ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — When is a shooting news? Take the headline: "Man Shot Dead in Birmingham Bar."
If the bar in question is in Birmingham, England, the event makes the front page of every British newspaper. It's the top story on the nightly TV news and provokes agonized debate about the rise of violence in inner-city England. If, on the other hand, the bar is in Birmingham, Ala., the news is buried on page four of the local newspaper.
In each case, one man dies, but in only one city is the event frontpage news.
These days, shootings in the United States have to be unusual in order to capture attention. The victim must either be famous or particularly tragic, as in the case of six-year-old Kayla Rolland of Mount Morris Township, Mich., shot by a classmate last week. Multiple shootings, especially if they are perpetrated by a juvenile gunman at school, are newsworthy.
Single shootings of adult males attract little notice because they are too common. In 1998, more than 10,000 Americans died in homicides involving guns.
Every single shooting in Britain attracts attention for the very simple reason that possession of handguns is illegal. Ownership of firearms of all types has long been strictly controlled. The laws were tightened even further after the tragedy at Scotland's Dunblane Primary School on March 13, 1996, when Thomas Hamilton opened fire on a class, killing 16 young children and their teacher. It is now no longer possible to possess or use a handgun, except within the strictly controlled confines of a gun club.
Fewer guns mean fewer murders. In 1996, the murder rate in the US was six times that of England. In the same year, firearms were used in 68 percent of US murders, but just 7 percent of English ones. Guns were involved in 41 percent of American robberies compared with 5 percent in England.
And these statistics are not simply a validation of the bogus stereotype of the civilized and peaceful English - because in every other major category of crime (burglary, robbery, assault, and rape), England is a more dangerous place than the US. Victim surveys in 1995 showed an English person was more than twice as likely to be assaulted as an American.
But those assaults seldom result in fatalities because English assailants seldom carry guns.
After the Dunblane shootings, the British government acted with great speed to prohibit handguns. Though it was widely accepted that the vast majority of gun owners were responsible citizens who used their weapons for sport and posed no risk to society, a very simple rule was applied: The pleasures of a few should not endanger the safety of the multitude.
As an American well aware of the dangers associated with a gun-toting society, I was impressed at the courage shown by my adopted country in getting rid of handguns. For the same reason, I feel frustrated that the outrage following recent American tragedies has translated into no serious new gun control measures.
Of course, I am under no illusion that a comprehensive ban similar to the British one could ever be implemented in the US. The American love affair with the gun has no counterpart in Great Britain. Americans believe that their right to bear arms is protected by the Constitution.
Though that protection might have dubious provenance, it is nevertheless worthy of respect.
The proliferation of weapons in the US also has understandable cause: Many Americans buy guns to protect themselves from other Americans who have guns. Granted, this need for protection might be exaggerated, but America is not the only society inclined to paranoia when personal safety seems at risk. For many Americans, owning a gun provides reassurance in a dangerous world.
The British were able to ban handguns, in part, because no similar feeling of danger existed. Those who opposed gun control did not cite the need to defend themselves, but instead asserted their freedom to pursue the sport of shooting.
The British experience is nevertheless germane. It demonstrates that America is not an unusually violent society. It is rather a society in which violent passions are too often punctuated by gunfire. According to US Department of Justices figures, homicides resulting from simple argument outnumber every other cause. Americans might buy guns to protect themselves from criminals, but they use them to shoot each other. The recent death in Michigan, it should be remembered, arose from a simple playground disagreement.
The NRA likes to argue that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." The British experience suggests otherwise. Americans need not look far to find the reason for their high murder rate. Kayla Rolland was not killed by a twisted Hollywood film producer whose violent movies warped the minds of the young. (We see the same films in Britain.) Kayla was killed by a gun.
* Gerard J. DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society