Gun violence outside the United States

Bishop Pierre WhalonThe ministry of Bishops Against Gun Violence in The Episcopal Church is not confined to America. Firearm use in murders is widespread, and we all must respond to it. The shocking murder of the sister of the Bishop of Honduras, Natalie Lloyd, among other cases, proves this.

The popular image abroad of the United States is that we are the land of the cowboy gunslinger. The high rate of homicides and suicides by gun, the increasing incidents of school shootings since Columbine, the worldwide publicity surrounding the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases, and news stories of American parents starting children as young as three with real firearms (e.g., http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28958364), all contribute to this unflattering stereotype.

Europeans have nothing to be smug about, however. The reality is that school shootings, firearms accidents, homicides and suicides by gun in Europe are not as unusual as Europeans believe. The worst recorded firearms incident did not take place in America, but in Norway. On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik murdered 69 young people and wounded 110 more with a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle on the island of Utøya. Shortly before those attacks, he had watched a fuel/fertilizer bomb he had planted explode in front of the Prime Minister’s building, killing 8 and wounding 209. This despite the fact that Norway has very strict gun control and usage laws. Breivik had to secure a hunting license and later, a pistol ownership license (requiring six months active training in a sports shooting club). He began planning his acts for as many as nine years in advance.

There have been school shootings in most of the nations of the European Union, Serbia and Russia. Along with other multiple-victim homicides, the per-capita rate of school shootings in all these countries is however much lower than in the United States. Extremism (Breivik, Mohamed Merah in France), heavy use of violent video games (Breivik claimed to have trained with the Call of Duty game), and various types and degrees of mental illness are what the European events tend to have in common with American mass shootings. The only factors explaining the difference are access to weapons and a culture approving their use. Some observers point to lower standards of and access to mental health care in the United States, as well. Nevertheless, the ideology of easy legal access to guns and their use is the principal factor in the difference of rates of mass shootings.

A United Nations global study of intentional homicides (murders) shows that U.S. and Europe rates are much lower than some other countries (Honduras leads the Americas by a wide margin, for instance). Nevertheless, firearms are the most widely used means of killing (see http://www.unodc.org/documents/gsh/pdfs/2014_GLOBAL_HOMICIDE_BOOK_web.pdf). The United States has the highest rates of gun ownership and homicide by gun among developed countries, however (see http://www.humanosphere.org/science/2014/03/visualizing-gun-deaths-comparing-the-u-s-to-rest-of-the-world/).

The United States also has more gun manufacturers than any other nation, by a wide margin. With the power of lobbies and the Supreme Court’s decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions, the failure of even basic measures such as gun registration is not surprising. After twenty little school children, among others, were murdered by a gunman in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, President Barack Obama finally lifted a 17-year ban on gun violence research by the Centers of Disease Control. However, to date the Congress has not allowed any funding to be budgeted for that research.

“Figures don’t lie but liars figure”: the proverb seems apt. Gun ownership does not provide greater safety. In fact, statistics prove that it is the opposite. But it feels good to own a gun and there is a belief that one can protect self and family from armed criminals. However, that is an American point of view. Elsewhere in the world, people do not have such illusions, as a rule. The Glock in the gun safe is no match for the extraordinary firepower of drug gangs, in and out of the U.S., for instance. Furthermore, owning a gun means that it can find a use by one family member against another. One’s own means of “self-defense” might also be used against school children.

Therefore, the only way to bring down the rates of American gun homicides — individual and mass shootings — is to effectively regulate gun sales and ownership in the United States. Even more importantly, we have much to do in all the countries we minister in to counter the insidious lie that violence solves problems, and that guns are the most effective tools for managing conflict.

The Rt. Rev. Pierre W. Whalon
Member, Bishops Against Gun Violence
December 1, 2014