Guns and culture in America

The massacre of little girls and boys six or seven years old is not likely to lead to new laws on gun controls.

Gwynne Dyer

Here’s an interesting statistic: the second-highest rate of gun ownership in the world is in Yemen, a largely tribal, extremely poor country. The highest is in the United States, where there are almost as many guns as people: around 300 million guns for 311 million people.

But here’s another interesting statistic: in the past 25 years, the proportion of Americans who own guns has fallen from about one in three to only one in five. However, the U.S., unlike Yemen, is a rich country, and the average American gun-owner has four or five firearms. Moreover, he or she is utterly determined to keep them no matter what happens.

What has just happened in Sandy Hook, Connecticut is the seventh massacre this year in which four or more people were killed by a lone gunman. The fact that this time 20 of the victims were little girls and boys six or seven years old has caused a wave of revulsion in the U.S., but it is not likely to lead to new laws on gun controls. It’s not even clear that new laws would help.

Half the firearms in the entire world are in the U.S. The rate of murders by gunfire in the U.S. is almost 20 times higher than the average rate in 22 other populous, high-income countries where the frequency of other crimes is about the same. There is clearly a connection between these two facts, but it is not necessarily simple cause-and-effect.

Here’s one reason to suspect that it’s not that simple: the American rate for murders of all kinds — shooting, strangling, stabbing, poisoning, pushing people under buses, etc. — is seven times higher than it is in those other 22 rich countries. It can’t just be guns.

Steven Pinker, whose book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is about the long-term decline in violence of every kind in the world, is well aware that murder rates have not fallen in the U.S. in the past century. (Most people don’t believe that violence is in decline anywhere, let alone almost everywhere. That’s why he wrote the book.) And Pinker suggests an explanation for the American exception.

In medieval Europe, where everybody from warlords to peasants was on his own when it came to defending his property, his rights and his “honour”, the murder rates were astronomically high: 110 people per 100,000 in 14th-century Oxford, for example. It was at least as high in colonial New England in the early 17th century.

By the mid-20th century, the murder rate in England had fallen more than a hundredfold: in London, it was less than one person per 100,000 per year. In most Western European countries it was about the same. Whereas the U.S. murder rate is still up around seven people per 100,000 per year. Why?

Pinker quotes historian Pieter Spierenburg’s provocative suggestion that “democracy came too early” to America. In European countries, the population was gradually disarmed by the centralised state as it put an end to feudal anarchy. Only much later, after people had already learned to trust the law to defend their property and protect them from violence, did democracy come to these countries.

This is also what has happened in most other parts of the world, although in many cases it was the colonial power that disarmed the people and instituted the rule of law. But in the U.S., where the democratic revolution came over two centuries ago, the people took over the state before they had been disarmed — and kept their weapons. They also kept their old attitudes.

None of this explains the specific phenomenon of gun massacres by deranged individuals, who are presumably present at the same rate in every country. It’s just that in the U.S., it’s easier for individuals like that to get access to rapid-fire weapons. And, of course, the intense media coverage of every massacre gives many other crazies an incentive to do the same, only more of it.

But only one in 300 murders in the U.S. happens in that kind of massacre. Most are simply due to quarrels between individuals, often members of the same family. Private acts of violence to obtain “justice”, with or without guns, are deeply entrenched in American culture, and the murder rate would stay extraordinarily high even if there were no guns.

Since there are guns everywhere, of course, the murder rate is even higher. But since the popular attitudes to violence have not changed, that is not going to change either.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.

Just Posted

Penalties sink Ice against Hurricanes

The Kootenay Ice lost 5-2 against the visiting Lethbridge Hurricanes on their Family Day Game

Crowds pack downtown core for Blitzville

Crowds flocked to the downtown Cranbrook core to take in the inaugural… Continue reading

Blades cut through Kootenay Ice 8-3

The Ice couldn’t come back against the Saskatoon Blades after an early three-goal deficit

Gord McArthur back in action from retirement

After eight years McArthur slew his kryptonite at the World Cup Ice Climbing tour in Switzerland

RDEK takes steps towards reducing carcass pit use

The first step towards addressing the issue of carcass pits in the… Continue reading

Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, resigns amid SNC-Lavalin furor

Butts categorically denies the accusation that he or anyone else in the PMO improperly pressured former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould

Lost a ring? This B.C. man will find it for you

Chris Turner founded The Ring Finders, an international directory of metal detector hobbyists

Poverty coalition has high hopes for B.C. poverty reduction strategy

Funding allocation expected to be released with 2019 budget

East Kootenay mine deaths prompt safety initiatives

Teck produces educational video, introduces new procedures after contractor drowns at Fording River

‘How did we get here?’: B.C. mom of transplant recipient worries about measles outbreaks

Addison, 7, cannot get a live vaccine because she has a heart transplant

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh calls for public inquiry over SNC-Lavalin questions

Vancouver member of Parliament Jody Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet last week

Canadian airlines waiting for guidance from Ottawa over X gender option

Major U.S. airlines said they will change their process so passengers can identify themselves along non-binary lines

Moose Hide campaign takes message to Canadian schools

Campaign launches new K-12 education platform

‘Violent’ B.C. man wanted on Canada-wide warrant

Prince George man with ties to Vernon sought by police

Most Read