Gun Control, Woopty Doo!

For someone who was lucky enough to grow up and live in a country where guns aren’t household objects, it is difficult to understand America’s addiction to guns and the political resistance to gun control measures despite support for some controls within the general public. The recent failure of the US government to pass the Manchin-Toomey bill, a relatively limited move to strengthen background checks when purchasing guns in the US, demonstrates how difficult it will be for the substantial gun control laws to be passed in America. The bill itself is not straight forward to understand if, like me, you’re not used to reading government legalese but you can read the full text on Senator Toomey’s website and simpler explanations can be found in the accompanying press release and on the Politifact website. Ultimately, the measures were voted down much to the frustration of President Barack Obama who noted, “there were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this.” Bizarrely, the Southern region director for Organizing for Action (Obama’s grass roots campaign organization) whose job was to build up community support for gun violence prevention legislation was shot by a stray bullet only days after the amendment failed.

Image Credit: Mista Stagga Lee, flickr

Image Credit: Mista Stagga Lee, flickr

In addition to strengthened background checks, one of the proposals in the failed measure was to establish a 12-member National Commission on Mass Violence to conduct a comprehensive factual study of incidents of mass violence. Interestingly, one of many areas that the commission would have been tasked with investigating was “the availability and nature of firearms, including the means of acquiring such firearms, and all positive and negative impacts of such availability and nature on incidents of mass violence or in preventing mass violence.”

Thanks to the twitter feed of Prof. Simon Chapman (the Keith Richards of Public Health minus the cigarettes etc.) I’ve been following a fascinating set of reports on this same question. While the topic of gun violence isn’t funny, arguments against gun control are increasingly incoherent and farcical, which is why the set of reports on gun control by comedian John Oliver for The Daily Show are some of the most informative reporting on gun control that I’ve seen. The advantage The Daily Show has over mainstream news is that as a satirical news show it does not feel obliged to offer the false balance of allowing firearm advocates to assess the evidence on the effectiveness of gun control measures without question.

In the first of three reports John Oliver interviews Philip van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defence League. This quote from Oliver sets the tone of the interview: “What if gun control could work? Which obviously it can’t, so we know that it won’t, so that’s not a problem. But what if it could, due to that time that it did … Australia.” It is easy to laugh at the hapless van Cleave, who, while struggling to respond to Oliver, tries to shrug off Australia’s gun control efforts by saying “woopty doo” and eventually outwits himself while trying to explain why there are high numbers of gun deaths in the United States.  However, Oliver’s Australian case study is an intriguing one because since 1996 when Australia’s Conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, introduced sweeping gun control laws in response to a mass shooting there have been no gun massacres; in the 18 years before 1996 there had been 13 mass shootings. The measures included a gun buyback scheme and the banning of semiautomatic long guns and pump-action shotguns, and Howard also explains to Oliver that the homicide rate involving guns have declined since 1996 along with the incidence of youth suicides.

In his report Oliver briefly flashes up a Harvard Bulletins report from 2011 which was produced by the Harvard Injury Control Centre and aimed to summarise the evidence on the effect of Australia’s gun buyback scheme in 1996.  The report highlights several articles, which support assertions that the buyback scheme reduced gun deaths, even though deaths due to firearms were already falling in the early 1990s. The report also highlights two articles that found little evidence for an effect of the law; the authors of the Harvard Bulletins report noted that the design of the two studies made it almost impossible to find an effect and one of the articles was authored by Australian gun lobby members. The report concludes that there are probably three reasons why gun buybacks in the United States have apparently been ineffective, that is the buybacks are relatively small in scale, guns are surrendered voluntarily, and so are not like the ones used in crime; and replacement guns are easy to obtain. More recently Simon Chapman and Philip Alpers have published an excellent opinion piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine discussing Australia’s efforts to control gun violence in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in America.

In Oliver’s subsequent reports for The Daily Show he highlights that introducing gun control laws in Australia wasn’t straightforward because, like in the United States, there was substantial resistance to the measures. One of the key differences appears to be that Australian members of parliament, such as Rob Borbidge, were prepared to vote through legislation despite the negative impact that the legislation might have on their political careers. In contrast high profile lobby groups in the US, such as the National Rifle Association, would appear to have a disproportionate influence on the political debate in the United States.

Chapman and Alpers’ recent commentary was published before the vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill but ends optimistically. “Interventions similar in intent and design to those that successfully reduced the toll of guns on the lives of Australians may, perhaps, take hold in the United States.” Unfortunately, in light of the negative outcome of recent efforts to introduce gun control in the US this seems less likely. While this is a disappointing outcome the potential public health gains of controlling access to machines that are designed with the primary purpose of maiming and killing should ensure that gun control won’t fall off the political agenda in the US any time soon.

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22 Responses to Gun Control, Woopty Doo!

  1. John Kaline says:

    In Australia, as well as other countries, the citizens are subjects of their respective governments and have no Constitution that protects the People’s right to keep and bear arms. In America, the People are supossed to be sovereign over the government, although in today’s political climate that point is now questionable. Our Second Amendment was written as a guard against government tyranny, and was crucial then as now, an uncomfortable truth too few believe is important today. When it comes to freedom, what could be more important? Only guns in the hands of Citizens can keep America free. To consent to anything else would be suicide.

  2. M Chambless says:

    So according Leigh’s argument, background checks worked in New Zealand and Australia only had one instance of an attempted mass murder. It seems like a simple measure to implement here in the US and seems to be at odds with the current idea that you need to carry proof of citizenship at all times yet the idea of having to identify who purchases a gun is too much of a burden for the average American.

  3. John Caile says:

    Do we need any better example of the idiocy of the anti-gun Left than this “article”? It’s ludicrous enough that his “source” of information is….a Left-wing comedian’s TV show. But the author’s undisguised elitist arrogance and condescending tone tell you all you need to know about his utopian (and ultimately fascist) vision for America.

  4. Leigh says:

    Let me start by saying I am an Australian licensed shooter. Its easy for people like Oliver to not only cherry pick facts, but then cherry pick from even those results. Australia did have a mass shooting in 2002 – at a school- its first ever at an academic institution. The shooter heard voices in his head telling him to kill his roommate and others. His only ‘failure’ if you can call it that – from making it a massacre, was that he failed to kill 4 of the 7 people he shot. Does the fact they didnt die mean gun laws worked? not really, just meant he had poor aim. But because it didnt kill more than 4, it doesnt count, and our allegedly unblemished record gets touted everywhere.

    We have possibly the most inane and confusing laws. Some of those laws mean that in order to participate in multiple disciplines of sports, or in different occupations, we must have different guns – even if one would do the job. For example I can own a 44 magnum for metallic silhouette, but I cannot use it- legally- to shoot paper targets, even though I can use less powerful ammunition to make it quite accurate and well suited to that job. I cant use a 45 ACP pistol or even a 40 S&W pistol for IPSC competition, but I can use 38 super, which is arguably in some circumstances just as powerful if not more so. I can own a 7 shot lever action 12G shotgun that shoots just as fast as any pump action shot gun – but I cannot have the latter regardless of capacity. AZ farmer can have a pump action shotgun though, but he cant use it for duck hunting off of his own land. He cant use it for skeet or other clay target shooting either. I can own a 44 magnum semi automatic, but I cannot own a 22LR semi automatic rifle – even though the latter is arguably much much less powerful, has less effective range, and much less concealable.

    But this is because Australias laws were 2 fold. It was about controlling the person who gets guns – with licensing, background checks, safety courses, and so on, and also about the type of guns they might get. The latter was the reason for the confusing laws above, and the most upsetting to us law abiding, licensed shooters. If we pass their tests, we should be trusted with anything reasonable. They say we have that now… we say the ‘bar’ for what is reasonable, was set too low.

    Of course Oliver didnt stop in New Zealand, which had a massacre about the same time as Australia, around 1996. They implemented laws that only controlled whom might get firearms, not the guns themselves – licensed people can still get semi auto rifles and shotguns, even military style ones. They have not had a mass shooting (no matter how you define it) or massacre, since – which is actually a better record than Australia. Law abiding shooters and in particular hunters, are not as vilified there, as they are here.

  5. dan deeton says:

    tornadoes kill lots of people………why don’t they outlaw tornadoes.

  6. Ty says:

    Paul I hope you aren’t actually being paid to write garbage propaganda like this blog.

  7. Eric says:

    Yes, it’s probably difficult for people who haven’t spent much time in the gun sub-culture to appreciate its perspectives, as well as its sense of camaraderie and its traditions. So, to people who haven’t experienced the gun sub-culture in any substantive and enduring way (such as the populations of other nations), it probably does seem nonsensical that people within the American gun sub-culture aren’t terribly eager to give up their values and their heritage. In addition, it’s likely an exceedingly poor idea to look to comedic sound-bites for a subtle, thoughtful examination of issues such as these. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

  8. Zack says:

    I enjoyed how the author completely ignored the fact that gun rights are just as enshrined in our constitution as his ability to publish this article. To remove our rights, we would need to vote an amendment through. That means a 3/4ths majority of states ratifying the amendment. The author would do well to actually listen to gun advocates, instead of just dismissing them as ignorant, uninformed hill-people he seems to think they are.

  9. Dan Berry says:

    Now let’s look at Germany in the 1930’s and see how gun control worked for them !!

  10. Scott A. Wingerter says:

    What you ignore in this article is that there are still those of us who do not want to surrender our liberties simply because it leads to a “healthier” or “better” lifestyle. Some Americans are not satisfied playing video games or watching movies on our smart phones, telecommuting, and consuming only tofu – we live in countryside, grow the food you eat, and we hunt, fish, hike, ski…
    While I appreciate the concern for my well-being, my lifestyle is still my choice, doctor. Advise – but do not dictate.

  11. Jamie says:

    The author himself points out that violence in Australia was on the decline in the 90’s, so a firearm ban in 1996 may not have been the cause of a continued decline. Just like the “assault weapon” ban of 1994 did little to control violence in the U.S., as the rate was already on the decline. Not to mention that each year in the U.S. HAMMERS kill more people than ALL rifles combined, not just so called “assault rifles”. Clearly purchasing hammers should require background checks.

    The author should also check the REASONS for the deaths by firearms in Australia prior to the ban; most were suicides. So, clearly there is a reduction in firearm related deaths when firearms are banned, if only because people committed suicides using a different method.

    So this leads to a question: Should my right to defend my family against violent criminals and perhaps an oppressive government be infringed to keep my neighbor from committing suicide? I say the answer is “no”.

  12. Cam says:

    Thanks for the excellent post Paul!

    Its great to see that there is strong evidence that gun control works, rather than it just being the obvious common-sense approach. Evidence is something that is often lacking during the gun control debate, and it seems to be equally lacking in this comment feed at the moment.

    • Kevin says:

      Cam, with 6 years of graduate and post graduate education, not to mention extensive professional work experience in the criminal justice field; I can assure you–you are wrong just like the author of this blog.

  13. robert eisenberg says:

    all the laws in the world wont stop criminals intent on doing harm. only law abiding citizens obey the law. we already have more gun laws than we need . if they focused on prosecuting those who break the current laws it would be much more effective than disarming law abiding citizens. shame on the idiot who doesnt understans americas love of guns. its the only thing keeping us free from a police state

  14. Daniel Chamberlain says:

    Not only what I posted above, but countries are built from the inside out:

    Individual – >Families -> local political associations -> regional representation -> National governmental representation

    IN THE SAME WAY, these are problems whose roots stem from local issues. WHY IN THE WORLD then are we trying to address it on the national level? makes no sense

  15. BRIAN FLICK says:

    Here’s an idea…make crimes with a firearm SEVERELY punished! If someone commits a crime with the possession of a firearm, there HAS to mandatory PRISON sentence, then the court will decide the punishment for the actual crime!

  16. Daniel Chamberlain says:

    Not including the original intent of the 2nd ammendment, which is the only real needed reason for securing our gun ownership, below are other lesser reasons:

    The coherent response was self defeating. The very senators writing the bill admitted that the gun background checks don’t work.

    The government’s own studies showed that gun bans didn’t prevent or reduce crime.

    We already have laws on the books that criminalizes firearm possession by the criminal element.

    Australia’s violent crime rate also skyrocketed.

    Police show up after the fact. Rarely while there is a crime in progress. I hope you have a panic room in your house. The democrats apparently do.

    All of that seems pretty coherent to me. But by coherent, maybe he means “must agree with me”….? That doesn’t seem very tolerant though.

    I have a problem with today’s politicians denouncing anyone and their rational for disagreeing with them as “intolerant”, “incoherent”, “irrational”, etc. THAT kind of mindset does NOT produce constructive dialogue, which is what is needed to move these issues forward. Right now, the president I voted for, president Obama, is part of the problem in this regard. That kind of rhetoric is NOT the change I want in MY government.

  17. Otto says:

    In the wake of what the IRS has been up to, I find it strange that someone would waste their time writing in favor of gun control. If nothing else, the IRS has proved that a government can be tyrannical without the top leader(s) ordering it to be.

    Even Pier Morgan has stated that the NRA was right about that and he was wrong.

  18. Chris says:

    This is the same as me saying I didn’t grow up in a household with freedom of speech or press so I don’t understand why anyone would be against limiting either of those. Then choosing to go ahead and write an article of which I don’t understand anyways. Enforce the laws we have allow parents to discipline their children and instill in them moral value and get back to what made this country great in the first place FREEDOMS.

  19. john says:

    How about we focus on gang violence before infringing on law abiding citizens. There are plenty of better ways to try and lower the murder rate in the US that won’t involve shredding the second amendment and its original intent.