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Gun Control, Woopty Doo!

For someone who was lucky enough to grow up and live in a country where guns aren’t household objects, it is difficult to understand America’s addiction to guns and the political resistance to gun control measures despite support for some controls within the general public. The recent failure of the US government to pass the Manchin-Toomey bill, a relatively limited move to strengthen background checks when purchasing guns in the US, demonstrates how difficult it will be for the substantial gun control laws to be passed in America. The bill itself is not straight forward to understand if, like me, you’re not used to reading government legalese but you can read the full text on Senator Toomey’s website and simpler explanations can be found in the accompanying press release and on the Politifact website. Ultimately, the measures were voted down much to the frustration of President Barack Obama who noted, “there were no coherent arguments as to why we wouldn’t do this.” Bizarrely, the Southern region director for Organizing for Action (Obama’s grass roots campaign organization) whose job was to build up community support for gun violence prevention legislation was shot by a stray bullet only days after the amendment failed.

Image Credit: Mista Stagga Lee, flickr
Image Credit: Mista Stagga Lee, flickr

In addition to strengthened background checks, one of the proposals in the failed measure was to establish a 12-member National Commission on Mass Violence to conduct a comprehensive factual study of incidents of mass violence. Interestingly, one of many areas that the commission would have been tasked with investigating was “the availability and nature of firearms, including the means of acquiring such firearms, and all positive and negative impacts of such availability and nature on incidents of mass violence or in preventing mass violence.”

Thanks to the twitter feed of Prof. Simon Chapman (the Keith Richards of Public Health minus the cigarettes etc.) I’ve been following a fascinating set of reports on this same question. While the topic of gun violence isn’t funny, arguments against gun control are increasingly incoherent and farcical, which is why the set of reports on gun control by comedian John Oliver for The Daily Show are some of the most informative reporting on gun control that I’ve seen. The advantage The Daily Show has over mainstream news is that as a satirical news show it does not feel obliged to offer the false balance of allowing firearm advocates to assess the evidence on the effectiveness of gun control measures without question.

In the first of three reports John Oliver interviews Philip van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defence League. This quote from Oliver sets the tone of the interview: “What if gun control could work? Which obviously it can’t, so we know that it won’t, so that’s not a problem. But what if it could, due to that time that it did … Australia.” It is easy to laugh at the hapless van Cleave, who, while struggling to respond to Oliver, tries to shrug off Australia’s gun control efforts by saying “woopty doo” and eventually outwits himself while trying to explain why there are high numbers of gun deaths in the United States.  However, Oliver’s Australian case study is an intriguing one because since 1996 when Australia’s Conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, introduced sweeping gun control laws in response to a mass shooting there have been no gun massacres; in the 18 years before 1996 there had been 13 mass shootings. The measures included a gun buyback scheme and the banning of semiautomatic long guns and pump-action shotguns, and Howard also explains to Oliver that the homicide rate involving guns have declined since 1996 along with the incidence of youth suicides.

In his report Oliver briefly flashes up a Harvard Bulletins report from 2011 which was produced by the Harvard Injury Control Centre and aimed to summarise the evidence on the effect of Australia’s gun buyback scheme in 1996.  The report highlights several articles, which support assertions that the buyback scheme reduced gun deaths, even though deaths due to firearms were already falling in the early 1990s. The report also highlights two articles that found little evidence for an effect of the law; the authors of the Harvard Bulletins report noted that the design of the two studies made it almost impossible to find an effect and one of the articles was authored by Australian gun lobby members. The report concludes that there are probably three reasons why gun buybacks in the United States have apparently been ineffective, that is the buybacks are relatively small in scale, guns are surrendered voluntarily, and so are not like the ones used in crime; and replacement guns are easy to obtain. More recently Simon Chapman and Philip Alpers have published an excellent opinion piece in the Annals of Internal Medicine discussing Australia’s efforts to control gun violence in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in America.

In Oliver’s subsequent reports for The Daily Show he highlights that introducing gun control laws in Australia wasn’t straightforward because, like in the United States, there was substantial resistance to the measures. One of the key differences appears to be that Australian members of parliament, such as Rob Borbidge, were prepared to vote through legislation despite the negative impact that the legislation might have on their political careers. In contrast high profile lobby groups in the US, such as the National Rifle Association, would appear to have a disproportionate influence on the political debate in the United States.

Chapman and Alpers’ recent commentary was published before the vote on the Manchin-Toomey bill but ends optimistically. “Interventions similar in intent and design to those that successfully reduced the toll of guns on the lives of Australians may, perhaps, take hold in the United States.” Unfortunately, in light of the negative outcome of recent efforts to introduce gun control in the US this seems less likely. While this is a disappointing outcome the potential public health gains of controlling access to machines that are designed with the primary purpose of maiming and killing should ensure that gun control won’t fall off the political agenda in the US any time soon.

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