When I first came to Switzerland in 1972, I remember standing on the train platform in Bern and seeing rifles lined up outside a restaurant. Soldiers had left their weapons unattended while eating. Coming from my New York experiences in the South Bronx and Harlem, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The recent shootings in Colorado once more raise the question: Do guns kill or people kill? The powerful gun lobby in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA), continues to maintain that people kill, and that laws restricting access to weapons will have no effect. Their argument is that with more guns available people will be better protected, much like Professor Kenneth Waltz’s argument that if all countries had nuclear weapons none would use them.
There are nearly three hundred million privately owned firearms in the United States, a hundred and five million rifles, eighty-three million shotguns, and a hundred and six million handguns. The ratio is roughly one gun for every American, more than any other country in the world. The recent killer, James Holmes, carried a .223-calibre Smith & Wesson AR – 15 assault-style rifle, a Remington twelve-gauge shotgun, and a .40 calibre Glock handgun. A second Glock was found in his car. He had bought more than six thousand rounds of ammunition online.
The United States has had several mass killings in recent history: Austin, Texas, 1966; Fullerton, California, 1976; San Ysidro, California, 1984; Edmond, Oklahoma, 1986; Killeen, Texas, 1991; Jonesboro, Arkansas, 1998; Littleton, Colorado, 1999; Brookfield, Wisconsin, 2005; Blacksburg, Virginia, 2007; Binghamton, New York, 2009; Tucson, Arizona, 2011. Each time there is an outcry for stricter gun control laws. Each time there is a national debate about why these horrendous acts take place. Is the American society fundamentally violent? Are there more psychopaths today than before? What is the role of the media in inspiring such acts? What steps can be taken to prevent future atrocities?
The question remains about whether guns kill or people kill and what to do about future prevention. The Small Arms Survey here in Geneva is part of an international effort to better register small arms and light weapons. The major producers of weapons, and certainly the United States, have strongly opposed the measures. Is it reasonable to expect weapons to be limited? Easy access to certain weapons should be limited. People with violent histories should not have access to weapons.
Much has changed since 1972. I no longer see rifles unattended in train stations. Violence has increased everywhere. Taxi drivers are robbed and assaulted in Geneva. Guns kill and people kill. Both should be controlled.