As a US resident Brit, I've had a mixture of reactions on my facebook feed when it comes to how a change in gun control laws could prevent the tragedy: everything from banning guns to arming teachers. Technically, both sides of the spectrum have a point. If the gunman had been unable to get a weapon, or if somebody had shot him in the head as he entered the school, many innocent lives would have been saved.
The Logistics of Guns in Schools
Of course, that's over-simplifying things. Let's start with allowing guns in schools, as the NRA suggested yesterday. I've no idea what safety requirements the NRA envisions for this, but at my preschool, medications and cleaning supplies have to be kept in a locked cupboard out of the children's reach. The key to this cupboard must also be kept out of the children's reach.
If we applied similar restrictions to a firearm, it is unlikely that anybody would be able to get to it in time. Teachers seeking to attack would be better served grabbing the nearest blunt object. Compare the Tucson shootings, where the attacker was subdued by improvised weapons and brute force by the time a bystander carrying a concealed weapon arrived on the scene.
Could we ignore such restrictions and simply permit a teacher to carry a concealed weapon if they are licensed for such? Again, my experience is in pre-school, particularly toddlers. It was not uncommon for me to have to carry the children in my care, either to soothe them or restrain them. In one instance, I had to carry an out of control four year old, kicking and screaming, off the playground and into a quiet classroom so that they could be safely calmed. I can't imagine doing all that with a concealed weapon on my person.
In the case of older children, my concern would be them learning which teachers carried weapons and attempting to steal said weapon out of their own curiosity. But these are hypothetical concerns, and perhaps I am wrong in believing this would be an issue.
So what then happens when the weapon is used? To carry a concealed weapon requires a certain amount of training, to be sure the person can fire it effectively. Yet there's a big difference between firing on a shooting range and firing an armed opponent, particularly if there are panicking children around. Imagine if a teacher killed the gunman but also inadvertently killed one or more of the children under their care. What legal charges would they face? What could be done to prevent that?
It is one thing for somebody with a concealed carry permit to defend their own family (presumably much smaller than a class in any event). It's another thing for somebody entrusted with the care of somebody else's children to wield a firearm around them, however good their intentions. If teachers are to carry weapons in a school, then my expectation, both as parent and teacher, is that they should be trained in armed combat.
Finally, I should note that a teacher's responsibility is to the children in their care. Story after story has emerged from Sandy Hook of how the staff pulled children off corridors, hid them in bathrooms and closets and concentrated on keeping those children safe. Nobody abandoned a class to seek out the gunman; after all, nobody could be sure that there was only one attacker.
Two of the adult victims were not with any children and died attempting to stop the gunman. If one of them had been armed, things might have turned out very differently. But what are the odds that a staff-member with a concealed weapon would have no children currently in their care? As a security measure, this would only work with great luck!
The only answer I can see to this is to allow armed security guards to patrol the school, at what I imagine would be great expense. I don't have any major philosophical objections to this being legal, but as a parent, I would not want my child in a school that permitted guns on the premises. I imagine many Americans would share my sentiment.
It should also be noted that no amount of guns in the school would have saved his mother. Nor did the amount of guns in her home do so.
The Dunblane Comparison
For anybody British, the immediate comparison was to the Dunblane School Massacre. Sixteen children, aged five and six years old, were killed along with their teacher. In the UK, that's one of those "Where were you when you heard?" incidents. I still remember the paper spread across the kitchen table of my boarding house, showing the class picture of the children who had been killed.
The public reaction to this resulted in a ban of all handguns, and as numerous people have recently shared across social media, there have been no school shootings in the UK since.
This, of course, needs to be taken in context. There were no school shootings before Dunblane either. By comparison, here is a Wikipedia page devoted to school shootings in the United States. In a nutshell, the UK is not a country where school shootings are 'a thing'. The US is.
Instead, the Dunblane massacre gets categorised as a 'firearms rampage incident', with two comparable shootings sprees. Previous to Dunblane there was the Hungerford Massacre in 1987, where sixteen people were killed. After Dunblane, there was the Cumbria Shootings in 2010, which had thirteen fatalities. (In both cases, the gunman suicided, but I have not included that death in the tally.)
There simply aren't enough of these large-scale incidents occurring in the UK to judge if changes to gun control laws are helping or hindering them. Quickly pulling US shootings from Wikipedia, I find the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting (six dead), the Aurora Shootings (twelve dead), the Oikos University Shooting (seven dead)--all from 2012.
It should also be noted that only a few months after Dunblane, the Wolverhampton Machete Attack took place at an infants' school. Banning guns does not mean that such attacks will not happen. That said, there were no fatalities in Wolverhampton, though seven people were wounded, including three children. Certainly an attacker wielding a machete is less dangerous than one wielding a gun.
Gun Control in the UK
So what effect did that ban of handguns in the UK have? A 2001 study suggested that gun crime rose by 40% in the two years following. Indeed, a 2008 BBC News analysis showed that gun crime had been rising up until 2006 before 2007 finally saw a fall (still several thousand incidents higher than ten years earlier). However, such incidents tended to be concentrated in certain cities, where gang culture is an issue. Gun crime reportedly fell in many areas around the country, and the most common weapon used in violent incidents was a knife.
According to the latest statistics released by the Home Office, in 2010/2011 gun crime has fallen for the seventh consecutive year. (This doesn't tally with the earlier BBC report, but this blogger lacks the time and resources to hunt down the discrepancy.) That said, the homicide figures had increased from the previous year:
There were 60 victims of homicide by shooting (58 by firearm, 2 by crossbow), an increase of 19 from 2009/10. This includes the 12 victims of the Cumbrian shootings.These bald statistics can't tell us what is influencing the rise and fall of gun crime in the UK, but I will draw the conclusion that gun control does not affect gun culture.
So compare the attitude towards guns in the UK to that in the US. The wikipedia article on Gun Politics in the UK notes that public opinion favours stronger control, and there has been little opposition to the changes in gun law. Although the American right to bear arms has its roots in British politics, the modern Brit is hardly passionate about it. The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 declared that self-defence was not a reasonable excuse for carrying a knife.
In the US, opinion is typically divided, with many Americans feeling the same way as the Brits. However, many other Americans wish to carry a gun for their own self-defence, and believe that this is the best way to protect themselves and their family. A point that is repeatedly raised is that if you ban guns, you take them away from law-abiding citizens while the criminals will still find ways to obtain them.
That's a gross generalisation, of course. The gunman in the Newtown shootings reportedly tried to get his own gun, but was not patient enough for the waiting period, so he used the guns that his mother legally owned (and had taught her sons to use). Had that option not been available to him, he might have gone to the trouble of procuring an illegal firearm, but he might also have decided to go on the rampage with a machete instead, the result of which would have been much less devastating (and almost certainly means he would not have gained entry to the school).
However, I think there's a bigger conclusion to be drawn here. If guns were banned in the United States, a number of law-abiding citizens will prefer to keep an illegal firearm in their possession than give up their right to self-defence. In other words, the numbers of guns in circulation will not drop dramatically. The UK has frequently had amnesty periods where illegal firearms may be turned in without charge, but again, public opinion is different there.
A shift in US public opinion would be needed for gun control laws to be effective. While a few politicians have shifted their attitudes in the wake of the Newtown Shootings, it's clear that the majority of the pro-gun lobby are even stronger in their resolve to bear arms.
Statistics: Global and Domestic
One statistic I've seen mentioned is that Switzerland has similar gun control laws to the US, yet the gun crime is much higher in the United States. Going by the Wikipedia article, I'm not sure how comparable the situation is, since Switzerland actively trains a people's militia in lieu of an army. Gun ownership is obligatory for citizens in the militia, which includes the majority of males, but so is military training. How much difference would this make to the gun culture?
However, even Switzerland has a higher rate of gun crime than countries with tighter gun control. Wikipedia provides us with a List of Countries by Firearm Related Death Rate. Please note that this list does not use one standard year, and it seems impractical to compare the death rate in 2000 of one country to that of another in 2012. Nevertheless, even if you bear in mind that it can only be considered a broad generalisation, it's clear that the countries with tighter gun control laws have a lower rate of gun ownership and less gun-related deaths. The UK has one of the lowest death rates, while the US has the highest among developed countries.
Should we take into account the statistic that most of these gun-crimes are from illegally owned guns (so I am told)? I've never been sure what bearing that has on this. Even within the States, firearm homicides are reportedly higher in areas with higher gun ownership (source) and tighter gun control laws do have an effect on gun deaths (source though this seems to me a very casual study).
For the record, here is the most recent Firearms Death Rate by State. Top of the list is DC which is strict in its gun control laws. Connecticut also has strict gun control laws and is appropriately low, but that didn't stop the tragedy happening on 14th December, 2012.
That's because all this is correlation, not causation. There is a larger issue than gun control at stake. As the NRA is fond of pointing out, it's the person wielding the weapon that is accountable for the murder. They don't become killers simply because they possess a gun. The bigger question is what leads people to go on such rampages in the first place. Is it the violence of video games and movies as the NRA suggests? Or is it the media's glorification of school shootings as Morgan Freeman has not suggested? Or is it failings in the mental healthcare system? Or is it the rise of Survivalism (the gunman's mother was reportedly a survivalist)?
So What's the Point?
I wrote this because I was provoked by the trite memes and quotes being posted on Facebook on all sides of the issue. Perhaps it's inappropriate for a blog that purports to be about parenting, but the argument coming out of Newtown is how to protect our children and how to prevent them from becoming killers themselves.
It's probably clear enough that I am personally in favour of gun control. Yet I'm not writing this post to change anybody's mind--if nothing else, a few hours of googling and browsing wikipedia hardly makes me an authority on the subject. I wrote for the same reasons I usually blog: to get people to think about it.
Sharing solitary statistics that favour our preferred side of the debate only promotes extremism. A number of people have said we shouldn't politicise the issue, and that means we need to stop picketing a position and defending it. On a society level, it's not about choosing a side; it's about making an informed decision.
Twelve facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States
What makes America’s gun culture totally unique in the world, in four charts