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Why You Shouldn't Blame America for Gun Violence

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For a long while now, and certainly since the Sandy Hook shootings, we've been wringing our hands about America's gun culture. For many Canadians, the apparent U.S. preoccupation with the right to bear arms -- and with arms in general -- seems just plain perverse, especially when it's juxtaposed with a horrific high-profile gun crime. Attempts to make sense of these incidents often boil down to a frustrated, "What is it with Americans and their guns?" But news Tuesday of a deadly shooting in a courtroom in the Philippines (allegedly perpetrated by a Canadian, no less) may be a timely reminder that gun violence is neither a uniquely American scourge, nor a problem whose solution is only blocked by the 2nd Amendment. In the Philippines, the rate of gun-related homicides is actually higher than it is in the U.S., yet increasing gun control there has also proven politically difficult. Here are some of the questions I think we should be asking ourselves about "gun culture" and gun control in light of the Philippines example.

Do stricter gun control provisions reduce gun violence?
Short answer: Probably not. Longer answer: The Philippines has stricter gun control laws than the United States. Are you a private citizen who wants a gun? In the Philippines, you need a license. In most U.S. states, you don't. In the Philippines, you're restricted to two guns: one pistol and one rifle or shotgun. In the United States, the sky's generally the limit as far as numbers of guns go. Yet, as stated above, the Philippines is significantly worse off than the less restrictive United States when it comes to gun-related homicides, with 8.9 per 100,000 people, as compared to 3.3 per 100,000 people, according to the latest numbers available from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Further, when the Philippines has strengthened its controls on gun possession, the result has been more illegal guns. For example, the country bans citizens from carrying guns for six months during election campaigns -- an effort to cut down on the alarming number of political killings there. (According to Time, "the past three elections [in the Philippines] have each seen around 120 killings of candidates, supporters and [elections] officials." Yet, the ban's main effect seems to be creating a windfall for illegal gunsmiths by heavily increasing demand for black-market weapons. As Richard Gordon, who is running in the country's presidential election, told Time: "No amount of gun bans will stop the bad guys from using firearms to eliminate rivals. The good guys should be allowed to protect themselves." (Incidentally, Gordon's father was assassinated during Ferdinand Marcos's rule.)

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is often cited as the main barrier to implementing stricter gun control in that country. Is that a fair characterization? Is it mainly the nation's particular legal framework that explains its difficulty in getting tougher on guns?
Again, probably not. While one shouldn't completely discount the role the 2nd amendment plays in American policy considerations about gun crack-downs, the Philippines shows that even a country with no such heavy constitutional "baggage" or protection of rights (depending on your point of view) can breed a citizenship that is very wary of increased gun control. This is because an inherent distrust of authorities is not unique to 18th-century post-revolutionary Americans. In the present-day Philippines, wounds from political tyranny and endemic corruption in police forces are still fresh enough that feeling the need to protect one's self and one's family from violence committed by those in power is pretty natural. It doesn't take a revered founding document to create a national reluctance to allowing government to disarm the populace. Decades of being victimized by police, the military and political rulers will do it, too. Which helps explain why it is proving so hard for gun control advocates in the Philippines to pass the reforms they desire, despite being free of a 2nd Amendment-type restriction on such legislation. Also, you know that American "gun culture" we're always on about? It exists in the Philippines too. Whether that's because Filipinos have watched too much violent American television, or because of their real-life experiences with violent unrest and insurgency since World War Two, the bottom line is that the country has a lot of time for -- and a high comfort level -- with guns. The weapons are widely seen as status symbols and, by some, even necessities. America doesn't have a monopoly on that attitude.

If gun control doesn't help much and probably won't happen anyway, does that mean we should resign ourselves to gun violence?
No. It is instructive to look at the reaction in both the U.S. and the Philippines to increased gun control measures (or even just talk thereof). Gun sales (legal and illicit) increase. This suggests that people just don't have full confidence in their authorities' ability to protect them -- or to refrain from abusing positions of power. In other words, there is an underlying sense for many citizens in both the United States and the Philippines that they must have access to weapons to 1) undertake general protection of themselves and their families since they can't count on police and the military to do it well enough, and 2) protect against the police and military (and other authorities) themselves. If we can address that sense of vulnerability, we can start to chip away at gun violence.

Ways to decrease the prevalence of guns without gun control
  • Concentrate on combating police corruption -- actual and perceived. If people feel they can't trust the armed officers tasked with policing them, they will also feel the need to bolster their own defenses. The greater the openness and speed shown in addressing any police wrongdoing, the greater the chances people will be willing to defer to law enforcement in matters of protection. Increasing our efforts in this area is likely to be much more effective than decreasing the number or types of guns that can be legally acquired.
  • Take time, money and effort to bolster the legal system. While speedy trials, adequate defense counsel and proportionate sentences are not directly related to to guns, they contribute to people's sense that they live in a civil and fair society. That matters because it's in large part the feeling that justice won't be done on its own that encourages an individual to get and keep guns.
  • Don't float excessively restrictive gun control proposals. These proposals (initiatives such as no guns for any civilians for any reasons) have very little likelihood of actually being put into practice. But they have a high likelihood of making those who do believe in private gun ownership (for whatever reason) feel embattled and panicked. There's probably no surer way to get guns flying off the shelves.
  • When you talk about civilians who own guns, don't assume or imply that they are all "gun nuts". Someone who owns a gun because he likes target shooting has nothing in common with someone who owns a gun because he is a paranoid survivalist...until you lump them together with overbroad insults. Then, suddenly they have common cause against the messages that portray them all as the problem, and a reason to unite and defend each other. Sure, the gun "lobby" is strong in large part because gun manufacturers are well-funded and influential. But it's also strong because law-abiding moderate people have felt marginalized and misunderstood enough to speak and vote for causes they might otherwise have let lie.

In the end, the main point is that casting gun violence as an American problem or an American phenomenon is a cop out. Reducing gun violence in the U.S. is going to require the same changes as will reducing gun violence in the Philippines. And these changes have a lot more to do with people's faith in the honesty and fairness of their government and legal systems -- and the respect for these institutions show for individual rights -- than they do with guns.

Things Being Blamed For Sandy Hook
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