Featured image courtesy of Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today via AP
In the wake of the Orlando Shooting, it’s easy to point fingers. To politicize the multitude of factors available: the AR-15 “Assault Rifle” used, the fact that the man was Islamic, the spread of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or Daesh), violence against LGBTQ+ people, or the state of mental health in this country. The dead have not been given their day to grieve before the media has come out in full blast about why this happened.
The New York Daily News ran an article stating “Killers in mass shootings used AR-15, thanks to NRA”. Slate’s Crime blog re-ran “How Many Shootings Will It Take for America to Control Its Guns” and “The NRA Claims the AR-15 is Useful for Hunting and Home Defense. Not Exactly”. The BBC ran a more conservative headline, “Orlando club shootings: Full fury of gun battle emerges”.
It goes without saying that there have been mass atrocities that have occurred over the last few years. Newtown, Umpqua Community College, and many others have occurred within the last few years, and they are still fresh in our minds. These deserve to be condemned, and many call for action to be taken.
The over-politicization of a tragic, tragic incident is shameful and wrong, but people have requested action as the injured still try to heal in their hospital beds. It is a ruthless thing, the cycle of public opinion, the 24/7 style of news reporting, the ability to make judgment before all facts are heard. Nevertheless, it becomes necessary to analyze what many are calling for: the effectiveness of firearms policies of other countries.
The 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act
In 1994, the United States passed a federal assault weapons ban, written by congress and signed by president William Jefferson Clinton. Since 1934, fully automatic weapons have been strictly regulated to the point where it is very difficult to obtain an automatic weapon in this country. The 1994 federal assault weapons ban sought to regulate semiautomatic weapons (fires a round every time the trigger is pulled), but did not seek a full ban on semiautomatic weapons.
Therefore “assault weapons” were defined by cosmetic features, mainly: folding stocks, pistol grips, bayonet mounts, attachable grenade launchers, flash suppressors, or threaded barrels designed to accommodate a flash suppressor. However, weapons bought before 1994 were “grandfathered” in, and there were exemptions to the 1994 federal assault weapons ban that allowed some to get those weapons. Mainly, the ban achieved one thing: a restriction of any magazine (an ammunition feeding device) of more than 10 bullets (rounds).
Only 18 weapons were explicitly banned, but manufacturers could slightly modify weapons to make them legal under the ban. 24 million magazines existing before the act’s provisions took place also existed in the United States. The majority of restrictions on “assault weapons” were cosmetic, and did not address the factors of inner city crime (where the majority of gun violence occurs, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control) or the use of pistols, which are used more frequently in firearm crimes.
The ban expired under its “sunset provision” in 2004. The effectiveness of the ban is hard to measure. Firearms violence did go down during the 1990s, but was likely due to other factors. As a study by Koper of the University of Pennsylvania put it: “We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation’s recent drop in gun violence. And, indeed, there has been no discernible reduction in the lethality and injuriousness of gun violence.”
The truth is that assault weapons are only used in 2-8% of United States gun crimes. By the metrics used by the U.S. Government, mass shootings did go down when the ban was in effect, according to Princeton’s Sam Wang. However, using a more updated metric by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, mass shootings have remained relatively constant, according to the Boston Globe’s James Alan Fox.
The study by James Koper of the University of Pennsylvania says this: “What we found in these studies was that the ban had mixed effects in reducing crimes with the banned weaponry due to various exemptions that were written into the law. And as a result, the ban did not appear to effect gun violence during the time it was in effect. But there is some evidence to suggest that it may have modestly reduced shootings had it been in effect for a longer period.”
Australia had comprehensive firearm bans and buybacks in 1996, following the Port Arthur Mass Shooting where a man killed 35 people with a semi-automatic weapon. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has publicly gone on record praising the bans and buybacks, saying that “Australia is a good example”. The commentator John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, has also gone on record supporting Australia’s gun policies.
A study by Peter Reuter and Jeremy Mouzos of the University of Maryland concludes this: “Suicide rates did not fall, though there was a shift toward less use of guns, continuing a very long-term decline. Homicides continued a modest decline; taking into account the one-time effect of the Port Arthur massacre itself, the share of murders committed with firearms declined sharply. Other violent crime, such as armed robbery, continued to increase, but again with fewer incidents that involved firearms.”
As for the effectiveness of the buyback, the Sporting Shooters of Australia estimates compliance at 19 percent. A study by the University of Vienna by Dr. Franz Császár estimates compliance at 20 percent. The 80-81 percent of firearms remained in the hands of citizens that were unlikely to commit atrocities with their firearms. Professor Paul Wilson of Bond University claimed that the buy-backs were “probable that the crime rate would drop by up to 20%”, current evidence proves not to be that case. In fact, Australia is currently dealing with a thriving underground black market for firearms, criminal gangs importing pistols and selling “ten M72 rocket launchers stolen from an Australian military base in Queensland in the early 2000s”, some of which ended up in terrorist hands, according to theSydney Morning Herald.
While Australia’s Prime Minister at the time wrote in the New York Times, “I Went After Guns. Obama Can Too.”, he recognizes that there are differences in the United States and Australia. A more urban society in Australia, no historical documents similar to the Bill of Rights or the United States’s Second Amendment, and no firearms association as strong as the National Rifle Association. Additionally, 20% of Australian firearms was around 650,000 firearms, in the United States, the equivalent would be 105 million firearms which the people feel they have a constitutional right to.
In the United Kingdom, while gun crime has decreased, other crime has increased. Firearm use in crimes doubled since the ban, with weapon smuggled from Ireland. According to The Times, “Despite a ban on handguns introduced in 1997 after 16 children and their teacher were shot dead in the Dunblane massacre the previous year, their use in crimes has almost doubled to reach 4,671 in 2005-06.” Furthermore, comparisons of gun crime in between the United States and the United Kingdom are inaccurate due to the fact that gun crimes in the UK are only recorded after a criminal conviction, rather than reported as a gun crime in the United States.
While there are many differences in opinions on what should be done in the United States about guns, the evidence from other countries shows less effectiveness of gun restrictions than rhetoric claims. The evidence neither supports total gun bans nor total deregulation of guns, rather, it shows that rhetoric used on both sides is inaccurate.
The effectiveness of gun bans are questionable, and hard to explain whether they would work in the United States. Lower gun crime rates in other countries may be due to differences in reporting, such as the United Kingdom. The effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Australian gun policy is debated, with conflicting studies coming in support or in opposition to the policy. American “assault weapon” bans in the 1990s are still debated whether they had any major impact to firearms.
People against firearms regulations talk of Australia and the United Kingdom’s weapons smuggling, and black markets for firearms may be harder to regulate than legal markets for firearms. The theft and sale of ten M72 rocket launchers in Australia is a major concern, as well as the smuggling in the United Kingdom from Ireland. People for firearms regulations show the decrease in firearm crime in countries that have instituted firearms reforms, and claim that increases in crime rates come from other systemic problems.
To say that any country’s firearms policy is greater or worse than the United States would be ignorance of the evidence provided. While there are other countries, other municipalities, other states that this article could be focused on and made into a book, the evidence is simple: it’s just not clear what would happen in the United States. It’s possible to talk about Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Sweden, Norway, or Denmark all day, but there are distinct differences in culture and history.
Many countries lack the previous historical framework of firearms that the United States has in the Bill of Rights and the Second Amendment. Many of these countries lack the historical-cultural aspect of firearms as well, that their history does not contain revolutionaries fighting off unfair governments with weapons. Due to the large population of the United States that lives near rural or in rural areas, many people have fond memories of going with their parents or grandparents and shooting in the woods.
In this country, we can say that higher firearm ownership correlates with lower crime rates, but we can also say that states with stronger firearms regulations correlates with lower crime rates. The ownership and restrictions on firearms have many correlations that people can draw, but there’s no definitive explanations on what would happen in case of stronger firearms regulations.
In the wake of a mass tragedy, it is easy to politicize that tragedy and draw conclusions that may not necessarily be there. The next few months will be rife with politicians exploiting this incident, and perhaps the best response is not to make haste in regulation following this incident. It is easy to craft unfair legislation, but it is difficult to eliminate unfair legislation. Maybe in the 24/7 social media reporting age, the best action is to sit and let the wounded heal, the families mourn, and the dead buried. Then, we can approach solutions with a clear and level head, not a cloudy and emotional one.