Amongst the furious debates on gun control in the USA following the Newtown massacre there is one blog post by the novelist Larry Correia that is particularly popular with those who oppose gun control. At the time of writing it has had 1700 responses- many of them links from other blogs. What I can’t find in all those responses (although it may be there) is a systematic critique of what he has written. Which is a pity, because, while I learned a lot, and even sympathised with some of what he had to say, it is full of logical and factual errors.
The heart of the problem is that Correia sees the world as a fight between the good guys and the bad guys. As he explains, his career has been in guns, law enforcement, self-defence training and eventually writing adventure novels (I haven’t read them but the covers and titles suggest strongly that they are full of good guys killing bad guys). In his world we (the good guys) are under threat from bad guys with weapons and the way to deal with this is for the good guys kill the bad guys before they do too much harm. So for him the solution to Newtown is to arm teachers; gun free zones are invitations to bad guys to attack defenceless victims; limitations on magazine size make it harder for the good guys to kill the bad guys and so on.
He appears to be unable to conceive of an alternative, but they do exist. Indeed most affluent democracies are that alternative. It is the United States that is the outlier having by some distance the highest rate of gun ownership in the world and a homicide rate that is four to five times that of comparable countries. The difference is even greater for “rampage” murders such as Newtown. For example, there has been one such event in the UK since 2000. There have been four events that clearly count as rampage murders in the USA in the last two years alone (Newtown, Aurora, Tucson and Oak Creek) and several others that might count. He wants to arm teachers. Wouldn’t it be better if it was not necessary to arm teachers because the chances of a mad gun man attacking a school are so small they can be ignored? Guess what – for most comparable countries that is the case.
Correia does write about other countries but this section of his post is the most erroneous and misleading. For example, he writes of Australia:
Australia had a mass shooting and instituted a massive gun ban and confiscation …. As was pointed out to me on Facebook, they haven’t had any mass shootings since. However, they fail to realize that they didn’t really have any mass shootings before either.
Australia had many mass shootings in the 18 years prior to the gun ban (estimates vary from 13 to 16 depending on definitions) and just one possible event since (the event at Monash University where two students were killed).
Like many pro-gun US writers he seizes on the fact that both Australia and England introduced very stringent gun control legislation in the late 1990s following massacres and since then violent crime has risen in both countries. But this is reading far too much into that specific legislation and those statistics. In both countries there was extensive gun control for decades before the 1990s. In England virtually no civilians have carried guns for self-defence since the war, and no sane criminal would have been concerned about the possibility their victim was armed. Yes violent crime increased in both countries in the late 90s early 2000s, but this was part of a worldwide trend that had already started and has reversed in the latter part of the 2000s. This violent crime did not extend to homicide which remained low – far, far lower than the USA (In England the big increase was in assault – a very broad category which covers everything from a minor scuffle in a bar to a major mugging). The explanation of this pattern is debateable and complicated – but one thing it certainly was not caused by was criminals suddenly finding their victims could not defend themselves. The 1990s legislation was a reaction to specific rampage murders – important and horrific but responsible for a negligible proportion of homicides. In the case of Australia it appears to have succeeded dramatically. In the case of the UK it is hard to tell because such incidents were so rare in the first place.
What Correia appears not to understand is that the USA has a unique gun culture. By a gun culture I mean more than lax gun control laws or even the high availability of guns. I mean that the use of guns as defensive weapons is accepted and actively promoted. Other countries do not have advertising campaigns suggesting you need a gun to defend yourself. In England most people would be shocked if a friend declared they had a gun for self-defence even if that gun were legal. Outside the USA people do own guns (even in England!) but they are for professional or sporting reasons. I believe this cultural difference is far more important than the difficulty of obtaining a gun legally. Even in England it is not that difficult to own a gun. The one rampage killing in England since the late 1990s legislation was done using legally obtained guns. Likewise, Norway’s only rampage murder – the horrific Breivik massacre – was committed using legally obtained weapons (he even got formal training – much as Correia would like teachers to get). The reason there are far less rampage murders in England is because such murders are extremely hard to do without guns and people in England just don’t think about guns as a realistic option for killing fellow citizens. Even in countries such as Switzerland, where famously guns ownership is high, guns are treated as instruments of sport not as weapons. Although gun ownership is required for men of military age there are strong restrictions on carrying guns. To quote a website that advises foreigners on living in Switzerland:
Strict legislation in Switzerland has made it extremely difficult to obtain a license to bear arms, and the trend is moving towards even stricter laws. For information purposes only, 400 people had a license to bear arms in the canton of Geneva in 1998. Only eight "survivors" still have authorization today. Understandable when you realize how little violent crime there is in Switzerland.
Crime is very, very low in Switzerland – but it is not because criminals are frightened of their victims defending themselves with a gun. Switzerland has extensive gun control – it is just that it applies to bearing arms not owning them.
So, the USA is stuck in a unique culture where guns are closely linked to violence and self-defence. Other countries have far lower homicide rates and far lower rates of rampage killings (and very little debate about the need for gun control). But does that mean increased gun control would change that culture in the USA? Given the vast number of guns already in circulation, the almost religious belief in the second amendment, and the deep political divide it represents – maybe the best way forward is to accept that the culture cannot change and concentrate on making sure the good guys have the weapons they need?
The problem with this argument is that it turns crime prevention into an arms race. If the teachers/guards are armed then maybe they will kill the bad guys first, but the bad guys are the ones who take the initiative and can research their their targets. What is to say he (it is almost always a male) will not simply increase his body armour and weapons to whatever level is necessary (remember the extensive kit used by the Aurora killer) and make sure he kills the armed guard/teacher first? In an arms race the side that is waiting for the possibility of attack on one or two out of thousands of possible targets is always going lose out to the side that can choose and survey its target and pick its time and weapons.
Laws are both the result of culture change but also contribute to it. They not only prevent people doing what society considers to be wrong. They also help to define what is wrong. Speed limits define what is an acceptable speed even on roads where there is no possibility of being caught. People report income for taxation purposes even though there is no way they will be found out. Drink driving and smoking legislation have changed our ideas about what is acceptable behaviour. Gun control laws can do something similar for guns. They can contribute to breaking that cultural link between guns and violence. If selling certain types of weapon is illegal then they will not be advertised and they will not be seen in gun shops. If carrying them is illegal then they will not be shown off at gun shows or other occasions. If someone has doubts about owning a powerful gun but feels peer pressure to have one – the law gives them a great excuse for not having one. Of course, laws by themselves are not sufficient, if they are not promoted and at least to some extent enforced, they will be meaningless. But if the USA really wants do something about its high homicide rate and particularly its rampage murders then surely this has to be worth a try.