Connecticut school shooting

American myth of freedom through guns

Jeffrey Sachs says no sane policy is possible if people do not see that violence does not protect

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 1:52am

The brutal murder of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut, shakes us to the core as individuals and requires a response as citizens. The United States seems to reel from one mass gun killing to another - roughly one a month this year alone. America needs to find a better way.

Other countries have done so. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, Australia had several mass shootings. After a massacre in 1996, then prime minister John Howard instituted a severe crackdown on gun ownership, and forced would-be gun owners to submit to a rigorous application process.

Conditions for gun ownership in Australia are now very strict. The government also implemented a rigorous "buyback" policy, to enable it to purchase guns already owned by the public.

The policy worked. Murders are down and there has not been a single mass shooting since 1996 in which three or more people died. Before the crackdown, there had been 13 such massacres in 18 years.

Yet the US still refuses to act. The US homicide rate is roughly four times that of comparable societies in Western Europe, and Latin America's homicide rates are even higher than in the US. What accounts for this?

American violence is rooted in history. The US and Latin American countries are all "conquest" societies, in which Europeans ruled over multiracial societies. In many of these countries, the European conquerors and their descendants nearly wiped out the indigenous populations, partly through disease, but also through war, starvation, death marches and forced labour.

In the US and many Latin American countries, slaveholding fuelled mass violence as well.

In particular, the US was born in a citizens' revolt against British imperial power. The right of citizens to organise militias to fight government tyranny was a founding idea of the country.

Since citizens' militias are anachronistic, gun owners now use the second amendment merely to defend individual gun ownership, as if that somehow offers protection against tyranny. As a result, gun ownership has become perversely linked to freedom in the vast gun-owning American subculture.

But, instead of protection of freedom, Americans nowadays are getting massive bloodshed and fear. Simply put, freedom in the 21st century does not depend on unregulated gun ownership. Indeed, America's gun culture is a threat to freedom.

The bloodbath in Newtown is the time to stop feeding this gun frenzy. Other countries provide models of how to do it. America's real freedoms depend on sane public policy.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Copyright: Project Syndicate