A few months ago Sarah posted this piece reflecting on a visit she made to the site of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The piece was republished on the Huffington Post, and generated a fair amount of comment from readers who didn’t agree with her suggestion that tightening gun control legislation might help reduce the number of similar shootings that happen in the US. Sarah invited people to present an alternate perspective via interview, and David Anderson responded. David has been a member of the NRA for 50 years (he joined as a Boy Scout), and a firm believer that the right to gun ownership as a form of both procuring sustenance (e.g. through hunting), or for the purpose of self-defence – as protected in the US Constitution – is both fair and necessary. He also believes that existing US legislation, designed to prevent criminal acquisition and use of firearms is sufficient, or would be if it was adequately enforced.
Below is a distilled version of the email exchange between Sarah and David, that highlights some of the latter’s main reasons for disagreeing that intensifying ‘gun control’ efforts would make a difference to the rate of gun-related deaths in the United States.
Debates over gun legislation are longstanding in the US. What are your thoughts on the gun control debate?
The issue of ‘gun control’ is divided into three basic positions. Those that believe the solution is restricting access to the object, those that believe the solution lies in reducing its negative use and those that believe a very limited combination of both holds the answer. It is simple to say that if access to a firearm is denied there cannot be a negative outcome. However, while true, the statement fundamentally ignores human nature. As long as there are significant numbers of people that have nefarious intent, the denial of access to guns is doomed to failure just like the ‘war on drugs’. Firearms and ammunition are simple mechanical devices that can be, and are illicitly produced in large quantities. All that it takes to build a very high quality firearm is the equipment typically available in any automotive machine shop. Fully functional firearms can also easily be made entirely by hand.
Do you think more extensive background checks would make a difference?
The vast majority of preemptive laws have very little, if any real effect on limiting negative outcomes. Background checks are entirely based on the theory that past behaviour is an accurate predictor of future behaviour. Since the establishment of the federal background check system, the vast majority of rampage mass shooters had recently passed a background check before obtaining the firearms used in the shooting incident. Notable exceptions include the Newtown and Columbine shooters. Examples include Chris Harper-Mercer (Roseburg), Vester Lee Flanagan (Roanoke), John Russell Houser (Lafayette), Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez (Chattanooga), Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi (Garland), Jared Loughner (Tucson), Mark Barton (Atlanta), Jerad and Amanda Miller (Las Vegas), Elliot Rodger (Santa Barbara), Andrew John Engeldinger (Minneapolis), Tennis Melvin Maynard (Mingo County), Ivan Lopez (Fort Hood 2014), Darion Marcus Aguilar (Columbia), Jiverly Wong (Binghamton), Seung-Hui Cho (Blacksburg), Karl Halverson Pierson (Centennial), Paul Ciancia (Los Angeles), Aaron Alexis (Washington DC), James Holmes (Aurora), Naveed Haq (Seattle), Aaron Ybarra (Seattle), Maj. Nidal Hasan PhD (Fort Hood 2009) and Dylann Roof (Charleston).
The evidence is clear that background checks are a mixed bag that can have a limited effect on gun violence – but they are not nearly the panacea that almost all gun control advocates seem to believe. Another major issue is the near total lack of enforcement for perjury on application forms. In 2010 alone, 76,142 fraudulent ATF Form 4473 applications were submitted. Only 4,732 of these cases were referred to law enforcement agencies, and less than 62 of those resulted in arrest and prosecution. That means slightly under one-tenth of 1% of those illegally attempting to purchase a firearm from a licensed gun seller were even charged with a crime, let alone prosecuted for it. If, even after the mandatory 72-hour background check period the purchaser is determined unfit, the purchaser has committed a federal and state felony by taking possession of the firearm. It should be noted that every sustained denial is the result of perjury committed on the ATF Form 4473 by the applicant.
What about other legislation, for example regarding magazine capacity limits and assault weapon bans?
Magazine capacity limits. The entire basis of this is suspect. First, in the vast majority of firearm homicides, five or fewer rounds are fired. Second, every knowledgeable shooter knows that it takes less than three seconds for even a first time shooter to change out an expended magazine. Next, assault weapon bans. This one is really quite simple. This is an assault weapon, as defined in virtually all bans. This is not an Assault Weapon, and nowhere in the US has there been any proposed legislation that would have banned it. What is most remarkable is that the only difference between these two firearm examples are the cosmetic features. They both use the same .223 REM/5.56×45 NATO ammunition. They both have detachable magazines. They both can use magazines that vary in capacity. They both have the same rate of fire. They are both gas operated semi-automatics. They both have the same accuracy and effective range. They both can be configured with a whole host of aftermarket options. They both are civilian variants of current military issue combat weapons.
Finally, gun-free zones. Again the historical evidence is clear. With almost no exceptions, rampage mass shooters select a target-rich environment that has a very low if not non-existent probability of being confronted with armed resistance during the initial phases of the incident. Further, these incidents typically end in one of three ways when the shooter is confronted with any armed resistance. These are suicide (most common), a shoot out with the armed resistance (very uncommon) or total capitulation (extremely rare). In all of these circumstances the danger to the innocent victims ends instantly as the shooter narrows focus to the armed threat. It makes no difference if the armed resistance is from private security, a private citizen or law enforcement. A review of recent rampage mass shooting bears this out in incident after incident. However, having said that, it cannot be ignored that the mere presence of a firearm in any environment comes with some level of risk. It matters not if the weapon is possessed by private security, a private citizen or a law enforcement officer. Human nature dictates that, no matter how minimal, there is always the possibility that carelessness, neglect or incompetence can result in unintended consequences.
Why do you think Americans are so passionate about protecting their right to gun ownership generally speaking?
To begin with we must look back to the late 18th century and the events surrounding the founding of the US. First, it must be realised that at that time the inalienable human rights of procuring sustenance from the environment and personal self-defence by the use of arms were considered by all to be sacrosanct and anyone proclaiming otherwise would have been deemed an irrational fool or just simply insane. Therefore, there were and still are two primary reasons for the private citizen to have arms. For all intents and purposes we can ignore hunting and target shooting as they have no real relevance in the gun control debate. Instead, the focus should remain on the concept of self-defence, be it viewed from a collective or individual perspective. For the sake of this discussion, the term ‘self-defence’ actually applies independently to the nation as a whole, to the separate states and to the individual citizen. Each of these entities has the inalienable right to defend itself by the use of arms. The very first battle of the Revolutionary War was over ‘gun control’ – the British tried to take guns away and the Colonials resisted with armed force.
Why is it important to you, personally to be able to own a gun?
It is my constitutionally protected right to hunt, engage in shooting sports, and maintain a personal level of armed self-defence. Consequently, I choose to exercise that right.
David Anderson has served in the US military, been a commercial pilot and most recently retired from owning a management consulting firm for the construction industry. Politically he identifies as neither conservative or liberal.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.