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Gun Violence: Is It a People Problem?

When it comes to gun violence, is the problem people instead of guns?

In light of the “March For Our Lives” happening in Washington D.C. today (as well in venues across the nation and the globe), I want to address the logic of the argument I have seen most often in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High shooting—an argument against imposing stricter gun regulations, such as universal background checks and banning assault rifles. The argument goes like this:

“We don’t have a gun problem, we have a people problem.”

It’s related to the NRA’s argument that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people" (which I have addressed elsewhere), but it actually goes a little deeper.

Understanding the argument

The suggestion is essentially that the real cause of why we have more gun violence in America (compared to other developed nations) is because of the moral degradation of our society; people in America are more immoral and more prone to violence, and this is why we have more gun related violence—not the prevalence of guns. So, to address the problem, we need moral education, not gun regulations.

The cited cause of this moral degradation shifts, depending on who you ask. For some, it’s faulty parenting. For others, it’s the fact that “God has been taken out of society (and schools).” For still others, it’s the violent and amoral entertainment that we consume. Correspondingly, the preferred solution also varies: better parenting, outlawing or rating entertainment, “putting God back in society and schools.” But definitely not gun regulations; they won’t solve anything.

How to tell whether amorality is to blame

Although the argument, on its face, might seem convincing, it shouldn’t be. Indeed, it is deeply flawed.

First, it provides no solid evidence that American society is actually in moral decline. Some cite their own personal experience, others the impression they get from watching the news–but, of course, this evidence is no good. You can't generalize from your own personal experience to society as a whole–that's the fallacy of hasty generalization. And the news is likely to leave you with a false impression, due to availability error and confirmation bias. It reports the bad but leaves out the good.

Second, the main claim of this argument is this: the moral degradation of our society is what causes us to have more gun violence. But, at least in principle, this claim is empirically testable: To test causal claims, we simply look for correlations. If A causes B, then A should be correlated with B. Correlation, of course, doesn’t establish causation—that’s the causal fallacy. But it is necessary for it.

So, in principle, if the moral degradation of American society is the problem, we should be able to find a correlation between how amoral other societies are and how bad their gun violence problem is. Of course, it's difficult to measure the morality of a nation. But we can look to the argument for clues. Since bad parenting, a lack of religion, and corrupting media is supposedly the cause, we can look at counties with bad parents, little religion, and corrupting media to see if gun violence is as high there as it is here.

Is it bad parenting?

Although it’s difficult to judge parenting, you can look at how “easy” it is to be a parent—literally how much time a nation’s parents have to spend with their kids (for things like moral instruction). And, it turns out, the U.S. is dead last, followed by Mexico and Costa Rica—both of which, like the U.S., have high rates of gun violence. (10.45 per 100,000 for the U.S. 11.23 for Mexico, and 6.3 for Costa Rica.) [source] So you might think bad parenting actually is to blame.

But high levels of gun violence in Mexico and Costa Rica stem from drug trafficking, not bad parenting. And the next nation on the “bad parents” list is Canada, which, at .5, has a much lower gun crime rate than all three. (Ironically, 0.5 is still higher than most developed nations). New Zealand and Switzerland round out the bottom 10, but also have low gun crime rates (1.07 and 3.01 respectively). [source] So, clearly, the problem clearly isn’t bad parenting.

Is atheism to blame?

To see whether a lack of religion in America is to blame for gun violence, we can look to the rate of gun violence in the most non-religious nations in the world. If the argument is right, gun violence in non-religious nations should be off the chart.

But this is not the case. China is the most irreligious, but it also has one of the lowest reported gun violence rates in the world. Indeed, since 2012, crime in China is down 80%. Of course, given the Chinese government's reputation, those reports might not be accurate. But roughly the same is true of the next most religious countries:

% of non-religious Total gun deaths per 100,000

Sweden 73% 1.47

Czech Republic 72% 2.01

United Kingdom 69% 0.23

Azerbaijan 64% 0.07

Belgium 64% 1.24

Australia 63% 1.04

Hong Kong 63% 0.03

The trend continues. Indeed, if we compare these counties with the U.S., and embrace the logic of the argument we are considering…

United States 39% 10.45

…it would seem that irreligion is the solution to gun violence, not the cause.

Is the media to blame?

If the violent American media diet is to blame for our outlandish rate of gun violence, then we should find that counties with similar media diets have equally high gun violence rates. But, of course, the media diets among developed nations across the world are essentially the same, and yet there is a vast difference when it comes to their gun violence rates—America’s is high, the rest are exceptionally low.

This is especially true of the media that supposedly has the most corrupting influence: violent video games. I’ll let my source for this one do all the heavy lifting for me on this one, but as you can see from this chart, per capita, the U.S. is #8th in video games spending, and yet is #1—by leaps and bounds—when it comes to gun violence. Indeed, the highest markets for video games–the Netherlands and South Korea--have the lowest gun related crime in the group.

Max Fisher/Washington Post
Source: Max Fisher/Washington Post

Clearly, our media diet is not the problem either.

But what about the dropping crime rate?

To be fair, in researching this article I thought up a much better way to defend the primary assumption behind the argument we are considering—and that’s to point out that (contrary to the suggestion of the argument and what most people believe), violent crime is actually decreasing in the U.S. And with it, so is gun related crime. Both have been on a steady decrease in the U.S. since the 90s.

Given this, you might think one could make a link between how violent people are, and how likely they are to commit a crime with a gun—and thus suggest that to get our gun crime rate down, we simply need to continue to try do make people less violent.

But sadly, this link cannot be made.

Why not? Because other countries, like France, Poland, Denmark, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, The United Kingdom, and Australia all have higher rates of violent crime, and yet all have lower rates of gun violence. [see point 7 here.] Indeed, the U.S.’s rate of violent crime is actually below average for developed nations, and yet (as we’ve seen), our rate of gun related crime is through the roof.

The same is true, by the way, about mental illness. It's no higher in the U.S. than in other countries, so it can't be the cause of our gun violence problem. The same can be said of abortion, which is actually higher in places with less gun violence than the U.S. (For example, the U.S. abortion rate is 19/1000, while Asian countries like Japan have an abortion rate of 28/1000 and Eastern European counties like Romania have an abortion rate of 43/1000--and yet the latter's gun violence rate is much lower than the U.S.) And while being a bully makes one statistically more likely to carry or use a weapon at school, there is no correlation between nations with a bullying problem and nations with gun violence problems. (Austria, for example, has a bullying problem similar to ours--around 20% --but has a much lower gun homicide and school shooting rate. Interestingly, even though Austria has lax gun laws (when compared to its European counterparts), it has a much lower rate of gun ownership than them.)

The only things that set us apart in this regard, among developed nations, are our lax gun laws and our rate of gun ownership. Gun violence is higher in the U.S., not because we are more amoral than other nations (we’re not), but because it’s easier to access guns—both legally (because of lax gun regulations) and illegally (because they are so common).

A Simple Solution

The solution is simple: gun regulations that would make it more difficult for would-be violent criminals to access guns legally and would make it harder for them to access guns illegally—especially the kind of guns that enable one to inflict maximum damage in a minimum time.

As David DeGrazia points out, doing this wouldn’t be difficult. Indeed, the evidence suggests that this can be done quite easily with very common-sense regulations:

  • Universal background checks
  • Banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazine clips
  • Requiring gun licensing for all new gun owners (after passing a safety course).
  • Safe storage requirements and required safety features (e.g., childproof locks) on all guns.
  • Effective tracing mechanisms on all guns and a national database of all gun owners (and holding owners responsible if their gun is used in a crime).

Of course, opponents of gun regulations will argue that such steps won’t “stop” gun violence—but this argument commits yet another fallacy (called the "all or nothing" fallacy). Such efforts won’t stop gun violence completely, sure…nothing can. But stopping crime altogether has never been the goal of any law. Laws are for reducing crime, not completely eliminating it. [See Endnote] And the evidence shows the kinds of regulations suggested above would do just that when it comes to gun violence.

Moral education couldn’t completely eliminate violent people from society either; indeed, it would likely have very little effect. Now, I don't mean suggest that all such efforts are worthless. Indeed, Slate writer Laura Hayes has argued that, because violent crime is so often caused by people with anger management problems, education about anger management could reduce violent crime. If the experts agree, great; I say give it a shot.

But, in reality, the causes of violent crime are complex; and it's almost never as simple as "that person is just violent." Indeed, pathologically violent people are rare. It's often people's circumstances–like being poor–that drive them to violent criminal behavior.

When people become desperate enough, criminal behavior can actually become the rational option–even their only option for survival. And when it is, people turn to it. Think of Breaking Bad. Chemistry teacher Walter White would have never started making meth, and become a violent crime lord, had his medical bills not put him in such desperate financial straights. In the same way, someone who lives in a poor violent neighborhood may have no choice but to arm himself to survive, even though he isn't a violent person.

It's no coincidence that the 5 nations with the lowest violent crime rates all have low poverty rates, and the top 5 nations with the lowest poverty rates all have low violent crime rates. Indeed, Iceland and Norway are on both lists. In reality, the most effective means of reducing violent criminal behavior, and even gun violence, probably wouldn't even be gun would be to establish a social safety net and guarantee a universal basic income. [source]

But, in the meantime, gun regulation seems to be our best option. After all, there will always be violent people, they will still want to do violent things, and mass shootings are most often committed by angry or radicalized Christian middle-class white men. Such people will always be with us.

What we can do, however, is make it much harder for such people to amplify the affect of their anger by attaining the weapons they need to inflict maximum damage in a minimum amount of time. In other words, instead of trying to shift the focus to "moral education," let's do something that works. Let’s force the truly angry, sick, and violent among us to have to try hard to kill people if they want--instead of making it easy for them by giving them easy (legal and illegal) access to AR-15s.

Copyright 2018, David Kyle Johnson

End Note: In a recent online conversation, a gun advocate insisted that laws weren't for reducing crime, but simply for punishing criminals–because society has decided that certain actions deserve to be punished. This, of course, is nonsense; laws prescribe punishment for criminals for the purpose of deterring (and thus reducing) criminal behavior; they are not merely punishing for punishment's sake. This demonstrates how far gun advocates will go to argue against gun regulations. Incapable of refuting the idea that gun regulations would reduce gun violence, this person opted instead to change the purpose of the entire legal system. They refused to recognize that the purpose of laws is the reduction of crime.