By Alan Bean
America has a gun problem, but gun control legislation is too weak a fix; we need a 12-step program.
Since the tragic shootings in Newtown CT, we have been buried in a welter of statistics. Support for gun control is rising, we are told, but the polls vary as to the extent of the shift. We are reminded that 60% of men but only 39% of women favor gun rights over gun control, and that Republicans (72%) are more likely than Democrats (32%) to place the priority on gun rights.
Those inclined to dig deeper into the figures recently compiled by the Pew Research Center will discover that support for both gun rights and gay marriage has been advancing in recent years, a sign that libertarian arguments are impacting a wide range of issues.
The Pew study also shows that whites are twice as likely as African Americans or Latinos to value gun rights over gun control. Moreover, white opinion changed radically in the wake of the election of Barack Obama. In 2007, 37% of white Americans valued gun rights over gun control; the figure is now 57%. White opinion on the gun issue flip-flopped in the space of four years.
Americans are far more likely to own guns than anyone else on the planet. Here in the USA, 88.8 out of 100 people own at least one gun, that’s almost one firearm per person. In Canada, the rate is 30.8, in Germany its 30.3, and in France its 31.2. But in most of the world, the rate of gun ownership is exceedingly low: (Mexico 15, Australia 15, Denmark 12, Israel, 7.3, England 6.2, Afghanistan 4.6, the Netherlands 3.9, Romania .7). In North America, Americans own guns at three times the rate of Canadians and six times the rate of Mexicans.
Americans are also far more likely to use firearms to kill people. In the United States the homicide by firearm rate is 3.2 per 100,000 per year. In the rest of the developed world, the rate varies between 0.0 in Japan (where only 11 homicides were recorded last year) and Belgium at 0.7. In Canada, the rate is 0.5, less than one-sixth the American rate.
These numbers can be misleading. As Adam Winkler points out in his book Gunfight, American deaths via firearm are generally related to suicide (there is nothing so sure as a bullet to the brain if you are desperate to leave this world) and gang violence. Fifty-seven percent of American suicides involve guns. The next highest percentage comes from Switzerland (28%), but in Canada it’s only 19% and in England, where gun ownership rates are particularly low, the rate is only 2.8%. So the availability of firearms clearly correlates to high rates of suicide via gun. Women are twice as likely as men to attempt suicide as men, but only half as likely to be successful; the reason: suicidal males are more inclined to employ guns.
Black males are currently six times as likely as white males to use guns to commit murder. Part of the explanation is that gang membership rates are unusually high in minority communities. National figures suggest that 50% of gang members are Latino, approximately 35% are African American and only 10% are white.
But gang culture varies by region and culture. As David Kennedy argues in his book, Don’t Shoot, gun violence is endemic in many inner city neighborhoods. Hip Hop culture both reflects this trend and, in some cases, encourages it. Kennedy argues that most of the shooting is perpetrated by a small number of gang leaders who enjoy the thrill of gun violence. This forces other gang members to arm themselves in self-defense and ensures that when gang members disagree over turf and trade issues, as they inevitably do, gun play is part of the resolution.
But Kennedy points out that most of the killing in these neighborhoods is over minor beefs and is driven more by machismo than the economic and social realities of street life. Most gang members, Kennedy believes, would lay down their guns yesterday if they felt safe. But they don’t.
In Gun Fight, Adam Winkler argues that Americans value guns more for protection than for sport. The more guns some people own, the safer they feel. Although membership figures are not available, the crowds flocking to NRA conventions suggest the organization’s membership is overwhelmingly white, male and Republican.
There can be no doubt that shooters interested in killing as many people as possible as quickly as possible have a fondness for semiautomatic weapons and enormous ammunition clips. This doesn’t mean that semiautomatic weapons are more lethal than ordinary handguns. With most modern firearms, one bullet is fired each time the trigger is compressed. The appeal of semiautomatic firearms is more symbolic than practical. Many of these weapons are designed to resemble combat weapons such as the M-16. They don’t spray dozens of bullets per second, but they look as if they could.
If young black males are more likely to use guns to settle street beefs, white males have been responsible for most of the mass shootings in America. And Americans have a frightening proclivity for mass shootings. Ezra Klein points out that fifteen of the 25 worst mass shootings in the past fifty years took place right here in the United States of America. The only other country to make the top 25 more than once was Finland, with two mass shootings.
What can we learn from this tangle of fact? First, supporters of gun rights rarely use their weapons for criminal purposes although the presence of firearms increases the likelihood that domestic issues will end in violence.
Secondly, street violence and mass shootings are separate problems that tend to involve different segments of society. Street violence disproportionately affects poor African American communities and is intimately related to gang activity. Mass shootings disproportionately involve white male loners. This helps explain why African Americans and Latinos are far more likely than whites to support strong gun control measures—minorities are more likely to be personally impacted by the horror of gun violence, and poverty radically enhances the chances of being the victim of a random shooting. If you live in the suburbs, gun violence is more related to fantasy than reality.
But fantasy is part of the problem. Conservatives point to the prevalence of gun violence in American entertainment, especially movies and video games. Mass shooters tend to see themselves as characters in a video game or a war movie. Massive exposure to graphic depictions of violence desensitize us to the real thing and, I suspect, faux violence sometimes creates an appetite for the genuine article. Shooters like Adam Lanza take their cues from the world in which they are immersed.
The racial dynamics of the gun debate are generally handled superficially. It’s hard to talk about this stuff without offending somebody. But as Adam Winkler points out in Gun Fight, white support for both gun control and gun rights has been energized by fear of the dangerous black man. In the 1960s, urban riots and the emergence of the Black Panthers made white Americans determined to limit access to firearms. In the 1980s and 90s, with gun violence soaring in America’s poorest neighborhoods, white people bought guns for personal protection.
In the process, purchasing a gun, especially a gun with a particularly lethal appearance, became a symbolic way for white males to alleviate their irrational fear of the dangerous black man. The fear was generally irrational. Gang bangers almost always kill each other. If a stray bullet takes the life of an innocent passerby, the victim almost always lives in the same neighborhood as the shooter.
Homicide rates have been falling rapidly in recent years, but white people continue to take their cues from movies, cop shows, video games and the commercial side of Hip Hop culture where stylized gun violence, reduced to an art form, is always on the upswing.
We have a problem with mass shooting because guns are far more available in America than in any other country. But it goes deeper than that: gun violence has become a fetish among us. Our celebration of guns and our faith in redemptive violence create an atmosphere in which alienated, mentally disturbed loners get lost in fantasies of violence.
Jesus preached non-violence. The civil rights movement took Jesus at his word and a nation was transformed. Tragically, the philosophy of non-violence that spread from Jesus to Tolstoy to Gandhi to the American civil rights movement died in Memphis along with Martin Luther King. The movement driven by non-violence was a spent force.
Modest, sensible gun control can’t ensure that the Sandy Hook outrage never happens again, but it can make the military-style semiautomatic weapons favored by mass killers less accessible. More importantly, it will signal that Americans take non-violence seriously as a moral virtue. American evangelicals betray their Savior when they celebrate America’s sordid love affair with weaponry. We can’t anticipate the coming of the Christ child unless we return to the non-violent way proclaimed by the Prince of Peace.
Secondly, we must move beyond the ritual denunciation of gun violence in poor communities where the drug trade is the only sign of economic activity. If we want to bring American homicide rates in line with other developed nations we must create meaningful work and opportunity for the caste of excluded and alienated young men who live in virtual war zones. Prison should be reserved for truly violent individuals; there are more compassionate and practical ways to deal with young men who carry guns because they live in mortal fear.
The libertarians are right about one thing: the best single way to reduce gun violence is to end the war on drugs. Unfortunately, the libertarian movement has little interest in the common good or the creation of morally-rooted community. Mass shootings and gang shootings reveal a sick culture. Gun control legislation that respects the Second Amendment rights is a step in the right direction, but gun control can’t fix our culture problem.
American has a gun problem. Legislative remedies won’t go deep enough. We need a 12-step program. We need a revival.