Eoin McSweeney, speaks with Jonathan Goldstein, an expert on US firearms law, about the recent mass shootings occurring across the country and how gun regulation can be improved.
“The first of our kind has struck fear into the hearts of America. His cries have been heard, even by the President. This is only the beginning. The Beta Rebellion has begun. Soon, more of our brothers will take up arms to become martyrs to this revolution.”
This was the warning that appeared on 4chan, a simple online messaging board where anyone can post anonymously, the day after a mass shooting in Oregon left ten people dead. Chillingly, another post had been on 4chan the night before; warning students not to attend college.
It is just the latest in a string of American shooting tragedies. ‘The Beta Rebellion’ is a phrase used on 4chan and Reddit to refer to suggestions of violence or support of violence by ‘socially awkward’ males against ‘alpha males’ and women. Many of the high profile mass murders in the last number of years have included perpetrators who would fall into this profile, even if they weren’t part of the 4chan message board /r9k/, which is populated by users who describe themselves as ‘outcasts.’
At the time of writing, there have been 300 mass shootings in the US in 2015; more than one a day. That should not have happened in a developed country, and it doesn’t happen in any other developed countries. With 5% of the world’s population, US residents own roughly 50% of the world’s civilian-owned firearms. Barack Obama gave a passionate twelve minute speech after the Oregon shooting in which he said: “It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun.”
Because we have grown up with a no-gun culture in Europe, it is very easy for us to judge the problems Americans have with guns. It becomes very easy for us to think of American gun laws as arcane and barbaric, but are they really? Will stricter gun regulation and less guns in the hands of civilians really make America – a country embedded with a longstanding gun culture – a safer place?
A Different Perspective
“If I offered you a sign, to put in your front yard that said, ‘nobody in this house believes in gun rights, we’re not armed, nobody in this house has a gun and we want you to know it.’ Do you think that would increase or decrease the likelihood that you would be burgled relative to me? Where you have a diffusion of lawfully carried firearms in a population, criminals come to know that.”
Jonathan Goldstein is an attorney practising in Pennsylvania and is considered a national expert in firearms law. He actively lectures on firearms law and firearms safety across Pennsylvania, and has published a number of articles for national firearm law and firearm safety publications.
Speaking with him this month in order to learn more about guns in the US, the above statement was one that immediately encourages a rethinking of how we view the use of firearms. Our perspective is moulded by our development in Europe, but when stepping into a completely different culture, problems are created that we had never thought of before.
“It’s just too big, it’s too diverse. There’s a routine that Robin Williams did about the British police where they try and stop a criminal by shouting ‘Stop! Or I’ll shout stop again!’ But in this country that’s not feasible for a variety of reasons.”
America is already deeply embedded with a gun culture. It is unlike many countries in the EU in that it expressly allows for its citizens to bear arms in its Constitution. The infamous Second Amendment states that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” When something has been enshrined in your Constitution for 225 years, it is hard to argue that it is not a certain and unalienable right.
In addition to federal gun laws, all US states have imposed their own gun restrictions. Forty-four of these states protect the right to bear arms in their constitutions. Many Americans believe that self-defence is actually also a natural right, one that transcends even the Constitution.
As Mr Goldstein puts it: “Citizens are invested with rights by their creator. My right to be armed is God given, it isn’t government given. To say that the second amendment is outdated is to put the focus in the wrong place. My creator gave me the right to defend my life. The founders of our government recognised that, took notice of it and enshrined it in our founding document. But the right is permanent and binding. It’s a natural right.”
There is also a solid argument that guns prevent more crime than they cause. Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, estimated that approximately 2.5 million people used their gun in self-defense or to prevent crime each year, often by merely displaying a weapon. The reasoning behind this goes on the basis that criminals are deterred when they know the person that they are planning to burgle, assault, rape etc., has a weapon to protect themselves with.
Mr Goldstein gave an example: “In his journals, the guy who shot up the Colorado movie theatre, [this was a shooting in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado where James Holmes killed 12 people during a screening of The Dark Knight] talked about where he was going to go to do this. And he said ‘I’m not going somewhere where there is armed guards. I’m not going to a bank, I’m not going to a military installation, I’m not going to a police station, I’m going to go to a movie theatre, that has signs up that prevent people from carrying.’ So we know this is the way that those people think.”
However, some of these reports are skewed. A National Research Council Report suggested that Kleck’s estimates were exaggerated and involved people classifying self-defence subjectively. The argument that guns actually stop crime from happening is however more solid than it would appear to a European, especially when you consider how many guns are in circulation there.
Even if we were to presume that guns are bad, will more control help? Without even going into the topic of mental health, which is a whole other kettle of fish and one which will leave me taking up the entire magazine, there are a number of reasons why many think not. Barack Obama suggested following the Australian example. After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, where 35 people died, strict gun control laws were introduced and they have been a resounding success. But Mr Goldstein explains why that would simply not work in a country like the US.
“We’re not an island nation, it’s a little harder to police who and what are coming in and out of here. We cannot keep drugs out of prison. Prison. A locked down complex with bars on the doors and windows and where everybody’s movement is controlled. To assume that we can keep guns out of the hands of criminals is a highly suspicious assertion. That won’t work for America.”
This statement is founded on sound logic. The US has had a terrible history of black markets when bans have been imposed, probation and the war on drugs being perfect examples. And if it’s only criminals with guns rather than law abiding citizens, then you have a real problem on your hands. The US is also a melting pot of different cultures, each one vying to have their voices heard.
“Ireland is racially homogenous, it’s culturally homogenous, and it’s largely speaking economically homogenous. You have a shared heritage that everybody buys into. Here you have a greater deal of diversity and heterogeneity. It yields some interesting results. We have faster economic growth than anywhere in the world, we have more cultural diversity, and we have more variety in much of our civil culture and civil society.
However, you probably also have more conflict, because not everybody is on the same page with every issue the way it might sometimes be in Ireland. One of the consequences of that greater freedom and greater diversity is greater volatility and with greater volatility you get greater conflict and you just have to manage.”
The Predicament of Media Attention
One of the major issues facing any sort of gun law reform is the glamorisation the media spotlight brings to these shootings. It encourages members of ‘The Beta Rebellion’ and other lone gunmen to seek a place in history, even if they only gain notoriety. For example, later in the 4chan post above, the same writer says “Don’t let our one chance at writing history slip away.” The way the media constantly releases images and names (much like James Holmes, whose shock of red hair is now known all over the world) after shootings encourage these people to seek their place in history. At the end of the day they will get their own Wikipedia page and the names of places such as Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech and Charleston become known globally.
“The guy who recently shot up the school in Oregon, he talked extensively online that this was a great way to obtain notoriety. But I think we can ask our media outlets here, ‘can you help us, can you help us deglamourize this?’ I’m not asking you not to report on it, I’m just asking you to not aggrandize and glorify these people and help them achieve notoriety that they can’t otherwise achieve.”
When a citizen tries to obtain a firearm, they already go through an extensive background check, that when you look at, can’t really be made much more extensive. Form 4473, which you have to fill out to get a firearm, is incredibly long and confusing, and the background checks, which can and do include mental health, that go on behind the scene are thorough and painstaking. It becomes almost impossible for criminals to obtain guns in this fashion and those with mental health issues are likewise checked.
“We make the process relatively simple, but what goes on behind the process doesn’t mean it’s easy. The mainstream media in the US would make you believe that we hand these things out like coasters in a bar. Under federal law, if you purchase a firearm, any firearm, from a Federal Firearms Licensee, someone who’s engaged in the business of selling guns, you undergo an extensive background check. That background check includes records from every state in the union, it can include and usually does include mental health records, and it includes, in all shapes and forms, any manner of bad act that someone may commit, from domestic violence to murder and everything in between.”
What might be more prudent than creating more gun laws would be to begin enforcing the existing ones properly. For example straw purchasing, where a person buys a gun legally for someone who legally can’t is how many criminals get their guns. A November 2001 Bureau of Justice Statistics study tells us that in 1997 78.8% of incarcerated criminals surveyed told researchers that they obtained their guns from “a friend or family or street/illegal source.” This is a third degree felony, but it is rarely enforced, and when it is, it is sometimes innocent parties who incorrectly filled out their form by accident that are prosecuted. The law is also harsh on dealers, who only have a one strike policy when it comes to making mistakes in record keeping.
In an Ideal World
In an ideal world, the US would be able to completely outlaw guns, or at least impose tighter restrictions, but in reality this isn’t feasible. However much you regulate firearms, criminals or those with nefarious intentions will still find a way to obtain them. Gun control is wanted, but smart gun control is needed. Following blindly behind Obama’s passionate words or Hilary Clinton’s promises will not make America safer.
Many claim that the US Congress is in the deathly grip of the National Rifle Association due to the high number of senators who are receiving donations from them, but in a pro-gun culture it’s just not feasible to enact the type of laws that exist in Europe. A serious discussion needs to take place on the issue where both parties sit down and find a middle ground. American citizens cannot continue to go to a place of learning, work or pleasure without being in fear of their lives and something needs to change.