Tuesday 25 December 2012

Turning point for gun-toting America?

School massacre raises hopes of shift in public opinion towards gun control
By Tracy Quek, The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012

Long-time gun enthusiasts Dennis Burgner and his wife, Elsa, own a collection of pistols, rifles and shotguns, which they use frequently at the shooting range, for hunting and competitive sport shooting.

They have never had to use a firearm in self-defence except in an incident about 20 years ago, said Mr Burgner, 46, chairman of the Marshfield Shooting Club board of directors in Missouri.

He told The Sunday Times: "I might have been stabbed but my wife pulled out her gun. She didn't have to fire it; just the sight of it defused the situation." He declined to give more details.

This personal experience and a lifetime of handling guns have convinced him that if the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, had been armed and properly trained, their attacker would not have shot and killed so many people.

Even as United States President Barack Obama announced his intention to push for new gun restrictions after the Dec 14 massacre of 20 children and seven adults, he is running into heavy resistance, much like all previous attempts to restrict gun ownership.

The proposed gun control measures are likely to include banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines like those used by gunman Adam Lanza in Newtown and requiring thorough background checks before firearm sales.

Mr Obama will face opposition not only from Republican lawmakers close to the influential gun lobby group, the National Rifle Association, but also from millions of gun owners across America, including Mr Burgner, who believe that gun possession is an effective means of self-defence and deterring crime.

The US has the highest per capita private gun ownership rate in the world. About 100 million Americans, or a third of the population, collectively own an estimated 270 million to 300 million guns.

At Mr Burgner's Marshfield Shooting Club, its response to the Connecticut shooting has been to provide free club membership to facilitate regular shooting practice and gun training to local area teachers.

At least two teachers have taken up the offer, Mr Burgner said.

An indication of how ugly the political fight will be came last Friday when the National Rifle Association broke its week-long silence on the school shooting.

Its executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre called for armed guards in every American school and accused the media of demonising gun owners and politicians of exploiting the Connecticut shooting.

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," said a combative Mr LaPierre. He was interrupted twice by anti-gun protesters.

Mr Burgner agrees with the association's sentiment.

"You can put all the laws you want in place but the people who commit crime don't care about the laws," said the truck driver, who was 12 when he fired his first shotgun, a birthday gift from his father.

"Everyone has the right to self-defence. If you didn't have a gun in a life-threatening situation, what else could you use to equalise the threat to your safety?" he asked.

There are historical, cultural, ideological and political reasons behind Americans' attachment to guns and the resistance to tighter gun controls, experts say.

"Guns are integral to our national stories going back to the founding of our nation and who we are culturally," said Dr Kristin Goss of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy.

Historically, the US was a frontier society where the early settlers used guns to protect themselves and their property as they migrated westward.

Ideologically, Americans revere the US Constitution as a "living, breathing document", Dr Goss said. Gun proponents jealously guard their right to "keep and bear arms", which is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

Gun control proponents may dismiss gun owners as extremists, but "gun advocates really come to their position from a sense of patriotism and a belief in the logic of an armed populace protecting democracy against tyranny", added Dr Goss, the author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement For Gun Control In America.

But the biggest obstacle to gun control may well be the political and economic muscle wielded by the gun lobby.

The National Rifle Association, founded in 1871, started out promoting gun training, education and marksmanship. Over the past four decades, it has become one of Washington's most powerful interest groups.

There is a close link between the association and the gun industry, worth US$12 billion (S$14.7 billion) a year.

Firearm makers, including Beretta USA and Sturm Ruger, contribute millions to the association, allowing the group to far outspend anti-gun groups to promote its cause.

A 2010 Washington Post analysis showed that the association, with four million fee-paying members, had spent US$74 million on political campaign contributions over the previous two decades.

Just over half (51 per cent) of the members of the new Congress that convenes next month - 88 per cent of current congressional Republicans and 11 per cent of Democrats - have received funding from the association at some point in their political careers, said the Sunlight Foundation, a non-partisan watchdog group.

As such, the association has been effective in defeating or watering down major gun control legislation.

In 2004, for instance, it successfully lobbied for the lapse of a federal ban on assault weapons. In cases where it could not block tighter gun control legislation, such as in San Francisco in 2005, the association filed lawsuits to challenge the ban.

But the horrific nature of the crime at Sandy Hook may have shifted public opinion. Two polls conducted after the recent school shooting found there was a modest change in attitudes towards gun control.

A Gallup poll found that 49 per cent of Americans say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 42 per cent say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.

In July, following a shooting at a Colorado movie theatre, opinion was more evenly split at 47 per cent to 46 per cent.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 54 per cent of Americans favour stricter gun control laws, numerically a five-year high.

"As in the case of any policy area, an interest group is only as strong as the political climate of the moment," noted Dr John Hudak of the Brookings Institution.

The Sandy Hook shooting might be the turning point in the debate, he reckoned.

"When public opinion turns dramatically against greater gun freedom, it could bring about the strongest chance to have movement on this issue in decades," he said.

Pro-gun argument
"Gun advocates really come to their position from a sense of patriotism and a belief in the logic of an armed populace protecting democracy against tyranny."
DR KRISTIN GOSS, the author of Disarmed: The Missing Movement For Gun Control In America.

- The US Constitution's Second Amendment, which is part of the Bill of Rights, states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
- The US Supreme Court, in key rulings in 2008 and 2010, supported the right of individual Americans to own guns for self-defence. The National Rifle Association and gun owners have opposed any restrictions they see as diluting this right.
- Although blanket bans on handguns for personal protection are unenforceable, there are restrictions on gun ownership to protect public safety, such as the prohibition of firearms in schools or government buildings, and bans on gun possession by felons or minors.
- The 1994 so-called Brady Law requires federal background checks on firearm buyers. But about 40 per cent of gun sales are not affected by the law, as they take place between private individuals, through websites, or at gun shows.
- Gun regulations vary widely from state to state. Residents in Alaska and Vermont, for example, can carry a gun openly or concealed without a permit. Washington DC and Pennsylvania have some of the nation's strictest gun laws that require background checks and police-issued gun permits.

- The United States has the highest per capita private gun ownership rate in the world.
About 100 million Americans, or a third of the US population (equivalent to the number of smartphone users in the US), collectively own an estimated 270 million to 300 million guns.
- According to Gallup, 46 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women in the US say they personally own a gun.
- Retail prices of guns vary widely, from US$75 (S$92) or less for inexpensive, low-calibre handguns to more than US$1,500 for higher-end, standard- production rifles and shotguns.
- The AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle is the most popular rifle in the US. It was among the weapons Adam Lanza used on his school victims.

Free from fear of getting shot
By Lee Wei Ling, Published The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2012

The latest mass killing - the horrifying murder of 27 people, including 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut - was no different.

The murderer, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, first killed his mother at her home before driving to the school, armed with two semi-automatic pistols and a semi-automatic rifle. The murder weapons belonged to none other than his mother. She was a "big, big gun fan", according to news reports, who used to go target shooting with her children; she had purchased the weapons legally.

And if she hadn't, Lanza would not have had any difficulty buying the guns himself, including the semi-automatic AR-15, which, as generations of national servicemen in Singapore would remember, is a military assault weapon.

There are, of course, laws governing who can or cannot buy guns in Connecticut. As The New York Times reports, if you are 18 or older, if background checks show you have not committed a felony or been admitted to a mental institution, if you are willing to inform the state's Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection as well as local law enforcement of your purchase, you can buy guns from licensed dealers.

A licensed dealer, according to The New York Times, is a person or business "dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business", and is required to be licensed.

That seems solid enough. But wait, there is a loophole - there always is. You can bypass every one of the conditions above by purchasing your gun from a private seller.

And what precisely is a private seller?

A private seller is deemed as someone who "makes occasional sales, exchanges or purchases of firearms" related to a personal collection or a hobby.

The law seems to have been deliberately written not to restrict gun sales, but to facilitate them. As is often the case in the US, what is shocking is not what is illegal. What is shocking is what is perfectly legal.

And this is in Connecticut, a north-eastern state where the gun culture is not as strong as elsewhere in the US. Imagine the loopholes in gun laws in the south or west. There are places in the US where it is perfectly legal to carry concealed weapons - even into school or church - without a permit.

I, like everyone else in Singapore and elsewhere, have felt numb this past week reading about America's gun fetish. Here are just some of the facts I culled from US news reports:
- Every year, more than 30,000 people die in the US from gunshot wounds. Every two years, more Americans die from gunshot wounds than were killed during the entire course of the Vietnam War.
- About 2,800 of those who died from gunshot wounds were children and teenagers.
As President Barack Obama reminded his countrymen last Wednesday, in just the five days since the Newtown shooting, guns have caused the deaths of policemen in Memphis and Topeka, a woman in Las Vegas, three people in an Alabama hospital, and a four-year-old in a drive-by shooting in Missouri. These are victims of "violence that we cannot accept as routine", he was reported to have said.

But alas, it is routine. A person living in the US is eight times more likely to die from a gunshot wound as is someone living in other advanced economies.

This cannot be because Americans are uniquely wired to be violent. The reason there are so many mass killings in the US is that guns are freely available in the country.

"Guns don't kill, people do," a pro-gun slogan in the US asserts. That is perhaps one of the stupidest things ever uttered in human history. Adam Lanza couldn't have snuffed out the lives of so many innocent children in so short a time if his mother hadn't been able to buy semi-automatics legally.

The right to bear arms is, of course, guaranteed by the US Constitution. Its famous Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

That was written in the 18th century, when presumably the constituent states in the United States may have felt their right to have "well regulated" militias should not be infringed by the federal government.

But whatever the rights and wrongs of the Second Amendment in today's context, surely everyone can agree that America's founding fathers couldn't possibly have had the rapid-fire AR-15 in mind? Mr Obama has said that he would try to pass stricter gun control laws, including restoring the Clinton-era ban on the sale of semi-automatics. Civilised people everywhere would wish him well in the effort.

Singapore is often described as an authoritarian state, with fines for littering and the death penalty for drug dealers. But many Singaporeans would prefer the safety that our allegedly "paternalistic" government provides to the chaos of a Newtown.

A few among the faculty of Yale University have objected to the establishment of the Yale-NUS liberal arts college here on the grounds that Singapore lacks academic freedom. Other than strictures against using inflammatory language about race or religion, I don't know how we lack academic freedom.

Be that as it may, I find it ludicrous that some at Yale University, which is also located in Connecticut, should be so condescending about Singapore when they have the mass murder of children in their own backyard.

In my view, American citizens have less freedom than we do. Their children cannot even go to school without facing the real possibility of being killed. I can go jogging at night in Singapore with little or no fear of being robbed, mugged, raped or killed.

Between the freedom promised by the US Constitution, including its Second Amendment, and that which we enjoy in Singapore, I prefer the latter.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute

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