The pro-gun lobby incessantly cites the Second Amendment when debating gun control, reminding Americans that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”. However, it is also important to note that there is a clear and distinctive line when it comes to advocating sensible gun control policies and promoting an irrational rhetoric that describes gun control as the eventual eradication of firearms in the country. Comparing gun policy between France and the United States reveals remarkably similar “freedoms” to possess a gun but dramatically different policies to combat horrific gun crimes.
France has one of the highest numbers of guns in the world. Estimates on the number of guns vary by source and are hard to precisely pin down, but the widely cited Small Arms Survey 2007, puts the total number of guns in private ownership at a staggering 19,000,000 or 31.2 firearms per 100 people. Comparing France to the rest of the world, it ranks a surprising 5th, with the United States undeniably taking the top honors with about than 270,000,000 firearms. Yet, even with such a high number of arms in France, the rate of gun homicides in 2008 stood at 0.23 per 100,000 inhabitants, much lower than the United States, at 2.98 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2009.
French Gun Restrictions
How can two countries that have significant amounts of guns show a such divergent gap when it comes to gun homicides? Of course, historical and cultural norms play a significant role. In the United States, a strong individualistic gun culture is engrained in the American conscious. In France, no French citizens truly “owns” any gun. Under French law, established under the Vichy government, citizens cannot consider firearms private property. Given the historical context of the time – due to the fear of state insurrection when the state was at its weakest – it is not surprising the Vichy government enacted such measures (and even executed illegal holders of arms) . The regime classified all types of firearms into eight simple and clearly defined categories. Assault weapons like the Bushmaster XM-15 used in the Sandy Hook massacre, fall under a strictly prohibited category.
In order to posses a gun in France, stringent barriers must be overcome to ensure that only the most sane and responsible applicants are given such permission. A person must register at his/her local shooting range and maintain the membership at least six months before applying for possession of a firearm. Three different shooting examinations spaced out in two-month intervals provide added assurance that the applicant can properly handle a firearm.
More importantly, upon applying for a gun permit, the individual must show proof of no inherent mental disorder by providing a certified doctor’s note dating not more than two weeks. Extensive background checks are performed, and go far beyond those in the United States. French citizens undergo “neighborhood” checks, similar to security clearances for the U.S. government, where French state officials can carry out interviews with neighbors and past employers; a sort of “morality” investigation. When a license to posses a firearm is granted, the individual must show proof of a specialty safe installed in the home where the arm must be kept inside and locked at all times.
French Gun Policies In America?
Calls for gun restrictions like those in France would undoubtedly create downright uproar in America. The problem that pervades gun policy in the United States is the unproductive tone of the rhetoric used by the pro-gun lobby. Whenever calls for tighter gun controls arise, the National Rifle Association talking points campaign begins. The association evokes the powerful (yet utterly false) theme that gun control advocates are “beginning” of the outright eradication of guns in the United States. A year ago, early in the election season, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre fired up his base by explaining that Obama’s dismal gun control record during his first term was “all part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters [for 2012] and destroy the Second Amendment”. To equate a lack of proposed gun control measures as a conspiracy against the gun lobby simply boggles the mind.
The irresponsible and polarizing rhetoric of the NRA continued when Mr. LaPierre recently announced that the best method to deal with school shootings like Sandy Hook is by properly training and arming teachers in the classroom. Some Americans are baffled to see companies now selling bulletproof backpacks and floor mats for school children (yes, that is correct!).
The election of Obama in 2008, accompanied with the rise of the far-right Tea Party, has left little room for moderates (especially within the NRA) to operate a voice in the public sphere. Pro-gun supporters should not be asking if more gun control equates to the eradication of firearms. Rather, they should ask themselves if hunters really do need military-grade assault rifles to kill deer or protect a household. For centuries, hunters in France have been able to enjoy the expansive and nationally protected forests that bear so much quality game. Yet, there is no debate among the gun community to relax any restrictions. American gun advocates constantly stress the Second Amendment and the strict, “constructionist” intentions of the Founding Fathers. If they truly followed that principle, Revolutionary War era muskets should be the only types of weapons allowed. Alas, times change but so does rhetoric.
– Alexander Gardinier