Why is There So Much Gun Violence in America?
Ask a European, and they will tell you that Americans are violent. It’s not true. The number of assaults in America is similar to that in other countries. However, Americans are much more likely to die when attacked. The homicide rate in the US is four times higher than in countries like Australia, Britain, and Canada. The reason for that is that in America you are much more likely to be attacked by someone with a gun, and they are therefore much more likely to succeed in killing you. Adjusted for population, gun-related deaths—homicides and suicides—in the US are five times higher than in Canada, ten times higher than in Germany, and fifty times higher than in Britain.
There is some good news. The number of people gunned down in America has halved in the past 25 years. The proportion of households with guns has fallen from 50% in 1980 to 30% today. However, there are almost as many guns in private hands in the US as there people. American civilians own as many guns as the rest of the world combined. That means that when people get depressed, angry, or criminal there’s more likely to be a gun around.
The puzzle, then, is why gun ownership is so high in America. The story starts shortly after the country’s birth. Congress was discussing rights to be added to the US Constitution. One was the right to have weapons. It became known as the Second Amendment, and reads as follows:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Books have been written on what exactly this means. You can make a good case that those who wrote the amendment were thinking of arms for the purpose of raising a citizen army—that’s what militia means—not for individual use. However, it’s easy to argue that the Second Amendment means everyone has a right to own guns. And for many Americans that conviction became an important part of their national identity as a free people.
That didn’t have to happen. Britain, for example, has a Bill of Rights that says people can bear arms, but 99% of the population doesn’t know about it. So why do Americans remember the Second Amendment?
Part of the answer lies in how vital old pieces of paper are for how Americans understand their country. It’s hard to think of another country whose constitution is so central to people’s daily imagination and debates. But America, a diverse nation of immigrants with no ancient title to the land on which it sits, wouldn’t exist without its foundational documents. Britain can afford to forget its equivalents, but America can’t.
But that can’t be the whole story, because Americans are happy to forget most of what’s in those documents. So why did they remember the Second Amendment and their right to bear arms? Some of it had to do with the expansion of the country. Americans made their way across the continent with guns in their hands. They conquered land from Native Americans and Mexicans with thousands of bullets. If the government had not allowed settlers to have guns, the country would be much smaller. Few countries have ever expanded as quickly as the US did in the 1800’s. Therefore few countries had weapons and violence so bound up with their national story.
Having said that, Americans have always used more bullets to kill animals than people. Hunting has always been an important way that families have fed themselves and it still is in parts of America today. Most Americans who buy guns do so with the idea of killing deer, moose, or even squirrels.
That’s why many in rural America get mad when self-satisfied journalists or politicians on the country’s coasts speak of gun owners as ignorant and violent. Since the 1960’s, Democrats have done this regularly. There are many reasons why support for the Democratic party has crumbled outside of America’s big cities, but this is one of them.
In fact, politics probably explains more about guns in modern America than anything else does. Why is it hard to pass gun control laws in the US? Partly because it would be political suicide for any Republican to vote for it. But also because the American system of government, with its checks and balances on the power of every branch of government, makes it very difficult to pass any nationwide laws.
And if anyone proposes a law to restrict guns, the perverse result is that people buy more of them—for fear that a time may come when they can’t. Barack Obama was the best thing to happen to American gun manufacturers in a long time. Whenever he proposed gun control legislation, their sales and stock prices rose dramatically.
One reason that Obama wanted to tighten gun laws was that he is African-American. He may not have grown up in urban Chicago, but he knows as well as anyone the racial and economic dimensions of violence in America. Violence is linked to poverty, especially if there is an obvious gap between rich and poor as there is in the US. African Americans are much more likely to be poor. Therefore, African Americans are much more likely to be gunned down, whether by one another or by the police.
It’s hard to imagine any tragedy horrific enough to cause the federal government to pass effective gun control legislation. The good news is that gun related deaths have been going down. America is exceptional in all sorts of good ways. This is one area where it would be good for America to be more normal.