America’s gun problem goes beyond mass shootings

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The recent mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead, has renewed debate around America’s epidemic of gun violence. Anti-gun campaigners and prominent Democrat lawmakers have called for a greater regulation of so called “assault” weapons such as the semi-automatic AR-15 used by the Parkland shooter. Others, including President Donald Trump, have suggested arming teachers to counter the tide of school massacres. While both of these arguments sound like simple solutions, neither of them come close to addressing the grim reality of the country’s relationship with firearms.

The United States has the world’s highest gun homicide rate amongst high-income countries, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with over 11,000 murders or manslaughters attributed to firearms in 2014. Crucially, however, only a tiny minority of these killings take place during mass shootings.

According to FBI data, Americans are far more likely to be murdered with a handgun than the semi-automatic rifles which have formed the focus of recent debate, with handguns being used in around two-thirds of all firearm murders in 2016. Meanwhile, handguns are far cheaper and more easily accessible than their larger cousins, available for as little as $200, and few American policymakers would dare suggest this be curtailed. Nevertheless, the reality is that regulations against “assault” weapons and rifles would do little to dent America’s increasing rate of firearms murders.

These figures also ignore the fact that the vast majority of gun deaths in the United States – almost two thirds – are the result of suicide. Of the 33,594 people who were killed by firearms in 2014, 21,386 deaths were cases of suicide, according to CDC data. This represents around half of all recorded suicides in the United States, and it’s a rate which has risen consistently over the last few years.

Between 2007 and 2014, the rate of teenagers and children killing themselves with firearms increased by 60 per cent, according to evidence from CDC. Another study reported in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that the ballooning suicide rates were being driven by easy access to firearms, particularly in the more heavily armed rural areas where suicides were an average of 35 per cent higher.

Considering the weight of statistical evidence, it seems obvious that America doesn’t have a school shooting problem, or a rifle problem – it has a gun problem. Armed teachers would have done little to prevent the deaths of 58 people at a concert in Las Vegas last year, and a ban on assault weapons would not have saved the thousands of people murdered by handguns, nor the tens of thousands who took their own lives.

Anti-gun campaigners face a formidable challenge ahead, as the National Rifle Association wield all their political might (including a $3m lobbying budget) to oppose even the most forgiving firearms regulations. However, if any progress is to be made in reducing America’s plague of gun violence, the true scale of the problem must first be recognised.

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The EU is an ideal worth fighting for

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The European Union, or the EU as it’s known in the common vernacular, is a long way from perfect. Only a few weeks ago, I was genuinely unsure of which way I would vote in the coming referendum. It’s become easy to view the EU as an unaccountable morass of bureaucrats and excessive regulations, controlling our taxes, our borders, and our currency without very much oversight. As a body, it’s in desperate need of democratisation, and the recent treatment of Greece has highlighted that the EU is all too eager to intervene in domestic economies.

It’s understandable, therefore, why so many people from across the political spectrum are fed up with the EU – I have numerous concerns about its structure and practices. But despite all this, and more, I’ve already sent off my postal vote to remain. It’s not a decision I took lightly, but it has become my thorough conviction that the EU is an ideal worth fighting for.

My vote has little to do with the scare tactics and statistical gibberish that has been thrown at us by both sides in the referendum campaign, a period which has been bombarded with a series of huge and altogether meaningless figures; if we left the EU, Britain could apparently be better off by £350 million a week, although every household would allegedly lose out on £4,300 a year. Likewise, we would have more money for the NHS, or less, and wages could either fall or shoot up.

If the economic consensus is anything to go by, there would of course be a detrimental short term effect; it’s likely that we would suffer a fresh recession, a fall in the value of sterling, and a hit to house prices. Whatever the reality, however, this isn’t a debate that is going to be won on economics. Not only have people increasingly lost faith in economic authority and the status quo throughout the last decade, but there are issues of sovereignty and national identity at play which are, arguably, more essential to the long term future of this country. Indeed, for many, including myself, the neo-liberal economic program propagated by the EU is enough reason to consider a vote to leave. Although an exit may involve a rude awakening, I don’t believe that the UK would be unable to survive outside of the EU; a little reduced in stature, perhaps, but an independent Britain would not be a calamitous outcome.

So what is it about the EU that has me clinging on by my fingernails? Fundamentally, it represents a framework for international cooperation. Whether it’s climate change, security, trade, or the maintenance of peace, the EU provides a structure within which we can work together toward a common goal, and that has to be a good thing. Progress is rarely achieved through nationalism and a retreat into ourselves, and that’s why we should be fighting for an internationalist, democratic Europe.

The EU also provides an essential break on the powers of national governments. There was once a time when much of Europe was in the thrall of various dictatorial regimes, not least the Eastern bloc under the Soviet Union. Today the EU provides its member states with a number of guarantees on civil liberties, including democracy, workers’ rights, freedom of speech, a free press, and the right to a fair trial. I, for one, have more faith in the EU to uphold these values than I do our current Conservative government , and such protections have become more important than ever with rise of a hard-right, nationalist clique across European politics. To abandon the EU would be to abandon our dedication to these binding principles.

Nevertheless, it really isn’t a surprise that the ongoing debate in this country has failed to inspire the masses – much of the remain campaign has focussed on the economic risks of leaving Europe, while the trump card of the opposition is taking back control of our immigration policy. Both of these arguments ignore the tremendous good that the EU does in ensuring social and political security for its members. If the remain side wishes to win this debate, they must make a positive argument for the EU, not only as an economically beneficial arrangement, but as an internationalist principle. If you can’t convince voters to believe in a united Europe, then none of the economic fearmongering in the world is going to convince them to stay.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that much of Britain’s heightened status derives from our membership of the EU. Our position within the world’s largest trading block not only makes us an attractive prospect for foreign investment, but a magnet for many of the world’s most skilled workers and professionals. Leaving the EU would not only stunt our political leverage on the world stage, but harm our continued growth at home. Perhaps EU regulation may feel somewhat stringent at times, but it has undeniably brought great fortune.

For all its achievements, few would argue that the EU is ideal in its current form. Much more needs to be done to make people feel like their representatives in Brussels are listening to them, particularly on the controversial policy of free movement. However, the globalised reality of today’s world is not something to be ignored, nor shied away from. As European nations become more interdependent, we must fight for a continent that goes forward in a spirit of friendship and solidarity, not splintering into any number of nativist shells. The British have often led the world in the battle for democracy and civil rights – it remains our duty to stay and fight for the traditions that we hold dear. Otherwise we run the risk of rapidly making ourselves an irrelevance, feeding only on the scraps that fall from the big table.

An interview with Andy Burnham MP

In my capacity as a section editor for Exeter University’s student newspaper, Exeposé, I was recently afforded the opportunity to meet the Shadow Home Secretary, Andy Burnham MP. The full interview was first made available here on the Exeposé website, where you’ll also find some of my other work for the publication. For the sake of convenience and posterity, the full interview can also be found below. 

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Acting casual outside Exeter Cathedral
Andy Burnham’s 15 years as an MP have not been uneventful. Serving as both Culture and Health Secretary under the premiership of Gordon Brown, Andy has been consistently at the frontline of the Labour party. Since September, he’s been the only one of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership rivals to accept a position in his shadow cabinet, working opposite Theresa May as Shadow Home Secretary. In his own words, “not bad for a runner up.”

When I met Andy in Exeter, he was in conversation with Keith Owen, the Exeter Labour Party spokesman for Anti-Social Behaviour. Dressed characteristically well in a navy suit, he appeared animated as he discussed Exeter’s problems concerning homelessness and disorderly behaviour, even questioning me on the late-night habits of Exeter’s student body.

Following a tour of the town centre, Andy and I perched on a wall by the Cathedral for an interview. It was a peculiarly peaceful setting in which to interrogate a Shadow Secretary of State, as gentle flute music emanated from a nearby street musician.

With the EU referendum fast approaching, it was impossible to escape the question of immigration. Last year at the annual Labour conference, Andy swore that he was “on a mission” to win back voters from UKIP, claiming that free movement within the EU had “benefited private companies more than people and communities”. I asked him to recall this speech, and if he thought that Labour had done enough to reassure voters’ concerns on immigration.

“Getting there,” he started. “The point I continually make is that it’s not helpful for us to talk in very generic terms about immigration; it’s either purely a good thing or it’s purely a bad thing, as the debate tends to go in Westminster and in the media. My argument is that it has a differential impact in different areas. In former industrial areas like [Leigh], the one I represent, it’s had quite an adverse impact at times, in that it has put pressure on public services and has led to undercutting of wages.”

Nevertheless, the Shadow Minster asserted that he remains “positive about free movement overall,” but that alongside this positivity we should be “very much addressing those practical issues.” These comments appear to reflect a wider effort by the Labour party to shift the debate around immigration, focusing more on the pressures on infrastructure, regulations, and wages.

“For too long London commentators have spoken about it without giving due regard to the poorest places, where the impact is often felt most strongly, and yet the issues of those places don’t get the same airtime or hearing and it kind of makes them feel neglected.” In the face of the anti-immigration rhetoric dominating the EU campaign, it remains to be seen whether this approach will strike a chord with the voting public.

Since his appointment in the shadow cabinet, Andy has repeatedly clashed horns with his opposite number in the government, notably on the subject of policing. In light of this, I pressed Burnham on how Labour policy would dramatically differ from the current government’s plans. He started by condemning Conservative cuts to the police budget, stating that ultimately “there’s a point where the cuts are really damaging to community wellbeing, and I think we’ve hit that point and probably gone past it now.” His response to the issue was primarily one of funding; “Jeremy [Corbyn] and John McDonnell have made it clear that they won’t accept the Cameron/Osborne austerity drive. It’s gone too far, so we would have different spending plans that protect public services, and particularly protect the police.”

However, one area in which the Shadow Home Secretary has found common ground with May, at least in principle, is on the so-called “Snooper’s Charter.” Formally known as the “Draft Investigatory Powers Bill,” the legislation has been criticised as both an infringement upon personal privacy and insufficient in meeting the targeted needs of the Police; Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties group Liberty, asserted that “The powers were too broad, safeguards too few and crucial investigatory powers entirely missing.”

Would these broad surveillance powers really help the police in efforts to prevent and deter serious crime? At first Andy seemed somewhat evasive, “What we’ve seen in the last 10, 15, 20 years is crime migrating from more traditional forms of communication to the digital world, and obviously the law hasn’t kept pace with that.”

However, whilst asserting that “a law is needed,” he explicitly distanced himself from what the government is currently proposing: “Please don’t take from this that I just buy lock, stock, and barrel what Theresa May is saying. I don’t, I’m challenging her quite vigorously on a whole number of issues.” He specifically mentioned internet connection records, and strengthening the “Judicial double lock” to ensure that judges have the full ability to scrutinise decisions made by the Home Secretary before warrants are approved. “There’s a whole range of issues that we’re challenging the government on pretty hard.”

In recent years, many communities in the UK have become increasingly alienated from the people who police their neighbourhoods. In this context, I queried what could be done to restore public trust in the Police as an institution. “I think that faith has been knocked a bit in recent times, hasn’t it, with some of the revelations that we’ve seen about Rotherham. In my case I’ve worked with the Hillsborough families, and then in London or other cities you get concerns amongst  the black and Asian communities about stop and search. The Muslim community right now, I think, is feeling very alienated with respect to the Prevent agenda. That is a very big question, and I think the police have to continue to undergo a journey of reform with respect to accountability.”

Indeed, for Andy it was primarily an issue of accountability. “I’m proposing a whole series of amendments to the Policing and Crime Bill that’s before the Commons now to strengthen the role of the IPCC [Independent Police Complaints Commission], giving them more independence, more teeth. I’m trying to change the position around police misconduct and the ability of police officers to evade misconduct by retiring on ill health. There are lots of ways that police accountability is not as strong as it should be, and so we need to see a continued package of reforms to make police services more accountable to local people.”

Following this up, I enquired if Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) can play a role in improving police answerability, and diminishing its reputation as a closed shop. “I think it’s still a bit of an open question, whether they’re making a difference.” He singled out a number of Labour PCCs who he said have been notably successful: “I’m thinking of Vera Baird up in the North East, or Tony Lloyd in Manchester, or David Jameson in Birmingham.”

In broader strokes, however, he argued that the picture was less clear. “I think elsewhere they’ve probably been less effective, so it’s patchy right now. I think overall they’re a step towards more accountability and in the end that’s got to be a good thing.”

Andy became particularly emotive when he again raised Hillsborough, an issue on which he has campaigned forcefully throughout his career. Since this interview, fans were exonerated following an inquest ruling. “The issue I’ve dealt with most is Hillsborough. If a certain newspaper were to do that again tomorrow, i.e. tell lies on its front page about traumatised victims of a tragedy, which is what it was, they still couldn’t get a front page apology.”

He continued, “So IPSO’s not good enough, and they’ve abandoned in my area this whole idea of Leveson 2, which was about a second stage inquiry looking into the relationship between the police and the media. So on every level, the government has failed the victims of press intrusion, they have gone back to their old ways of cosying up to the media establishment.”

With time running out, I asked Andy a final question on the topic of press freedom and regulation. At first he smiled wryly when I raised the recent controversy surrounding Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, but he quickly adopted a more serious tone when asked if the government has done enough to implement the recommendations of Leveson. “No, definitely not. Promises were made to the victims of press intrusion, around costs of pursuing libel actions, around the quality of the regulator. I think we’ve got a completely toothless and pathetic press regulator.”

Whilst avoiding a suggestion of misconduct on the part of Whittingdale, Andy refused to hold back when criticising the government. “I don’t have any evidence that it’s linked to the Culture Secretary, in terms of his private life, I wouldn’t make that allegation. I think it’s more a case of, politically, they’re not minded to take a tough decision in the public interest, and I think it’s disgraceful.”

So what does all this tell us about Andy Burnham MP? Throughout our time together, he seemed in good spirits, but he was at his most enthused when discussing the issues that have affected individual people. Press intrusion, the Hillsborough enquiry, and cuts to public services; these are the topics that seem to drive him to make a difference. With the Labour Party in an ongoing state of recovery, it may be an uncertain road to the next general election, but the Shadow Home Secretary appears optimistic.

Pomp and Circumstance: The Question of the English Anthem

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Five flags, four anthems.

Recently there’s growing interest in the concept of an exclusively English national anthem. This campaign has been fermenting for a while, growing from the continued discrepancy of English teams singing the British anthem, God Save the Queen, at sporting events, while all other constituents of the Union have adopted their own song. While I don’t usually have much time for this sort of shallow nationalism (it seems like a bigger discrepancy to me that the United Kingdom still insists on fielding several separate teams), proponents of the change have been making some progress of late; Toby Perkins, the Labour MP for Chesterfield, has put forward an “English National Anthem Bill” to the House of Commons, and he’s had considerable support from both colleagues and the wider public. So if England is to have its own anthem, what should it be?

The consensus in many quarters seems to be Jerusalem; a nineteenth century poem by William Blake with music added by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916. It’s already used by the English Rugby and Cricket teams, while campaign groups “England in my Heart” and “Anthem 4 England” (bear with me) have suggested this song as the most popular choice in polls. Now I’m going to go against the grain here, but I think Jerusalem is absolutely dreadful.

I’ll admit it’s not a song I have much affinity with; I was forced to sing it at Annual Labour Conference last year, spending most of the time mumbling and looking for a spare lyrics sheet. It’s dreary little tune, with zero relevance to modern life or what it actually means to be English. Let’s just take a look at the lyrics, with a few annotations of my own:

And did those feet in ancient time,

Walk upon England’s mountains green: No.

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On England’s pleasant pastures seen! No.

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills? No.

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills? No.

See what I mean? It suffers from much the same problems as God Save the Queen (a debate for another day). It’s full of uncomfortably Christian overtones and its imagery conjures an archaic version of England than never really existed, much less remains relevant today. And I understand it’s supposed to be a metaphor, but it would be quite absurd for our national anthem to be the name of a disputed city in the Middle East.

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Jerusalem, Palestine/Israel. A quintessentially English landscape.

So if not Jerusalem, what else? A few other songs have been suggested; Land of Hope and Glory, or My Country, I Vow to Thee, for example, but none of these are ideal, if you’re really honest with yourself. They’re all just a bit dull, and when the world cup rolls around we’d still be a joke compared to the French, who, despite everything else, have an anthem that really grabs you by the balls.

Furthermore, when considering the rich cultural history of twentieth century England, it seems foolish sticking to songs that are a hundred years old or more. England has changed beyond recognition since the days of “Dark Satanic Mills”, so perhaps it’s time we had an anthem to reflect that. Toby Perkins has even suggested that an “X-Factor style” competition could be held to elect an original composition, which sounds like a great idea until you remember what The X-Factor is actually like. Of course, Black Magic by Little Mix probably resonates more deeply with the youth of today that Jerusalem ever could, so maybe he is onto something there.

Although a lot of time and effort has been and will be spent in the campaign to make an English anthem a reality, we have to bear in mind that it’s unlikely to have much of an impact beyond the first two minutes of the odd football game. Perhaps it’d be for the best if we just went for The Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and called the whole thing quits. If there’s a song that better represents seventy years of managed decline, I’d like to hear it.