Gun Violence: A Cultural Study
Oscar Gordon’s post on gun control covered many aspects of the gun debate, from the mistakes both sides of the aisle make in talking past each other, to offering some sensible solutions that could reduce gun crime. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to do so. It’s a good read.
Nearly three years ago, in Newtown, CT, a mass shooting took place which claimed the lives of 26 people. In response to the shootings we hosted a symposium on Guns in America here at Ordinary Times. It was a solid exchange of ideas among people struggling to make sense of the tragedy. At the time it felt like the right response from writers who honestly just wanted things to get better. Looking back on the governmental response, there was a brief spasm of new gun laws in the months that followed. There is still a lot more information to gather on their effectiveness, but one thing is clear today: While gun crime has dropped in the last 20 years, the United States still has a gun problem and mass shootings are only part of the issue.
The Chicago Tribune documented 159 shootings in Chicago over a recent 30-day period. The average age of the victims was 28. All were male. We have all heard the rhetoric on this subject. Chicago has some of the most strict gun laws in the country and yet this still happens. Proof, my friends on the Right would say, that tougher gun laws don’t work. And to be clear, it isn’t just gang members that flaunt gun laws. After Newtown the state of Connecticut passed a law which allowed citizens to retain ‘assault weapons’ if they registered them by December 12, 2013. Two months after the deadline it was projected that only 15 percent of the guns in the state that met the requirement were registered, creating, “tens of thousands of newly minted criminals – perhaps 100,000 people, almost certainly at least 20,000 – who have broken no other laws.”
Culturally speaking, the situation in Chicago is interesting, not because it seems to contradict tough gun laws but because it more accurately proves that bad things happen in communities where boys grow up without their fathers. Approximately 72 percent of African American children are born out-of-wedlock. This sad statistic gets worse when we see that 85 percent of the youths in prison come from fatherless homes. The root of Chicago’s gun problem is not guns, it is broken families.
There are a lot of reasons why black men are missing from their communities, but America’s terribly prejudicial and misguided Drug War is certainly a major culprit. If you have any doubts about the deep flaws built into our judicial and incarceration system, I urge you to watch Vice’s important piece on the subject. If it doesn’t make you want to organize a prison break for non-violent drug offenders, then you are just the kind of person that private prison companies would probably like to have on their payroll. While the effects of incarceration on black communities is a subject ripe for debate, discussions about possible solutions are just as difficult. President Obama recently told federal agencies to stop asking about criminal history on job applications. States are also doing the same because getting a good job is perhaps the most important factor in reducing recidivism rates. It seems that people with a paycheck are less likely to commit crimes for money. Go figure.
While keeping young men from returning to jail is an admirable goal, it would be even better if we kept them from going there in the first place. USA Today documented a correlation between gun violence and educational attainment. Trying to achieve educational equality has been a longstanding goal, and yet after experimenting with school desegregation for nearly 50 years, results are mixed at best. Meanwhile, Penelope Trunk cites tons of articles which indicate that schools alone cannot lift kids out of poverty. They need one-on-one attention at home, which is very hard for single parents to provide. Trunk also talks about homeschooling as an option, provided employers are willing to consider flexible schedules. On top of all of this, the suicide rate among black youths has doubled. A Harvard study makes the seemingly obvious connection that this is linked to ease-of-access to firearms.
Even with all of these cultural hurdles, we can still do some important things to keep guns out of inner cities. Trafficking is a huge problem, with the South-North corridor being the primary contributor. The most immediate way to disrupt the flow of guns is to require that all transfers of guns be documented. That means whether it is a father gifting a gun to his son or two strangers making a private sale in the aisle of gun show, all would be documented. Rather than balking at this idea, gun owners should be willing to comply. There are plenty of outdoorsmen among gun owners and those that don’t hunt still understand that hunters are probably the most regulated recreationists in the country. Hunting seasons, ammo restrictions, bag limits, licensing requirements; not only are they tolerated but they are celebrated as proof the sport is safe and well-regulated. On the flip side, when we ask some of these same people to register their firearm purchase it becomes a problem. This contradiction no longer makes any sense and at the end of the day tracking the movement of guns is one of the most important things we can do.
As Oscar also points out in his post, the anti-gun crowd has plenty of problems of their own. The most glaring fault is that, quite frankly, many of them know very little about guns. They make statements that demonstrate this ignorance and then they are immediately discounted by gun owners, and rightly so. One recent example is House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D) who recently said, “I don’t know any hunters who use an assault weapon – and if they do, that’s not much of a sport.” What he imagines is hunters spraying bullets in the woods with fully-automatic weapons, when this could not be further from reality. Unfortunately he isn’t educated enough to know the difference, but he still has a bully pulpit and an equally uneducated group of supporters who nod their heads in agreement.
An LA Times article that Oscar linked to has a section which paints the perfect analogy on this topic:
If you think precision doesn’t matter, forget about guns for a second. Imagine I’m concerned about dangerous pit bulls, and I’m explaining my views to you, a dog trainer – but I have no grasp of dog terminology.
Me: I don’t want to take away dog owners’ rights, but we need to do something about pit bulls. We need restrictions on owning an attack dog.
You: Wait. What’s an “attack dog”?
Me: You know what I mean. Like military dogs.
You: Huh? Pit bulls aren’t military dogs. In fact “military dogs” isn’t a thing. You mean like German Shepherds?
Me: Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody’s trying to take away your German Shepherds. But civilians shouldn’t own fighting dogs.
You: I have no idea what dogs you’re talking about now.
Me: You’re being both picky and obtuse. You know I mean hounds.
You: Hounds? Seriously?
Me: OK, maybe not actually “hounds.” Maybe I have the terminology wrong. I’m not obsessed with violent dogs the way you are. But we can identify breeds that civilians just don’t need to own.
You: Apparently not.
The truth is that handguns, not ‘assault rifles’, are the primary problem in this country, even with regards to mass shootings. Yet on December 16th, Democrats in Congress introduced the 2015 Assault Weapons Ban, a wholly un-serious piece of legislation. Meanhile, a majority of the public opposes assault weapons ban, putting liberals on the other side of the issue from both moderates and conservatives.
An article at the NY Times documents the guns used in the last 15 major mass shootings and how they were obtained. Some quick facts:
- 4 out of 15 shooters used an assault rifle along with a handgun.
- 10 out of 15 only used a handgun.
This is just the information for a selection of mass shootings. It doesn’t cover gang violence, crimes of passion, suicide, or accidental shootings, all of which are dominated by the use of a handgun. Yet the Left still has a tendency to focus on scary-looking tactical rifles. Despite this scrutiny, tactical rifles have become increasingly popular during the Obama administration in a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. To understand why, another cultural deep-dive is in order.
In 2008 sales of tactical rifles began to spike based on the President’s record and statements about guns before he entered the White House. Gun owners assumed he would soon push for a renewed assault weapons ban, and so they began stocking up. Since guns need ammo, they also started stockpiling rounds, which then led to an ammo shortage. This then triggered conspiracy theories which made ammo even more valued. It was a terrible cycle that has not played itself out yet.
Despite the weird mania for tactical rifles after the President took office, the root of the trend may go deeper. In a very un-scientific study of dystopian films, in the 20 years prior to 9/11 there were 2.6 dystopian films made per year. Since 2001 Hollywood has produced 5.6 per year. Add to that television shows, books and video games and the American public seems to be thinking more and more about a world where our safety is not guaranteed. In response they have begun arming themselves with the kinds of guns they believe will offer them the most protection.
While I believe strongly that the fondness for all things tactical will eventually run its course, even some of the old timers have reached their limits. Bill Heavey, a longtime outdoor writer with Field & Stream, recently talked about how he is no longer planning to attend the SHOT Show because the emphasis has swung so heavily to the tactical side.
There is another cultural phenomenon which must also be acknowledged as part of this discussion. When it comes to mass shootings, this is almost exclusively a white male problem. I have struggled to make sense of this, but the answer may be that white men, after centuries of privilege, may not be as equipped as other groups to handle tough situations. Frustration and inability to change one’s circumstances is something women and minorities face more often and so when it happens they respond in ways that are less destructive. A very small fraction of white males may instead seek resolution in violence.
Before those on the Left agree with me too much on this point, I have to ask just what they would do in response. Ross Douthat has some ideas on the subject:
“I suspect liberals imagine, at some level, that a Prohibition-style campaign against guns would mostly involve busting up gun shows and disarming Robert Dear-like trailer-park loners. But in practice it would probably look more like Michael Bloomberg’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, with a counterterrorism component that ended up heavily targeting Muslim Americans. In areas where gun ownership is high but crime rates low, like Bernie Sanders’ Vermont, authorities would mostly turn a blind eye to illegal guns, while poor and minority communities bore the brunt of raids and fines and jail terms.”
In a perfect follow-up question, Nathaniel Givens writes,
“If that sounds at all farfetched you simply need to ask yourself this question: has the War on Drugs had a disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities? Then what makes you think a War on Guns would be any different?”
Historically, gun laws have been used to oppress blacks, as was the case in the South during Reconstruction. So if prohibition isn’t the answer, what is? We may be able to help identify these ticking time bombs through gun clubs, as Oscar describes in his post, but we may also need to look to other potential sources of information.
This summer, my wife broke her foot and I took her to the emergency room. While there, she was asked if she was being abused, which we learned is standard practice for certain kinds of injuries. Rather than being offended I was grateful that they were looking out for her. In light of that experience, it seems to me that giving medical professionals, social workers, teachers and other professions the ability to flag individuals for investigation would help. The lawyers among you can tell me what I am missing here from a liability standpoint.
Because there are two sides to the discussion of gun databases, I will also mention Dave Petzal, another writer with Field & Stream, a well-respected voice within the gun community, who voiced his own concerns:
When I flew out to the SHOT Show in 2014, I found myself on the TSA’s Pre Check list. I had never applied to be on it, and had no idea why my name had been added. Possibly because I was so old that I was incapable of making trouble. Possibly because back in the late 60s I briefly held a Secret security clearance. Who knows? Who knows how to find out?
This past January, when I made the same flight, I was no longer on the list. Why was I taken off? I have no idea, and enthusiastically don’t care. But I still got on the plane. What if this had been the no-buy-gun list instead of the expedited-screening list? You get on and off at whose whim?
Virginia just announced that they are ending their reciprocity agreements with 25 other states, meaning that citizens of those states with concealed carry permits will no longer be able to carry concealed within the Commonwealth. Virginia’s Attorney General cited security concerns by saying that “it will be more difficult for potentially dangerous individuals to conceal their handguns here in Virginia and that will make Virginians safer, especially Virginian law enforcement.” The implication — that concealed deadly weapons are more of a threat than a deterrent — directly contradicts all known facts about gun crime, but this would be even easier to prove if the NRA was not blocking the CDC from gathering gun stats.
For most of the 20th century the NRA was primarily devoted to sportsmen and as such actually helped to promote several pieces of gun control legislation aimed at reducing gun crime. In the mid-1970s there was an ideological shift and people who were more concerned about security took over the organization. At that time it became a lobbying tool that has grown tremendously in the last 40 years. The NRA today is scared of the government, when once it was an ally. This ideological shift is representative of an overall conservative trend that can be traced back to Regan and beyond.
Ultimately, like most issues that we debate in the public forum, both sides of the aisle are entrenched and behaving poorly, unwilling to acknowledge their own failed policies and the mistrust they have created on the other side. And if there was ever any hope of someone breaking the tie, the Supreme Court refuses to weigh in on further defining gun rights beyond the most basic privileges.
We see what an inter-connected country we live in where race, education policy, television and movies, employment practices and the 2nd Amendment are all part of the conversation about gun violence. It is incredibly complicated and incredibly hard to make sense of, yet the one thing that does seem to warrant consideration is whether it is worth trying. On that question I answer yes.