Americans are slow to comprehend disturbing trends. After Friday’s awful events in Newtown, CT, gun advocates are once again reminding us that it’s our mental health system that has failed us, not our attitude about guns. Their maxim is: guns don’t kill people, crazy people kill people.
Proponents of this thesis should know that by their own measure, we are the craziest country in the world. By far. Of the 25 mass shootings (defined by 12 deaths or more) in the last 50 years, 15 occurred in the USA. Second place is Finland with two—those crazy Finns. We also make it very easy for crazies to get guns; so easy that 48 of the 61 mass murders since 1982 were committed with lawfully obtained firearms. How did the crazies get those guns? The fact we have over 50,000 gun shops, double the number of Starbucks in the whole world, might have something to do with it. Easily accessed firearms along with that je ne sais quoi American “rugged individualism”, as you might imagine, leads to lots and lots of gun ownershipt: the NRA estimates that near 50% of households own some 300 million firearms (one for every resident!)–by far and away the most gun ownership per capita in the world.
All those guns in the hands of crazy people makes for terrible results—over 30,000 deaths per year caused by guns, which averages to roughly 80 people per day. That’s over 80% of all gun deaths in the 23 richest countries in the world combined—which allows us to claim the title of most gun-violent country in the OECD. Gun advocates like to point out that only 1/3 or so of those 30,000 plus are gun homicides, but compare that number to Germany (168) or Canada (170). It is important to note that our total rates of violent crimes aren’t much higher than other comparable industrialized democracies. In other words, a NYC resident might be statistically safer from burglaries or assault than someone in Santiago, Chile. But the NYC resident is more likely to be a victim of a lethal, gun-related crime by many orders of magnitude.
Now, doesn’t there appear to be a statistical correlation between gun ownership, easy firearm access, and violence? If the other statistics aren’t convincing enough, consider that states with tighter gun regulation have, what would you guessless gun-related violence. The south, as it turns out, the area with the most accessible gun laws, surprise surprise, has the highest incidents of gun violence.1 More interestingly though is what else economist Richard Florida discovered from this study: “Higher populations, more stress, more immigrants, and more mental illness were not correlated with more deaths from gun violence.” In fact, the densest populated areas, the Northeast, have the fewest incidents (per-capita) of gun related violence. Traditionally of course we think of high-stress environments producing more mental illness. That still could be the case but it doesn’t appear to correlate with gun violence.
Of course, these statistics just illustrate correlation not causation. It could be some other factor that is driving the US population to commit so many violent crimes and kill so many of our own citizens. It’s kind of like global warming, right? I mean so what if there’s historic amounts of human produced CO2 in the atmosphere, and it happens to correlate with historic rises in temperature, melting of polar ice caps, and unpredictable weather. That’s just correlation. So what if easy access to guns happens to correlate with ridiculously high incidents of gun violence. It could just as well be something else, right? Maybe we don’t watch enough football or are vitamin D deficient, or maybe we just happen to have lots of crazy people in our country. Judging by the heinous views on gun control espoused by half the country, we certainly have plenty of crazy people.
Even if the country were to wake up to the damning correlation between lax gun laws, ownership, and high rates of violence, what policies to pursue is not entirely clear. There will never be a panacea solution to violence. No matter our policy, people bent on inflicting harm to others will be sometimes be successful. Though it’s true we should reflect on how we treat the mentally ill, we will never have control over human volition. We can however exert a modicum of control over access to tools of violence. For instance, we could follow Great Britain and ban hand-guns–a legislative act that swiftly passed after a mass shooting in a Dunblane school in 1996. Or we could re-institute the assault weapons ban, or make mandated background checks to own or sell guns more rigorous and prevalent. We could institute a “violence tax” similar to excise taxes on items like alcohol and tobacco. Or, god forbid, we could ban further sale of guns to civilians all together.
Unfortunately none of these policies address the guns already out there. And just imagine what would happen if any real gun control legislation were introduced–the run on guns and ammo would make the “shortages” after Obama was elected (and re-elected) look pathetic. In other words, regardless of policy action, we will be reaping what we’ve sewn for a long time. Nevertheless, as the President said, “We can’t tolerate this anymore…These tragedies must end, and to end them we must change.” I hope we can.
1 Some have said that the South is the only place where “You can buy bullets, bait, and beer all in the same place.”