In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in an Aurora, Colo. movie theater, many are urging a new conversation on gun control -- while others acknowledge with bitter resignation that no meaningful action to restrict guns will be taken because the will for it just isn't there. Support for tighter gun laws has dropped sharply over the past 20 years, and gun rights groups have far more political clout than gun control advocates.
Liberal and left-leaning websites are full of comments lamenting America's barbaric gun culture and Americans' irrational attachment to firearms. Yet a closer look at the facts shows that it's even more irrational to think that gun laws will keep us safe.
Gun control supporters point out that the United States has far higher gun homicide rates than other developed countries -- as well as far more guns in the hands of the population (89 for every 100 people) and far fewer restrictions. But that does not necessarily prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
Thus, writing on CNN.com, Fareed Zakaria cites Switzerland as an exemplary country with low gun homicide rates. Indeed, the total homicide rate in Switzerland in 2010 was 0.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 4.2 in the United States. But Switzerland, unlike most of Europe, actually has widespread gun ownership (with an estimated 2 million to 3 million guns in a population of fewer than 8 million) and a thriving gun culture rooted in a tradition of a citizen militia. Shooting clubs are common, and target practice is a popular sport, even for children.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines, gun laws are considerably more restrictive than in the United States and civilian gun ownership is a paltry 5 per 100 people -- yet the homicide rate is more than double ours.
Would stricter gun control reduce our homicide rates? Nobody knows. What we do know is that ours is a violent land; our yearly rate of non-firearm homicides -- about 1.7 per 100,000 -- exceeds the total homicide rate in Canada (1.6) and in most of Western Europe (around 1.1), not to mention Japan or Singapore (0.4). Americans without guns might just kill by other means.
Even if a total ban on the sale and possession of firearms were enacted, it's doubtful it could be enforced with an estimated 270 million guns already in circulation. The War on Drugs shows that we don't have a stellar track record of keeping illegal products out of people's hands. Why would guns and ammunition be different? Indeed, a recent Reuters report on the gun culture in the Philippines notes that attempts to outlaw the sale and carrying of guns during election campaigns has merely driven up business for illegal gunsmiths.
Few Americans -- including, surveys show, most National Rifle Association members -- object to such commonsense measures as background checks and restrictions on gun sales to people with criminal records or serious mental illness. Such measures would undoubtedly prevent some violent acts. Would they make a significant dent in mass murders of the kind that happened in Aurora? Probably not. Someone with a warped mind who is intent on doing harm is likely to procure weapons by any means, legal or illegal. Aurora suspect James Holmes had the technical skills to rig his apartment with deadly explosives. If he couldn't bring guns into the theater, he could have easily smuggled in explosives.
Some gun control measures are reasonable. But in trying to understand the causes of shooting sprees, we should be looking at other factors, from social isolation to inadequate attention to mental illness. The push for gun laws offers an illusion of safety in the face of horror.