But this is something that is important to me.
Ever since I was a little kid I’ve really liked guns. A good deal (possibly a majority) of my play growing up was make believe violence. I’d make toy guns out of scrap wood from my Dad’s shop, along with toy swords, shields; pretty much anything I needed to pretend I was a WWII grunt, Viking warrior, or revolutionary rifleman. It was a lot of fun. I’d also like to note that overall, I wasn’t an actually violent child. I’d wrestle with Derek a lot, and I do remember striking Miriah in anger (I felt sick to my stomach after that, both because I knew I’d done something wrong, and I knew how much trouble I was going to be in); but I didn’t get in fights with other kids, and to this day I’ve never been in an actual “fight” with anyone.
Anyway, now that I’m old enough I can own guns, and I do. I have a 12 gauge shotgun, and a .30 caliber rifle at present, though I’d like to get more. In fact, part of why I’m writing this whole long thing is due to a brief conversation I had with Miriah. The topic of my guns came up and she asked if I planned on owning a handgun. I said that I did, she looked somewhat distraught and said, “But they’re only for killing people.” I’ve also, for the past couple years, frequented a website called reddit that has a relatively geographically diverse user base, and overall a potential for edifying conversation that you don’t find in all large online communities. A frequent topic throughout the site is the culture of firearms and laws relating to firearms in the US and the rest of the world. Lots of very thoughtful and honest discussion takes place from both sides of the argument, with of course a few rude / trollish folks from both sides thrown in too.
Many times on reddit I’ve read opinions from folks in Oceania, or some part of Europe, who are truly incredulous as to gun culture in the US. In their culture and day to day life, guns are almost exclusively associated with criminals and it’s often difficult for them to understand why any “normal” person would even want a gun. The belief is that if you have guns, something must be a little bit “off” with you, some how. This is especially true when it comes to handguns and concealed carry laws in the states. “Do Americans really fear and distrust each other so much that they need a gun on them to feel safe? I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that,” (or something similar) is a statement I’ve read several times.
I want to address this statement separately here before I go into the rest of my beliefs. I believe that many people are mature and responsible enough to own and carry guns. People making the above statement believe that very very few people are mature and responsible to own or carry guns. I feel that I am the more trusting of my fellow man. I also feel that statistically my beliefs are validated. As a group, holders of concealed carry licenses are considerably less criminal than the general population; as shown in this study of Texas CHL holders and this study of Tennessee CCW license holders. In the Tennessee case, for example, which states that less than half of a percent of CCW holders have their licenses revoked due to committing crimes or misdemeanors. The general population crime rate alone (not counting misdemeanors, many of which can result in losing your CCW license) in Tennessee is 10 times higher.
The next very commonly stated belief is that the obscenely high murder rate in the US is due to our love affair with guns. “You’ve got more guns per capita than anybody else in the world, and a far higher murder rate than the any other industrialized country. Don’t you think the two are related?,” is something else I’ve read several times. This is where I want to make my main point, since the following is what really breaks my heart. It is absolutely true that the US has a terrible murder rate. According to this site, the overall murder rate in the US as compared to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Denmark is 3 to 4 times higher. When adjusting for only murders using guns, the ratios jump from just under 6 times higher to 27 times higher. This is truly awful. I am in no way an apologist for the violence that can be found in America.
But guns are not the root cause, and the fact that the discussion of addressing this problem has almost always centered around guns has lead to much less attention being paid to the true causes, which I believe are social inequalities due to institutionalized racism and the manner in which our country conducts its War on Drugs.
The FBI releases crime data each year, broken down by race of offender and race of victim. When we compare the murder rate among white Americans to the murder rate in the countries listed above we find that it is almost exactly the same as that of the UK and Australia, and between 20% to 30% higher than in New Zealand, Denmark and Germany. The murder rate among black Americans meanwhile is between 6 and 8 times higher than in those countries.
This summer I began reading “A People’s History of America,” by Howard Zinn. While I don’t buy everything he’s selling, his description of the shaping of black culture in America helped me to see many viewpoints I had not considered before. I’m not going to talk about what 200 years of slavery, and then another 100 years of second class citizenship will do to family structures, social values, general outlook on life, and means of conflict resolution; I’m not qualified to do any of that. But it definitely helped me see that a white guy like me, who comes from a middle class home, with a loving and supportive family, has an astronomical built in advantage in the United States.
“Fine,” you say, “but we’ve come a long way since the ’60s, sure there’s still progress to be made, but look around you, it’s 2010! We’ve got a black President!”
Absolutely the civil rights movement has accomplished a lot. Unfortunately, at about the same time as the civil rights movement really started to make gains, ol’ Tricky Dick kicked off our War on Drugs, which has done vast damage to our country, and yet continues to be heralded and ramped up by each new administration keen to show they’re tough on this “scourge.” Again, I’m not going to go into all the reasons why I feel this way about the War on Drugs ( I’d suggest going here if you’re curious), but I will state a few factors.
First, the War on Drugs has created a thriving black market for all illegal substances, providing gainful opportunities to those who are willing to break society’s rules. This is a lot easier to do if you’ve never felt completely a part of the society as a whole. Secondly, if it’s a “War” then law enforcement becomes an army, both in equipment and mindset. Thanks to transfers of military equipment from our armed forces to our local police forces beginning in the 1980s, increasingly officers on the street are equipped similarly to soldiers rather than peace officers. Combine these two and you have a militaristic police force with a warrior’s mindset waging their war for the good of society, and the brunt of that effort is born by a segment of the population that was already struggling with disenfranchisement and broken social and familial connections. It’s a vicious cycle.
Additionally, we’ve decided to lock up a larger proportion of our population than any culture ever in history, a huge amount for drug use and possession charges. Due to extreme overcrowding, and draconian “get tough on crime with sports metaphors” sentencing laws, more people are locked up for longer in violent state prisons, in which survival can be incredibly mentally and psychologically taxing. A lot of people go in for non-violent crimes, but come out as much changed individuals. And then we tell them that they have to leave all that experience behind and be normal citizens again.
I feel like I may have gotten off track a little, I apologize, these are all subjects that I’m pretty passionate about. I guess to sum up, it seems to me that guns are a scapegoat, they’re the easy answer to a problem that is actually much deeper and much uglier. Social liberals talk about racial income inequality and the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity but then say that black guys are killing each other because they have guns. Charleton Heston talked about his cold dead hands, but then made lame vague statements about America’s diversity and history when questioned about why our murder rate was so high, because he couldn’t admit that there’s a vile ugly streak in our national history and psyche. The root of these problems are almost 400 years old and affect every American. By saying it’s because we have the freedom to own guns misses both the point and an opportunity to actually make a positive impact.