America has a gun problem, but gun control legislation isn’t enough; 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 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 a grand total of 11 gun-related homicides were recorded last year) and Belgium, on the high end, with a rate of 0.7 firearm deaths. 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%.
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.
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. Finland, with two mass shootings, is a distant second.
Conservatives point to the prevalence of gun violence in American movies and video games. The concern is legitimate. Mass shooters tend to see themselves as characters in a video game or a war movie. Massive exposure to graphic depictions of violence can desensitize us to the real thing. Faux violence can create an appetite for the genuine article. The facts suggest that shooters like Adam Lanza do what they do because they live where they live.
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 blood-drenched fantasy.
Non-violence was at the heart of the message Jesus preached. American evangelicals betray their Savior when they reinforce America’s sordid love affair with weaponry. We can’t anticipate the coming of the Christ child unless we embrace the non-violent ethic bequeathed to us by the Prince of Peace.
America has a gun problem. Legislative remedies won’t go deep enough. We need a 12-step program. We need a revival.