Here in England, I watched last night, as no doubt millions of others did, as regular news programmes were cancelled to report live from the horror unfolding at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I turned out the light with the knowledge that 20 children, six adults, and a 20-year-old gunman were dead.
Along with anguished cries and expressions of bewilderment that something so seemingly irrational can occur at all, there are calls for stricter gun laws. I don’t think the action is quite as inexplicable as many people think, and although I think the obsession with owning a gun in America is actually itself often irrational, I doubt the problem can be solved by stricter gun laws.
But would stricter gun laws at least help? For at least the last decade in the United States, gun-related homicides have averaged about 12,000 deaths per year. An additional 16- 17,000 deaths result from gun-related suicides, and another 5,000 from action by law enforcement personnel. That’s an average of more than 80 deaths a day. In Japan, which has the strictest laws in the world, there are between 1 and 12 gun-related homicides annually.
But I’m not convinced. The U.S. constitutional amendment making alcohol illegal simply drove the problem underground and provided a market in which organized crime flourished. Making drugs illegal may be filling up our prisons, but it is not solving the drug problem. Guns in America, too, are a reflection of a deeper set of cultural attitudes. Something deeper, beyond the reach of simple legislation, has to change in our values.
What are these values? There seems to me to be a violent dynamic often running through the mantra of American independence and opportunity. In the promise that anyone who works hard can be a success lies the potential for a particular humiliation in failure. Americans are supposed to be the best. We honor those who build bigger bombs, higher buildings, bigger business, larger piles of money whatever the cost. We fight for ourselves and for our rights.
But given the history of our country, that fight is often with physical force. In many ways, we are a violent country. Many Americans think they need guns to protect themselves, and that to appear weak is, by its very nature not to invite support but to invite attack. This is not just evident in relation to our natural security. In America, there is an average of almost 5 homicides in every 100,000 people annually, double the average in any other developed country in the world. In Canada it is 1.5 per 100,000, in England 1.1.
I don’t think we fully understand what may be an unconscious support for values which, unintentionally, support much of the violence in America. There is the obvious political split between Republicans and Democrats, and a similar split between urban and rural areas where hunting provides an obvious justification and familiarity with guns. But are there deeper subterranean clefts? I would like to see some serious research undertaken. Do attitudes toward gun control run parallel with attitudes toward the death penalty or with attitudes toward physical punishment in general? toward child-rearing practices, in particular toward the use of physical punishment of children, or the value of education? are there identifiable differences in religious affiliation, among socio-economic or cultural groups, in attitudes toward law enforcement, toward government? Do attitudes of recent immigrants differ from those whose families immigrated generations ago?
Similar questions arise in relation to those who commit gun crimes such as the killing spree we have just witnessed? Under what conditions do they grow up, what is their familiarity with guns? with tv, movies, and computer games with strong violent themes? Who are their heroes? What kind of schools do they attend, and what were their experiences there? are they typically seen as failures? bullied? bullies themselves? truants or drop-outs? What of their family life? do they live with both parents? do they have siblings? How specifically do they present themselves during the killing spree? as anti-heroes, for instance, dressed in black or in some kind of combat clothes? Do they seem, in other words, to be seeking some kind of post-mortem celebrity or at least notoriety? or revenge?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think before we try to solve the problems of gun crime in America, we need to understand more than we do about its deep-rooted causes.