Gwynne Dyer: Guns aren't the only problem in America

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 United States, 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 United States, 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 United States. The rate of murders by gunfire in the United States 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.


And here’s another clue: the rate of firearms homicides in Canada, another mainly English-speaking country in North America with a similar political heritage, is about half the American rate
—and in England itself it is only one-thirteenth as much. What else is in play here?


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 United States 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 centralized 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 United States, 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.

Indeed, large parts of the United States, particularly in the southeast and southwest, still have an “honour” culture in which it is accepted that a private individual may choose to defend his rights and his interests by violence rather than seeking justice through the law. The homicide rate in New England is less than three people per 100,000 per year; in Louisiana it is more than 14.

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 United States, 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 United States 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.

Comments (22) Add New Comment
DavidH
The answer isn't a law to control the type or number of guns that people own.

The answer isn't tougher laws on gun licensing.

Because the PROBLEM is a "love of guns", which begins in childhood. It's the same as money ... which has never been "the root of all evil". It is the LOVE of money (greed) which is the root of the evil.

The real answer is obvious - a determination to eradicate the love of guns. Children need to be taught (at home and in school) that guns are designed to do one thing only, and that is to kill. Children also need to be taught that killing a deer or a rabbit for food might be necessary and sensible - but using a gun to kill another human is unthinkable, especially if that human is unarmed and non-threatening.

The U.S. Government needs to focus on education, rather than regulation, because regulations will not address the "love of guns" problem. Regulations can easily be overcome or sidestepped.

It's ironic that the U.S. (and other governments) have no problem spending billions on the "War on Drugs", but will not launch on a "War on Guns". Don't want the kids snorting cocaine? Great - teach them that. But if you don't want the kids firing bullets into malls, schools and movie theatres - teach them that too!
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peter aardvark
yes - I will go one more, a war on poverty. That would go a long way to eliminating much of the social problems that lead to crime.

The irony of course is that it would be hard to swallow, there is a culture of self-reliance and independence that believes individuals should make it on their own. Another irony is that the outrage over 9/11 and the loss of 3000 lives led to a 'War on Terror' but no one considers that number is equivalent to about 2 months of Americans killed by gun violence and somehow an appropriate 'war on guns' is still unthinkable.
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dru
Mr. Dyer touched on a point I've been making since the shooting in Colorado: the media doesn't simply deliver the story; they salivate over it again and again. I think the way each massacre is retold, ad nauseam, serves to "magnify" the nutcases who carry-out these acts. The perpetrators are mentally-unbalanced; America needs to reevaluate its cultural fetish for guns; and the media should recognize that its continuous repetition of these events does serve as a stimulus for the nutcases to start shooting.
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McRocket
You want to cut down on massacres? Simple - pass a federal law that makes it legal for every single gun owner to carry a concealed weapon anywhere (except government building's) and at anytime.
Now you have to apply for the permit. Make it automatic when you get a gun license - and make it unchangeable for all states.
No way individuals who are planning to massacre dozens of people by shooting them is not going to think twice when they realize that at least 5-10% of the adults in the crowd they want to gun down will probably be armed.
How many children would have been killed in Conn. if just one of the 6 teachers that nut killed had been armed? A lot less I suspect (if he had tried it at all knowing teachers would probably be 'packing').

Sure, long term solutions are needed.
But in the short term? Banning guns in America is totally out of the question anytime remotely soon. And so is putting armed guards in every public place. So the last alternative to stop these massacres is to encourage more legal gun owners to not leave the house without their guns.
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Etienne
I agree it is more than just the guns.

For those who wish to understand school and workplace shootings in the United States, I cannot recommend Mark Ames' 2001 book GOING POSTAL strongly enough. He makes a very strong (to my mind utterly convincing) case that American culture, particularly post-Reagan American culture, is to blame for these shootings. More broadly, he shows that the shooters aren't deviant: they are in fact predictable products of their school and/or work environment.

The picture he paints is an ugly, indeed a hideously nightmarish one. One I did not want to believe at first. But having myself taught a year in the United States, I can assure you that Ames' (truly horrific) description of life and socialization at a typical American High School went a long, long way in explaining why my students behaved the way they did: frightened, silent, afraid of asking anything, of sticking out...indeed I now realize the word "traumatized" would have described most of them well.

As for Pinker's theory (that democracy came too early to the United States): as a linguist myself, I can tell you that the man repeatedly pontificates on linguistic issues of which he knows nothing whatsoever. I would take anything he says on a subject other than his core specialty (psycholinguistics) with a huge grain of salt.

In this connection I cannot help but note that Switzerland, with one of the world's oldest democratic traditions and an abundance of firearms, is not *and never has been* an exceptionally violent society. Hmm. Doesn't look good, does it?

If Pinker is a cynical self-promoter, I suspect he just wants to sell more books by ingraining himself to the American East Coast intelligentsia: linking his adopted country's murderous psychosis with such potent myths as "American exceptionalism" and "Love of Freedom" is a sound move.

If, on the other hand, Pinker sincerely believes his own theory, then he's suffering from an autistic-like inability or refusal to face reality, which, in as indoctrinated and closed an environment as American elite Universities, is most unlikely ever to be corrected.

The phrase "I am the master of this College: what I don't know isn't knowledge" sums up this Jonestown- or Politburo-like mentality to a T. What a pity that as a result of this smug, pompous, self-righteous know-nothing blindness, more innocent people will die.
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J Mo
Really, McRocket - the teachers should be "packing"????? Give me a break. I'd NEVER think of carrying a gun to work and wouldn't use one if someone tried to make me. First of all, these freak events are as likely as a storm in a desert - who wanders the desert with an umbrella? But, more importantly, the reality is that all stats show that the most likely result of someone trying to "defend' themselves by owning a weapon is that, should it ever be fired, they or someone they love will be the victim, not an attacker. Your opinion is completely fantastical - from watching too many Harrison Ford movies where "ordinary folks" come charging in and save the day. Reality doesn't work that way.
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McRocket
peter aardvark? A war on poverty? We are talking about mass shootings. And three of the worst incidents, the Aurora killings, recent Conn. shootings and the Virginia Tech massacre - none of the perpetrators was poor...or even close. They all were very intelligent and two were attending universities.
The shootings have little to do with poverty. They are to do with too many guns too easily available to mentally disturbed individuals and what to do about it.
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Walther P.P.K. Luger
300 millions firearms
The right to bear arms enshrined in the US constitution
a country on the brink of economic collapse.
The largest consumers of drugs (illegal or legal) and hydrocarbons
The biggest aresanal of nuclear weapons
It reminds me of a three year kid who takes steriods and pumps iron.
We mourn these little boys and girls who have been murdered in a terrible and tragic manner, but what will we do about it?
Wait until the next tragedy and we mourn again.
If there are 900 million people on facebook, surely we can leverage the power of the internet to start a campaign to make access to firearms much more controlled.
The US government should start a guns for foodstamps program. A gun amnesty in return for food.
Give us your gun and you get 100 dollar supermarket gift card
I am sure there are moms, wives and girlfriends out there who know where in their house there is a gun or two.
Not only will this take many guns out of circulation, but it will inject hundreds of millions into the local economy and maybe even inch back from the fiscal cliff and avoid more quantitative easing.
If there any Americans reading this , I dare you, no I beg you tod something now to save not your children but your children's children.
This would be the best Christmas gift you could ever give your children.
Thank you for reading.



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dave19
The team of shooters are never mentioned in any of these shootings. The lone gunman storey is getting a little old, some people may start to question.
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sam
we have enough gun laws, the government needs to put more money towards it so that they can be enforced. this way background checks can be done the right way. and the police can go after gangbangers and drug dealers who only carry illegal guns.funding is the main problem, don't believe,ask your congress men. my firearms were obtained legally leave them alone!!!
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Foxxe Wilder
Gun control would be a very SMALL start to the source of the problem. One of the REAL problems here is the sharkfest attitude the US media has upon martyring suicidal killers.
AND STOP ADVERTISING that killing will make you famous!!

The other is naturally to overhaul your outdated rich man / poor man capitalist driven ethics (assuming you can even use that word with such a link to greed like that). Cut back the throat cutting attitude and try to convert the culture from 3rd world barbaric status to a more 21st century INTELLIGENT CIVILIZED Nation. You don't need mega military either, only paranoid fools need that crap.

The Killing is just a symptom of the REAL disease. You need an cultural overhaul, if East/West Germany and Russia can do it, the 'USA' can too.
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Urban Survivor
Maybe Yanks would rather suffer a few unfortunate deaths than endure an ever creeping Soviet style tyranny.

Sure..Canada may be a pu$$y nation now..but they do little things that drive everyone nuts, and nobody does anything.

Heres the looney and we are taking away the penny, ensuring that all transactions are rounded up...

Canadian public; "mmm? ok"....

We give murderers 25 years, but jokingly call it "life"...

"mmm? ok"...

We are going to bulldoze your house to build a highway, and only give you market value..its irrelevant that your grandfather built it, and you grew up there, and have no interest in moving.

"mmm?...ok"

Here's Metric..stick it up your arse old timers! We wont grandfather it in..learn it or suffer.

"mmm?...ok"

Gonna change your flag filled with honour and history, and replace it with a ugly commie-red leaf.

"mmm?..ok"

Now multiply this death by 1000 cuts all over the world by progressive dolts...governments should govern..keep the roads clear..defend our property and our freedom and our security..and thats IT.
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Maria
Although I would hate to see teachers toting guns, it would have ended this latest massacre if someone else in the school had been armed beside this very sick person who felt compelled to murder children. Would he have chosen to attack this school if he knew that some of the teachers or at the very least a armed guard was at the school carrying a gun and willing to use it? OF COURSE NOT. These lunatics are cowards. They never go into a police station or a firing range to committ their massacres. No, they always go were they know that they will be able to kill but avoid being killed themselves. The solution is not to ban guns, it will not happen in this country. Better to work harder at keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and to mandate that anytime someone commits a crime using a gun that there will be a automatic jail sentence.
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Issac Chandler
"the seventh massacre this year in which four or more people were killed by a lone gunman."

Sounds a little on the low side:
Every two weeks in the United States, four or more people die in a mass killing:
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/12/18/mass-killings-commo...

"Pieter Spierenburg’s provocative suggestion that “democracy came too early to America."

Julian Assange's suggestion that democracy is gone, is a good read:
http://wikileaks.org/Statement-by-Julian-Assange-after.html
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timecop
There was two armed security that shot at and missed Klebold during the columbine massacre. In fact they knew there would be armed resistance so their orig tactic was to blow up the cafeteria and shoot at people running out of the school from defensive positions in the parking lot

There was a guy with conceal carry at the Arizona massacre but because people were scrambling everywhere to get away from a hail of bullets he said he couldn't dare start shooting he would've hit somebody else

Sgt Hassan shot up a military base with MPs and armed people everywhere. Didn't stop his massacre

Breivik dressed up as a cop and drove right past security on the island he rampaged. He also easily got weapons regardless of strict Norweigan gun control.

James Holmes expected resistence and suited up in armor and tear gassed the crowd.

The school shooter in Stockton California in the 1980s shot at kids in the playground from a defensive position. Nobody could hit him with a handgun from there and he was armed with an assault rifle to blanket cover fire

These guys are all prepared for resistance and get the jump on their victims. They spend years planning their suicide attacks I don't think simply having a handgun is always going to stop them.

Armed police at Chinese schools has not always stopped the epidemic of kindergarten attacks there either
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CG
Urban Survivor, you hit it straight on the head. Unfortunately, Canada may be presently too colonial and too unsophisticated to listen and react responsibly to such matters.
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Fedupwithtraitors
Obamas crocadile tears, hmmmm seem to remember Gwynne's scathing article about Obamas sadistic drone double-taps. Wacky conspiracy theories (or not so wacky considering the mounting evidence) aside. The individuals and/or organizations/governments responsible for spilling human blood have a lot to answer for and will be held accountable even if they are succesfull in killing/silencing there critics, wake up and dont let yourself be lured into the web of violence we are better than this.
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jack
Any knee jerk reaction and solution to this problem won't solve a thing because the criminals and crazies seem to never get the memo about playing nice. Whatever the solution is, it will be a solution that will take a long time to implement. But in the meanwhile there is a lot that CAN be changed. Has anyone noticed that the majority of ads for movies made by Hollywood show a gun, usually a handgun, in the promotions. It is usually the main character carrying a gun as if they were about to use it or they are pointing the gun at someone. I don't go to the movies because all it seems to be is blowing up stuff, shooting at people and a lot of violence. It is said if you say a lie enough people will start to believe it. Maybe people are starting to believe that a "normal" life involves blowing up stuff and shooting people after seeing so much of it in the media. And it's not like I hate guns, I have been around them my whole life and I hunt but I also know the reality of guns and their abilities unlike a lot of people who think they are a toy. One thing that can be done is an automatic 10 years MINIMUM sentence with NO CHANCE OF EARLY RELEASE for anyone using a firearm in a criminal act. Make the idiots who think it is a game realize after 10 years in the federal pen that it isn't a game.
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Adam
What a brain-dead rehash of tired anti-American stereotypes. Here are some facts. Prior to 1977 (Trudeau's Bill C-51), Canada actually had less strict gun laws than LBJ's 1968 Gun Control Act: there were no background checks for firearms purchases, Canadians could buy MACHINE GUNS without permits, and handguns were sold via the Eatons and Simpsons Sears catalogues. New York City (population ~8M) has had much more strict gun control legislation than Canada for a century, including a ban on BB guns; until recently, handguns and many long guns were flatly illegal in Chicago and DC.

The English Bill of Rights, from which the American Bill of Rights was derived, is still part of Canadian constitutional law, and includes a 'right to bear arms' paragraph. There are tens of thousands of semi-auto rifles in Canada--mostly used by hunters, farmers, and ranchers. The Liberal Firearms Act (1995) has been a fiasco, and not just in terms of the registration portion, with as many as half of legal firearms owners (under the old FAC system) never having bothered getting Possession and Acquisition Licenses, or allowing their PALs to lapse, but keeping their guns. Not to mention the fact that $2B was wasted on this project. Canadians could have learned from American states like New York, or Illinois--which first had Firearms Act-type laws--that Chretien's social engineering experiment was doomed to failure.

Like it, or not, rural and suburban 'gun culture' really hasn't differed between Canada and the U.S., with both Canadians and Americans hunting with semi-auto rifles, buying guns at gun shows, target shooters collecting hanguns, armed guards delivering cash to ATMs, etc. The Firearms Act is one of the reasons Canadians flushed the Liberal Party down the toilet. Yet Mr Dyer still trots out the stale Trudeauist 'Canadians are Different' propaganda, and regurgitates tired anti-American rhetoric.
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yclept
The second amendment was written in 1787: the only guns allowed should be black powder muzzle loaders. Fire one of those in a mall and you'd be beaten to death with the ramrod before you could get a second one off.
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