Gun Control or Gun Culture?
The recent massacre at Virginia Tech, carried out by a gunman with mental health problems, raises the usual questions. Are universities doing enough to help students with potential mental health issues? Are violent video games or violent genres of music the cause of such senseless killing? And, of course, should stricter gun control laws be imposed?
It's quite clear that the massacre would never have occurred if the United States gun control laws were more focused on preventing deranged lunatics from having access to guns. As it is, because of this laxity, the killer was able to purchase more than one gun, and go on his killing spree.
But the common counterpoint to calls for greater gun control is that if the students and faculty that day had been armed, the killer would likely have not run up such a high death toll.
This argument, though sensible at first sight, is akin to suggesting that if most countries had nuclear weapons, we would not have to worry about nuclear war.
Mutually Assured Destruction may work on a small scale with two or three nuclear powers, but would it work if every country, including those run by tinpot despots, could get its hands on nukes?
Still, gun control laws may have been very effective outside the US. But enforcing stricter gun laws in the US would really take decades to bear any significant fruit, because guns are so prevalent there that nobody would be willing to give them up.
The way things are in the US, banning private ownership of firearms would be simply giving gangsters carte blanche to carry out their own activities.
But is gun control really necessary? A common adage of democrats is that governments should assume their people are wise and rational enough to make decisions for themselves; this is often cited in debates about freedom of speech.
Why should this not apply to guns? One obvious argument is that people simply don't think rationally all the time, and the consequences of this irrationality are small when it comes to speech, while infinite when it comes to guns.
When guns are everywhere, it doesn't take much for someone to snap and go shooting the place up — whereas if they hadn't got a gun, they might have calmed down, or at least carried out their slaughter with a less effective weapon.
Still, there are countries with large numbers of guns — almost as much per capita as the US. Two of them are Canada and Switzerland. Why don't these countries have similar problems with gun deaths?
In Switzerland, where there is a gun in every home, this can be partially attributed to the fact that every Swiss undergoes military training, and that their gun must be kept under lock and key unless there is a national emergency.
But what of Canada? Canadians are allowed to keep firearms for personal purposes (mainly hunting), and they don't have the kind of gun deaths the US does.
Is it the culture? It seems possible. A culture of respect for life, and one that emphasises the collective over self, may not have as many problems with gun deaths as a culture of individualism and selfishness.
But is there really such a huge cultural difference between Canada and the US? Not having been to both countries, I can't say, but I do have my doubts.
Still, if the issue is more about gun culture than gun control — if as firearm rights advocates say, "guns don't kill people, people kill people" — then we are faced with a dilemma.
Should governments prevent deaths by taking firearms out of the hands of potentially irresponsible citizens? Or should they assume their citizens are rational enough to make such incidents a rarity?
Considering the lack of real benefits to permitting private individual possession of firearms (hunters can always hunt in clubs established for this explicit purpose), it seems to me that even if the problem is with culture, it may be a better idea to restrict the ownership of firearms.