Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Foreign Viewpoints and Misunderstandings


In an article called "Blaming Charlton Heston" Spiegel Online International gathered together various European views on the VA Tech shooting and why gun control is the answer. I'd like to address the issues one by one.

With a view to Monday's deadly shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, European newspapers are blaming the lack of gun control measures in the United States and implying that Charlton Heston is indirectly responsible for the scope of the killings.

In America, "buying a machine gun is often easier than getting a driver's license."

This load of nonsense can easily be debunked on the ATF's website. There you will see the basic requirements for licensing and procedures for getting licensed. You can also dig around on their website to see the forms which even include fingerprinting and beyond and you can see what background checks, fees, etc are involved.

Machine guns are rarely found in criminal possession and even more rarely used in crimes. Machine guns were not used in this shooting, nor have they been used in any recent US shooting in a long time (outside of legal use at the gun range.)


British daily The Independent writes:

"The passionate feelings of the gun lobby may be traced to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, enshrining 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms'. Although the provision stems from the times when 'well regulated militias' were deemed necessary to protect against a British attempt to regain the lost colonies, it is the default position of any argument against greater gun control here."

"As such, it has trumped every other consideration, not least the fact that on any given day about 80 people are killed by firearms, the vast majority by murder or suicide. Gun violence may cost $2.3 billion each year in medical expenses, but it is a price, gun supporters believe, that is worth paying to protect a fundamental freedom ..."

"There is no sign of attitudes hardening. Despite the opposition of every police force in the land, Congress in 2004 allowed to lapse a 10-year federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, a particular favorite of violent criminals. The reaction was not exactly deafening. Even amid yesterday's shock, the initial calls were for stricter security measures on campuses -- not serious moves to reduce gun ownership."

First of all the 2nd Amendment has not been used to stop all regulation of firearms. Like most of the Bill of Rights it is intended to prevent the central government from infringing up on rights. (See US Supreme Court Case Barron v. Baltimore (1833).) Each State has its own provision on the right to arms either for the common defense of the nation (regardless of the threat, not just Colonial Britain) or in defense of themselves or both. Each State varies in degree to how far the right to firearms extends and to what extent that carrying a firearm may be a right or privilege.

The right to self defense is an inalienable right that exists without the Constitution, and that right is central to the argument of opposing gun control in the United States as gun control overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects the law abiding citizen far more than the criminal who can often easily ignore the law. As British authorities will tell you, even on that island nation they are having difficulty controlling the 3 million illegally possessed weapons still in circulation in a land that wasn't too gun crazy to begin with. Imagine the black market in the US and keep in mind that the UK problem is still getting worse, not improving.

The next fallacy here is that "assault weapons" are a particular favorite of criminals. FBI statistics show resoundingly that this is not true. "Assault weapons" are typically rifles that fire like any other typical semi-automatic hunting rifle but are constructed more like a military counterpart which does not change its rate of fire or make it more lethal. It does however typically make them better competition rifles at the range as they tend to be lighter weight, fire rounds that former military and/or police are already used to in a form factor that is also familiar and standardized. Remember that a lot of these NRA members are former military and cops. We aren't all a bunch of rednecks with nothing better to do than curse those dern Red Coats!

You can find some statistics that allegedly show "assault weapons" to be used often in crimes, but the statistics that do so (like the notorious VPC ones) included weapons that had never been part of the "assault weapon" ban and included standard issue police sidearms which are by design defensive weapons. (Yes I said defensive weapon, it isn't an oxymoron, I assure you. When the police go on the offensive they almost always holster the sidearm and switch to assault rifles, not "assault weapons," but assault rifles that are actually military style weapons unlike "assault weapons" that share cosmetic features with them.)

The Times of London writes:

"The trauma of the death of the students at Virginia Tech that will spread across the university and the whole country will be magnified by the feelings of so many people who feel that they should have been able to prevent it."

"Doubtless there will be a call to review the availability of firearms. The National Rifle Association's (NRA) response is predictable too. They will point out that events such as this are not carried out by a rifle-wielding member of a weekend militia. There is no doubt that access to rapid-action shotguns makes these events even more destructive but as we have seen with suicide bombers, who are closer to spree killers than is often realized, if a person really wants to take their own life and kill others in doing so it is exceptionally difficult to prevent it."

Rapid-action shotguns? Shotguns are fairly powerful and all but what this article is referring to is unknown and what rapid-action shotgun event they may be alluding to is puzzling. Rapid fire, or fully automatic weapons are already heavily regulated in the U.S., see the ATF link above to see how to apply for a license to get one (and that's only if your state allows automatic weapons for civilian ownership).

French daily Le Monde writes:

"The shooting at Virginia Tech ... is a dramatic episode of school violence that fits into a long series of such episodes, a series topped by the drama at Columbine, the school attacked by two adolescents in 1999 ..."

"If Columbine left such a strong impression, that was because it was one of the first dramas of school violence that received broad coverage in the media. Americans were informed of what was happening in real time, via TV and the radio. The students called their families or CNN even as the killers were still roaming the corridors of the schools. ..."

"This new tragedy presents a new opportunity for American public opinion to interrogate itself about a society which, as one of the students who survived Columbine said at the time, is very much responsible for what has happened."
This one practically implies that the victims are somehow more responsible than the shooter. This is baffling. I won't argue against doing more to identify troubled kids and adults who would do them harm to avoid these tragedies. But it seems a bit harsh to blame the victim here.


French conservative daily Le Figaro writes:

"It was all too easy easy for the elected representatives of the United States, from the White House to the Congress, to express their sadness yesterday; America's problem with fire-arms represents a political issue for which they share responsibility. Here is a country that represents the vanguard of development and democracy while it is legal to carry a gun in 45 of 50 states, as long as the gun is not loaded. ... At the end of 2004, the Republican-controlled Congress allowed a law to expire that prohibited the sale of semi-automatic and military weapons. Thereafter, legal changes were made to protect the producers and vendors of fire-arms from being held responsible for the actions of gun owners."

"Contrary to what one would imagine, this backward stance is not something left over from the Wild West. It goes back to the creation of the United States and the War of Independence against the English. ... While most states have issued laws designed to control the sale of arms, the NRA ensures they remain inefficient or are not applied. Strongly linked to the conservative fringe of the Republican Party, the NRA spent $400,000 a day to prevent the election of the Democratic candidate John Kerry during the 2004 presidential elections ..."

"Yesterday's massacre will surely revive the debate in the United States, but within the federal system, the question is ultimately settled by each individual state. Going back on the lapsing of the law issued by Washington could provide an opportunity for the Supreme Court to take a stance on the issue for the first time since 1939."
This one is incorrect in both directions. First of all concealed carry permits are allowed in 48 of the 50 states, with 2 not requiring a permit, to have a concealed and loaded firearm. Overwhelmingly these permit holders commit far less violent crimes and far less crime in general than the population at large. They aren't the ones going on shooting sprees and should hardly be blamed for the people who easily bypass gun control laws to do so. Gun control laws only restrict those who obey the law.

Then they error in the other direction by claiming that military weapons have been recently legalized. They have not. Automatic weapons generally, machine guns, and assault rifles (again not "assault weapons" that merely share cosmetic features with assault rifles, but fire like any other semi-auto hunting rifle and are rarely used in crimes) have been highly regulated by the federal government for decades and are rarely found in criminal possession let alone used criminally.

They proceed to imply that the prohibition of frivolous lawsuits against gun manufacturers for the illegal actions of people who acquire them, even if illegally, is somehow against common sense. But common sense would demand that one could not sue the manufacturer of something you used illegally to harm someone else, whether it be drunk driving victims suing automakers, someone beaten with a baseball bat suing a sports equipment manufacturer, someone stabbed with a kitchen knife suing a utensil manufacturer, etc. You prosecute the person that shot, rammed, beat, or stabbed you for their illegal act. That is common sense. The goal of the frivolous lawsuits was to make guns less available by making it far too expensive for gun manufacturers to sell guns to civilians. Even if you support that goal, the method was seriously flawed and would have established precedent that would have opened the floodgates for lawsuits in other industries as well. It was a bad move to back-door the will of the People and their elected representatives through such undemocratic means.

They then try to portray the NRA as some sort of extraordinarily powerful and wealthy "fringe" group of the Republican Party. What they intentionally leave out or may not be aware of is that the NRA is only large and powerful because it has millions of members who donate to it because they generally support keeping firearms legal in the U.S. That is democracy in action. People with similar viewpoints and goals working together to get the representation they want. Political groups on both sides of the political spectrum and various singular issues all do the same thing. The NRA happens to be one of the most influential because it represents so many. If nobody supported it, it would lose influence very quickly.

And their comment about the decision on gun control being left to the State in our federal system is partially true. Federal law is supreme in our system, and federal law defines the militia as both the organized portion, in the modern case, the National Guard, and the unorganized portion, which is essentially able bodied males. The Supreme Court has already inferred that States can only go so far in regulating firearms before they start depriving Congress of the militia it is to be able to call up in emergency situations. Additionally most States also have firearm rights laid out that would be difficult to remove as well as a definition of the militia that is broad enough that an all out ban would probably conflict with federal Supremacy and Article I issues, even before one got to arguments on the 2nd Amendment or any possible 14th Amendment incorporation under substantive due process and fundamental liberties (one would think the 2nd of the Bill of Rights would count as fundamental) being protected against State infringement.


Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera writes:

"Shocked psychologists and sociologists ask themselves how gun violence is to be explained. Some speak of the repressed violence of a country that goes back to generations of pioneers habituated to achieve justice on their own and which is forced to face the powerful tensions within a multiracial society. Others criticize the spread of violent video games (which are, however, a phenomenon that has only emerged in recent years). In any case, gun violence is becoming a common phenomenon in the United States, one that is no longer surprising. In major cities such as New York, the extension of surveillance measures, a tough approach to crime and measures to rebuild the urban fabric have led to a drop in crime and especially in the number of homicides. But in suburban areas and smaller cities, episodes of 'ordinary violence' are on the rise. In the poorest neighborhoods, people are getting used to the use of fire-arms -- a phenomenon that is linked to the growing tendency among many young people to resort to violence to settle even minor disputes and to the ease with which weapons can be acquired."
Violent crime and murder in the U.S. tends to coincide more with economic factors than anything related to video games, or as kids used to play cops and robbers, or any other such nonsense. The violent crime rate over the past couple decades has generally been on the decline while firearm ownership has kept steadily increasing. Gun violence is actually becoming less common lately... just more televised. Media exposure of gun violence has been shown at times to be inversely proportionate to actual gun violence. Ironically we are being portrayed as more and more violent as we are generally becoming less so. The last cryptic sentence of this quote makes it seem awfully dire for young people in America. Fortunately most of the firearm ended disputes in the U.S. are criminal on criminal using criminally owned firearms. Not innocent kids arguing over who can get the highest score on their violent video games who are generally more at risk of traffic accidents, their parents killing them, swimming pools, and other oddball dangers. Some people twist the meaning of "children" though. You'll see billboards with a picture of a toddler talking about gun deaths of children. The image is supposed to make you think small or young children, usually not the 18-24 year olds that are added in whole or in part to inflate the numbers (which is convenient as this is essentially the highest crime rate segment of our society).

Italian daily Il Messaggero writes:

"The bloodbath on the university campus is the work of a suicide killer -- an American suicide killer who, differently from Muslim killers, did not act out of religious motives but was driven instead by the unrest affecting broad layers of US society. America is a nation that has for some years been in danger of becoming more and more unloved in the world, especially in the poorest countries. During the period following World War II, America was seen as the guardian of democracy and was equated with the defense of liberty; today, America is a superpower that begins wars and lives with the constant necessity of having to defend itself against the enemy -- whether this enemy be called Islam or whether it bears the face of the neighbor who has done you wrong."
I don't know how they magically knew the motives of the killer before anyone else did. Interesting trick. This piece is otherwise pure agitprop focusing on bashing what they don't like about America with little relation to the event in question. They just needed an excuse to rant.

Spanish daily El Pais writes:

"The president of Virginia Tech called it a tragedy of monumental proportions. But similar comments could already be heard following previous tragedies of this kind. The shooting spree at the Columbine high school in Colorado, for instance, revived the debate on the necessity of better controlling access to weapons. This led to some laws being toughened and security at schools being improved. But the measures are decided by the individual states and are constantly side-stepped by means of an exaggerated interpretation of the US constitution."

I'd love to hear their argument about how the militia being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed is exaggerated. If anything gun rights supporters have been taking an extremely limited interpretation of the 2nd Amendment considering that federal and most State laws define the militia to be those considered able bodied enough to provide for the common defense and that the U.S. Supreme Court in its last major 2nd Amendment decision noted this usage of the militia is accurate and that the 2nd Amendment primarily protects military weapons in common use by infantry of the day. Gun rights activists could be calling for far more firepower and far less restrictions under the circumstances rather than merely defending their right to own what are generally considered more sporting or self-defense weapons.

German daily Bild writes:

"Now we will probably begin discussing the overly lax gun laws in the United States. There, buying a machine gun is often easier than getting a driver's license. And a new ban on violent games and killer videos will also be put back on the agenda. But in the end, nothing is likely to happen. And the next killer already lives somewhere among us. But we have little reason to point an accusing finger at the Americans. Despite strict gun legislation, we (in Germany) have experienced the school shootings in Erfurt and Emsdetten. We have to consider the problems in our society. And we have to take care of our fellow humans."
I pointed out the big lie in this one earlier. Their machine gun claim can easily be debunked on the ATF's website. There you will see the basic requirements for licensing and procedures for getting licensed. You can also dig around on their website to see the forms which even include fingerprinting and beyond and you can see what background checks, fees, etc are involved.

Summary:

Europeans have an extremely warped sense of what the situation is like in the U.S. and I imagine that the sensational stories that reach them probably don't help that image at all. Similar to news that escalates to national media attention here is hardly indicative of everyday American life most of the time, it is probably even worse by the time it gets through the international filter of the biggest selling sensational stories of the day.

They also see our gun ownership as a throwback to a more barbaric time and they see this through the ethnocentric lens of their own societies that tend to have lower murder rates than ours even if you don't count any of hour gun related homicides. We certainly have a problem with murder here in the U.S. though violent crime generally in the U.S. is comparably low to many Western European nations we still end up with homicide rates that nobody considers to be within acceptable levels. School shootings make up an extremely small portion of this problem in spite of the emotional and sensational coverage they get. But just because the odds of being in a school shooting are extremely slim should not be an excuse to not find a better way of identifying and helping troubled students before it gets ugly.

The sad fact is that gun related homicides are disproportionately concentrated and while murders are still a problem generally for the nation, most of the nation is nowhere near as dangerous as the overall statistics would lead one to believe. The FBI data from 2000 found that 20% of all gun related homicides occurred in four cities with just 6% of the population. These cities have stringent gun control laws with two being de facto bans on handguns - New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.. These high murder areas do still need to be addressed but I fear that foreign press do not understand the complex nature of our nation-wide problem with violence.

2 comments:

dwlawson said...

"The bloodbath on the university campus is the work of a suicide killer -- an American suicide killer who, differently from Muslim killers, did not act out of religious motives but was driven instead by the unrest affecting broad layers of US society."

Ok...an *American* suicide killer?

I have this to say to the Europeans...I still don't want to be part of Europe. Let's keep the New World / Old World separated by the pond. There is no New New World for those of us with a distate for European style oppression to emigrate to.

crotalus said...

Wait a minute...Communist China called us violent and barbaric for wanting our guns??? The gov't monsters who ran down unarmed civilians with tanks called US barbaric????

Oh, that's RICH!!!!

What gall!!!!