The Devil of the Gun-Control Debate Lies in the Details

Michael Reiners 10 January 2019

When American gun-control comes under scrutiny, as it routinely and wearily does, I find something unpalatable about Britain’s eagerness to join in, sign petitions, waft signs and rail against the political goings on of a sovereign nation whose very foundational principles were laid out to escape our control. Doubtless, American citizens enjoy our input on gun-control as much we enjoyed Barack Obama’s comments that the British would be at the “back of the queue” should they dare to leave the E.U. Accordingly, I’ll attempt to proceed with more caution than the 44th president offered.

Unlike our malleable affair, America’s written constitution enshrines the right to bear & keep arms in its second amendment, though, this owes its origins to a time of necessity. Namely, early lawkeeping, Britain threatening America’s very existence and later the settling of the west – characterised as ‘wild’ with good reason. While this was useful in the 18th century, the only enduring justification for gun ownership in the 20th is self-defence. Given America’s fondness of  Magna Carta, the sense of self in self-defence has a long tradition of including personal property.

In fact, the U.S Supreme Court rulings explicitly confirmed the amendment concerns self-defence. In D.C vs Heller, Justice Scalia refuted one popular understanding of the amendment, stating it concerned “individual right, having nothing to do with service in a militia”. Justice Alito added that the amendment responded to “King George III’s attempts to disarm the colonists in the 1760s and 1770s”, going on to invoke the colonists’ “rights as Englishmen to keep and bear arms”.

The right to bear arms as Englishmen appears to be a contradiction in terms today, especially when modern Englishmen tend to be of George III’s disarming persuasion. The British afforded this very right to bear arms to both Australia and America, a right that originated from Henry II’s Assize of Arms of 1181, a gun-less era. Whether the maintenance of this right counteracts an ‘Imperial Presidency’ or is a long-term hangover of resisting the British is debatable, what we do know is that the muzzle-loading muskets George III attempted to requisition were not of the sophistication or lethality of modern Armalite-class Rifles.

Armalite Rifles, or ARs for short have been the subject of democratic legislation recently, especially given the use of an AR in Parkland Florida. There is a common misconception that AR is shorthand for assault rifle, or automatic rifle. In reality, these are semi-automatic sporting rifles, automatics have generally been illegal to make and purchase in the U.S since 1986. Surprisingly, FBI data suggests, there were 7,105 homicides by handgun in 2016, alongside 374 homicides by rifle, just over 3 percent of the gun-homicide total. Statistically, you are more than twice as likely to be murdered by an unarmed attacker than one with a rifle. Banning the ‘AR’ would only solve a fraction of a broader gun problem.

But exactly how severe is this broader problem? Difficult to say, America is after all a continentally sized, federally governed nation with a population of 320 million, however, nations are rarely compared proportionally or with consideration for legal subtleties. Many extol the virtues of gun control in Australia, following the Florida shootings it was stated Australia had seen “zero” gun related deaths since enacting a federal ban on Firearms in 1996. The acquisition of firearms in Australia for ‘self-defence purposes’ is reason for denial of an Australian firearms permit today, still, these last 10 years an average of 230 gun related deaths occurred annually.

If one counts the population in America’s most pro-gun states up to the size of Australia’s 24 million population, something unexpected happens. In Australia, across 24 million people, there is approximately 1 gun-homicide per 100,000. On the other hand, 24 million people from the states in which it is easiest to legally acquire firearms the homicide rate is approximately 1.6 per 100,000, a negligible difference. Instead, it would seem that the economically polarized coasts of America are home to the highest homicide rates. In, 2014 the crime prevention research centre stated that half of all murders in the U.S came from 2 counties, in localities with some of the strictest gun restrictions yet highest socio-economic disparities; Los Angeles, Washington D.C and Chicago.

Perhaps soon one bold congressman will elatedly emerge in the house with a bill to end all this nasty firearms business, this will of course be done on the mandate of a petition, signed by some slightly concerned middle-class Europeans. We must be tactful, the second amendment’s origins may lie in English common law, but the United States is a sovereign nation of vast proportions, not a British colony for us to disarm through statistical sophistry. In 2012, 17.41 per 100,000 died in ‘gun-related causes’ in the E.U. In America, that rate is only 10.64 per 100,000. Generalisations about geographies that do not have a uniformity of law or culture are easily weaponised in such debate, the real devil of the gun-control debate lies in the details.