Stuart H. Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: Death by handgun is once again a great concern in this country. As handgun violence rises, so does the purchase of handguns in this country. Larry Keane, national general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Association, a trade association for the firearms and ammunition industry, says that consumer demand for weapons is unprecedented. Apparently, one reason for this rush to own arms is a fear that the Obama administration will get legislation passed that will restrict handguns. Each time there is an outburst of handgun terrorism in this country, there is more publicity by those seeking bans, yet the ban doesn’t happen. Is there any chance this will change, and should it change?
George Lewis, news correspondent, NBC, Los Angeles: A great debate about gun control gets revived every time there is a spate of violence like this. The National Rifle Association is a very strong lobby in Washington, D.C., and has managed to repel strengthening gun laws. They were successful during the Bush administration in getting some gun control laws rolled back. On the other side of the debate, organizations favoring tighter gun control point out that the U.S. has a far higher incidence of gun violence than any other industrialized country. Guns claim 84 lives a day in this country, wounding 200 more, so the debate heats up.
Loory: There was strict gun control in the former Soviet Union; several years ago those restrictions disappeared. What has happened in Russia as a result of lifting those restrictions?
Mark Ames, former editor, eXile, New York: By American standards, Russia still has strict restrictions. It is very difficult to get handguns. But one can buy a shotgun or rifle at a store. To buy a gun, you have to get licensed and jump through all kinds of hoops, including a certified psychological exam. I once asked a doctor, “If I took anti-depressants, like half of Americans, would I qualify for this certificate?” The doctor said, “Absolutely not.” That said, Russia is one of the most violent places in the world and has one of the highest murder rates. You can access anything if you’re connected to organized crime or one of the security services.
Loory: The United Kingdom does not have as much gun violence. Is there a reason for that?
Tom Wainwright, correspondent, Economist, London: It does still crop up sometimes, but it is very rare compared to most other countries. Last year, 53 people were shot dead in Britain. It is partly down due to our strict gun laws. The earliest example of English gun regulation I found was written in 1671. Handguns are completely banned for everybody, to the extent that the British Olympic pistol shooting team has to practice outside Britain.
Loory: Germany does not have much gun violence and has some pretty strict gun control laws there, correct?
Friedrich Schmidt, political correspondent, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Frankfurt, Germany: Yes. The Russian system sounds similar to the German one. One must pass a test, prove there is a necessity in having a gun and be licensed. Another permit is required to carry a gun in public. Otherwise, you can only keep it on your private property. If you want to carry concealed weapons in public, then you need a firearms carry permit. To get this permit, you have to be in a special position, for instance law enforcement officers or security personnel.
Loory: Brazil also has a high rate of violence. Can you compare the situation there to the U.S.?
Samuel Logan, investigative reporter, security analyst, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Brazil is second in the Western Hemisphere, behind the U.S., in gun exports. Like the U.S., Brazil has a very strong gun lobby that is backed by the gun manufacturers, which use special interest groups similar to the NRA. Brazil has much higher gun violence compared to the U.S., especially in the urban centers. Lastly, it is much more difficult to buy a weapon in Brazil than in the U.S. The U.S. has a fairly simple background check. Here, like Germany and Russia, you need a psychological test, a certified explanation for why you need the weapon, a criminal record check and proof of regular lawful residence.
Loory: It is difficult to buy a weapon, and yet there are a lot of weapons around. That is because there is a big illegal weapons business?
Logan: Brazil’s borders touch 10 other countries, so it has interesting military relationships. It exports a lot of weapons. A lot of these weapons are then transferred to the gray and black market and make their way back into Brazil. Apart from Colombia here in South America, Brazil has the highest demand for black market guns.
Loory: The NRA says that most of the gun violence in the U.S. comes from people who acquire weapons illegally. Is that correct?
Lewis: The statistics have been batted back and forth. The NRA’s position is that gun control laws do not work for that reason. The problem is that the NRA has also lobbied for loopholes in gun reporting laws, so the data is flawed. There is also debate about guns going to Mexico, where the drug violence has peaked. Some government statistics indicate that 90 percent of the weapons can be traced from the U.S. going to Mexico. Whereas, the NRA is arguing that most of the weapons can’t be traced. Groups like the Brady organization say that guns are readily available in the U.S. and legal guns do account for a whole lot of deaths.
Logan: Transactions between private individuals are not regulated whatsoever at gun shows. It is easy for a legitimate individual to buy a gun and legally sell that to someone, who sells it to someone else. When that gun is used to kill someone, it is traced back to the legitimate owner, and the trail stops. It is very difficult to trace.
Loory: Is the situation in the U.S. getting much attention in Germany?
Schmidt: It is always cited. Only a month ago, we had another school shooting. Everyone always asks why it happens here if we have such strict laws? The U.S. is seen as a negative example. People tend to say that if we didn’t have these strict gun laws, we would have a situation like the U.S. In the wake of this last school shooting, there was a discussion about tightening our very strict gun laws even further, but on the implementation side. We can’t make the laws even stricter, unless guns are banned altogether.
Loory: Does the NRA have any program to export its point of view around the world?
Logan: Most certainly. There was a nationwide gun buyback program implemented here in July 2004. It culminated in a nationwide referendum to decide whether or not the sale of weapons to civilians would be banned. On the national political level, there was a great lobbying effort on both sides of the fence and a lot of the funding came from outside the country. A lot of that money did come from the NRA — exporting cash, effort, know how and individuals. The NRA came down and taught how to mount a nationwide media campaign. It was a strong campaign, and the people decided they wanted to be allowed to buy firearms.
Loory: Gun control is not only an issue in this country but is a problem in many others. The matter of whether gun control works to keep down random killings is also open to question.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.