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

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      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.


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      Dec 17, 2012 at 11:25am

      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!

      peter aardvark

      Dec 17, 2012 at 1:22pm

      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.


      Dec 17, 2012 at 1:39pm

      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.


      Dec 17, 2012 at 4:06pm

      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.


      Dec 17, 2012 at 4:31pm

      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.

      J Mo

      Dec 17, 2012 at 8:34pm

      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.


      Dec 17, 2012 at 8:43pm

      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.

      Walther P.P.K. Luger

      Dec 18, 2012 at 12:22am

      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.


      Dec 18, 2012 at 2:16am

      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.


      Dec 18, 2012 at 1:45pm

      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!!!