By Chris Hofstader
Since Newtowne, I have found myself in the strange position of trying to explain the thought process behind America’s love affair with guns. In no way do I condone or agree with many assertions made by Americans who argue in favor of gun ownership but, by trying to explain what these people believe, I’ve been accused of having some sort of secret pro-gun agenda. Frankly, I had never really looked into the issue too closely.
I don’t own any guns but I will admit that I have enjoyed firing handguns at a range a couple of times. I find it quite thrilling to safely have an explosion go off in my hands. In this situation, firing my friend Tellis’ .44 Magnum revolver with its huge bang reminds one of having a very personal fireworks display. I would happily never fire a gun again if they were banned. Sure, it was fun a couple of times but I really have no great desire to do it again.
Wikipedia, the lazy blogger’s favorite research tool, has an article, “List of countries by intentional homicide rate” which lists more than 200 different countries and the number of murders per year per 100,000 deaths. Based upon media coverage, one might assume that the United States leads the pack but little El Salvador holds that honor with 90 murders per 100k. The United States, with our 300 million guns, falls near the bottom of the list with 4.2 but our friends in Canada and Europe all seem to have rates under 2 per 100k with nations like Sweden, Denmark and Norway having rates less than 1 peer 100,000.
Another Wikipedia article, “Number of Guns Per Capita Per Country,” shows that the United States has the most guns in civilian hands, by almost double, than any other nation on Earth. Oddly, though, Switzerland, Finland and Sweden, with tiny rates of homicide all have more than .30 guns per capita in their citizen’s hands. The United States has more than 3 times as many guns as were on the streets in 1980 but its murder rate has dropped dramatically in the same time.
With some nations that have a lot of guns having small murder rates, and the US with the most guns in the world having a relatively low murder rate we come to the question do guns really make for more homicide. Sadly, the data, at this level of investigation, seems to be inconclusive and somewhat contradictory. Why would Switzerland, with .45 guns per capita have a murder rate (0.7 per 100,000) lower than that of England and Wales (1.2 per 100,000) where there are only .062 guns per capita if, in fact, guns were the cause of the violence? The US has more than ten times the rate of gun ownership than England and Wales but four times the murder rate – the guns may play a role but exactly how is difficult to tease out of the data.
Given the data on the total number of guns per capita and the associated murder rate, one could suggest that having more guns in the US is responsible for the drop in our murder rate. While there is no data that demonstrates that this correlation is in fact a causal relationship, there are people in the US making this claim. They assert, quoting The Clash, “If they kick at your front door, how you gonna come? With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun?” and believe that criminals in America are more afraid to invade homes because the people living there may have a gun. I don’t know any junkies who work out the statistics on getting shot before they break into a home to steal your DVR and hock it to buy more smack. ”
, The International Crime Victims Survey, conducted by Leiden University in Holland, found that England and Wales ranked second overall in violent crime among industrialized nations. Twenty-six percent of English citizens — have been victimized by violent crime. Australia led the list with more than 30 percent of its population victimized while the US didn’t make the top ten list among nations with similar governments and economic status.
Thus, the US has a murder rate four times of that of England and Wales but it has less violence. Perhaps, this is where the gun makes the difference. It is possible, in my opinion, that having so many guns in the hands of private citizens may not make the US more violent but it makes Americans into more efficient killers. If we had fewer guns, we might just beat people up, like they do in Australia and UK but not kill them as we do in the US. I find these statistics especially interesting as they seem to demonstrate that Americans are, in fact, less violent but more likely to kill.
The US Bureau of Justice Statistics published data on which weapons were used in homicides in an article called “Homicide Trends in the United States.” The most recent year surveyed in this article was 2005 and it tells us that, of 16,692 murders in that year the weapons used were: handguns: 8478, other guns: 2868, knife: 2147, blunt object: 671 and all other weapons combined: 2528. So, of nearly 17,000 homicides in 2005, 11346 or 68% were committed with firearms.
Meanwhile, ForensicMed.co.uk reports that, for the same period the British Crime Survey states that of 1,184,702 violent crimes, only 859 were homicides while, according to the FBI, the US had a total of 1,390,695 violent crimes with nearly 17,000 homicides. The UK Office for National Statistics reported that “the most common method used for homicide is a knife or sharp instrument (approximately 40% of homicides) for both men and women. The second most common method for males victims was punching or kicking, for female victims it was strangulation. IF Adjusted on a per capita basis, this gives England and Wales nearly five times the rate of violence but a mere fraction of the killings. This wild discrepancy can possibly be partially explained by differences in how the data was gathered in the different countries but it also seems to imply that Americans are less violent but more deadly and, perhaps, that the guns make violent incidents more likely to become a murder than when one is stabbed, punched or kicked. I cannot find statistics on the rate of surviving a violent crime split out by weapon but I would assume that one is more likely to survive a stabbing or beating than a shooting.
Keir Liddle, editor of 21st Floor, suggested on Twitter that Americans love of guns may be the result of following an “ancient” document. By this, he meant the US Constitution, which is old but is also a living document used to provide the basic governance of the United States. While some Americans do have a religious obsession with the documents left by our founding fathers including the constitution, it is not an immutable work but, rather, is interpreted by the US Supreme COurt numerous times per year and, occasionally, amended by a vote of two thirds of the fifty states. The US Constitution is not a philosophical document followed because of faith but, instead, it is the law of the land and, whether we like it or not, it can only be changed through an intentionally cumbersome amendment process.
There does seem to be a trend in the US toward a sort of fundamentalism based on highly cherry picked writings of America’s founding fathers. These people love to remind us that the founding fathers included the 2nd amendment, the one that grants the right to bear arms, as a protection against their own power as a government. They neglect to recall that Benjamin Franklin, one of our most prominent founding fathers, also wrote that the 2nd amendment should be reconsidered every twenty years to determine if it was still a necessity – these twenty year evaluations have never happened and, certainly, American citizens are no longer under a threat of attack from a foreign army and, given 225 years of peaceful, democratic transitions of power, we aren’t under threat from our government either., .
The first ten amendments to the US Constitution are called “The Bill of Rights” and include rights to free expression, assembly, worship and lots of other good things. Regarding guns, we have the second amendment which reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The crafters of the US Constitution included this for two reasons: first, if the populace has firearms, it will be really hard for the King of England to send an army to overthrow our government, something people were pretty scared of back then. The second reason was to prevent our own government from having too much power over its people. Ostensibly, the crafters of the constitution felt that an armed populace could keep a government from oppressing its people but couldn’t imagine a government with firepower that it has today.
Over the years, the US Supreme Court has effectively given the states the ability to regulate guns and gun sales as they see fit. As there are no inspections or customs at state borders, one can easily acquire a gun in a state like Virginia and, in about four hours, drive it to New York. Virginia has wide open gun availability but New YOrk does not.
Most states do require some sort of background check before one can purchase a weapon. Unfortunately, US federal law prohibits regulation of “unlicensed” gun sales. This means that anyone, a violent felon or someone interested in target shooting, can go to a gun show (a convention where guns are bought and sold) and buy a weapon with no regulation as long as they purchase it from someone who is not a licensed gun dealer. A good friend of mine witnessed a young man buy an AK47 assault weapon with no identification from a random citizen in the parking lot outside such a show in Tampa, Florida and this happens everyday in America. It is estimated that between 40-50% of all gun sales in the US are handled in this manner.
The NRA and other gun enthusiasts claim that regulating non-licensed gun dealers would take away an individual’s freedom to resell their guns. They say that, if these sales were regulated, individuals who own guns would not be able to explore the free market and would, instead, have to sell their used guns to authorized gun dealers who could fix the prices. I don’t think this makes sense but, this is America and little about our obsession with these weapons makes much sense.
It seems that the words “well regulated” from the constitution have been ignored. For all intents and purposes, anyone can get almost any sort of gun they want if they go to a gun show to buy one. Thus, either the US Supreme Court or the Congress can add greater controls on who can buy a gun if they have the will. “Well regulated” is ignored when gun fanatics discuss the US Constitution.
As I wrote this item, I learned that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the world’s leading public health research organization, was prevented by law from saying anything critical of guns or gun ownership. This effectively has frozen all research as most of the funding at other researchers on this sort of problem comes from the CDC. For all intents and purposes, the gun lobby and the Bush administration made it impossible for such studies to be conducted in the US for nearly a decade. President Obama changed this with an executive order a few weeks ago but, with no funding for a decade, the state of the research community is pretty sad.
One statistic about gun ownership I was able to learn (I heard it on NPR) is that, in the US, a gun in a home is 43 times more likely to be used in the killing of a person who lives in the home than in self defense. The Newtowne shooter went to a gun shop to buy an AR15 but walked out when he was told that they wouldn’t waive the background check or “cooling off” period. At this point in the scenario, the Connecticut gun laws worked. Then, the shooter went home and used his mother’s gun, a weapon she taught him to shoot, to kill her and 26 others.
Before I began working on this piece, I believed that spree killers definitely had to have a mental illness. While I was writing this, I learned that Americans with mental illness are profoundly more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of such. I also learned that people on the autism spectrum, people like the Newtowne shooter (according to media reports, I don’t know if he had an actual diagnosis), were almost never involved in any sort of violent acts, except, of course, as victims. But, the NRA and the gun fanatics in the US have done everything in their power to make the debate about mental illness and not about guns and deadly violence.
The State of New York, in the aftermath of Newtowne, has passed a sweeping gun control law. One aspect of the legislation is a registry of people with mental illness deemed “a threat to themselves or others” by a mental health professional. Their intent with this database is to prevent people on the list from buying a firearm. New York State has fairly wide open standards for who can call themselves a “mental health professional.” This label isn’t reserved for PhD psychologists, MD psychiatrists but, rather, open to nearly every person who works in a mental health facility of any kind. Undoubtedly, people unlikely to harm anyone, including themselves, will land on this list.
The New York State mental illness database adds to the already enormous stigma suffered by people with mental illness. A list of “people who may be violent in the future” suggests that people with mental illness are more likely to hurt others, something the statistical data refutes and I imagine that once a list is created, law enforcement will use it to profile entirely innocent citizens without any just cause – a violation of our sacred constitution that the liberals who love government and seemingly hate people with mental illness seem to like. So, New York chooses to trash the civil liberties of people with mental illness while, for all intents and purposes, allowing the continued and highly dangerous private ownership of household weapons.
In the time since I started writing this article, I have learned a lot. Previously, I was pretty agnostic on the issue. Now, because of the things I’ve learned in this process, I have a much more certain opinion that guns, devices with the single purpose of killing, really have no place in private homes. Sadly, there is little will in Washington or most of the states to do more than enact a few, mostly cosmetic, regulations on gun ownership and, given the statistics above, I doubt much of substance will change regarding the homicide problem in the US. I can guarantee that this nation will not anytime soon amend the constitution to substantially reduce the number of guns in the wild. Fortunately, with a murder rate less than 5 per 100,000, I’m not likely to be a victim of a homicide but I’m four times as likely here than I would be if I moved to the UK.