Gun Violence: Russia's Dichotomy

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Here in the US today, thoughts turned to the colonists who came here and their right to defend themselves, a right they enshrined in the 2nd Amendment of the US Constitution. And that's because today, President Obama unveiled his proposals to curb gun violence.

Barack Obama: This is our first task as a society—keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged.

Werman: The president was speaking at the White House before a crowd, including parents of some of the children slain in Newtown, CT a month ago. He called on Congress to, among other things, reinstate the ban on military style assault weapons. And he signed a number of executive orders to strengthen existing gun regulations. Obama also said America is the land of the free and always will be,

Obama: But we've also long recognized as our founders recognized, that with rights come responsibilities. Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same. We don't live in isolation. We live in a society, a government of, and by and for the people. We are responsible for each other.

Werman: American is not the only nation with a problem of violence. Russia has a problem too, with a twist. Earlier today I spoke with Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. Weir says Russia's laws on guns are pretty tough.

Fred Weir: They are extremely tight. I mean just to obtain a hunting rifle is something of a bureaucratic nightmare. Handguns are completely illegal, I mean private ownership of them, but like a lot of things in Russia, the law is formal. The police enforce it very stringently on the law abiding, but the criminal underworld runs amuck and there's a black market in guns…and you never see criminals without automatic weapons. And so Russia is not a very good example to compare with the United States. It is a country where law in general tends to be really tough and doesn't work.

Werman: So you say handguns are completely illegal and yet the homicide rate in Russia is about twice that of the United States. So what proportion of those homicides in Russia are gun related?

Weir: Not very many, figures are not available for that, but Russia is a very violent society. Most of the murders here are the result of domestic disputes and so on and the weapons tend to be kitchen utensils, and axes, and things like that, not guns. The Russian's is a really complex society, extremely violent under the surface and I don't think most of that has to do anything to do with gun control or the lack of it.

Werman: So Russia is often touted by NRA types as an example of how a state becomes totalitarian when its population is disarmed. What would Russians say about that?

Weir: Oh, I don't think, I don't think they'd understand that point. This is a peculiarly American thing. You know, Russian autocracy I believe is about a thousand years old. It predates the existence of guns. It's an interesting argument about how states become authoritarian and totalitarian, but I don't think Russians would entertain the argument that it's the lack of private gun ownership.

Werman: So if you have a handgun n Russia does that necessarily mean that somehow or another that was obtained through the underworld?

Weir: I think so, unless you're a police officer, or one of these paramilitary types who have official status, or a security guard. I mean there are a lot of armed people that you encounter on the streets of Moscow who have some sort of official or semi official status, not just handguns, but Kalashnikov rifles and so. Even supermarket security guards tend to be heavily armed. So there are a lot of guns around, but not in private hands. And the average citizen wouldn't know how to get one.

Werman: Fred, for you, what's the one takeaway message for US lawmakers from Russia's relationship to guns? I mean what would it be?

Weir: I think, I think Americans when they debate this subject don't recognize or admit that they are also an extremely violent society. I'm personally Canadian and the murder rate in the United States if seven times what it is in Canada, never mind what kind of weapons people choose to do it with. The United States is an extremely violent society and their way of expressing it is with guns. Russia is an extremely violent society in its way. Other societies like Canada, and Britain and so on are way less violent, so it's not mainly about guns.

Werman: It's about the violence and how you deal with the violence and limit it.

Weir: It's about the culture of violence that seems to be endemic and societies are very, very different. Yeah, hard to compare them.

Werman: Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor speaking with us from Russia. Thank you so much.

Weir: My pleasure.