On Sunday, April 28, 1996 I turned on the television to watch the afternoon arts program. It wasn't on. Instead I was appalled by a news bulletin about a massacre. The report claimed nineteen victims, revised as I watched to twenty-three. Acculturated to American violence, or perhaps more able to ignore than participate in calamity, I stopped watching, and thus remained unaware for some hours that this massacre was a long way from Texas (and, as it turned out, it was bigger than Texas, since the largest rampage killing in Texas claimed exactly twenty-three victims). It was, in fact, in my home state of Australia, Tasmania. Amongst the eventual tally of thirty-five was Jason Winter, winemaker for my Moorilla Wines, and thus my employee.
These mass killings might not be important in the greater scheme of things. The vast majority of murders aren't massacres, they don't even involve guns, at least in Australia. In 2012, there were 1.1 homicides per 100000 people in Australia. In the U.S. there were 4.7 per 100000, a murder rate around four times higher. An even greater contrast- 13% of murders in Australia involve firearms, while in the U.S. that number is 67%. If gun deaths in the U.S. echoed the Australian experience (an obviously invalid assumption, some murders would be 'executed' with different weapons) the U.S. homicide rate would drop to 2.5 per 100000 per annum.
Could the Australian-U.S. murder dichotomy be mitigated by gun control? I think so. The National Rifle Association disagrees.
It's pretty well known, even in Australia, that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms. Most Australians think this is silly, at best. We aren't rugged individualists and don't seem to think that libertarianism is the only valid way to build a society. My wife Kirsha, however, is an American, and is a libertarian. When she moved to Australia, she couldn't help enjoying the palpably safer streets. Could the Australian experience be duplicated in the U.S. without abrogating anyone’s rights, and without messing with the constitution? Part of the answer, in her opinion, might be embedded within those grand bastions of U.S. culture, capitalism and its attendant philanthropy.
After the Port Arthur Massacre, that disaster near my hometown, the Australian government spent $500 million dollars compulsorily acquiring weapons that were deemed of no use to the community (all this is discussed in another essay, by Roland Browne, who has considerably more expertise in this area than me). That would be around $2.5 billion now. Since the American population now is about 18 times as many as the Australian population then, and the gun ownership rate is over six times greater than Australia’s (there is almost one gun per person in the U.S., by far the highest ownership rate in the world) to recapitulate the Australian buyback in the U.S. would cost at least $270 billion.
Private enterprise can't do that. Can it do anything? My father told me of a visit to a beach after a storm, when he was a boy. There were an astonishing number of crabs stranded on high ground, and a man picking them up, one at a time, and tossing them into the sea. Dad said, ‘What use is that, there are millions of them’? The man picked up another, and as he threw it back in he said, ‘I'm sure it'll be of some use to this one’. Each gun removed from circulation will not take lives. This is contrary to the widely held (particularly in the U.S.) opinion that guns are protectors, and they thwart crime. In fact the statistics clearly show that owners of guns are more likely to die due to gun violence (this is highly contentious, but one study in Philadelphia showed that those that carry guns are more than four times more likely to be shot and killed). Further, denizens of U.S. states categorised to be in the highest quartile of gun ownership are more than twice as likely to be killed by gunfire as those in the lowest quartile. However, they are no more likely to be murdered in other ways.
Kirsha wants to buy back some guns, initially $100000 worth, in a part of New Orleans riven by gun violence. We would hope that a small intervention has a discernible local effect. There is a plausible argument that many of the guns sold at similar buy backs are sold by parents and grandparents who don't want their heirs to die before they inherit. Many others are sold by those desperately trying to support a drug habit, and the weapons are thus probably stolen. So the criticism that guns will only come from people who aren't likely to use them is, potentially, invalid.
While I have no information on the homicide rate in the Eighth Ward, where the buy back will be (except that, anecdotally, it is extremely high), the New Orleans parish rate was 57.6 per 100000 people in 2011 (down to 42 in 2013), a rate over ten times the national average. The argument that I've sometimes heard concerning the discrepancy between Australian and U.S. murder rates- that it is a legitimate price to pay for the protection of civil rights, doesn't help those in New Orleans, who seem to be paying ten times more for the same dubious benefit. In my home state of Tasmania, with a population larger than New Orleans, since 1996 there have been less murders than occurred in New Orleans in 2011 alone (200 victims, improved to 155 in 2013).
These statistics are stark, but they may be misleading. The rate of homicide in Australia was already much lower than those in the U.S. prior to the gun buy back. And after the buy back in Australia, the rate of gun ownership decreased by only 20% (but the rate of ownership was already less than one fifth of that of the U.S.). Further, in Victoria, the only state that provided a breakdown of the types of guns compulsorily acquired in the buy back, only 3% were the military type semi-automatic weapons that are most widely seen as a problem. But this type of weapon has, apparently, not been used in a homicide since. Also on the plus side, the number of homes in which guns were present dropped by half after the buy back. And at least one credible study (Do Gun Buy Backs Save Lives? Evidence from Panel Data. Andrew Leigh and Christine Neill) contends the effect of large-scale gun backs is substantial- of the order of an 80% reduction in homicide rates. It also claims a similar decrease in the gun suicide rate (and in the U.S. there are more gun related suicides than homicides), without a corresponding increase in non-firearm suicides.
Earlier I speculated that a New Orleans buy back would impact violence in the localities in which it was conducted. Those who disagree, among them libertarians, constitutional rights defenders, and the NRA, have every opportunity to employ fear, uncertainty and doubt to engage distrust for our little program. We need to show whether private buy backs work. To this end we have engaged an economist, Kenneth Train, to research the impact of our buy back (and who has agreed to provide his services pro bono). Mr Train has previously worked on the recreational losses incurred by those affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill, and the competitive aspects of the tobacco settlement, so his pedigree is considerable. In my opinion the evaluation of the efficacy of the buy back program is at least as important as the program itself. Kirsha, also sees this aspect as important, but her practice is art. To her, all this has to be conceptually and aesthetically, as well as ethically satisfying, and she has enthusiastically applied herself to guarantee it will be so.
We will make mistakes, and may already have made some. Even in my local community critics have highlighted issues with our proposed buy back in New Orleans. One took umbrage with my apparent self-appointment as the arbiter of moral probity. She compared this small intervention with the charity work of Angelina Jolie. I like to think I'm a poorer, less computationally competent version of Bill Gates, rather than a less attractive Angelina. Nevertheless, her point is well made. Our intervention must be accountable.
I’m in New Orleans as I write, and a few days ago I attended a Baptist church service. The Reverend who gave the sermon is a strong supporter of gun buy backs, and he, like many others I've met before and since, talked about the absurdity of young men dying violently. The statistics for New Orleans are similar to those in a war zone. I'd like the war to stop. I think there is wisdom in the adage, ‘In order for evil to flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing’. I’m not sure I'm a good man, but there is no chance I'll ever be a good man if I can do something, and I do nothing.
Kirsha Kaechele: I would like to close David’s essay by saying that I have always hated political art and all art with a social agenda. But what can I say? You become what you hate. That said, I have always loved and still love working with my friends + collaborators in my old neighbourhood. Thank you so much David, Tora and Lisa, and the Old + New crew for making it happen!
Kirsha, Life is Art Foundation / KKProjects (+ now MONA)