[email protected]

January 07, 2013, Monday

Gun control

Lone gunmen going on a rampage have sadly become a regular occurrence around the world.

One of the most tragic cases, which lead to the deaths of 26 people, most of them being very young children, took place in the American town of Newport in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012.  Shortly after the New Year though, as I was preparing to leave my native Switzerland after a brief stay to return to Turkey, the news came that just a few miles down the road, in the peaceful village of Daillon, another incident involving a crazed gunman had killed three and wounded several others.

In this particular case, the perpetrator had a history: he was a psychiatric patient, whose fascination for firearms was public knowledge since he’d had several weapons confiscated in 2005. Lax gun control somehow allowed him to rebuild an impressive arsenal. His actions have inevitably triggered calls for a review of the monitoring of mental patients living in the community.

Each of these tragedies takes place in slightly different circumstances, but they often tend to involve individuals who have become alienated from their environment and want to draw attention to themselves. Gun lobbyists argue that the killings are caused by individuals rather by the guns. Yet it is the ease of access to firearms that allows these people to collect the arsenal they need to carry out their attacks and commit murder on a large scale. Hardened criminals will always be able to find illegal guns through underground networks, but tighter controls and registration procedures limit the risk by making access to lethal weapons tougher for the general public.

Their social and political environments may be very different, and so are their crime statistics, but the US and Switzerland share the dubious honor of being among the countries with the largest amount of weapons in circulation. Lethal attacks involving a firearm are proportionally much rarer in Switzerland, whose crime statistics are more in line with its European neighbors. However, the country has an estimated 2 million weapons, old and new, for a population of 8 million, partly because Swiss men, who serve in the military, get to keep their army-issue rifles at home. A popular initiative to reclaim those weapons was democratically rejected in 2010. Statistics show that they are more often used for suicides than for homicides, but they do, nevertheless, present a danger to society.

The latest shootings have inevitably re-ignited the debate on gun controls. The Obama administration is set to unveil new proposals for tighter rules, which are likely to face strong opposition from the powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association. In Switzerland, the absence of a central gun registry has been criticized, but there, too, gun proponents are an influential political force and the introduction of tough new measures is not seen as highly likely.

What about Turkey? The country has so far been spared shootings by crazed loners, but Turkey also has an excess of guns, many of them unregistered, and firearms are involved in a large number of private attacks. The Umut Foundation, which campaigns for individual disarmament, estimates that on top of the 2.5 million legally registered guns, some 7.5 million illegal firearms are circulating in Turkey. Based only on media reports, which fail to track each incident, the foundation found that nearly 2,000 people were the victims of firearm attacks between July 2011 and June 2012. The real figure may be much higher. In many of these cases, guns are used against spouses or close relatives.

Turkey tightened regulations somewhat in 2011, but psychiatric assessments required in order to obtain a gun license are still seen as insufficient to prevent potentially dangerous individuals from getting a weapon. Attempts to pass tighter legislation have failed so far, although an attempt was made in 2010 when a draft law was prepared.

Previous articles of the columnist