The top of the news queue a few weeks ago almost went unnoticed in its ordinariness: “Gunman shoots 4 officers inside Detroit precinct,” and “Walmart shooting leaves 2 dead, 2 deputies hurt.” It was merely just another day in America, where the “right to bear arms” is bolstered by the tortuous logic that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” We’re still awaiting word of any sightings of a “well-regulated militia” being in the mix, but thus far the exercise appears to be mostly personal – and, in fact, the Supreme Court in 2008 explicitly affirmed that the Second Amendment applies to individuals.
Let’s face it: America is obsessed with firearms, domestically and in our exports and foreign policy directives alike. Guns are available on a legal or illegal basis nearly on a par with drugs in our society, which means pretty much everyone has access to them on demand. And some of the statistics are sobering. According to a 2007 Reuters article describing the US as the “most armed country”:
The United States has 90 guns for every 100 citizens, making it the most heavily armed society in the world, a report released on Tuesday said. US citizens own 270 million of the world’s 875 million known firearms, according to the Small Arms Survey 2007 by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies. About 4.5 million of the 8 million new guns manufactured worldwide each year are purchased in the United States, it said…. The report, which relied on government data, surveys and media reports to estimate the size of world arsenals, estimated there were 650 million civilian firearms worldwide, and 225 million held by law enforcement and military forces…. Only about 12 percent of civilian weapons are thought to be registered with authorities.
Data compiled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other government sources indicate some startling fatality rates due specifically to firearms, which rank second only to automobiles as the leading cause of “accidental” death in the US annually. For every 100,000 people (the size of a small city), approximately 10 are killed by guns (circa 2007), which totals to about 30,000 gun-related fatalities nationwide per year. By comparison, motor vehicle death rates run approximately 14 per 100,000, amounting to about 43,000 fatalities each year. While incidents of dramatic gun violence have taken center stage in recent years, with episodes including the Virginia Tech massacre and the Tucson shooting that critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and claimed the life of a federal judge, such data have been similarly revealing of a nation steeped in firearm-related fatalities for at least the past three decades. A 1998 Associated Press article measured US rates against those of other nations and yielded similar conclusions to those present today:
The United States has by far the highest rate of gun deaths – murders, suicides and accidents – among the world’s 36 richest nations, a government study found. The US rate for gun deaths in 1994 was 14.24 per 100,000 people. Japan had the lowest rate, at .05 per 100,000…. The CDC would not speculate why the death rates varied, but other researchers said easy access to guns and society’s acceptance of violence are part of the problem in the United States. “If you have a country saturated with guns – available to people when they are intoxicated, angry or depressed – it’s not unusual guns will be used more often,” said Rebecca Peters, a Johns Hopkins University fellow specializing in gun violence. “This has to be treated as a public health emergency.”
A 2000 report detailing the work of researchers at Harvard University likewise confirms the basic data and offers nascent conclusions about the pervasive nature of gun-related violence:
Recent accounts of young school students shooting each other has sent a shiver through the nation; journalists call the killings an “epidemic” and legislators have begun debates on new gun control laws. As tragic as these homicides are, however, they represent only the tip of an iceberg of gun deaths in the United States. Every year, more than 30,000 people are shot to death in murders, suicides, and accidents. Another 65,000 suffer from gun injuries. “The total number of school shootings each year is typically far less than one day’s toll attributable to firearms in the United States,” notes David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Research and Control Center. “Defective Firestone tires may have killed 103 people over a number of years, but firearms kill about 85 people every day in this country.”
Even anecdotally, there seems to be a growing awareness of the dramatic incidence of gun violence in the United States. This is true to such an extent that President Obama recently took the politically risky and somewhat unprecedented step of publishing an op-ed piece in the Arizona Daily Star, in which he asserted: “Every single day, America is robbed of more futures. It has awful consequences for our society. And as a society, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to put a stop to it.” Despite the president’s fairly tepid call to address gun violence through “sound and effective steps that will actually keep those irresponsible, law-breaking few from getting their hands on a gun in the first place,” the National Rifle Association (NRA) still took pains to pass blame along to “lax law enforcement, a sensationalist media and deficiencies in the mental health system” rather than the sheer number of guns in our collective midst.
Historically, various revolutionary movements have woven their ideologies around the possession (and sometimes use) of firearms, including the Black Panthers (“The revolution has come / Time to pick up the gun”) as an iconic (yet misunderstood) example. Today, however, the association of guns with revolution or insurrection is more likely than not the province of movements populating the political right. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has compiled a timeline of politically oriented episodes of gun violence since June 2008, citing a litany of disturbing exemplars and noting in particular the existence of an April 2009 report from the Department of Homeland Security observing that “the economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment.” Similarly, the web site Crooks and Liars provides an interactive map of right-wing violence directed at “liberal and government” targets since July 2008.
A chilling YouTube video titled “Guns Kill” unites a voiceover by Rachel Maddow detailing recent episodes of spectacular gun violence with the Cheryl Wheeler song “If It Were Up to Me,” which was written after the Jonesboro, Arkansas schoolyard shootings, and concludes its speculation about the myriad sources of violence in the US (from mass media to fast food) with this simple directive: “Maybe it’s the end, but I know one thing. If it were up to me, I’d take away the guns.” Taking up this injunction, Australia severely tightened its gun laws after a horrifying 1996 incident in which 35 people were killed; then newly elected prime minister John Howard helped usher in new laws that were among the world’s strictest. “I hate guns,” he said at the time, according to Time Magazine. “One of the things I don’t admire about America is their slavish love of guns…. We do not want the American disease imported into Australia.” The article went on to contend that the new laws had actually “made no difference to the country’s gun-related death rates,” even as it noted that “there were 11 [mass shootings] in Australia in the decade before 1996, and there have been none since.”
By this point, it seems eminently clear that we are not going to see such strict gun control laws here in the US, and, furthermore, that the lines of the cultural debate on the issue are fairly well-settled without a great deal of movement on either side. For many, the right to bear arms is synonymous with freedom and independence – including the capacity to resist the ministrations of our own government, as summarized in the slogan, “With guns, we are citizens; without them, we are subjects.” Gun rights proponents will point to the purported attempts at gun control by the Nazis and other tyrannical regimes as part of the argument for maintaining an armed citizenry, indicative of a line of reasoning arguing that “the one country that created a truly gun-free society created a society of harsh class oppression, in which the strongmen of the upper class could kill the lower classes with impunity. When a racist, militarist, imperialist government took power, there was no effective means of resistance. The gun-free world of Japan turned into just the opposite of the gentle, egalitarian utopia of John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine.'”
I’m not so naive as to think that a single article will significantly impact any of this, nor that we’re likely to have an open and thoughtful dialogue in this country on the issue of guns any time soon. I also understand completely that many people across the political spectrum maintain a strong fascination with firearms as tools of self-sufficiency, protection, toughness and even, at times, a revolutionary posture. While I do not share this view, it is apparently one that is deeply held by a not insignificant portion of the populace. The 2001 article regarding Japan’s strict gun laws that I quoted previously summarizes this view in clear terms: “To imagine a world with no guns is to imagine a world in which the strong rule the weak, in which women are dominated by men, and in which minorities are easily abused or mass-murdered by majorities. Practically speaking, a firearm is the only weapon that allows a weaker person to defend himself from a larger, stronger group of attackers, and to do so at a distance.”
Putting aside the veracity of this argument for the moment – to wit, guns have not eliminated violence against women, people of color and other marginalized groups – we might suspend our disbelief and wonder what a “world without guns” might look like. Interestingly, the same article concludes with precisely this speculation, even as it still argues for an unfettered right to own guns: “Instead of imagining a world without a particular technology, what about imagining a world in which the human heart grows gentler, and people treat each other decently?” Indeed, banning weapons won’t in itself solve the underlying problem of human aggression – and with the sheer volume of armaments already in our midst, it seems that we are going to have to find a way to live with our capacity to kill. Prohibition is a flawed strategy, and thus we might consider self-control as an alternative to gun control.
Luckily, cutting-edge research has begun to uncover some of the evolutionary processes that contribute to human behavior, including the notion of “mirror neurons” that have been observed to “fire even when you watch someone else execute the same action.” In other words, when we are exposed to behaviors, we tend to experience them empathetically and, perhaps most tellingly, neurologically as well. In this sense, the pervasive nature of gun violence in our midst imprints itself in our minds and bodies in a visceral manner. If true, the opposite is also possible – namely, that when we witness peaceful interactions, our bodies and minds will assimilate and replicate these experiences as well. At this juncture, I believe that it would be to our collective advantage to begin associating the concept of something “firing” less with guns and artillery, and more so with the neurons we have evolved precisely for developing empathetic reactions and fostering peaceful outcomes in our shared lives. Fire away…