April 23, 2008

Foreign Countries Divergent in Strictness of Gun Control

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This is part two of a three part series examining gun control in the nation, internationally, and on the Cornell campus.
While gun activists have been pressuring the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether Washington D.C. residents should be able to own handguns in their homes for self-defense, many countries have implemented tough restrictions on guns in order to curb crime rates.
The democratic country with the most stringent gun control is Japan. According to David Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute, and a strong opponent of gun control, Japan entirely outlawed all rifles and handguns, resulting in a strong sense of security.
“You can walk down the street at 4:00 a.m.,” Kopel wrote in his article “International Perspectives on Gun Controls” published in the New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law. “There is very little demand even within the criminal community.”
However, Kopel contends that the gun control laws responsible for the lack of gun violence, function more as a reinforcement of the societal value of subordination in Japan. According to Kopel, countries with high degrees of economic and political freedom and less corruption in the government have high ownership rates.
“America,” he said, “is higher in terms of individualism, sovereignty and protecting themselves.”
England has gone as far to completely ban all types of guns under Amendment No. 2 of the Firearms Act 1997 established in response to the Dunblane Massacre, where the gunman, a disgruntled, former Scout master, killed 16 children and one adult in the worst mass shooting in British history.
The Firearms Act is notable for both its severity and results. The law is so stringent that Olympic shooters for the English team have to train outside the country so as to be ready to compete. Yet since this law was implemented in the United Kingdom, violent crime rates have significantly dropped off from their pre-Dunblane levels. According to the Washington Post, the entire United Kingdom saw 50 shooting deaths in 2006, a figure particularly shocking when compared to the 137 shooting deaths in Washington D.C. that same year.
Still, many people on both sides of the gun control debate, believe that the United States and England, despite their historical connection, are not comparable with regards to gun laws.
“England actually has a long history of gun control,” said Prof. Robert Spitzer, political science, SUNY Cortland, and prominent gun control advocate, “[but] guns were never truly prominent there.”
Kopel attributed the difference to England’s smaller, more detached parliamentary government. He said, “If you have a majority in parliament, it’s not hard to get a gun ban passed if you only need to convince 12 people.”
He also added that the ban had not prevented the presence of guns in the United Kingdom.
“English oppressive gun laws have led to a thriving black market,” he said. “Police refer to [English city] Manchester as ‘Gunchester.’”
Both Kopel and Spitzer believe that a “frontier tradition,” a reference to the westward expansion into new frontiers with little law and regulation that designated the gun as the symbol of safety and security, significantly shaped American gun culture.
“America has a frontier tradition that England never had,” Spitzer said. He added that the modern stance on gun control was a “reflection of a general cultural tradition of individualism and the frontier tradition, which includes guns.”
However, Spitzer noted that the frontier tradition did not rationalize the gun control of the United States. He explained that other countries with similar traditions have radically different views on gun control and its correlation to gun violence.
“Canada and Australia both had frontier traditions,” he said. “But they both have much stricter gun laws. They are nations that are similar to the U.S., but have fewer gun problems.”
Currently, Canada’s gun control policy prohibits fully automatic military assault weapons, short-barreled shotguns and semi-automatic weapons that can be converted into automatic weapons. Additionally, it bans weapons that are not appropriate for hunting and target shooting.
Under the Firearms Act that was passed in 1995, those wishing to possess guns had to register all firearms by 2003 and enter them a national information system. The Act also requires strict license screening and continuous eligibility checks.
It seems Canada’s strict regulation of gun control has worked. The murder rate by firearms is five times higher in the U.S. than in Canada. The rate of homicides involving handguns in the U.S. is seven times higher in Canada.
However, Kopel believes that this is not enough evidence to adopt a similar policy to that of Canada or England. He attributes the higher rate of murders and violent crime in the U.S. to other factors such as differences in population make up and sheer size.
“The U.S. is much larger than Canada [in population], so the differences are less stark,” he said.
Spitzer explained, “Overall gun ownership is not correlated to gun violence. The ability of criminals to get guns is related to supply in an economic sense. If supplies are down, then less people will have guns.”
Some foreign countries do still have gun problems. The last major international school shooting occurred last November in Finland when 18-year-old Pekka Eric Auvinen shot and killed eight people. Finland has the third highest rate of civilians who own firearms per capita after the U.S. and Yemen.
Spitzer also noted that states with stricter gun laws tended to have lower crime rates.
“There are a lot of factors at play,” he said.