Thursday, August 02, 2012

Colorado shootings - Senseless violence and Guns

About two weeks ago, there was a terrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, as a lone gunman opened fire at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises", in the wee hours of 20th July, 2012, killing about 14 people and severely wounding several others.

My condolences and prayers towards the families of those affected, including that of the perpetrator.
May the souls of those who perished, rest in peace.

I read several Internet comments for and against gun control by impassioned people who are rightly outraged. Here is an article on Yahoo honoring the victims. There are tons of comments.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the US and its laws, there is a certain part of the US Bill of Rights that is related to this discussion. It is the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights that allows citizens to bear arms for self-defense.

Overall, the sentiment does seem to lean towards the idea that such crimes cannot totally be prevented as crazy people and criminals who are hell bent on breaking the law, always manage to get hold of weapons, legally or otherwise.

Gun advocates say that if common folks are always armed, there will always be some sane, concerned citizen in a crowd of unfortunate victims, who might fire at such perpetrators and prevent them from unleashing their insanity on the rest. That does seem like a wholly plausible line of defense.

On the other hand, proponents of gun control say that as long as guns are freely available, the chances of such crimes occurring are very high with a resulting high number of casualties. This is also true.

Gun advocates further argue that if guns were banned, violent criminals would always find other means such as knives, explosives, etc. So should we start banning knives? Given the worldwide newspaper accounts of people being stabbed every now and then by loved ones or strangers, knives are a very lethal weapon, too.

Their opponents say that there is no way a knife can be used to kill so many people at a time. I have to agree with the opponents on this one.

Extent of damage
A knife can cause as much damage as a gun or worse when held at close range. When it comes to operating in a crowd though, the situation changes completely.
Unless the attacker happens to be some highly skilled medieval-era-type warrior that can throw an entire array of knives at moving targets in quick succession with a high level of precision, the chances of killing many people in a crowd, who are running helter skelter, are extremely low.

Just take a look at history. How did some nations and cultures manage to subjugate others on the battlefield?  Superior warfare technology was one of the many factors. Of course, the history of colonialism and world wars is far more complex with lots of intrigue, backstabbing, infighting, spying and politics at its Machiavellian best.
However, advanced guns and modern artillery did offer some countries significant advantages over their counterparts.

Do you think an army of aboriginals/natives with poisonous arrows and spears would ever be able to compete against an army with sophisticated machine guns and cannons? Unless the army with guns were to be vastly outnumbered and showered with a sky full of arrows, it is extremely improbable.
There are some exceptions when native armies have outnumbered and conquered invaders largely with their traditional weapons but the reasons were better organization, formation and greater numbers as seen in this very informative Wikipedia article about the battle between the British and the Zulu warriors. Another related article is the armed Maji Maji rebellion in Tanzania.

Physics supports bullets far more than arrows.

When a large weapon such as a spear is thrown at a target, it is visible enough to be thwarted or avoided if seen in proper light. Also, there is a limit to the speed with which a human being can hurl any weapon with his/her bare hands. A bullet, on the other hand, is tiny and travels so fast that there is not much time to react. What the bullet lacks in mass, it makes up several times in its velocity, hence the total momentum of impact is enough to cause substantial damage.
And, if it is a series of bullets in a sophisticated and powerful gun, the chances of hitting targets at close range are very high with not much human body power needed.

Simply put, the number of probable casualties that can be inflicted with a gun in a short period of time, is significantly higher than with a knife or some other common weapon.

Unintentional casualties
There is another problem with guns. Even if one were to keep a gun under lock and key in one's house, if a child were to accidentally get hold of it and pull the trigger, a terrible tragedy could occur. A knife, unless used to stab someone deliberately, causes cuts and deep wounds at the worst. A bullet, if it hits someone in a vital region at close range, can kill almost instantaneously.

Then, there are issues with irresponsible adults. Overreaction to perceived threats can cause loss of innocent lives. A perfect example is the recent Trayvon Martin case in Florida and the resulting uproar over "Stand Your Ground" laws. Check out this article in The Week for details about the case. There are some excellent blogs on this point elsewhere on newspaper websites such as the Guardian from the UK (sorry, can't find the exact posts).

Human reaction time
Unless a weapon is within reach and the victim has enough presence of mind, it may not serve the purpose of self defense. Imagine you had a weapon locked up in your garage and are attacked in your bedroom by a masked intruder in the middle of the night. If you are half asleep and the attacker succeeds in overpowering you, will your weapon be of any use?

Most crazy mass murderers succeed precisely because their victims are vulnerable, exposed and completely unprepared.

State laws versus private regulations
Secondly, even if the state or country of residence allows guns freely, a private institution may still have the right to ban them from its premises. Examples include religious and educational institutions.

Gathering from several user comments on Yahoo and other sites, that is apparently what happened at the Colorado theater. The theater itself had banned guns from its premises although the state of Colorado has not. Law abiding, sane patrons complied with the rules whereas the gunman who intended to cause mayhem, did not.
Neither gun advocates or opponents can do anything about this discrepancy. After all, we can't insist that a sacred place of worship such as a temple or church, be forced to let deadly weapons on its property.

Those who quote the Second Amendment must realize that freedom always comes at a price. There are people who will misuse their freedoms to hurt people and unlike free speech, the right to carry weapons comes at a much higher price.

Violent Crime, Law Enforcement and Deadly Weapons
In any society, there has to be a certain amount of trust in people if it is to be called a civilized and progressive one. If one has to constantly look over one's shoulder and be prepared to draw out a weapon, there is very little law and order to speak of. As much as people enjoy the Wild Wild West kind of movies, I don't think many people would want to be transported to that era.

There are a couple of scenarios.
(a) Poor law enforcement, strict gun control and availability of guns outside legal means - 
This is a scenario similar to tin pot dictatorships, nations with civil war and/or those infested by mafia or drug cartels. In such cases, the gun becomes the tool of oppression. Law enforcement officials are encumbered by niceties such as subpoenas, arrest warrants, lethal force only for self defense, yada yada, but the outlaws run loose, killing anyone who does not toe their line.

Would it help if common folks were armed, too? To some extent, maybe. Unfortunately, getting hold of an effective gun is hard for most poor folks especially where strict gun control laws exist.

I shudder to think what would happen if everyone had guns and there was lawlessness all around. Even the good folks might eventually end up on the wrong side of the law some time. Revenge and counter revenge might be the order of the day. You might as well toss out penal codes in the trash bin and tell the police to go home and find other jobs.

(b) Poor law enforcement, very little or no gun control and availability of guns - 
If there is a law and order problem in such a society, it would still be a mess. If general poverty is added to the mix, common people who cannot afford guns would still be at the mercy of those who do.

(c) Strict law enforcement, strict gun control and availability of guns outside legal means -
This is the situation in some US states. Law and order is generally good, calling 911 gets the police to the spot quickly and there is severe punishment for offenses. It is not that one can buy a gun just like buying a pair of shoes.
Law abiding citizens do not own guns but the outlaws do. Psychopaths and crazy killers manage to get illegal weapons and then go berserk. Guns are freely available in the country if one knows the right channels.

However, hardcore criminals such as drug lords and career hit men never go into a crowd and randomly fire at people. Their crimes are never without motive and profit.

The kind of shootings that have happened in Colorado and earlier in Virginia Tech and in Columbine about 13 years ago were not acts of career criminals or even jihadists. These were the actions of regular young people who were disaffected and disturbed. It is in such instances that guns cause more harm than ever.
Of course, even if there were no guns, these people might have done something worse, just like many terrorists do.
Neither the lack of guns nor their universal presence can provide complete insurance against crime.

Take a look at this excellent article in the Guardian on statistics about gun ownership by country. Wikipedia has a comprehensive summary of gun control laws by country, too.

There are crimes committed in probably every nation on earth but the extent and nature vary. It is extremely rare to hear about a disgruntled youngster killing random strangers for no gain unless he/she happens to belong to or identifies with the cause of some terrorist or militant organization.

It is not enough to merely devise systems to punish crime. Punishment can act as a deterrent for criminals without a conscience but the bigger question that we need to ask is - how do people reach that threshold when conscience is no longer a barrier?

Now, some cases have been traced to mental illness of the perpetrators. But, where do we draw the line between a pure act of evil and that  of madness? Isn't a complete lack of empathy for another human being itself the sign of a sick mind?

There have been debates all over on prevention of crime. MSN Slate had a fine article on combating such mad acts as a society. You may or may not agree with the premise but the discussion is worth pondering.

Just as a healthy diet, exercise and sanitation are needed to ward off disease along with life saving drugs, crime prevention must be employed along with incarceration and the thump of the police baton to have a healthy society.

Eventually, the overall culture, family and social constraints and individual morality are the best deterrents against crimes.

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