Gun Culture

Gun culture in the United States is peculiar. When I think of a handgun, I think of the revolver* in Cluedo. Specifically I think that if someone were to use a handgun against another person, he would be culpable of murder much the way he might be if, say, he were to assail his target with a butcher knife or a large candlestick. He’d be just as guilty of murder as if he slipped thallium into his victim’s tea. Guns have many uses, whether used to hunt, to dispatch vermin, or even for sport (e.g. targets and skeet). But the ease with which a firearm could be used to murder doesn’t make it a lesser crime when one does so. And the the right to own, maintain and use a firearm does not confer the right to murder with that firearm. If I shot someone, I would expect to be investigated, captured, arrested, tried and thrown into prison for probably the rest of my life. For the rest of my very short life, depending on what state I happened to be in.**

This, to me, is easy logic, and obvious logic.

Hence it’s peculiar to me that gun-control advocates in the US seem to believe gun rights in the US would, unregulated, extend to the use of guns against others, as if freedom of gun ownership, or the right to bear arms includes the right to brandish such devices menacingly, or to use them to deprive the rights of another of life on the mere notion that the target (in the opinion of the brandisher) needed to be shot. Somehow the Second Amendment appears to some to imply a right to engage in violence.

More curiously, some gun-rights advocates (those who oppose gun control) seem to believe the same thing, that the right to bear arms confers also the right to use those arms as one pleases, even when that use might deprive someone else of life or health.

So, when Brock Turner was released from prison, Ohio residents protested outside Turner’s house carrying assault rifles (in accordance to open-carry laws). It’s not exactly a hollow threat, but it’s as dire an exchange as a bee-sting. Were one of those demonstrators to act on his implied threat, a first-degree murder charge would be inevitable. The gunman would end up in prison or dead. That’s a big sacrifice just to dispatch a dude who’s already going to be shunned for the rest of his life.

Similarly, Scott Roeder gunned down Dr. George Tiller in May of 2009. Roeder believed he was saving the lives of countless babies, and was counting on sympathy from anti-abortion jurors to nullify his conviction. They didn’t. Rather, it took only forty minutes deliberation for Roeder to be convicted, and he’s serving the maximum sentence that the State of Kansas allowed.

So where did Americans get the notion that the license to own weapons includes the license to kill with them? Why do Americans think that the right to bear arms also makes it acceptable to use and manage their weapons carelessly and irresponsibly?

The short answer to this is I don’t know. But there are clues as to why it’s this way.

For one thing, reckless gun culture is a recent phenomenon. In the 70s and 80s gun ownership implied gun responsibility. The gun owner knew how to break her weapon down and maintain it. She knew how to fire the weapon with accuracy. She kept it secured, away from children (typically loaded, with the pretense that weapons were to be regarded as always loaded and ready to fire). She was familiar with local laws regarding her obligations as a gun owner to the community and to law enforcement. And she understood what circumstances self-defense could provide legal immunity in a trial regarding her assault of someone else by firearm.

By the aughts, open-carry was a device of political demonstration, gun ads were hyper-masculine and people were leaving their loaded handguns on their coffee tables as a practice of their second amendment rights.


Part of the problem possibly lies in our violence culture (Which Problem Machine also thoroughly considered). The problem doesn’t necessarily lie in our love of violence (Neither excessive gunplay and use of high explosives in Looney Tunes nor in aughts-era violent video games correlate to increases in violent crime) but in our willingness to adopt an us vs. them mentality, the notion that certain people are good or evil by designation, so that actions by the good-guys are justified regardless of how terrible they are. And actions against the bad-guys are justified, again, no matter how heinous.

But I don’t actually have statistics to back this. It’s a guess. A piece in the puzzle.

Another piece is our curiously average intentional homicide rate. US gun crime and gun death rates are disproportionate even in comparison to other nations with easy gun access. Most gun deaths are suicide. Guns in a house present a significant risk increase when cohabitants are already at risk of suicide.

But the US homicide rate is… average. It’s 3.9 per 100,000 population. Granted, most of Europe has less than 1, but then Ukraine and Russia (both of which severely restrict guns) have higher rates 4.3 and 9.5(!) respectively. They’re also outliers in Eastern Europe, so WTF?

Ultimately, I opine, we are going to have to trust that the people of the US can be responsible with guns, even though it is momentarily evident that the people of the US cannot be responsible at all, say with the right to vote, or to manage their own children, or to clean up our own messes. But to paraphrase James Madison, we aren’t angels nor have we angels to govern us. And that means we don’t have angels to handle our guns (or our children or our civic duties) for us. And when we hire and train people to take those responsibilities, well, they aren’t angels either, and they suck at it too, despite their training.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

* I’ve only known the Cluedo weapon to be called a revolver, though it was only a revolver in the most recent iteration of the game (since 1972), specifically the Allen & Thurber Pepper-box Revolver. Prior to this change, the handgun represented was a Colt M1911 or a Dreyse M1907, both military service issue semiautomatic handguns, both of which do not feature a revolving cylinder.

** In the real world, few culprits are actually arrested, largely due to insufficient evidence. Though all suspects once arrested and booked get indicted (with rare exceptions, usually police officers) Then, almost all suspects taken to trial are convicted (whether or not they are guilty). This is to say that in the real world murderers often go free, and innocent people often get caught up and convicted. But in US culture we still hold a belief that the long arm of the law is tenacious, and that murderers — even ones who use guns to do their murderin’ — see their end at the hands of the justice system, even swinging from the gallows.

To throw even more doubt into these numbers, during 2015 and 2016 in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown we’ve become more aware of how dubious our numbers are, at very least when it comes to how often police shootings of civilians occur. Precinct policies have been lax for a while regarding killings by police and only in the last couple of years have news agencies started to independently track them. (We have some non-profits that been track coroner reports and obituaries to causes of death in order to account for police shootings). The obfuscation around police overreach and violence is expected to get worse from 2017 forward, given that both President Trump and Attorney General Sessions are unwilling to even consider data that puts law enforcement in negative light.

Considering that murder rates are something of an embarrassment to this state, it would make sense that other states might regard their own real data to be embarrassing as well. (Consider the Florida Sunshine-Law problem.) Regarding statistics regarding gun-deaths and gun crimes, activists from both sides have been guilty of massaging the numbers to suit their position, which only makes it harder to assess the gun problem fairly in the US. The Guttmacher Institute was founded to research and present accurate data regarding human reproductivity, birth control and abortion, and is referenced by activist groups with positions on both sides. At this time we don’t have a similar institution that provides accurate data regarding violent crime with or without guns, and public discourse regarding gun violence suffers for this want.


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