The deaths of two people on London Bridge last week at the hands of a knife-wielding assailant were, like any murders, tragic. But by American standards, the body count was blessedly small. There's a reason why crazed rampages in other advanced countries generally end with few deaths, compared with a dozen, or dozens, in this country.
As the Supreme Court this week reviews whether reasonable gun restrictions are constitutionally permissible, it's worth reflecting on that contrast.
The attack Friday around one of London's most iconic sites was horrific by any standard. The attacker stabbed and killed a young man and woman and wounded three others before bystanders subdued him. Police subsequently shot and killed the suspect, who was wearing what turned out to be a fake strap-on bomb.
Why didn't the assailant, clearly intent on inflicting maximum casualties, use a gun — as is the preference of American rampage killers? Simple: Great Britain for decades has effectively banned most guns other than sporting rifles and shotguns, and those are licensed. That was in response to a 1996 massacre in Scotland in which a gunman killed 16 young children and their teacher.
Britain has since seen a surge in knife violence. But Britain's overall homicide rate is now far lower than that of the U.S. No one outside the American gun lobby thinks knives and guns are equally dangerous. Even in London, one of the world's largest cities, the homicide rate in 2017 (even with all those knives) was only about 1.6 deaths per 100,000 people.
In St. Louis that year, the rate was 66 deaths per 100,000, with guns playing the dominant role by far in those homicides.
Contrary to gun-culture mythology, the notion that the Second Amendment gives every individual the right to possess a firearm is neither obvious in the text nor has it been interpreted that way throughout most of U.S. history. The Supreme Court didn't embrace that novel interpretation until D.C. v. Heller in 2008, a divided decision that remains controversial.
The high court on Monday heard another Second Amendment case for the first time in 10 years, regarding a former New York law restricting firearms transportation. Since the law has been repealed, it may not become the test case that had been expected — but such a test case is likely coming eventually.
The gap between the body counts in London and rampages in American cities shows what's at stake. Irrational killers can arise in any society. But when they arise in a society where anyone can walk into a sporting goods store and walk out with a weapon of war, the body count is — obviously — going to be exponentially higher. "Guns don't kill, people kill," goes the old National Rifle Association trope. But clearly, guns make the killing far easier.
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