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Other Countries Change Their Gun Laws After Mass Shootings. Why Not America?

06/20/2015 11:42 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015
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Every week The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving world headlines. This time, we speak with Harvard professor Dr. David Hemenway.

Dylann Roof spent more than an hour at a Bible study session in a historic black church on Wednesday before opening fire. Nine people died in the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, including the pastor, a recent university graduate and a librarian.

President Barack Obama responded to the shooting in a solemn address on Thursday. "I've had to make statements like this too many times. Communities have had to endure tragedies like this too many times," Obama said. "Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. We as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."

The horrifying killings in Charleston, South Carolina, came just two years after U.S. lawmakers failed to pass a proposal for expanded background checks for gun buyers that was drafted in the wake of the horrifying killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The tragic events this week once again prompted activists and pundits to demand tougher restrictions on firearms.

To put those demands into perspective, The WorldPost spoke with Dr. David Hemenway about gun laws and gun violence in other wealthy countries. Hemenway is a professor of health policy at Harvard University and the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. He headed the pilot program for the National Violent Death Reporting System and is the author of Private Guns, Public Health.

How do American gun laws compare to those of other Western countries?

Other high-income countries have much stronger gun laws than we have. They vary from incredibly draconian gun restrictions in countries such as England and Japan, where almost nobody has guns, to places like Canada, where a fair amount of people own guns.

Let me give you some examples of what other countries are doing: Virtually every other country requires gun licenses -- most places in the U.S. don’t -- and the licensing is typically much stricter than here. The background check in the United States basically just confirms you’re not a convicted felon, and it doesn’t allow for much police discretion. Other countries have a much higher bar to pass. Sometimes you need people to vouch for you. Sometimes they tell your spouse or ex-spouse that you want to get a gun.

There’s usually also a waiting period. Almost all of those countries require gun training before you’re able to obtain a gun, and once you get a gun, you have to store it properly. Many other countries don’t let you obtain a handgun without a good reason.

What does current research say about a possible link between stricter gun laws and less gun violence?

It’s always hard to speak of direct causes -- some people even argue that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. What we know is that if you look at comparable states and countries, you see that where there are many guns and weak laws, there are more violent deaths because there are lots more gun deaths. The number of guns doesn’t seem to have much effect on the total amount of crime. Guns just make arguments more lethal. They make robberies more lethal.

If you compare the United States to all the other high-income countries, we have by far the most guns and by far the weakest gun laws. We are not an outlier in terms of violence. There’s no evidence that we have higher rates of non-gun crimes -- robberies, burglaries, car thefts -- or that our children are more likely to bully other kids. But when it comes to gun stuff, we are just off the charts.

Why do we allow children, women, old people to get killed at such high rates?

In 2010, children in the United States between the age of 5 and 14 years old were 18 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than children in the two dozen other high-income countries (e.g., France, Italy, Norway, Canada, Japan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand or the United Kingdom). At the same time, America’s non-gun homicide rate for that age group was very similar to those of the other countries. Overall, a person in the United States is 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries.

I work with a lot of international students in the public health school where I teach, and nobody can understand the United States. Why do we allow this to happen? Why do we allow children, women, old people to get killed at such high rates?

What do you think of the argument of groups like the National Rifle Association that having people carry guns makes the country safer?

That’s completely wrong, and all you have to do is look at the numbers. They compare us to Honduras, Mexico or South Africa to make it work.

It’s important to compare likes to likes -- urban states to urban states and rural states to rural states. If you look at high-gun states, which typically have weak laws, versus low-gun states, which have strong laws, you just want to live in the low-gun states. One place has lots of deaths and the other place does not.

Gun advocates point at Chicago and Washington, D.C., cities with restrictive gun laws but high homicide rates. But the truth is that those cities don’t do well because it’s so easy to get guns from nearby areas with loose laws. Massachusetts, for example, has strong laws and relatively few guns -- at least for the United States -- but still our criminals get guns from Vermont and New Hampshire. We do well, but not nearly as well as we would if these other states had our gun laws.

Canada could do better if criminals there couldn’t get guns from the United States. In Mexico, criminals get guns from the United States. We once had an intern from Jamaica who determined that something like 80, 85 percent of guns used by criminals in Jamaica came from three counties in Florida.

Every time a mass shooting like this occurs, it triggers a new debate about whether we need stricter gun laws. Has that same debate occurred in other countries as well, and did they make changes as a result?

In virtually any area of public health, tragedies are the time when there is a window of opportunity to do something, to make beneficial changes. In the gun area, these tragedies are often mass shootings. These mass shootings are not the major part of the problem. Over 300 people are shot every day in the United States, and over 90 of those people die. Mass shootings are terrible, but it’s a relatively small component of our gun problem.

But it’s a time to act, and in most countries, when there have been big changes in gun laws, it was because of mass shootings.

A person in the United States is 25 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in other developed countries.

Australia is the classic example. About 18 years ago, more than 30 people were killed in the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania. Australia’s conservative prime minister at the time said enough is enough. The country tightened its gun laws and organized a massive buyback of semi-automatic rifles. In the 18 years before the changes, Australia had seen something like 11 massacres. Since the changes, there have been zero. Australia’s gun homicide rate has gone down and its gun suicide rate has gone down.

In the United States, organizations like the NRA lobby fiercely against stricter gun control. Do other countries face similar obstacles?

They don’t have as many obstacles. Some other high-income countries have a strong gun culture, but it’s mostly the gun culture of the NRA before the 1970s, when the organization was not a conservative political powerhouse but basically a group trying to protect the ability of hunters and shooters to do their thing.

However, there’s one major thing that makes similar organizations in other countries very ineffective -- and that’s the United States. Because basically whenever there’s a gun proposal, the proponents of gun control can say, “Do you want to end up like the United States?” And nobody ever does.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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