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.
- 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.
The idea that the tragedy wouldn't have been as bad if more guns had been available has emerged as a highly popular argument in pro-gun circles. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) suggested on national television over the weekend that if the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary had quick access to her own assault-style rifle, the situation could have been halted by her gunning down the shooter. A number of state legislators and governors have since announced plans to consider eliminating gun-free school zones in order to allow staff to come into work with their firearms. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence responded to this idea, calling it an "insane" proposal that suggests "the only answer to violence is more violence. The only answer to guns is more guns.” A large Illinois teacher's union and other school administrators have since scoffed at the suggestion.
Former Arkansas governor and GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee became the spokesman for this argument on Friday, saying that the crime was no surprise because we have "systematically removed God" from public schools. A number of religious leaders have since echoed this reasoning, claiming that the squelching of religion in school has helped create a culture where mass shootings are more frequent. In this argument, they also appear to suggest that free-flowing religious expression repels violence.
Reports that alleged shooter Adam Lanza was an avid video game player have led lawmakers from both parties to suggest games deserve some blame for mass shootings. A number of Democratic lawmakers called for new studies into the effects of violent video games on their players. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said some blame belongs to violent forms of entertainment. A number of recent studies have found no correlation between video games and gun violence.
Glenn Beck seems to think there could be a connection between baby toys and mass murder. Follow the link to the left for additional confusion.
As in prior mass shootings, commentators and politicians have been quick to assign words to Lanza that suggest he was driven by some supernatural force. "What we tend to do, because we can't understand these killers, is define them as monsters," Scott Bonn, a serial killer expert and assistant professor of sociology at Drew University, told HuffPost's David Lohr. "You almost always see the word 'evil' and 'monster' used in reference to serial killers and mass murderers. This tendency to turn them into these supernatural ghouls obscures the fact that these are really disturbed individuals. It oversimplifies what is a very complicated problem. It obscures the reality of what's going on, and we as a society never make it beyond that. That's why we go on finger-pointing."
Here's how Focus on the Family founder James Dobson attempted to explain the massacre: I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn't exist, or he's irrelevant to me and we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too. Apparently growing public support for gay marriage and abortion rights helps explain mass shootings.
In a Sunday sermon, Pastor Sam Morris of Old Paths Baptist Church in Tennessee linked the shooting to a public school system that focused on "humanism" and scientific principles, which in turn may have led Lanza to believe that he was God and could "go blow away anybody he wants.” Morris also managed to throw in a reference to "how to be a homo" classes. "When I got in high school, man, I started learning all this kingdom, phylum stuff, all this junk about evolution,” Morris told his congregation, according to Raw Story. "And I want to tell you what evolution teaches -- here's the bottom line -- that you're an animal. That’s what it teaches. So, you’re an animal, you can act like an animal. Amen.” Morris continued: “So, here you are, you're an animal and you’re a god! So, what are we going to teach you about in school? Well, we can teach you about sex, we can teach you how to rebel to you parents, we can teach you how to be a homo! But we’re definitely not going to teach you about the word of God! Amen.”
It's popular to blame Hollywood for promoting themes that contribute to the supposed disintegration of society's moral fabric. Over the weekend, former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan argued that Hollywood was being negligent in denying its role in promoting a culture of violence that supposedly motivates mass killers. She said it would take action from Obama to get the film industry to change its mind. From Noonan's Wall Street Journal op-ed: When Hollywood wants to discourage cigarette smoking it knows exactly how to do it, because it knows exactly how much power it has to deliver cultural messages. When Hollywood wants to encourage environmentalism it knows how to do it. But there’s a lot of money to be made in violence, and God knows there’s a market for it -- in fact, the more people are fed violence the bigger the market grows, so it’s an ever hungry, always growing market. This is exactly what you want if you’re in a tough business and don’t have a conscience. Republicans have no sway in Hollywood, none. They are figures of mockery, sometimes deservedly so. If they get into the act here, Hollywood will be able to ignore them, and nothing will change. But the Democrats and the president are in a different position. They could change things for the better.
Due to a number of media reports and interviews, claims that Lanza had Asperger's -- a form of autism -- has played into initial rounds of speculation about why he might have carried out the massacre. Experts say there is no link between Asperger's and violence, and the original reports have since prompted pushback from a number of writers and bloggers who claim they were wrong to connect the two.
Talking Points Memo broke down the conspiratorial fervor over supposed ties to the Libor British banking scandal. According to their report, proponents of these theories attempted to to connect the Newtown shooting with the earlier one in Aurora, Colo., crafting a complex web surrounding unfounded rumors that various family members close to both gunmen had been planning to give bombshell testimony on global banking fraud. Others said the shooting had something to do with the highly popular book series, "The Hunger Games," because author Suzanne Collins is from Newtown. And the drugs and/or brainwashing theory comes from birther queen Orly Taitz and has zero discernible factual basis, so that pretty much covers that angle. She's also responsible for concocting a theory that President Obama is "trying to show that some person can appear out of the blue and slaughter people" so he can ban guns and "gain an absolute power." So there you have it.
This fringe idea comes from Timothy Birdnow at Tea Party Nation, an ultra-conservative offshoot of the Tea Party movement. According to Birdnow, teacher's unions have helped ensure the gradual degradation of the moral values espoused in schools will continue to do so as long as they exist. Birdnow suggests allowing volunteers such as George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, to serve as security personnel. If Zimmerman had "been at the front door instead of some mechanical card reader those children would still be alive," Birdnow writes. Thanks to the teacher's unions, he argues, that will never happen.
In a Wall Street Journal column, James Taranto argued that wall-to-wall coverage of the perpetrators of mass shootings encourages them to act. He admitted that there was no simple way to avoid such tendencies, but urged restraint: Our point here is that the medium is the motive: If these killers seek recognition, it is available to them because the mass media can be counted on to give extensive attention to their horrific deeds. They are, after all, newsworthy, and they do raise important questions of public concern, not only about the availability of weapons and the vulnerability of "gun-free zones" but also about the treatment of mental illness. We journalists often proclaim high-mindedly that the public has a right to know--and we're right. But as in the Garden of Eden, knowledge is dangerous. An industry devoted to serving the public's right to know gives twisted and evil men the means of becoming known.
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