A friend-of-a-friend asked me over coffee why I thought Americans were obsessed (her word) over guns. What follows is my response.
Let me level-set: have you been to America? (She had.) What did you think of it while you were there? (She thought it generally a nice place but she felt uneasy because of her perception that it could be dangerous.)
America is generally a nice place to visit. The violence that one reads about in newspapers and sees on TV is isolated and concentrated to several quite small geographical areas. Were you to plot on a map the locations of all the violent gun-related events you hear about via the mainstream media, you would be surprised (or maybe not) to discover that almost all of it happens in no more than a dozen compact areas all of which are part of a handful of major cities: Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Camden and Newark NJ, and a few others. These compact and isolated areas make up a very small fraction of America’s nearly 4 million square miles — possibly less than 400 square miles in total — and one’s chances of being involved in a violent gun-related event outside those areas is vanishingly small. Indeed, most of that violence shares a single profile: it is almost entirely black-on-black crime, primarily drug related, and it occurs in places where legal possession of guns is difficult-to-impossible. In other words, the people committing those violent crimes are already criminals before the first trigger is pulled. (As an interesting statistical ‘aside’, those hyper-violent places are all — every single one — in cities that have overwhelmingly large Democratic voting populations and have been so for decades.)
So, why then do Americans obsess so over their guns? It is certainly a cultural phenomenon probably an echo of our frontier heritage, but it also has a political aspect: we are expected to be armed as a way of insuring against the rise of tyranny — however improbable you may think that may be. Those who wrote our Constitution felt that only an armed populace could guarantee a military dictatorship would not arise. The Second Amendment to the Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms, was written with that in mind. There is something buried deep in the American psyche that whispers “keep the guns cleaned and oiled”.
But your question goes deeper than that, I think. You hear stories of mass shootings, school shootings, or murder at the mall, and you wonder why the government — someone — doesn’t do something. You hold this view because you believe government’s primary duty is to protect the citizenry. That’s wrong, at least in America’s case. Our government’s primary duty is to protect the rights of the people. We the people have the responsibility to protect ourselves, an easy task when our rights are ensured. In fact, those horrible incidents the media most often trumpet happen when and where our rights have been subverted. School zones, for one example, are places where one’s right to keep and bear arms is forbidden. When a lunatic searches for a place full of unarmed victims, ‘school’ is often their first thought. Of the last 60 mass-shooting incidents, 59 occurred in gun-free zones. The lone exception was the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in a parking lot. Oddly, almost all the shooters in these cases were people with Democratic or ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ political leanings or affiliations — including the Giffords shooter — and these are the groups that are most actively campaigning for more gun control.
In fact, what I call ‘the 2nd amendment community’ (hereafter ‘SAC’) — that group of people who lawfully own and lawfully use guns and who favor the ability of peaceful people to arm themselves with their firearm of choice — are confused over the efforts — primarily from the left, the anti-SAC — to restrict the 2nd amendment. To the SAC, it appears the anti-SAC are focusing on the wrong demographic. There are lawful gun uses and there are unlawful gun uses but the anti-SAC treat both as if they are undifferentiated. That view is nonsensical, but it’s what most of the headlines are based on.
I like to point out to people that only two states, Texas and Florida, keep statistics on whether or not this arrestee has a concealed weapons permit (hereafter ‘CWP’). The pictures from both states are remarkably similar: while we expect police to be law-abiding, those who have CWPs are more law-abiding than are the police! They are (depending on which year you examine) 7-to-13 times less likely to be arrested for anything than is the general populace. That is, they are 6%-13% as likely to have an unpleasant interaction with police as you are, and you know how often you get arrested! Would we see the same picture from other states? It seems very likely given the dissimilarity of the two we have as examples, so treating the SAC as if they were all criminals makes no sense, yet what do we see again and again? Ban this weapon (as if criminals will turn them all in!). Register these weapons (ditto). Background checks for every sale or transfer (ditto). Every new suggestion for ‘common sense gun control’ is aimed directly at the people who are not the problem. That’s neither common sense nor reasonable.
So, what we have is an American nation awash with firepower (over 100 million Americans are thought to own more than 350 million firearms and 200 billion rounds of ammunition — such numbers are necessarily imprecise) but almost all our ‘gun violence’ happens in a few enclaves where drugs are a problem. No reasonable person can look at this picture and believe that ‘guns’ are as big a problem as are the drugs. Were we to immediately end the foolish War On Drugs, violent crime would plummet even harder than it has been for the last thirty years.
Oh, yes, perhaps you weren’t aware — crime in the United States has been on a nearly-uninterrupted downslide since the 1980s while state after state has been relaxing restrictions on firearms-for-the-law-abiding! America isn’t getting more dangerous, it’s getting safer as more and more people arm themselves. Newspapers and TV stations are just getting better at finding and reporting shocking news.
One factoid often reported is that about 30,000 people die from gunshot each year. What is not reported in the mainstream media is that 60% of these deaths are suicides and are unlikely to be much affected by the presence or absence of this means or that; ‘guns’ here are a non-issue. Of the remaining 12,000, about 5,000 are justifiable homicides where the victim was engaged in criminal activity at the time of death. 7,000 criminal deaths from a population of 310 million is a very small fraction (2 per 100,000), but if it bleeds, it leads. These 7,000 deaths are what the anti-SAC and mainstream media focus on.
Since 1987 when Florida began the current easing of restrictions, crime in the United States has been disappearing (no, really!). In 1987, Florida became a “shall issue” state. Any person who applied for a CWP and who could not categorically be determined to be a danger to the community was issued the permit. At that time, only Vermont and Montana had looser laws: Vermont allowed anyone to carry (concealed) a firearm “for any lawful purpose”; Montana placed an age limit of 14 on that practice. Since that time, all but five states have become either “shall issue” or “Vermont carry”. Oddly enough, many of the most dangerous places in the country are found in “may issue” or “no issue” states or in states which have only recently (generally after being forced by the courts) become “shall issue”: New York, California, Illinois; or which are “home rule” cities like Philadelphia or Washington DC. Correlation may not be causality, but something is clearly going on here.
In the 90s during the Clinton Presidency, a team of researchers from Florida State University set out to discover how dangerous it was for ordinary people to be allowed firearms. Kleck and Kurtz did a rough survey via telephone to ascertain how rarely firearms were used for good. What they found shocked them: their results hinted that there might be as many as 2.5 million defensive gun uses (DGUs) each year. This number absolutely dwarfs the criminal uses of guns. Because of that, the survey was widely discounted as flawed. To correct it, the US Department of Justice commissioned its own counter-survey. Their conclusion was that DGUs probably did not exceed 800,000 per year. This number still dwarfs criminal usage. Later, David Hemmenway of Harvard repeated the DOJ survey, this time excluding every incident that could not be proven to have saved a life, and got the number down to 80,000 DGUs. Since only about 7,000 people die from criminal gun use in the US each year, even this number was unsatisfactory to the anti-SAC, but there it is.
There’s only one conclusion that may be drawn from the foregoing: America is not a dangerous place and Americans are not a dangerous people. The first corollary is that trying to disarm the American populace at large is not simply unnecessary, but is probably counter-productive. The second corollary may well be that every American should be armed.
“An armed society is a polite society.” —— Robert Heinlein
Could this also be true elsewhere? Switzerland is an enlightening example. Every Swiss trains in their military and is issued, as part of their training, a rifle. The typical arm issued is comparable to the standard issue for most modern militaries, and can operate as a machine gun. It is worth a short detour to explain the difference between ‘automatic’ and ‘semi-automatic’:
Both auto and semi-auto arms are classified as ‘self-loaders’ or ‘autoloaders’. When the trigger is activated, a round is fired, the mechanism extracts the empty brass, ejects it, resets the firing pin, and reloads another round from the magazine, making the firearm ready to fire again. For semi-autos, this is the end of the process; the trigger must be released and pulled again to fire the next round. Autos (or ‘full-autos’) will continue to fire round after round while the trigger is held or until the magazine is empty. They are sometimes thought of as machine guns.
Fully-automatic firearms are extremely rare among civilian populations in the Western world, very expensive, and heavily restricted. No full-auto firearms manufactured after May 1986 are owned by civilians in the US. While some guns are casually designated ‘auto’ (“.45 Automatic”), they are properly referred to as ‘semi-auto’.
Most military weapons are classed as ‘select fire’. This means that they can change from semi-auto to auto or back at the flip of a switch.
Since 1934, there have been only two crimes committed in the U.S. with legally owned full-auto weapons. In both cases, the perpetrators were police officers.
In the US, the anti-SAC obsesses over the proliferation of semi-auto AR-15s. The Swiss, at the end of their military service, are sent home with their issued, select-fire rifles which they keep at home along with a small supply of ammunition. They keep a machine gun handy in case war breaks out, which hasn’t happened since 1391. The Swiss have an enviably-low violent crime rate.
Guns are not the problem. They can’t be. If they were, the Swiss would be extinct.
Every now and then, some anti-SAC will propose the repeal of the 2nd amendment. The SAC used to fly into a panic over this but lately they pay no attention to the rantings. They seem to understand that repealing the 2nd will have no effect even if it’s possible to find the votes to do so — something which presently appears unlikely.
Every year, something like 15 million Americans get hunting licenses, dress in camouflage clothing, load their high-powered scoped rifles and stealthily stalk animals, mostly deer, and kill them with single shots at hundreds of yards’ distance. That’s what snipers do. We have 15 million mostly-civilian snipers. ’15 million’ is a number larger than the five largest armies in the world — combined. These are the people the anti-SAC want to disarm. If the idea weren’t so ludicrous, it might even be funny.
Making it even more ludicrous is the fact that disarming that population will have to be carried out by armed men most of whom are, themselves, members of the SAC. The panic of yesteryear has been replaced by a somewhat grudging admiration of the anti-SAC capacity for self-delusion.
We are not amused.
Austria is now contemplating adding “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” to their constitution. The influx of many mostly-Islamic refugees has brought with it a huge jump in violent crime and many Austrians are discovering the benefits of being able to defend oneself at the moment a violent crime happens rather than waiting to file a police report after the fact. What makes this notable is that the Austrian constitution will grant a right. Americans consider rights to originate from God or nature or whichever metaphysical entity least offends one’s sensibilities, rather than originating from governments or constitutions — “…endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…”. If the Austrians press onward with this, they will come into conflict with the European Union which, as a matter of policy, opposes civilian ownership of the means of self-defense. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the shadow of Brexit and the impending exit of several others.
Having a rational conversation on the topic of ‘guns’ with an anti-SAC is nearly impossible because virtually everything they think they know about guns is wrong. Some of their beliefs:
- anyone can order a machine gun via mail-order
- guns at home are more dangerous to the family than anyone else
- criminals will be deterred by another law
- people all across the country own “weapons of war”
- guns can be sold at gun shows without background checks
- guns can be bought on the internet without background checks
- guns can be shipped to any address
- no civilian has any lawful need of a 30-round magazine
- hunting and target shooting are the only reasons for having a gun
- all you ‘gun nuts’ are paranoid
- you think your gun makes you Dirty Harry
- we would all be safer if only the police and military had guns.
Most of these are demonstrably wrong; some are just illogical nonsense; all of them are tenets of the faith, believed because it is necessary that they be believed. We ‘gun nuts’ often try to treat the anti-SAC as if they are rational beings capable of absorbing truth, capable of accepting proof and abandoning their belief in fantasy. In most cases, it simply doesn’t work that way. Whether they think the SAC is lying to them or whether it is just too painful to give up their fantasies or whether it is merely impossible for them to abandon such deeply-held notions, in all but the most unusual cases, they will simply tune out any and all opposing views no matter how firmly backed by fact. So-called ‘researchers’, some in residence at prestigious universities, produce studies and papers purporting to show by statistical evidence that pro-gun opinions are manifestly cuckoo. One of the most notorious of these was Michael Bellesiles’ ‘Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture’ published out of Emory University. Bellesiles supposedly examined court documents of colonial and post-colonial America to demonstrate that private possession of firearms was rare-to-nonexistent as evidenced by their conspicuous absence from probate records. It won several prestigious awards for scholarship and hit the New York Times’ bestseller list before other researchers attempted to recreate his evidence and failed. For his part, Bellesiles claimed his notes had been destroyed by a flood and thus couldn’t be produced for verification. When one researcher discovered Bellesiles had cited records from before the time such records could have existed, the whole story fell apart. Bellesiles had fabricated the bulk of his ‘research’. The awards he had received were revoked and he was terminated from employment at Emory. Sadly, ‘Arming America’ can still be found on many library shelves in the non-fiction area.
The best arguments the anti-SAC can produce are generally 'fiction'.