- Language Tips
Reflecting on the recent tragedy in Newtown in the United States and my many years in China, I can definitely conclude that one of the most comforting aspects of living in Beijing is the physical safety people enjoy here. Perhaps with the exception of crossing the street or driving here, which is admittedly always frightening and frequently potentially life threatening, people don't need to worry about being the victim of a violent crime.
Now, a few days after the latest of what is an all-too-common American tragedy, media attention has subsided to a simmer, and even an eternal optimist such as myself is extremely pessimistic about the possibility of reducing gun violence in the US, where according to Harvard Professor David Hemenway, a young child is 13 times more likely to be a victim of a gun homicide than in any other developed country.
Even if President Barack Obama, defying history and against overwhelming political odds, succeeds in fulfilling the wishes of the advocates of gun control, which, among other things, would require getting Congress to re-institute the assault weapons ban, imposing a prohibition on magazines holding more than 10 rounds, closing the gaping loophole that allows 40 percent of all gun sales to be free from registration or background checks to eliminate criminals or the mentally ill, and optimizing the abysmal information-sharing systems among various jurisdictions. And even if in this era of budgetary restraint, he can get Congress to expend hundreds of millions of dollars on mental health, gun safety education and the rest. The reality is little would change. Simply because of the prevalence of guns in the US, the attitudes of most gun-rights proponents, and the terror of single-issue politics.
The US is being buried under firearms. According to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2009 there were 310 million guns registered in private hands in the US: 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. While "only" 40 percent of Americans own guns, this is just about one for each man, woman and child in the US, twice the figure in 1968, the year Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Although some paranoids worry that the government will confiscate some or all guns, this is as unlikely to happen. So these guns will continue to wreak havoc for decades to come. Don't even think about a voluntary buy-back program such as Australia tried. Assuming that each surrendered weapon was bought back for $100 on average, recovering just 10 percent would cost $3.1 billion.
You would have thought that each time one of these mass shootings occurred gun sales would decline. Sadly, the opposite is true. Gun sales have spiked after each of the many tragedies that have occurred in recent years. Clearly many people feel less threatened by gun violence if they themselves own a gun. Gun advocates such as Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, say that if there were fewer restrictions on guns, including assault weapons, in public places, armed personnel would be able to prevent such tragedies or at least reduce the death toll. However, you can just envision some teacher pretending to be Clint Eastwood, saying to Adam Lanza, "Go ahead, make my day" before wasting him. And if the teacher came from another part of the school this might be too little too late, as the latest incident at Newtown was over in minutes.
The biggest villain in this tragedy, however, is the National Rifle Association, an organization with 4.3 million members and a budget of $250 million, which began as a gun sport and hunting association. A half century ago the motto on its Washington headquarters was "Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation". By the 1970s taken over by libertarian anti-government zealots the motto parroted a portion of the Second Amendment: "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Today it might as well say, "One nation under guns". The NRA not only upended two centuries of legal jurisprudence in 2008, by getting the Supreme Court to find in favor of an individual's right to possess weapons, it has also scared the living daylights out of every politician in Washington with its now much-copied rating system scoring a lawmaker's support of NRA legislation. I worked as a legislative assistant in Congress in the 1970s and I can attest to the power wielded and the fear created by these single-issue constituencies.
So little will change. There will continue to be mass shootings, and even political assassinations. For me, I feel safer taking my chances with the Beijing traffic.
The author is a senior adviser to Tsinghua University and former director and vice-president of ABC Television in New York.
(China Daily 12/25/2012 page10)