The Sandy Hook School Massacre in Newtown Connecticut in December 2012 in which 26 people, 20 of them young children, died at the hands of a single deranged gunman has again put the issue of automatic weapons in the hands of the public into the forefront of debate with President Obama again raising the prospect of legislative restrictions in his inauguration address this morning. Australia successfully legislated for the prohibition, buy back and destruction of some 700,000 personal automatic weapons from a population of 20 million in 1996 in the wake of a similar atrocity at Port Arthur Tasmania – and many Australians feel safer for that against a background of media focus on the awesome level of gun related murder in the USA. However, in Texas where I once lived for some years, when they legalised concealed handgun wear, the level of armed mugging dropped significantly in the following months. Notably, this was for people with no criminal or mental health record who underwent a training program that included their responsibilities, safe use, maintenance, storage and overall risk management. Furthermore, in Switzerland, where the entire population constitutes a militia, who keep their personal weapons at home, there is a very low level of gun crime and violence. Can these facts better inform the debate?
For one thing, in Switzerland only 5% of the military comprise a permanent professional core, backed up by the entire male population and and a significant number of female volunteers that all receive 18 to 21 weeks continuous basic training and ongoing followup training and exercises. So everyone has a sense of responsibility and discipline drummed into them and there is a good chance of detecting and managing personality types that could go off. Cowboy-style bravado is universally condemned, and there are no vulnerable households.
Perhaps, if the USA moved closer to the Swiss model, much of the risk would be similarly mitigated. Indeed the US Constitution seems to have envisaged something along those lines in the Second Amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” So perhaps the constraint should be a proviso that those holding automatic weapons are fully trained and enrolled members of the National Guard or reservists, at least, in the formal military?
I can see that logistic constraints and likely congressional reluctance, would mean a need to phase the transition in over a generation with its application initially limited to those reaching putative adulthood, between 18 and 21, being subjected to its reach. Another strand of the initiative, could be to require all automatic weapons and high capacity clips to be stored in a local public armoury and only checked out to a registered ‘militia group’ in company for a defined period after which they ought to be checked back in. After all, this is how it was done in colonial times with gunpowder being too volatile to keep safely in quantity at home. Having too large a collection at home just makes you a target for organised gangs anyway.
Another factor on the plus side of returning to the militia framework is that citizens with extensive weapon’s training and their exercise over a long period, have much better survival prospects in a military conflict than conscripts with a few weeks training that are raised in a military emergency. I recall my father remarking that their platoon in New Guinea during WW2 had to continually replace the couple of conscripts that were attached to their formation whereas the volunteers, who had had a much longer and more intensive course of jungle warfare training, would generally survive.
The reality on the ground in the USA and far too many other countries, is that their are far too many bad guys with guns out there already and honest people need to protect those near and dear too them. So a blanket seizure and prohibition is not going to be democratically achievable in such countries – we can however move to get those intoxicated with the prospect of bigger and more powerful guns into responsible training and the oversight of peer groups that will help to well-regulate the ownership and use of such weapons.