US must accept need for tighter gun laws

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2007, 12:00am

Americans' dogged attachment to guns claims 30,000 lives each year, but it is only eye-opening tragedies such as the massacre at a Virginia university that prompts widespread questioning of their easy availability. Again, as on each previous occasion, the solution is plain: restrict firearms to those who have a genuine need for them and ensure that anyone found with an illegal weapon is dealt with harshly by the law. It is also important, now that it has emerged that the killer is Korean, that there is no backlash in the US against Asian people. Cool heads and common sense must prevail.

A much stricter approach to gun laws has served Hong Kong and other parts of the world well. While no society can guarantee that an outrage such as that at Virginia Tech will not occur in its midst, it can put in place tough preventive measures. In Hong Kong's case, this involves making obtaining a gun difficult, stringently detailing what weapons can be sold and how they must be stored and imposing heavy penalties, including jail, on anyone found with an unlicensed firearm.

Australia learned the lesson of lax attention to gun ownership in 1996 when a gunman massacred 35 people at a tourist site in Port Arthur, Tasmania. More than 500,000 weapons were subsequently surrendered under stricter gun laws and the number of deaths in the nation from firearms has since sharply declined.

But enacting such laws is not so simple in the US, where the powerful gun lobby has widespread political support. Historically, guns have a special place in American hearts, being the basis for the frontier era of gun-slinging cowboys and pioneers who lived off the land. That relationship is enshrined legally in the second amendment to the US constitution, which states that 'the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed'. The US has embraced this right to the fullest and no nation has as many firearms in private hands.

With possession of guns so widely seen as a right, politicians are loath to do more than offer commiserations whenever they are confronted by people angry about yet another shooting. Occasionally, they are moved to partially tighten controls.

Time and again, such half measures have proved to be ineffective; a string of mass shootings, like that at Columbine High School in Colorado eight years ago by two students is ample proof. Once more, young lives have been lost at a place of learning, this time in the state of Virginia, where there are few restrictions on the buying of handguns and gun licensing requirements are weak.

With presidential elections 19 months away, 33 more lives lost to guns would not seem likely to make much difference. Yet the anger at this, the worst mass shooting in US history, warrants more from US leaders than sympathy to survivors and the relatives of victims while giving a nod and wink to the gun lobby.

US President George W. Bush speaks of the threat to the US from terrorists outside the nation, but the damage being done from within due to inadequate gun laws is tearing at America, making it unsafe for citizens and visitors. He and state leaders can greatly reduce the violence by making guns less freely available.

For inspiration, they need only look to Hong Kong, Australia or Britain, where access to guns is heavily restricted and penalties for illegal possession severe. Deaths from such weapons are consequently low in number. Action is urgently needed to prevent yet more pointless carnage.