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It’s Not That Simple

Why do these things happen? Why do they keep happening? What can we do to stop them from happening?

These are the obvious questions asked, screamed, and cried out whenever something as horrific as the Newtown murders or the Aurora murders reach the national news. We want things to make sense, and we want to fix things which are broken. For many years, various groups have worked to demonize various trends, items, and products in order to stop violence. There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer, but we don’t want to deal with complex ones. There may not even be a complex answer.

Homicide by weapon

Homicide by weapon 1976-2004

First, is gun violence on the rise in the United States or not? If you watch the news, you’d think every public place is only a hair’s breadth from utter annihilation from a nut with a gun. Although gun violence in America is higher than most other industrialized nations by a rather large ratio, it’s actually not at a particularly high level compared to our own historical norm. Many people think that we live in especially dangerous times, but that’s simply not true. We’re no more in danger now than in 1975. Of course, our parents didn’t have four channels of 24-hour news that needed to be filled. We hear about more violence, but that doesn’t mean we are experiencing more violence. So, we aren’t seeing any more gun violence than our parents saw.

Second, is restricting gun ownership a panacea that would prevent gun violence? This seems obvious to many people. More guns must lead to more gun crimes, after all. But, other countries have higher rates of gun ownership than the USA does, and have much lower levels of gun-related homicide. Switzerland is a great example. Every able-boded male between 18 and 50 is a member of Switzerland’s armed forces and there are approximately 2 million firearms in private hands in that country of 6 million people. Approximately 25% of Swiss households have a firearm in the home. That’s about the same percentage as the USA (The Swiss have 46 guns per 100 people and we have 88 guns per 100 people in the USA, since we seem to have a lot more collectors or arsenal-builders here). There were 0.52 gun homicides per 100,000 citizens in Switzerland in 2010. In the USA, that was 3.2 – over six times the rate. So, availability of weapons doesn’t necessarily lead to more gun violence.

Finally, does media violence lead to actual violence? We are not the only country with violent video games and television shows and movies. Yet, we are an outlier in terms of gun violence compared to those other countries. Studies sometimes show that violent imagery can cause violent behavior, but the imagery is usually out of context and not how we actually encounter those images in real media consumption. Further, looking at violent behavior in a lab is only interesting to the researchers; looking at the rise of media violence and whether that correlates to real-world violence is what matters to society. There is no such correlation. As anyone who has lived through the past thirty years could tell you, media violence has not decreased and yet (as shown above) gun violence has decreased. If there’s any causative motion, you might be able to claim that the rise of more violent video games in the 1990s (as opposed to the cartoonish games of the 1980s) has actually caused us to become less violent. There is no proof for that statement, but if you look merely at correlation and ignore plausible causation, you could make that argument. So, media doesn’t make our citizens more violent.

What does make the United States different from other countries? Why do we have more gun violence than societies similar to our own? Why does Canada have one-quarter the gun-related homicide rate the USA has? Is our society so different from Canada and England and all the other industrialized nations? Before we try to make sweeping changes to our laws, it might be educational to figure out whether the things we want to change would plausibly make any difference. It’s not as simple as “more guns” or “fewer guns” or “video games” – it’s not obvious, and it’s not something we have figured out yet. It’s not a new problem, it’s not an increasingly large problem, but it’s definitely a difficult problem. Banning one thing or another might feel like the right thing to do, but it likely won’t make a difference.

This does not mean we should just give up and accept a certain level of murders because we don’t have a simple answer to fix the problem. But, we need to actually identify the cause of the problem before we can fix it.

Originally published at BunkBlog. You can comment here or there.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 20th, 2012 12:18 am (UTC)
a left opinion, indeed.
The Gawker article on how the NRA is really a front for the gun manufacturers, who stay remarkably free of vitriol every time a shooting makes the news, while the NRA is routinely battered, is very good. Simply put, why are we making assault rifles for anybody other than the military? The gun companies stay blemish free while everyone curses the NRA.

I agree that it's not simply the availability of weapons that makes gun violence so prevalent in the United States, it is the absurd focus on 'rights', 'patriotism', 'freedom', so-called "Christianity' and all that other meaningless bullshit the right likes to focus on relentlessly, and as long as they have their outsized sense of entitlement about everything, guns will continue to be freely distributed throughout the United States and used in an irresponsible manner. It's quite simply the bizarre, hick-mentality culture that "I am a free God-loving American red-blooded patriot!" that is so strongly identified with and the idea that the right also has that everything should be freely distributed because it is good for business, and the meddling gov'mint should keep their filthy cash-stained hands out of it, particularly that black fella the liberals elected. The gospel according to Sarah Palin has taken root.

It is one thing to wish for reasonable amounts of freedom, small government, fiscal conservatism, etc. I understand why rational people vote on the right, even though I mostly think it's about keeping as much of their dough as possible. It is another thing to embody the dreadful stereotype of the stubbornly ignorant American hick whose cold dead hands, etc etc etc, you will pry guns from, etc etc blah blah. Gun violence in the United States is a cultural and educational problem just as much as it is the fact you can buy them like beer or cigarettes. The fact is, most people have grown up with guns available at the ready, and know nothing else. It's like when babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome; it isn't really just that the mother is an irresponsible drunk, 99% of the time it is the family structure/culture she grew up in that makes her believe this is okay, and she probably has FAS people in her family and knows nothing else. It's the sort of thing you can't really educate for when it's all they've ever known and aren't likely to rise above their family status. I am quite sure that had I grown up in a gun culture, I'd feel quite comfortable about weaponry too. Having never really been near a gun, they, and the American gun culture, horrify me.

Someone on Twitter said simply that if the NRA accepted non-white members, particularly from, say, inner-city Chicago, that that would be one way we'd get gun control in a hurry in the US. I thought that was amusing.

Seriously, read this dude's blog. Apparently they are going to fight and blood will be spilled. How do you educate for this? How do you make this man see that he is proposing criminal activity? http://americanpatriotsblog.com/2012/12/14/well-here-we-are/

Edited at 2012-12-20 12:21 am (UTC)
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