Just after midnight on Friday, July 20, tragedy struck at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado at a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, one of this summer’s most anticipated blockbusters. James Holmes, a 24 year-old former PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado entered one of the theatres, dressed in tactical clothing and equipped with tear gas and multiple firearms, and began one of the worst mass shooting incidents in U.S. history. Twelve people were killed, including a six year-old girl. Fifty-eight people were wounded. The shooting sent shockwaves around not only the United States, but the world. The movie theatre – a place where people went to relax and get away from the realities of day to day life, was no longer a safe haven.
Much like the Columbine shooting in 1999, the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, and the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in 2010, it did not take long for the tragedy to become politicized, despite the symbolic suspension of campaigning on the part of President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The issue of gun control yet again came to the forefront in the American public psyche, as the country came to terms with yet another horrific act of violence.
On one side are gun rights advocates, who believe strongly the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that grants the right to bear arms, and view almost any attempt to regulate the firearm industry as an infringement upon those rights. On the other side are gun control advocates, who call for intensified background checks and restrictions on the sale of assault rifles and handguns. Representative Lou Gohmert, a Texas Republican, was one of the first politicians to speak about the tragedy, decrying the shooting as an “[attack] on Judeo-Christian beliefs,” while also lamenting the fact that no one else in the movie theatre was carrying a firearm under Colorado’s concealed carry laws, which he believed would have stopped the shooting and prevented the high number of casualties.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, took the opposite side of the issue, immediately calling for both President Obama and Governor Romney to take a stand and work to develop a national strategy to address gun violence in the United States (You can read the statements of Mayor Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino here). A number of other politicians, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle, have also joined the call for increased control on guns, including restrictions on the online sale of ammunition, given the fact that Holmes was able to legally acquire about 6,000 rounds of ammo online.
Perhaps the greater tragedy is that although the incident in Aurora, CO was beyond horrific, the day-to-day reality of gun violence in the United States is a grim picture. Chicago has experienced a shocking year, with a staggering 303 murders as of July 28 – the vast majority committed by guns (for comparison, Edmonton’s record-setting year of homicides in 2011 totalled 48). The same weekend that tragedy struck Aurora, 23 people were shot and 3 killed in Chicago. Chicago is not the only U.S. city that struggles with such gun violence – Detroit, New Orleans, and many others are well-known for their violent streets. Unfortunately, the reality of violence on America’s streets fails to elicit much response from federal politicians or the American public at large.
In 2007, over 10,000 people were killed by firearms in the United States – by far the most in the Western world. Even when factoring in population differences through a per capita measurement, the U.S. is still well ahead of any other Western country, with 2.97 firearm homicides per 100,000 people. In Canada, that number is 0.51. In Norway, it’s 0.05. The most noticeable commonality, of course, is that Canada and much of Western Europe have far more restrictive gun laws than the United States. In Canada, we employ a strict system of background checks and licensing, and have prohibited a large variety of firearms, particularly most handguns, automatic weapons, and assault weapons. The American approach is far more permissive – licensing is not required in many states, few firearms have any restrictions (and those that do can still be obtained through special registration), and background checks are not mandated by law nationally.
Of course, it’s easy to pick and choose the statistics of other countries to make the U.S. look like a lawless frontier. Brazil, which maintains similarly restrictive gun laws to Canada and Western Europe, also has a firearm homicide rate of 18.1, with a staggering 34,700 killed by firearms in 2007. However, like any political and societal issue, there are a multitude of factors that can influence a country’s homicide rate, likely more so than any firearms legislation could. There are issues of poverty, or corruption, of police effectiveness, and of culture that could play a role. But that’s for another article.
The U.S. is far more similar to Canada and Western Europe than Brazil, so it is reasonable to assume that stricter gun laws could have the potential to reduce the violence on America’s streets. Would it help prevent mass shootings like the one in Aurora? That is hard to say. It would perhaps make it more difficult for an individual like James Holmes to obtain firearms purpose-built for killing like assault rifles. However, it is nearly impossible to stop the drive of deranged lunatic – despite our gun laws, we’ve still had our own tragedies in Mayerthorpe, École Polytechnique, and even here at the University of Alberta earlier this year. Even Norway, purported to be one of the safest countries on the planet, saw true depravity during the rampage of Anders Brevik that left 77 dead. No matter how much gun control you have, it won’t stop these horrific mass shootings. That is likely a problem best dealt with through the mental health system.
What gun control can help prevent in the U.S. is the often ignored daily violence that I spoke of above. There is no good reason that assault rifles, designed with the intent to kill and maim as many individuals as possible, should be sold freely, without restriction. The same goes for handguns. Gun crime will not be eliminated, and criminals will still have access to guns if they so desire. But there would be a greatly reduced access to firearms, which the statistics show positively impact the homicide rate. Many on the side of guns say that such regulation will lead to an inherently unsafe society, where the unarmed populace will be terrorized by armed criminals, and that the laissez-faire approach that the U.S. has taken thus far is the appropriate path to take. To them I say, when thousands of Americans are being killed every year by gun violence under the current approach, is it not time to consider a different course of action?