Why Stricter Gun Control Wouldn’t Make Us Safer
by Gary Mauser Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University.
Incidents like the Tucson, Arizona shooting raise questions about how society can protect itself from dangerous individuals, but it’s a mistake to think of all gun owners as potential hazards.
The irrational shooting in Tucson, Arizona by Jared Lee Loughner has shocked many people. As more facts emerge, it is increasingly evident that the attack was not politically motivated, as some had claimed earlier, and was carried out by a man who was mentally disturbed. But even though Loughner had had several minor run-ins with authorities, he had not been judged dangerously violent, and consequently he could legally purchase a firearm.
The U.S. does not differ from Canada or the U.K. in prohibiting access to firearms and explosives for anyone who is deemed a risk to himself or others, or who has a violent criminal record. The problem is that it is impossible to tell who is truly a risk, whether or not they are mentally disturbed. There is no solid research supporting the idea that physicians, psychiatrists, or police can predict, with the necessary reliability, who will and will not become dangerous, based on interviews or psychological tests. And why should this be surprising? Indeed, medical tests cannot even predict physical health in future years. People can and do die suddenly just months after their annual medical check-up.
At best, predictions about future dangerous behaviour are little better than 50/50. Too many of those who are thought to be a risk to themselves or others never go on to be violent – just as others who are not believed to pose a serious threat, such as Loughner, actually go on to commit violent crimes. It is unacceptable to deprive an individual of their civil liberties based on unreliable predictions of future behavior. That’s why society closed down the old mental hospitals.
But in our search for ways to protect society from dangerous individuals, it’s a mistake to look upon all gun owners as potential hazards. In Canada as well as the U.S., gun owners are valuable members of society. For example, hunters are renowned for their extensive contribution to effective wildlife conservation. Hundreds of thousands of hunters and target shooters own and use firearms legally and responsibly. Analysis of Canadian Firearms Program statistics shows that legally accredited firearms owners are less than half as likely to commit murder as other Canadians. And it was a licensed and accredited gun owner, Joseph Zamudio, who was courageous enough to help stop the shootings in Tucson by disarming the gunman before he could kill even more people. As Loughner stopped to reload, a woman grappled with him, giving Zamudio, who had an Arizona concealed-carry permit, the opportunity to wrestle the killer to the ground and disarm him.
Some have claimed that Canada’s gun laws protect us from murder. Not so. Among Canada’s most notorious Canadian killers is mass shooter Marc Lepine (Gamil Gharbi), who killed 14 women and wounded many others at Ecole Polytechnique in 1989. None of the teachers or students tried to intervene, even though, like Loughner, Lepine occasionally had to reload. The killing only ended when Lepine committed suicide. More recently, Kimveer Gill fatally shot one person and injured 19 others at Dawson College in Montreal in 2006. Police, who were in the vicinity on other business, ended Gill’s shooting spree by gunning him down.
Had Lepine and Gill not had access to firearms, would they still have killed? It’s not unlikely. Preventing homicide is not a matter of reducing the availability of firearms. There is no convincing empirical evidence that gun laws are effective in reducing homicide or suicide rates, and international studies have actually found that murder rates are higher in countries with more stringent firearms laws.
Even if guns were banned altogether, numerous deadly devices – bombs, knives, cars, poison – would still be available to anyone determined to kill. In Toronto, it was not too long ago that 18 people were arrested for planning to behead the prime minister and bomb Parliament. The former USSR banned all firearms, but still had a horrendous homicide rate (some of the murders involved illegal military firearms, but most were stabbings). In Japan, all firearms are banned, yet terrorists still found a way to injure thousands and kill 13 on subway trains a few years ago – using sarin, a deadly poison.
All societies have a few people who are intent on killing, but clearly limiting their access to firearms isn’t going to stop them. We’re lucky that murderous attacks by the criminally insane are rare.
Maria Mourani’s head must be decorating her office wall by now.