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Gun Control and the Culture of Violence

Gun control and a culture of violence is clearly linked.

The most recent shooting tragedy, in which 20 young children were murdered at a school in Connecticut, has refocused the debate over gun control and violence in the U.S. While the outrage was almost universal, repeated comments from politicians and other leaders that “now was not the time” to do something about gun control, was also heard loudly. But it’s important to see the gun control issue within the context of the U.S. as a violent society.

According to  Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, 2,694 children and teens were killed by gunfire in 2010; 1,773 of them were victims of homicide and 67 of these were elementary school-age children. If those children and teens were still alive they would fill 108 classrooms of 25 each. Since 1979 when gun death data were first collected by age, a shocking 119,079 children and teens have been killed by gun violence. That is more child and youth deaths in America than American battle deaths in World War I (53,402) or in Vietnam (47,434) or in the Korean War (33,739) or in the Iraq War (3,517). Where is our anti-war movement to protect children from pervasive gun violence here at home? Edelman exclaims “This slaughter of innocents happens because we protect guns before children and other human beings.”

Harry Bradford, and Howard Steven Friedman writing in the Huffington Post, and the Brady Campaign, and Washington Post provided detailed statistics regarding the firearms industry including the following:

  • The firearms industry created $31 billion in economic activity in 2011.
  • An estimated 270-300 million guns are owned by Americans
  • An estimated 45 million Americans own handguns
  • 87% of the children killed in the 23 wealthiest nations were American
  • 80% of the gun deaths in the 23 wealthiest nations were American
  • The U.S. ranks number 1 in the world in terms of guns owned per 100 people (at 88.8). In comparison, Canada is 114 and Sweden is 70.
  • Eleven of the 20 worst mass shootings in the advanced countries in the past 50 years took place in the United States.
  • The rate of gun-related deaths per 100,000 individuals in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom is 0.1, 0.5, and 0.03, respectively.  In the U.S., the overall rate is 2.98.   And that overall rate doesn’t tell the full story.  In some cities, the rates are five to ten times that number.  The fatality rate in Los Angeles is 9.2, in Miami it’s 23.7 and in Detroit, Michigan the rate is a staggering 35.9 deaths per 100,000 residents.  According to data assembled by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIJP), about 85 people in the U.S. are killed every day in firearm-related incidents. 
  • Of the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the countries with the five highest homicide rates are, in order: Mexico (highest), Chile, Estonia, the United States and Turkey (fifth highest).
  • On average in the U.S., 97,820 people are shot every year and approximately 268 every day.

So it is pretty clear that death by guns in the U.S. is a serious problem that far exceeds that of other Western nations. Two distinguished legal scholars, Franklin Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, compared crime rates in the G-7 countries (Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States) between in their book, Crime Is Not The Problem: Lethal Violence In America Is. Bluntly, they stated their conclusion: "What is striking about the quantity of lethal violence in the United States is that it is a third-world phenomenon occurring in a first-world nation."

We can point to U.S. states’ legislation that has actually loosened gun control over the past few years, including the “right to carry” a weapon in the open in public places and the famous “stand your ground laws,” which can give an individual a reason to use a firearm.

What then, is the argument for gun control?

Lisa Hepburn and David Hemenway, of Harvard University studied the issue and published their results in  Aggression and Violent Behavior: A Review Journal. They concluded that based on their study of cities, states and countries, where there were more guns there were more significantly more homicides.

Economist Richard Florida researched the correlations between gun deaths and other kinds of social indicators. He found that higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence. But one thing he found was, perhaps, perfectly predictable: States with tighter gun control laws appear to have fewer gun-related deaths.

 

Other countries have successfully dealt with this issue. Max Fisher, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, describes how Japan, a country of 127 million has gun control in effect : “Almost no one in Japan owns a gun. Most kinds are illegal, with onerous restrictions on buying and maintaining the few that are allowed. Even the country's infamous, mafia-like Yakuza tend to forgo guns; the few exceptions tend to become big national news stories.” In 2008, the U.S. had over 12,000 firearm-related homicides. All of Japan experienced only 11. And that was a big year: 2006 saw an astounding 2, and when that number jumped to 22 in 2007, it became a national scandal.

Let’s take the example of Australia. In 1996, a mass killing of 35 people galvanized the nation’s Prime Minister to ban certain rapid-fire long guns. The “national firearms agreement,” as it was known, led to the buyback of 650,000 guns and to tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands. The law did not end gun ownership in Australia. It reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one-fifth, and they were the kinds most likely to be used in mass shootings. In the 18 years before the law, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings — but not one in the 14 years after the law took full effect. The murder rate with firearms has dropped by more than 40 percent, according to data compiled by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, and the suicide rate with firearms has dropped by more than half.

Undoubtedly the renewed debate over gun control will have to consider the U.S. Constitution’s second amendment, the causes of violence and the psychological profiles of murderers. In some ways, the debate may get sidetracked into the psychological issues and things like background checks, when the real issues of gun control and the U.S. as a violent culture need to be addressed.

These mass murders must be seen in the context of the U.S. as having a history of violence and military activity on a large scale.  For example, according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. ranks number 1 in the sale of military arms to other countries, far ahead of such countries as Russia. And according to a report in the National Post, based on data from the Defense Department, the U.S. has somewhere between 700-800 formal military bases around the world, not counting covert operations. As a percentage of its GDP, the U.S. spends 41% of all expenditures of all countries in the world on the military. China, which is second, spends 8.2% and Russia 4.1%. And according to OECD data, the incarceration rate per 100,000 people, the U.S. ranks number 1 among 34 countries at 730. In contrast, Canada’s figure is 114 and Sweden, 70.

On the heels of a Senate Intelligence Committee report rebuking the CIA for the use of torture in the fight against terrorism, and in the wake of a new movie depicting torture as playing a key role in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a new poll shows opponents of torture have a right to be worried about the attitudes of Americans. According to the new HuffPost/YouGov survey, only 25 % of Americans said that torture of suspected terrorists who may know details about future attacks is never justified. Nineteen percent said it is always justified, 28 % said it is sometimes justified, and 16 % said it is rarely justified. The 41 % of respondents who said torture is rarely or never justified are outnumbered by the 47 % who said it is always or sometimes justified.

Whether it’s violence on a large scale such as wars, or domestic violence, it has been pervasive in American life and culture since its beginnings. At yet at the same time, politicians and media have depicted the U.S. as a “peaceful loving” nation, something people readily believed despite evidence to the contrary. Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter observed: "What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions to singular national virtue."

The media immerse us in a culture of violence. In Hollywood and TV films, violent death has become the only formula for adequate retribution. Movie villains suffer hideous ends – movie justice. Violence as the cultural metaphor well suits a country that for decades has lived with perpetual wars. Turn on kids’ cartoons or any “drama” show and we see and hear the images and sounds of aggression against others. . And the most popular professional sport, American football, has seen increasing levels of violence.

U.S. foreign policy advocates violence as the solution to problems. The media sells violence just as the language of violence shapes political discourse. In Hollywood barely a film heads for theaters without the fight and sound of a fist hitting a face, a bullet ripping through a body or a car pushing another car off the road. And the U.S. leadership from the White House and Pentagon empowers the “assassination abroad committee” to decide which people get killed by drones on a daily basis in foreign countries

Any debate regarding gun control in America requires a serious examination of the culture of violence that exists in America, for this is where the real problem lies. It is not in 2nd amendment rights to bear arms or self-defense or crime, although these are issues the pro-gun lobby in the U.S. always hides behind. The real root cause is in the minds of Americans who may feel that a gun gives them a feeling of empowerment, and that they are entitled to have the power over life and death as well as the belief that if they want to they can take a life if they have been wronged (or imagined they have) in some way. After all, they see it glorified in the media every day.

The senseless tragedy in Connecticut provides an opportune time to turn the course of history in the U.S. and move in truth to a more peaceful loving nation that cares about the welfare of its people—especially children. The time for continuing talk covering the same ground over and over again has passed. It is time for action.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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