Time overdue for gun law action

Shock, horror and mass grief have once again visited middle America, this time in the wake of the killing of 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut elementary school by a 20-year-old gunman who also killed his mother and finally himself.

Alongside the heartbreak and despair, and as a community rallies to support the families and friends of the victims and the youngsters involved in the terrifying ordeal, comes the quest for answers - including the now-inevitable focus on the country's gun laws.

But surely one of the tragedies in this latest mass shooting is that the list of ''usual suspects'' in the mix is far from surprising - a lonely, isolated, socially awkward and angry young man whose parents had relatively recently divorced, who was reportedly estranged from his father and older brother, who appeared to have played graphically violent video games, and who had access to several semi-automatic weapons in his own home.

America has been here before. In August, six Sikh worshippers were shot in a temple in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by a man using a 9mm semi-automatic pistol. The gunman was killed by police. In July, a gunman opened fire at a theatre in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 and wounding 58. And education facilities have been targeted in recent years with the loss of many lives.

While the US is not alone when it comes to gunmen committing mass murder, its permissive gun laws - firmly entrenched in its Constitution - are clearly a significant factor, if for no other reason than availability. Guns and ammunition are easy to purchase in stores and online, the country's ban on assault weapons expired in 2004 and subsequent attempts to renew it have failed, and all states now allow citizens to carry concealed weapons. While the powerful gun lobby continues to defend the second amendment ''right to keep and bear arms'', it seems the rights and freedoms of others - of children, their teachers, worshippers, shoppers - to go about their business without fear of being gunned down are being increasingly put at risk.

While there are many responsible gun owners - for example recreational hunters, sports competitors and farmers - who have guns for legitimate reasons, it is clear those guns can end up in the wrong hands. And does the average citizen really need military-style assault weapons and huge ammunition stocks even for self-defence?

After the Aurora massacre in July, President Barack Obama called for a ''common sense'' approach to gun control that would prevent a ''mentally unbalanced individual'' from obtaining assault weapons. But he did not push for new gun laws, which are considered political dynamite. In the wake of the Connecticut killings, he has called for ''meaningful'' action ''regardless of politics'', but again gave no indication of what that action might be.

It is clear Obama's Democrats and the Republican-led House of Representatives must work together - and be prepared to make tough, unpopular decisions - if the issue has any hope of resolution. Principles, rights and traditions are not to be stamped on. But such democratic freedoms are no good to people who are not around to enjoy them. Traditions need to be considered in the context of the times. They - like many aspects of a culture - can evolve, and ''new'' traditions that still reflect a nation's or culture's hopes, expectations and dreams can be adopted. It is a simple fact that, without any changes, the horrific scenes will continue to be played out by unbalanced individuals with easy access to American ''weapons of mass destruction''.

All citizens should consider to what extent they are culpable in promoting or tolerating not just gun laws, but violence in any form, as well as examine their attitudes to and support of others. For while it is an individual's decision to pull the trigger, if the proverbial ''it takes a village to raise a child'' is correct, then society also contributes to the making of that individual - and the world in which they find themselves.

Re: Time overdue for gun law action

Your editorial questions whether the average citizen needs huge ammunition stocks.

Under Plan Change 13 earlier this year (see e.g. this ODT story), the Dunedin City Council increased the limit on the amount of ammunition allowed to be stored in a residence to 25kg NEQ (Nett Explosive Quantity, i.e. not counting the weight of lead and brass). Here is an example of what a 25kg limit actually means:

The .308 is one of several rifle calibres commonly used for shooting deer, pigs etc. in New Zealand. Various reloading references on the web (for those who assemble their own ammunition from shell casings, bullets, powder and primer) give powder weights of about 40 to 50 grains (2.6 to 3.2 grams) per .308 round. Also, weighing some commercial or 'factory load' .308 cartridges (in this case, a popular brand with 150-grain bullets) and subtracting the weight of the bullet and an empty (fired) casing gives a weight of powder plus primer of less than 4 grams.

Allowing a generous 4 grams of powder per round, a 25kg limit equates to 6,250 rounds.

That is, the new 25kg limit allows anyone with a firearms license to keep more than SIX THOUSAND rounds of .308 ammunition in their home.

Does that seem reasonable? 

Note that a .223 round, as used in the Connecticut massacre, is smaller and lighter than a .308 round, so the number of rounds would be higher.