Gun control – US gun laws; who pays the price?
The mass murder in Las Vegas on Sunday has brought the issue of gun control to the forefront of public debate once again. The right to bear arms is a fiercely protected right in the USA but would a tightening of controls prevent such tragedies?
In the UK prohibitions on certain types of weapon have been in existence alongside the weapons themselves from as early as 1594; Queen Elizabeth I banned the possession of wheellock pistols near a royal palace through fear of assassination.
Gun control laws in the UK were tightened significantly following the Dunblane School shooting in 1996 when 17 people were killed by a lone gunman in possession of four legally carried handguns, who entered the primary school and opened fire before taking his own life.
Almost immediately in the aftermath of Dunblane the government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, followed the same year by the Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act, which banned the possession of handguns by civilians in the UK. This amendment to the gun control put in place in tightened those controls further.
In the 21 years since Dunblane, encompassing a series of changes in legislation, there has only been one further mass shooting. The 2010 Cumbria shootings resulted in the loss of 12 lives before the killer again took his own life. Despite the stricter gun control both weapons in the killer’s possession were also with lawful permission.
Over the years further legislation has brought us to today’s position whereby the possession of most types of firearm carries a minimum mandatory sentence. Murder of course carries a life sentence if such weaponry is used to deadly effect.
Given the need for public protection, particularly with the uncertainty that an attack may be terror based, there is a very high prospect of the perpetrator being killed by police during an incident.
The death of a perpetrator of course renders any minimum sentence ineffective as there will be no prosecution. ‘Death by police’ or suicide will surely be outcomes that a perpetrator will have considered before embarking on their actions; one therefore has to question whether the minimum sentence or control over weapons has any effect on this particular type of perpetrator.
Gun deaths in figures: US vs UK
Firearms offences in the UK do continue to take place albeit, thankfully, not on the scale we have referred to above. In 1996 there were 247 gun deaths in the UK; the last figure available (2013) showed that there had been a fall to 144 deaths in that year but the intervening figures varied from a low of 123 in 2012 to a shocking 234 in 2000.
Not all of those deaths are attributable to the deliberate killing of another person; once accidental and suicide deaths are taken out of the equation the figures again show a general downward trend with 84 homicides in 1996 falling to 23 in 2013.
The figures for the US are unsurprisingly higher given the significant difference in population, however, when taking gun death figures at a rate per 100,000 people the disparity is staggering. In 2013 the UK saw 0.22 gun deaths per 100,000; in the US the figure was 10.63.
When taking suicide and accident out of the picture the comparative rates of homicide deaths with guns involved was 0.04 in the UK for 2013 and 3.54 in the US.
Worryingly the US saw 505 unintentional gun deaths in 2013 compared to just 5 in the UK. The per-capita comparison is 0.18 to 0.01 US:UK. That means that in the US you are over four times more likely to be killed by accident than you are in a deliberate shooting in the UK.
What is just as frightening is the fact that in 2013 a person in America faced almost the same risk of being killed with a gun by accident as a person in the UK faced at all; 0.18 to 0.22.
Another astonishing statistic was that in 2013 the number of ‘justifiable homicides’ in the US was 681; 0.22 per 100,000 of population. That figure as a proportion of population is the same as the total proportion of gun deaths in the UK in the same year.
The comparisons could go on and on. What we believe it shows though is that clearly having greater control of ownership of weapons prevents gun deaths across the board, not just intentional killings.
It is commendable that in the UK we condemn those who seek to use guns through the use of strict, mandatory minimum sentences. It sends a message that those who seek to endanger themselves and, more importantly, others will serve sentences designed to punish them but also to deter others from following their example.
The problem arises when a person decides that they want to break the law and commit a criminal offence. Controls and restrictions can only go so far in those circumstances. Both perpetrators in Dunblane and Cumbria were lawfully in possession of their weapons which killed so many; although the exact type of the 47 firearms in possession of the Law Vegas shooter is still unclear what has emerged is that he purchased more than one and met state and federal requirements in order to do so.
Whether those checks were sufficient will undoubtedly be called into question but the fact remains, those weapons were available to purchase.
Are these crimes preventable?
One of the first reactions from President Trump was that the killer was ‘demented’; an inappropriate term by all accounts but one does have to question what made an otherwise law-abiding citizen kill 59 other innocent people.
Similarly ill-conceived headlines followed the Cumbria murders in the UK with The Sun declaring ‘Psycho Cabbie’s rampage on CCTV’ on their front page.
The response locally was simply to deter those with diagnosed conditions from getting the help and support they required.
A public inquest into both UK shootings found that neither perpetrator suffered any diagnosed mental health conditions although both had what would reasonably be described as ‘difficult’ backgrounds. The Cumbria killer had suffered a serious attack in his cab and was, according to his GP, ‘starting to get down’ about various ailments and was suffering flashbacks. No further intervention took place.
Similarly the Dunblane killer had no diagnosed mental health condition although that was hardly surprising given the suggestion that he had not been to a Doctor in over 20 years. Local news reported that he ‘did not have a mental illness, but did have a personality disorder’.
Given that a personality disorder is a mental illness we would suggest that the very fact that it was so dismissed is indicative of where the problem really lies.
The problem therefore rests with how ‘mental health’ is portrayed and how it is dealt with. Headlines from influential leaders declaring a person as ‘demented’ to an audience of millions belittles those who suffer with mental illness. Calling a murderer a ‘psycho’ is unhelpful to those who suffer psychotic illnesses but are able to control them.
In no way do we condone the acts any of the perpetrators undertook, or in the case of the Dunblane killer his alleged paedophilic tendencies, but, as a society we have to look at what caused them to take a path which resulted in the killing of over 80 innocent people between them.
Attitude towards guns
Attitudes to mental health need to change to work alongside regulation and control of weapons. Mental health issues are as real and as damaging to their sufferer as physical ailments. All too often depression, for example, is trivialised – ‘smile’, ‘get on with it’, ‘cheer up’, ‘it’s just a bit of sadness’ and so many more are phrases that are aimed at the sufferer by way of well-meaning advice. The sufferer is put off obtaining proper medical advice and things spiral; they may feel unable to speak out and tell friends for fear of trivialisation.
A person with a fractured wrist would not be told to just carry on regardless with a smile. Similarly a cancer patient would not be advised to seek no help at all because it was ‘just a little bit’.
Gun control is an important starting point but the attitude toward guns is just as important. Taking a tough stance on those in possession of them is admirable but we also need to look at the reason why that person is in possession in the first place. Mental health is just one factor.
The US has far less access to free medical care than in the UK; despite concerns that the NHS is failing the fact remains that we have a fundamental right to professional, medical help. Treatment of mental health issues should not be dependent on ability to pay. Instead of choosing to prioritise a right to medical care the US has chosen to maintain a right to bear arms.
Ironically those injured in Las Vegas may have to pay for medical treatment as they are not entitled to it despite being shot by a man who was exercising his entitlement to possess an assault rifle. Regardless of controls or regulations it is clear to see where the problem lies.
Although our own attitudes to guns and the reasons for them could improve we are still far further ahead than our American friends.
Duncan Roberts, Solicitor