It’s still too early to talk about gun control

10 October 2017

It’s still too early to talk about gun control

Photo credit: Adam Roberts (website)

Mass shootings in the United States are inevitably accompanied by fierce political debate about gun control, and the Las Vegas Strip Shooting has been no exception. Seemingly before the bodies were even cold, spokespeople from both sides of the debate popped up on television arguing for more restrictions or fewer restrictions on firearms ownership and possession.

In these situations, phrases like “we owe it to the victims” are carelessly thrown around as politicians and lobbyists use tragedy to further their legislative agendas. But do we owe it to the victims to enact knee-jerk laws? Or do we owe it to the victims to understand how they were killed and injured, to think before we act, and to gather all the facts before pushing for changes to the law?

At this point I’m obliged to say that I don’t have particularly strong views on guns. I recognise their utility and their danger, and have about the same fear of guns as I have of cars: generally safe in the right hands, and lethal in the wrong hands. The increase or decrease in the regulation of firearms is not something about which I am able to form a precise opinion, but I am sceptical of those who claim to be able to because the evidence advanced is flimsy.

It is this lack of evidence — or lack of information — that concerns me. People are very quick to trot out “facts” and “evidence” as though they are privy to something the rest of us are not. Apparently they know exactly what would have prevented the deaths in, for example, Las Vegas, Orlando or Isla Vista — whether that be fewer guns or more guns, more regulation or less regulation.

I am particularly sceptical of campaigns to increase restrictions on firearms, mostly because Australia has become the poster child for “successful” gun regulation. Following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, in which one individual killed 35 people, the governments of the various Australian states and territories agreed to pursue a national strategy that would reduce private gun ownership and restrict the types of guns available and the purposes for which a person may seek a licence.

Consequently, it is claimed, Australia has not had a shooting comparable to Port Arthur since 1996. But there were no comparable shootings before 1996 either. Frontier massacres aside, the worst mass shooting before 1996 was when Clifford Bartholomew killed 10 members of his own family in 1971. You can make your own mind up as to whether that is “comparable” or not. Admittedly, since 1996 Australia has not had many mass shootings (though perhaps as many as you’d expect in 21 years), with arson instead being responsible for claiming the lives of 15 people in the 2000 Childers Hostel Fire, 10 people in the 2009 Churchill Fire, and 11 people in the 2011 Quakers Hill Nursing Home Fire.

But surely the post-1996 restrictions have reduced homicide, or at least firearms-related homicide? Well, in short, the answer seems to be “no”. Since the inception of the National Homicide Monitoring Program in 1989, homicides have been steadily decreasing regardless of any changes to gun laws, although with the occasional increase: for example, in 2006 the homicide rate was higher than any of the previous years. The same applies to firearms, although the data goes back further and we see a declining trend in the percentage of homicides involving firearms since 1969. Since at least 1989, knives have been used more frequently, and while the declining homicide rate has continued, the post-1996 restrictions seem to have resulted in knives taking the place of guns. In other words: while people are killing each other less, knives are increasingly the weapon of choice, while firearms are declining.

Now, I am not suggesting that gun control is a bad idea. I am not even suggesting that Australia’s firearms regulation is excessive at best and useless at worst. These examples merely highlight inconsistencies that question the validity of Australia being used as a model for other countries. It sounds impressive to say that Australia hasn’t had any massacres since Port Arthur because of our regulation, but this is, to use a pop science cliché, “correlation, not causation”, at least as far as I can tell — and I don’t think I’m in any worse a position to interpret the data as any Kimmelesque or Oliverian talking head. I went to university too. Australia’s gun control experience is seized as such a strong example, but several aspects of that argument do not stand up to scrutiny.

So then: why is it too early to talk about gun control? Because we simply don’t have the information required or we haven’t spent enough time looking at it. Las Vegas has been leapt upon to promote increased regulation — but there is little clarity concerning whether more regulation would have helped, and what sort of regulation if any would have helped. These questions can be answered, but more time is needed to ensure the correct conclusions are drawn.

The Las Vegas Strip Shooting on 1 October 2017 claimed the lives of 58 people and injured hundreds more, in what Wikipedia describes as “the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in the United States”. This is an astounding number of victims and, rightly, the world watched in disbelief. Disbelief. It is hard to comprehend why and how this occurred. I find it deeply insensitive and astoundingly presumptuous for public figures to then, in essence, shrug smugly and say “gun control”. Like they know.

Australia has a fantastic culture of public inquiries. Whenever there’s an issue of particular importance or public interest, more often than not a public inquiry will be held. The most relevant example I can think of, in the context of the Las Vegas shooting, is the coronial inquiry into the Lindt Café Siege. In December 2014 a hostage situation arose in Sydney. The outcome was three deaths and four injuries. Yes, I know — that’s nothing compared to 58 people. But even though there were only three deaths, a long coronial inquiry was held, resulting in a comprehensive, 495-page report that was published in May 2017 — two and a half years later.

In the case of the Las Vegas shooting, there are too many questions remaining, and not enough time has passed to allow for a thorough investigation. It takes time to gather information, establish facts, build a narrative, question witnesses, seek testimony from experts (both foreign and domestic) and finally produce a definitive report about what actually happened. If we owe the victims of tragic events anything, it is to ensure we have all the information available and guarantee we have analysed that information correctly before we do anything.