x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Killing reopens US gun law debate

The ease with which North Americans can purchase firearms has again come under scrutiny in the wake of the shootings on Saturday in Arizona that killed six people.

A man stands behind a poster with the portrait of the Representative, Gabrielle Giffords, that reads 'Love Will Heal All', in Arizona.
A man stands behind a poster with the portrait of the Representative, Gabrielle Giffords, that reads 'Love Will Heal All', in Arizona.

SHANTILLY, Virginia // Blue Ridge Arsenal is typical of many gun stores throughout the United States. Its walls are adorned with shotguns and rifles, and its display cases are packed with handguns, firearm accessories and knives.

The shop caters to an array of customers from law enforcement personnel to hobbyists and potential first-time users.

Many come from Washington DC, the nation's capital just 44km away, where it is illegal to buy guns although not to own them.

Purchasing a gun at Blue Ridge Arsenal only entails selecting from the wide variety of firearms on display, and waiting for a background check that may take as little as 15 minutes but will take no longer than a day.

Too time-consuming? No problem. You can go to your local gun show where you can purchase a firearm in a personal transaction that is far harder to regulate.

The ease with which Americans can purchase firearms has again come under scrutiny in the wake of the shootings on Saturday in Arizona that killed six people, including a federal judge, and injured 14 others, including Gabrielle Giffords, a US congress- woman.

Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter who was expelled from a community college pending a psychological evaluation, was nevertheless able to walk into a Tucson sports shop last November, pay US$550 (Dh2,000) and walk out with the Glock semi-automatic that he used on Saturday.

The US has laws that restrict the purchase of firearms, but they vary from state to state. In Arizona, for instance, Loughner would have undergone a criminal background check but no psychological evaluation.

Ladd Everitt, the director of communications with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a gun-control lobbying group and educational fund, said the current laws were insufficient in combatting gun violence.

The US should emulate laws in other countries, said Mr Everitt, whereby in addition to running a criminal background check, "they would also conduct an investigation whereby they would interview your spouse, or co-worker, or friend. They would require a letter of mental health from your doctor attesting that you are of sound mind".

The Blue Ridge Arsenal owner Earl Curtis, however, rejected the notion that the Tucson shootings occurred because of lax gun regulations. Rather, he said, there were larger failings at play.

"He should have been arrested, examined [long ago]. He was thrown out of school. The system failed there ... The guy gave away too many signals and no one said a word."

Resistance to stronger gun-control legislation runs deep among Americans where the "right to bear arms", a phrase that occurs in the Second Amendment to the US constitution, is held almost sacrosanct. In America there are 90 guns to every 100 people.

Michael Hammond, the legal adviser to the Gun Owners of America, a group described by the Texas congressman Ron Paul as "the only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington", argued that instead of further regulation what America needed was for more people to own guns.

"We keep adopting these gun control restrictions, and it doesn't do any good. If you look at the states… [that] have virtually no restrictions on guns, by and large they are as safe as any place in the world. The places that are dangerous are places like Chicago and Washington, DC, which have tried to ban all guns."

Mr Everitt flatly contradicted Mr Hammond's assertion that states with more guns there are less crime. He said data from the Center for Disease Control, which also collects US statistics for injury, violence and safety, proved that, per capita, states with tougher gun laws tended to have fewer gun-related deaths.

About 30,000 Americans die every year in gun-related incidents. Of these, more than 12,000 are homicides. The rest are suicides or accidental shootings.

On the same Saturday as the Tucson shootings, there were at least five other gun-related killings in the US: a police officer and a civilian were fatally shot outside a Baltimore bar, while three others died in a shooting at a Colorado nightclub.

Such statistics, say gun-control advocates, are incontrovertible evidence of the link between gun ownership and gun crime.

At the heart of the perennial US debate over gun control are competing notions of individual freedoms and responsibility. To gun rights proponents, it is not the gun that kills but the person.

"The guy who tackled Jared Loughner was, in fact, carrying a firearm" said Mr Hammond. "We thank God that he was successfully able to tackle Loughner, but had he not been able to do so we also thank God that he would have been able to use his firearm and prevent 50 people from being killed."

To gun control advocates, more guns mean more gun crime.

"If you want to live in a society where law-abiding citizens are forced to engage in shoot-outs with the likes of Jared Lee Loughner to protect their families, that might be a good idea," Mr Everitt said. "For people who are sane and want to live in safe communities where they don't have to worry about maniacs opening fire on them, I think it is a terrible idea."