Capital punishment will not stop gun violence

Aug 22, 2019

It is perhaps understandable that in their anger and grief, people who have lost loved ones in gun violence call for the perpetrators to be executed. It is however, inappropriate for political leaders to pretend that capital punishment is an effective way to deal with the issue. It is little more than a diversionary tactic to forestall the adoption of policies that might prevent shootings.

Capital punishment is wrong in principle. States do not have any right to take life. They might use deadly force to defend their populations in times of conflict but someone who has committed a serious crime and is now in custody presents no threat to society. Some politicians seem unable to grasp the paradox in the idea that the state should kill people to demonstrate that killing is wrong. Capital punishment does not deter crime. It is little more than vigilantism and vengeance or as one Australian parliamentarian aptly described it, ‘state sponsored murder’..

Most members of the UN have banned executions, as have many states in the USA. Analysis of the incidence of capital punishment suggests that executions are disproportionately applied to the poor, the illiterate, to coloured people and the socially disadvantaged generally. It has been unjust in application. Execution also obviously prevents the possibility of rehabilitation.

Most states which have abandoned the death penalty recognise that the process actually caused harm to them. By killing its citizens, a state violates the principles on which it is founded. And apart from being morally indefensible, capital punishment is an ugly business which taints forever those who carry it out. It also makes culpable the rest of society on whose behalf the system kills.

In the most recent example of the hypocrisy surrounding the issue, the US President added his voice to calls for the execution of the man responsible for the recent mass shooting in Texas. The authorities have described the killings as an act of domestic terrorism. In some places, this description of a crime makes legal the application of capital punishment.

Clearly calls to execute criminals come far too late. US policy makers and legislators should address this epidemic of violence as a matter of urgency. Currently they are failing in their responsibility to protect US citizens and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they do so because they lack the necessary political will and courage. From outside the USA, it looks very much as though the National Rifle Association has blood on its hands.

That President Trump does not choke on his words when discussing these incidents seems amazing to Australian observers not directly affected by his behaviour. Hate speech, racism and bigotry seem to have flourished following Trump’s random mutterings. A siege mentality based in negative patriotism stimulates anyone who thinks they have a grievance to attack the vulnerable.

And overlying this volatile situation is the ready availability of firearms. White supremacist fantasists can act out their delusions without any external constraints, self-discipline or other moderating influences. The claim about some mythical right to bear arms becomes an argument for the perpetuation of horror. Nothing short of cleaning out the firearms will save the US from more such incidents. The very availability and possession of weapons invites massacres by convincing these psychopaths that they are just normal Americans.

The depth of the problem is systemic and cultural. A reporter in El Paso said that Democrat Joe Biden was very critical of Trump’s response to the shootings. Unfortunately, the reporter said that Biden gave Trump ‘both barrels’. The discourse around the issue is captive to a mind set which is oblivious to its own extremism.

When President Trump was elected three years ago, many Americans tried to find solace by arguing that this was not really who they were. There might well be two countries in the USA but the one in power which makes decisions on trade and foreign policy affecting billions of people worldwide is failing dismally to demonstrate any leadership on the issue of domestic terrorism. The US should really clean up its own house before projecting its power globally.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.

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