Think About It: Guns, homicide and the US debate

While firearm-related homicides in Israel occur at one-seventh the US rate, in the case of all forms of homicide the proportion is two fifths.

Sandy Hook Elementary memorial 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Sandy Hook Elementary memorial 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
The facts have been known for a long time. Among Western democratic countries the United States has the highest rate of intentional homicide resulting from the use of firearms. According to US government figures, in 2008, for every 100,000 inhabitants in the US 5.5 were killed in all forms of homicide, and 3.7 in firearm-related homicide.
In Israel the figures were around 2.3 and 0.5 respectively.
The US also holds a dubious record regarding the percentage of citizens who own guns – close to 88.8 percent, a direct consequence of Americans’ Second-Amendment right to hold and bear arms for self-defense. In Israel the official figure is 7.3%, (though this does not include guns belonging to the IDF, police and companies offering security services, which are held by citizens).
Are these two sets of statistics related? At least until recently a majority of US citizens were apparently either ignorant of these statistics, or believed the two had nothing to do with each other.
The rest of the democratic world seems to have no doubts whatsoever – another bewildering dissonance between the greatest democratic nation and the rest of the democratic world, which also includes issues such as national health insurance and limits on free expression.
Following the massacre in the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school on December 14, President Barack Obama decided to take a stand based on the belief that the two sets of statistics are connected, and that it is consequently vital to do something about the excessive ease with which any mentally disturbed person in the US with an ax to grind may acquire arms – including automatic weapons – and mow down a random crowd of innocent men, women and children.
The problem with the firearms issue is that the idea that every individual has the right to defend himself as part of his basic right to freedom is deeply ingrained in the unique history of the United States. The fanatic objection to national health insurance, as an interference with the freedom of the individual to take decisions relating to his own welfare, has similar origins.
I suspect that the number of superfluous deaths caused by the latter is even higher than by the former.
Strangely enough, those who object to gun control and to national health insurance in the US are usually the very same persons who object to abortion, an incoherence that is difficult to explain.
Among the many arguments made by the supporters of the gun lobby in the US which have been heard in the past week are: the massacre in Connecticut could have been prevented if the school had held guns of its own, or employed armed guards, so that the murderer could have been shot dead immediately (in other words, the problem is not too many guns, but too few); the problem is the absence of religious (i.e. Christian) education in schools, emphasizing the command “thou shalt not kill”; the problem is that there is no education to teach gun owners to act responsibly.
The argument that was not heard was that of the firearms producers, who represent a business worth $11 billion in annual revenue, that any significant limitations on arms sales would lead to a collapse of the industry and endanger the jobs of its 35,000 employees.
All these arguments (except for the latter), which came largely from the mouths of Republican Congressmen and laymen (though there are also Democrats among the supporters of gun rights), can be easily refuted. All the statistics show that the fewer arms there are the less arms-related homicide takes place – not the opposite. There is no correlation in the US (at least among Christians) between religion and homicide. In fact, the statistics show that in most of the Bible-belt states the percentage of arms-related homicides is higher than in the rest of the US (except for the District of Columbia). And finally, how does one convince a mentally disturbed individual to act responsibly, especially if he is a school dropout? But it is not these arguments that are likely to stand in Obama’s way, but rather the argument that was not heard – that of the firearms producers and their lobby. Hopefully, given the current state of shock in the US, some minor changes might be possible if the president is able to act fast. Furthermore, since the availability of arms is only a facilitator of the problem of homicides in the US and not its cause, there is much that can be done in other fields.
At the outset I cited some statistics regarding firearms-related homicides and private gun ownership in Israel. From its earliest days the government of Israel insisted that the state should have a monopoly over the holding of weapons. That was, in fact, the background to the unfortunate Altalena episode, that came up for discussion last week in the Knesset House Committee, against the background of the decision to locate and recover the remains of the IZL vessel sunk by the IDF in June 1948.
Especially after settlement activities began in the West Bank in earnest after the Yom Kippur War, the number of citizens allowed to carry weapons for purposes of self-defense started to soar. Nevertheless, despite the noticeable presence of non-uniformed civilians bearing arms in public, with the exception of the case of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 praying Palestinians and wounded another 125 in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, Israel has not experienced massacres of the sort seen much too frequently in the US.
However, while firearm-related homicides in Israel occur at one-seventh the US rate, in the case of all forms of homicide the proportion is two fifths. In the case of the United Kingdom the proportions (compared to the US) are 1/30 and 1/4 respectively. So while we are certainly better off than the citizens of the US in this respect, we really have no reason to rest on our laurels. One problem that must be addressed urgently is the unbearable ease with which illegal arms can be acquired in Israel.