Last week, we published a blog which revealed that gun ownership in New South Wales is soaring despite laws requiring prospective owners to satisfy stringent requirements before being granted a gun licence.
That blog outlined statistics which show that, in line with the increase in gun ownership, gun-related crime is also on the rise – up by 17.4% across the state.
Those figures have raised concerns that Australia may slowly be following in the footsteps of countries like the United States, where residents have a right to bear and keep arms.
The US has been plagued by mass shootings and other gun-related tragedies which have seen many citizens call on the government to introduce stricter laws regarding the ownership of firearms.
Even current President Barack Obama supports a crackdown on gun laws, expressing his frustration during a recent interview that the United States ‘is the one advanced nation on earth in which we do not have sufficient, common sense, gun safety laws.’
But while the enormously powerful pro-gun lobby has been quick to condemn the President’s comments, a recent tragedy illustrates the danger in lax gun laws.
Three-Year-Old Shot Dead by Eleven-Year-Old Boy
Earlier this month, an eleven-year-old Detroit boy fronted court charged with manslaughter after he shot a three-year-old boy dead.
The prosecution alleges that the eleven-year-old was playing at home when he found a loaded gun in his father’s closet. He then threw the gun into the backyard, retrieved it, and entered a car that was parked in his backyard.
Tragically, three-year-old Elijah Walker, who was visiting friends with his mother, decided to follow the older boy into the car.
The older boy then allegedly shot Elijah in the face, killing him instantly.
While most US states recognise the principle of doli incapax – in other words, that the law generally assumes that children within a certain age bracket are not liable for criminal conduct unless the prosecution is able to prove that the child understood that their actions were wrong, the prosecution contends that ‘very unfortunately and very tragically, the alleged facts in this case demanded [that the child be prosecuted].’
Judge Frank Szymanski, who heard the case when it went to court earlier this month, ordered a mental competency examination as well as an independent psychological examination to determine if the young boy was able to understand his actions and the charges against him.
Sadly, the death of Elijah Walker is not the first tragedy that has occurred as a result of a child stumbling across a gun.
Around 62 children under the age of 14 are killed each year as a result of accidental shootings in the United States.
Earlier this month, a three-year-old boy was transported to hospital in a critical condition after accidentally shooting himself in the head with a loaded gun that he found in a drawer in his family’s apartment.
His parents said that they kept weapons in the house for personal safety reasons, but that they were usually kept locked and unloaded as required by law. The boy was apparently searching for his iPad when he came across the weapon.
Meanwhile, in tragically similar circumstances, a young boy wounded his father and pregnant mother earlier this year whilst also searching for an iPad. Thankfully, both parents survived the incident.
While children generally escape prosecution in these cases, US parents who fail to secure their weapons can face felony negligence charges and have their children placed in the care of protective services.
Similarly in NSW, the law says that gun owners must lock their firearms in a secure safe unloaded, among other requirements.
More Guns = More Gun Crimes & Accidents?
Pro-gun lobbyists will argue that the common thread in each of these cases is that a parent or guardian failed to follow the law by responsibly securing their weapons – thereby enabling a tragic accident to take place.
In relation to gun crime generally, they will argue that gun owners are responsible people who don’t leave their guns unsecured, and would never dream of using their firearms against anyone else. They maintain that gun crimes are overwhelmingly committed with unregistered or illegally obtained guns. They are deeply passionate about their cause, arguing that individuals should be allowed to own guns for a range of reasons – including pest control, hunting, recreation and to protect themselves, their families and their property against intruders.
By contrast, those in favour of strict firearms regulations highlight the fact that many people who hold firearms licences in NSW are convicted of firearms offences every year, including offences relating to the ‘safe keeping of firearms’ under sections 39, 40 and 41 of the Firearms Act 1996; suggesting that many firearms licence holders do not follow the rules.
They further argue that common sense dictates that the more guns, the higher the chance of so-called “criminals” getting their hands on them – whether by stealing or otherwise.
They add that the greater the availability of guns, the higher the chance of enraged partners or angry individuals using them spontaneously in heated situations or for vengeance, and the higher the prospect of tragedies involving children. They say that this is evidenced by the high rates of spousal shootings, mass shootings, accidental shootings and gun crimes generally in countries like the United States where the rate of gun ownership is very high.
They point out that guns kill easily, with the squeeze of a trigger, and that it is absurd to suggest that the widespread proliferation of guns will not result in more gun crimes.
Supporting that argument locally is the fact that gun crimes in NSW have risen largely in accordance with the rate of gun ownership over the past few years.
While most children escape incidents involving guns without serious injury, there are many who are sadly injured or die.
According to statistics, ‘American children are sixteen times more likely to be killed in unintentional shootings than their peers in high-income countries.’
A report released by Everytown, an organisation which aims to reduce gun tragedies through law reform, 70% of accidental gun deaths could have been prevented by parents simply taking the time to properly secure their weapons.
The organisation released a report last year recommending that US states adopt better laws to prevent kids from accessing unsecured weapons, and to enable negligent parents to face more serious criminal charges where children gain access to unsecured weapons and cause harm.
The organisation has also suggested that further investment in research and a national education campaign about the issue of accidental shootings could be beneficial in raising awareness about the problem.
Other groups have blamed the US government for not enacting tougher gun ownership laws – and for failing to implement a gun buyback scheme, similar to the one used by the Australian government in 1996.
But efforts to reform gun laws in the US have been met with fierce opposition by gun lobbyists, including the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), who have spent millions of dollars on advertising campaigns and political donations in an effort to prevent the government from making it harder for individuals to own guns – and from stopping government investment into research about the health and safety threats posed by guns.
In fact, the efforts of pro-gun groups have contributed to research into gun mortality declining by 96% since the mid 90’s.
Although Obama faces a formidable battle in America, it is hoped that common sense will prevail here in Australia.