian gun-ownership? I was somewhat freaked out when I stayed with a friend in South Africa and found that he kept a loaded gun in his bedroom. While we had fun at the firing range, I never lost the feeling that I was holding something which felt to me like a live grenade.

Then again, it's a bit weird that in the UK, the only people with guns are the bad guys. I've never come across a Brit with the morbid fear of armed intruders that is shared by most NRA members – but if the worst happened, most if us would have no more defense than our bare hands and assorted kitchen implements. (And if you did happen to have a gun and you shot a burglar, you'd be more likely to go to prison than get a medal for bravery.) If the rule was "enter at your own risk," would burglars be deterred? It's true that the US has a lower rate of burglary than the UK. (But then again, Japan has the lowest rate of all and they have strict gun control, so maybe it's just a crap shoot. Pardon the pun.)

If you live in an area in which EVERYONE carries a gun, it might seem unavoidable to have your own. But where does that end? If you keep a gun at home, you've got to keep it locked up for safety. But then you risk an intruder getting to it before you do, so you keep it by your bed, and risk blowing your brains out when you're trying to hit the snooze on your alarm. You could keep the gun at home, but then what if you get mugged in the street and have no way of defending yourself? So you keep the gun in your pocket, but then what about when you go to the gym or get in the pool? Do you take it with you when you pop out to buy milk? What if a crime happens and your gun is out of reach? It's a never-ending cycle of fear.

Batman and his pal Jim Gordon discuss weapon escalation:
 "We start carrying semiautomatics, they buy automatics. We
 start wearing Kevlar, they buy armor-piercing rounds..."

Fox news was quick to point out that The "Batman" shooting in Colorado took place in a cinema which banned handguns, presumably chosen because the killer wanted to find unarmed victims who couldn't shoot back. While my mind is a little bit blown by the fact that there are other cinemas which welcome gun-slinging patrons, I can see the logic of this defence. However, taking this to its natural conclusion, the children shot in Sandy Hook should have all been carrying handguns too, and then they would have been able to fight back.

It doesn't work, does it?

There are differing views (and statistics) on crime levels and gun numbers. While pro-gun sites have found evidence to suggest that owning a gun makes a person much safer, other statisticians have found that firearm owners are far more likely to be involved in an accidental shooting than to use their guns to apprehend a criminal. The study most often quoted by the NRA and other pro-gun lobbies has been heavily criticised for its dodgy methodology. (As a general rule, it's a good idea to be skeptical about a study if it's the only one in 20 years which came up with statistics pleasing to a particular political lobby.) 

What might be more sensible than an outright ban on guns (which will never happen) is stricter controls. Even the most staunch opposers of "Obama's anti-gun agenda" (mean old President wants children to stop dying!) must see the wisdom in restricting the sale of guns to those who have been psychologically tested and trained in gun safety. Currently anyone in the US can walk into Walmart and buy a gun, barring convicted felons, mental patients or those under restraining orders for domestic violence. (Doubtless if guns were available for general purchase in the UK, all of the above would be campaigning for their rights to defend themselves, They'd win, too.) 

Is a little psychological testing too much to ask for?

      Ben Elton's sitcom The Thin Blue Line pointed out that if you
 want a gun, then you probably shouldn't have one.

In his 1997 book The Gift of Fear Gavin de Becker suggests a combination gun lock; an easily memorised code will only delay your using the gun by a few seconds. (And frankly, if you are planning to use your gun the second you're awoken from a deep sleep by one of those omnipresent intruders, you might appreciate a moment to clear your head.) A code lock would also mean that no kids could set it off accidentally, and no criminal could use it against you. Pretty smart, huh? So why doesn't EVERY gun owner make use of this simple device? Probably because in a society which prides itself on instant gratification, it seems like way too much work.

Slogans like "Free men do not ask permission to bear arms" are all very American and independent, but they just don't take into account other people:

If I lived in a remote cabin in the woods, would I feel safer knowing I had a gun? 


If I was walking around doing my grocery shopping, would I feel safer knowing that everyone else was carrying guns? 


You can see the problem here, can't you?

Gun fans speak eloquently about how carrying a gun makes you safe, and gun control is just a way of disarming crime victims.They can be very convincing when you're thinking about it purely from your point of view. "I'm normal and sane, and I'd use a gun sensibly to defend myself, so what's the problem?" Well, the problem is that everyone isn't you. There are people out there who buy guns because they want to hold up a bank, and people who leave guns lying around in the toddler's room because they're "pretty sure" it's not loaded.  


Not you, you're fine, obviously.

And now we have a new challenge for the "Let's keep people alive" agenda – the printable gun. Yes, a gun which can be constructed in plastic layers via a 3-D printer. (Awesome, a gun which can't be detected via X-ray. Just what we need.) 

The design comes from Defense Distributed, a "civil liberties" non-profit organisation headed by Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas. He says "I recognise the tool might be used to harm other people – that's what the tool is – it's a gun. But I don't think that's a reason to not do it – or a reason not to put it out there." Well that's OK then. No, wait. It's INSANE.

For every person who treats guns with the respect they deserve, there will be some doofus who carries an unlocked pistol in his back pocket when he goes jogging. If you're only thinking about gun control in terms of how it will affect YOU and YOUR right to bear arms, then you're not thinking hard enough.

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