Politics

Is it time to reform firearm laws?

By Lowri Pitcher

On Friday 15th March, 2019, 50 people were killed and more than 50 were wounded after a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. A lone attacker visited two different mosques and shot dead over 50 innocent civilians, marking the deadliest mass shooting the country has ever witnessed.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has been highly commended in the media for her response to this event. Less than a week after the attacks the prime minister announced a radical change in the country’s gun laws stating “Every semi-automatic weapon used in the terror attack will be banned.” The ban, which should be in place by 11 April 2019 will prohibit all military-style semi-automatic weapons, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

Gun laws in New Zealand have come under scrutiny during the last week for having some of the most relaxed rules in the world – these include not needing to register your firearm, being allowed to purchase a firearm at 16 and allowing 18 year-olds to purchase semi-automatic, military-style guns. This meant that in 2016, the New Zealand Police calculated that there were 1.2 million firearms owned by the general population which equates to approximately one for every four people.

On Monday 18th March, it was announced that three people had been killed during a shooting incident inside a tram in the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands. Contrastingly to New Zealand’s fairly relaxed laws on gun ownership, the Netherlands’ approach to firearms is markedly different. Only law enforcement, hunters and target shooters are permitted to own guns. Semi-automatic arms and all magazine types are available, however, owners’ guns will be inspected annually by police and licensed owners may only possess five firearms at once.

Worldwide

Every day, more than 500 people are killed and 2,000 are injured from gun-related incidents across the globe, and gun violence represents 44% of worldwide homicides. This is largely down to the chasm of international cohesion regarding gun law regulation and registration. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore, have implemented strict gun laws; others, such as Honduras, Namibia, South Africa and the United States, are more permissive. The wide availability of firearms in some countries allows individuals to steal a firearm from a licensed gun owner and smuggle firearms illegally to those who request a gun, which can then be sold on the black market and dark web. Europol calculated that almost 500,000 guns were lost or stolen from member states of the EU in 2014.

Although the US is heavily mentioned in the British media for its high levels of gun violence, there are countries with far higher gun violence rates. South American countries have some of the highest rates of violent gun deaths worldwide. Whilst the US had 3.85 violent gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2016, El Salvador and Venezuela recorded 40.29 and 34.77 respectively. Even the Caribbean islands of the Bahamas and Trinidad and Tobago have rates of 14.11 and 13.03 respectively.

The United Kingdom

Approximately 3,260,000 guns were held legally and illegally by civilians of the UK in 2017, approximately 5.03% of the population. Civilian possession of handguns, semi-automatic assault weapons and fully automatic weapons is strictly prohibited by law. As in Singapore, license distribution is carefully verified; prospective owners must declare a valid reason for ownership, must be 14 to obtain a license and 17 to purchase a firearm and background checks and third party references are required, as well as having to re-qualify for a firearm license every 5 years.

In the UK, illegal firearms on the streets are mostly due to stolen or illegally modified guns which are sold through the black market. In the year to March 2017, there were 6,375 reported firearm offences recorded in England and Wales, constituting of an increase of 23% compared to the previous year. This rise is often claimed to be a direct result of austerity measures given that 21,000 police officers have been lost since 2010. However, Amber Rudd, Home Secretary at the time, responded that this increase was largely down to “improvements in police recording.” The Communities Secretary at the time, Sajid Javid, supported Rudd in saying: “We had much higher numbers of police ten years ago and much higher numbers of violent crime.”

Despite El Salvador and Singapore having “restrictive” gun laws according to GunPolicy.org, their approach to and consequences of gun laws vary widely:

El Salvador

In El Salvador, it is estimated that there were 737,000 licit and illicit guns held by civilians in 2017, which is approximately 12% of the population. In law, a citizen must be 21 to possess a gun, they must obtain a license to purchase handguns, shotguns and semi-automatic weapons, and the possession of fully automatic guns is prohibited. However, weak implementation and significant demand on the black market due to gangs and organized crime has led to this nation witnessing some of the highest violent gun crimes in the world.

A notable proportion of the firearm problem facing the nation is unspecified and illegal activity; in 2015 almost 1,000 weapons were reported stolen to the authorities. Furthermore, of all weapons recovered from crime scenes in El Salvador, over 45% came from the US. Stealing legally purchased firearms, modifying them and selling them on the black market is a commonly practiced trend in El Salvador. Also, in 2013 a report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that 360,000 military firearms were not seized after El Salvador’s civil war. This has contributed to the government having an incomprehensive understanding of the situation, rendering it incapable of dealing with the consequences effectively.

Singapore

Contrastingly to El Salvador, Singapore has one of the lowest gun crime rates in the world. There were approximately 20,000 guns, licit and illicit, held by civilians in 2017, equating to only 0.3% of the population. Before applying for a license, prospective gun owners must give a valid reason for applying, such as shooting or for self-protection, and each applicant requires background checks and third party character references before obtaining a license. There is also a limit to the quantity of ammunition each individual may own at any one time.

The law is implemented far more efficiently and there is less demand for guns in Singapore; this is due to better economic stability and social harmony. Andrea McKenna, a journalist and author who lives in Singapore, describes that the country’s population simply does not feel the need to purchase guns and states that they are respectful of the tough criminal laws. She claims that “people want to be good, follow the laws and do the right thing.”

The penalty for illicit firearm possession in Singapore merits up to 10 years in prison and 6 strokes of the cane, which is far more severe than that of El Salvador which threatens suspension of license and a fine.

Special Case of the United States

Under the Second Amendment of the 1787 US Constitution, law-abiding US citizens have the right to bear arms. There is regulation at the federal level regarding the purchasing of firearms and minimum age requirements. States also have an independent say over increasing minimum age requirements and deciding whether their population may carry guns in public or not. However, for many, these regulations are simply not sufficient for a country which saw over 39,000 gun-related deaths in 2017.

Despite these regulations, guns are a common entity and whilst the US has 4.4% of the world’s population, it harbours approximately 50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns. According to CNN, “the US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”

Last month, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a bill to extend background checks for gun owners. However, US President, Donald Trump, threatened to veto the bills when they came to the Republican-controlled Senate, claiming that they do not protect gun owners’ constitutional rights.

Between constitutional rights, economic profits and an intrinsic belief held by many US citizens that guns represent independence and freedom, it is fairly clear that gun regulation in the US will remain permissive for the foreseeable future.

Would outlawing guns save lives?

There are conflicting views as to whether banning guns would actually save lives, although generally this is considered to be the case.

In many cases however, it is feared that guns will simply be replaced by other weapons, such as knives and other sharp instruments. In Australia, after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, the Australian Government decided to transform gun regulation. This included buying back over 650,000 firearms and implementing some of the strictest regulations in the world. 7 years after the bill passed, the average firearm homocide rate declined by 42% and suicide by firearm declined by 57%.

It should be noted that governments must look to the root causes of gun use, such as improving social security and support networks, in order to divert individuals who may be likely to commit violent crimes needing to use firearms in the first place.

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