Guns and Democracy

This is a post that first appeared in my Tumblr blog, and on Facebook. I’m reposting it here in hopes of reaching a wider audience–and because, sadly, its relevance has not diminished.

Did you know that Canadians who wish to possess or acquire firearms must have a valid possession-acquisition, or possession-only, license? It’s true. What’s more, to be eligible for a license, all applicants must successfully complete the Canadian Firearms Safety Course for a non-restricted license, and the Canadian Restricted Firearms Safety Course for a restricted license; the non-restricted class is a prerequisite to the restricted license. Each province/territory’s chief firearms officer publishes information on the locations and availability of these courses.

Licenses are typically valid for five years and must be renewed prior to expiration. Once licensed, an individual can apply for a firearm transfer, and an authorization to transport for restricted firearms. People may hunt with firearms in Canada only with non-restricted firearms, and this requires an additional “Hunting with Firearms” course.

For the most part, high-capacity magazines are illegal. There are further laws detailing how private firearms must be stored and transported. Certain kinds of ammunition are illegal. Devices that make semiautomatic weapons fully automatic are illegal.

Having effectively disarmed its citizenry, Canada has become a totalitarian dictatorship that does not respect the freedom of its citizens to express their opinions or peacefully change their leadership. Oh wait, that’s not true. What I meant to say is that Canada is a vibrant democracy that successfully integrates immigrants into its society at a per capita rate three times that of the United States, has two official languages, wrestles with a separatist movement in Quebec entirely peacefully, and experiences almost no mass shootings. There was one “mass” shooting in 2017; it claimed six lives. There was one in 2016; four people died. Going back several more years yields similar statistics. (Fun fact: the worst mass killing in Canadian history was the Lachine Massacre, in which 72 people died—in 1689. It was an anti-immigrant riot of a sort, which is to say the Mohawk attacked a French settlement. Another example of the danger of nativist politics, I suppose.)

Australia is a similar cautionary tale in the matter of gun control. There, a person who possesses or uses a firearm must have a firearm license. License holders must demonstrate a “genuine reason”—which does not include self-defense—for holding a firearm license and must not be a “prohibited person” (such as anyone having a mental illness that makes ownership of a firearm a hazard). All firearms in must be registered. Safety courses are mandatory for gun owners. Storage requirements and inspections are imposed. Certain types of semiautomatic weapons and other devices are banned entirely. Sales of guns and ammunition are restricted.

Australia’s current gun control regime is largely traceable to mass shootings between 1984 and 1996. The most notorious of these was the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996, in which a gunman armed with two semiautomatic rifles killed 35 people. Public opinion was galvanized. Because the Australian constitution does not give the federal government the power to regulate guns, gun control was accomplished by the enactment of national agreements brokered by the federal government and implemented and enforced by the states. Importation of guns is regulated by the federal government.

As a result of these measures, the most recent relevant report of the Australian Institute of Criminology states that the “number of victims of firearm-perpetrated homicide (i.e. murder and manslaughter) has declined by half between 1989–90 and 2009–10 from 24 to 12 percent.” On the other hand, the difficulty of obtaining firearms made it easy for the Chinese Army, and its fifth-column collaborators of armed wallabies, to overthrow the Australian government last year. Oh wait, that didn’t happen. What I meant to say is that Australia is a fully functioning, multi-party, federal republic. Freedom of assembly and association is respected, the judiciary is independent, and workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Do I really need to go on? Guns are tightly controlled in England, France, Germany, and almost every other western democracy. Somehow, freedom survives.

We all know that gun violence in the United States is off the charts compared to its democratic allies. Here, 27 people die from gun violence for every day of the year. If you adjusted the populations of Canada and Australia, the examples cited above, to make them equivalent to the United States, their rates would still be fewer than 5 deaths for every day of the year. The Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015 killed 130 people, which is nearly as many as die from gun homicides in all of France in a typical year. But even if France had a mass shooting as deadly as the Paris attacks every month, its annual rate of gun homicide death would be lower than that in the United States.

Nevertheless, gun advocates claim that the seemingly endless appetite of Americans for firearms is all that stands between us and the loss of our liberties to a tyrannical government. The problem is that to reach that conclusion, you have to ignore all of the available evidence. The experience of every other democracy shows that being armed to the teeth against the supposed predation of your neighbor is not a pre-requisite to freedom. (In fact, the opposite is more likely true. I don’t know about you, but I’d feel freer to speak and live as I please if I didn’t think that my neighbor’s disapproval might result in my death.) Although . . .

. . . I suppose you could distinguish the United States from other democracies. If you believe that Americans are less attached to their liberties than, say, Belgians, or that the roots of American democracy are shallower than those in, say, Italy, or that American political institutions are weaker than those in, say, Luxembourg, or that Americans are more likely to become attached to authoritarian leaders than, say, Germans, then you can plausibly make the case that Americans need to be armed against the possibility of tyranny because their democracy is more fragile than that of other countries.

Do you believe that?