"American Carnage" Indeed: Guns

Americans suffer immensely from a gun violence epidemic, too.

Posted Dec 28, 2020

This is the first of several posts about another pandemic that afflicts the United States, way out of proportion to our population. It's not just COVID. One of the greatest threats that Americans live with comes from gun violence—and from the guns that are purchased partly in the hope of alleviating that same threat. When in his inaugural address Donald Trump complained about “American carnage,” he didn’t know how correct he was.

This genuine carnage is people dying from gun violence, a lethal brew of suicides, murders and accidents that – just since 1970 – have produced more American deaths (1.45 million) than all U.S. wars combined since the country was founded (1.4 million).[i] According to Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, “More Americans die from guns every 10 weeks than died in the entire Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined.” During an average day in the U.S., 100 people are killed by guns and another 300 are injured. American carnage indeed.

A consistent pattern in the realm of threats – from animals to people, society and international affairs – is that threats and fears are intimately linked. Fearing leads to threatening, and threats, in turn (whether real or imagined) lead to greater fear, resulting in a close-coupled system of reciprocal stimulation. In 1994, the majority of gun owners in the United States reported that their primary reason for toting guns was recreation: hunting and sport shooting. Just two decades later, in 2016, surveys found a significant change. Fully two-thirds of gun owners reported that they were motivated by fear of violent crime, even though crime rates fell substantially in the intervening 22 years. Roughly 70% of gun purchases are now handguns, whose only purpose isn’t hunting but to kill people at close range.[ii] This is unlikely to be due to an increase in murderous intent on the part of gun owners, but rather, increased fear, especially fear of violent crime.

Unscrupulous politicians worldwide are adroit at appealing to fear; it is one of the cornerstones of demagoguery. Between 2004 and 2014, violent crime in the United States declined by a whopping 21% (from 463 per 100,000 people, to 365 per 100,000). And yet according to a 2016 poll, 61% of Americans falsely believed that crime had increased, while only 15% knew that it had actually decreased.[iii] This misperception may have been due, at least in part, to candidate Donald Trump, whose presidential campaign included a constant drumbeat that crime (perpetrated especially by immigrants) was a growing danger to “ordinary” Americans.

Epidemiologic data are clear that rather than reducing whatever violent threats may actually exist, guns in the home significantly increase the risk of firearm-caused death and injury. Adam Hochschild writes that:   

"If reason played any part in the American love affair with guns, things would have been different a long time ago and we would not have so many mass shootings … Almost everywhere else in the world, if you proposed that virtually any adult not convicted of a felony should be allowed to carry a loaded pistol—openly or concealed—into a bar, a restaurant, or classroom, people would send you off for a psychiatric examination. Yet many states allow this, and in Iowa, a loaded firearm can be carried in public by someone who’s completely blind. Suggest, in response to the latest mass shooting, that still more of us should be armed, and people in most other countries would ask what you’re smoking…." [iv]

In Massachusetts, which has some of America’s most restrictive firearms laws, three people per 100,000 are killed by guns annually, while in Alaska, which has some of the weakest, the rate is more than seven times as high. Maybe Alaskans need extra guns to fend off grizzly bears,[1] but that’s certainly not so in Louisiana, another weak law state, where the murder rate is more than six times as high as in Massachusetts. All developed nations regulate firearms more stringently than does the U.S.; compared with the citizens of 22 other high-income countries, Americans are 10 times more likely to be killed by guns.

Despite all this, Congress has prevented the Centers for Disease Control from conducting or sponsoring any studies of gun violence. The threat of knowing the facts—or of crossing the National Rifle Association—evidently trumps any threat posed by guns themselves. 

The U.S. has more guns than people. A fair percentage of gun owners are hunters, some are violent criminals, and others simply like the experience of firing a lethal weapon—in most cases, in a firing range or abandoned field. But many (the precise number is unknown) keep guns because of fear, largely generated by the fact that so many other people have guns. It is a tragic example of how responding to a perceived threat creates even greater threats, in this case, a country that literally shoots itself in the foot, or worse.

David P. Barash is a professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington. His most recent book is Threats: Intimidation and Its Discontents (2020, Oxford University Press). 


[1] This was suggested by Betsy DeVos, Trump administration Secretary of Education, during her confirmation hearings in 2017.

[i] Data from The New York Times https://nyti.ms/2Cx9UTO

[ii] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/06/22/key-takeaways-on-americans-views-of-guns-and-gun-ownership/

[iii] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/crime-rates-donald-trump_n_57a8aa11e4b056bad2164226

[iv] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/04/05/guns-bang-for-the-buck/