Simon Williamson

Something > Nothing

2013-04-12 07:48

Simon Williamson

One of the criticisms often levelled at politicians is a lack of any legislative achievement - those who take office and then don’t do anything. Usually we tend to crap upon heads of election winners who merely sit upon their posterior for little more than posterity. We justifiably don’t want people using our votes to get into the big dog’s chair, and then fail to deliver on what they bribed us with.
Hence this notion that while in office, doing something - anything - is better than doing nothing, which sadly can be wickedly deceptive. An example is the South African government’s perpetual reduction in the amount of liquor allowed in your system before you’re regarded incapable of driving.

Hauling it down from two beers to one beer to half a light beer to a Coke means very little, because that isn’t the problem. Stopping people who are driving drunk is the solution, not continually updating laws that aren’t enforced anyway. It is possible to cut the legal limit to zero and achieve nothing, because you’re doing the wrong thing to try and fix the problem.
And so to America:
In the USA there is currently a vociferous debate raging about gun control, sparked mainly by the tragic shooting of 20 children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut back in December. While there are usually a few days of national rage every time there is a mass shooting in the US, in this instance the series murder of 6- and 7-year old boys and girls was enough to spark the legislature and executive into action.

Universal background checks

President Barack Obama immediately dispatched Vice President Joe Biden into a countrywide dance to meet with everyone who has anything to do with guns and get their point of view. Legislators on the state and local level have been passing new reams of restrictions, while the divided federal government - a much larger, and therefore slower, beast - gets its act together, which finally happened on Thursday.
Biden's journey around the country, and other gesticulating by governors and activists and officials, has resulted in the common wisdom that universal background checks are the biggest legislative weapon to stop guns getting into the hands of people who aren’t capable of owning them - ie, the mentally ill - or have shown they are not responsible enough - ie, felons.
If you’re following the US debate you would have heard the phrase "universal background checks" repeated ad nauseum. This is intended to mean the closing of loopholes that allow people to buy guns without undergoing a background check, with some estimates claiming up to 40% of gun sales are background-check free.
All of this effort to reduce gun crime and mass shootings has resulted in intense focus on background checks, which polls beautifully amongst every political demographic. In fact, only a small group of Republican officials, the National Rifle Association, and a deeply passionate tenth of the population make up opposition to increasing the scope of background checks.

Argument makes little sense
However, "universal" background checks are anything but. In the legislation that is more likely than any other to be pass the Senate at the moment, private sales between family members and friends would not be included. Which means people are deciding whether their family members or friends are capable of owning guns, without looking into a database to check their criminal record.
It also means families and friends are the ones deciding who is mentally ill or not, and this is where I explain to you the entire argument against background checks makes little sense, in terms of preventing gun violence.
People who are being treated for their mental illness are likely some of the mentally healthiest people you will find walking the streets of your average city, much like people who wear glasses see perfectly when their glasses are on. These are the folks who will raise a red flag when it comes to background checks. But people who do not know they are mentally ill, or who have not been diagnosed by a doctor, will not show up at all – and can therefore perfectly legally buy guns.

The legislation in front of the Senate gives only a courtesy nod to the need for a widespread increase in mental healthcare. (Reuters reported in January that experts testified to the Senate that three-quarters of mental illnesses make themselves known by age 24, but fewer than 20% of diagnosable youths get treatment to prevent further illnesses). 
Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, was mentally ill, yet none of the diseases with which he was diagnosed are regarded as correlating with violence. The guns he stole, and went on his rampage with, were owned by his mother - who was not mentally ill - and bought legally; Mother Lanza, into whom young Adam also put bullets, had no criminal record.

Debating measures
The current background check proposal would not have prevented the tragedy at Sandy Hook. It would not have affected it in the least.

It does nothing to deal with the deluge of guns - almost at a ratio of one per person - in the USA. It doesn't deal with criminals who currently have guns. It doesn't ban high-capacity magazines, which enable people such as Lanza, to spray bullets at one every two seconds, like he did at Sandy Hook.

In this instance it's probably worth pointing out that in a prior mass shooting in Arizona in 2010, during which six people were murdered and Representative Gabby Giffords was nearly killed, the perpetrator was only stopped when he paused to change magazines. And it does very little to deal with mental health.
Over the next two weeks the Senate is going to debate its own measures. And afterwards something will be agreed to. And it will very much feel like something has been done. And you will hear about it in the future when these officials campaign again.
But in reality, the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary will be as likely as it was before.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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