“If you ban guns, criminals will just get them anyway,” is a statement frequently made by those opposed to gun control. For the frequency this statement appears, however, it’s almost never backed up by any data, or indeed by any further statements at all. The mere formation of that sentence is apparently enough to settle any arguments against it, conjuring images of terrified families left helpless in the face of a robber invading their home. It is true that some criminals will go to any length to acquire a firearm, but the idea of all criminals doing so is nothing but a scare tactic.
To start, let’s examine how criminals in America can cheat the system to obtain firearms without a license. Civilian gun theft is one method, although it accounts for only 10-15% of all cases. A common method is “straw purchases,” where someone else buys the gun for the criminal. Another is illegally purchasing a gun from a legally licensed gun dealer. Almost all of these methods trace back to the dealer having ready access to any gun a criminal could need, and having the means of distributing them easily.
Compare this with two countries that have much stricter gun control policies, Britain and Japan. In Britain, only “Section 1” weapons are allowed. These include black-powder weapons, manually loaded cartridge pistols and manually loaded centerfire rifles. Semi-automatic and pump-action rifles are banned, as are machine guns and any firearms with a barrel length less than 30 centimeters. Mere possession of any of these weapons is liable for 5-10 years in prison, also netting the person a lifetime gun ban. The British black market consists mainly of converted replicas smuggled in from countries with more lax gun laws such as France or Lithuania. These guns tend to be unreliable in comparison to their genuine counterparts, used mainly to be disposed of after assassinations performed by gangs.
Japan, meanwhile, bans all firearms except for shotguns and air rifles. Applying for a license requires rigorous testing and background checks; even after acquiring a license, yearly gun inspections and test retakes every three years are required. Although many argue that Japanese policies are too extreme, it cannot be denied that they show results: there were only 11 gun-related homicides in Japan during 2008, while the United States had over 12,000. Even the yakuza (organized Japanese crime) have shied away from using guns in their operations (in part due to the stagnant Japanese economy limiting their resources), while criminals who still choose to purchase illegal arms must smuggle guns manufactured in the Philippines.
It would appear then that the fear of all criminals having easy access to illegal firearms is greatly exaggerated. Those efforts are left mainly to gangs who have the resources both to purchase the weapons and to cover their tracks. Law-abiding citizens who feel driven to murderous intent have not been shown to pay the extra price necessary to acquire the assault weapons we often associate with mass shootings. Indeed, the rare incidents that occur in Britain and Japan are committed using weapons to which citizens have legal access, such as knives, shotguns, or rifles. Meanwhile, the US has seen 19 mass shootings in the past five years, many involving assault weapons and several of them (including Sandy Hook, Aurora Theater, and Geneva County) ranking among the deadliest in our nation’s history.
I am not arguing that harsher gun laws would be the end-all solution to our problems. We are a nation borne of rebellion, glorifying vigilantism, violence, and warfare through all media. We’ve spent at least the last half-century convinced that we are the most powerful nation in the world, germinating great stubbornness and arrogance within us. Still we neglect the needs of the mentally ill.
Our current gun culture is not unlike someone suffering from alcoholism. By themselves, guns are not the source of our nation’s problems, just as alcohol is not the source of the alcoholic’s problems. These items, however, can serve as easily accessible releases for the malevolent emotions that boil up when our lives are at their lowest. At best, this distracts from the real root of the person’s sorrows; at worst, it kills. While we sort out the cultural and psychological issues that lead people to kill so many, it would not hurt to at least make sure nobody can easily release any desire to commit mass murder.