Grasping at Guns
by Lorne Gunter

PUBLICATION: National Post
DATE: 2006.10.16
EDITION: All but Toronto
SECTION: Issues & Ideas
COLUMN: Lorne Gunter
BYLINE: Lorne Gunter
SOURCE: National Post

Grasping at guns

Almost a week after last month's tragic shooting at Montreal's Dawson College, the National Post ran a guest column by the mother of a Dawson student.

Beverly Akerman suggested a "simple" response to the crime: "no more guns. Because no one can accurately predict who among us will become unhinged enough to commit bloody slaughter, I believe guns shouldn't be available to the public."

We dubbed this a "mother's radical solution for gun crime."

But suggesting a ban on guns is hardly radical. Every time there is a Dawson-like tragedy, a chorus calls for a ban on guns.

Allan Rock, the former Liberal justice minister who was the legislative father of our current gun registry, admitted he came to office in Ottawa believing "only the police and the military should have firearms."

Since Ms. Akerman's commentary, this paper has run half a dozen letters (and received perhaps a dozen more) from professors, psychologists, health care workers and gun control advocates all calling for a gun ban, or at least wondering aloud why ordinary people should be permitted to own such destructive objects.

Banning guns is one of the most common solutions offered by urban professionals, bureaucrats and special interests in the face of each new high-profile shooting.

But consider this: A week after the Dawson shootings, Britain was transfixed by its own similar shooting. Two 17-year-olds were shot in a South London McDonald's for disrespecting their attacker during a conversation. The shooter used a semi-automatic handgun.

Yet, there were no calls for a ban on civilian ownership of handguns. Why? Because Britain had already banned civilian handguns nearly a decade ago.

In response to the horrific Dunblane, Scotland, school shootings in 1996, in which 16 five- and six-year-old children and one teacher were killed, the U.K. eliminated all civilian handgun ownership.

It's hard to call for a ban in response to a new newsworthy shooting when you already have a ban thanks to an old one.

Since 1997, it has not been legal for ordinary Britons to own a handgun. Yet since the ban, handgun homicides have gone up, not down. In the six years prior to the ban, there was an average of 33 handgun murders a year in Britain. Since then, there had been an average of nearly 43, an increase of 30% despite the ban.

In the years since the handgun ban, violent crime in Britain has spiked and the streets of the major cities are awash in illegal guns smuggled in from abroad. By Scotland Yard's estimate, as many as 4 million illegal handguns have entered the U.K. in the past nine years.

In Manchester, for example, police report an average of two firearms offences each day by 15- to 20-year-olds, alone. In most categories of firearms crimes other than murder, Britain is now more violent than the United States.

Australia has had a similar experience.

Following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, in which a crazed gunman killed 35 people at a Tasmanian resort, the Australian national government banned most semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns. Nearly a million civilian guns were confiscated (with compensation) in the months after the shooting.

Yet, while gun crimes in Australia are now noticeably lower than in 1996, shooting incidents actually rose by more than two-thirds in the five years after the government-imposed gun "surrender."

The Australian Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BCSR) credits the dramatic gun crime decline since 2001 not to the gun ban, but to increased police efforts to interdict illegal gun shipments and prosecute owners of illegal weapons, notably drug dealers. Don Weatherburn, the head of the BCSR, sees no evidence "to be able to say that gun laws have had any effect."

Indeed, lawful civilian gun ownership has jumped dramatically again in Australia since 2002, at precisely the same time as gun crime has been falling.

Once a disturbed individual has made up his mind to enter a school or hotel or other public building and commit mass murder, no civilian gun control -- neither a registry, nor a ban -- can stop him.

Grabbing guns is grasping at straws.

Outlawing civilian possession of firearms might give worried people the sense something is being done to make them safer. But that would just be a false sense of security.