America and Firearms (Explained to Overseas Readers)

The other day, I am watching the news on TV5, the international French language network. I am doing this to get away from the spectacle of the impending economic disaster in the US where I live. This is shortly after the massacre of school children in Connecticut. One item draws my attention: The cute, airhead French female announcer (or “anchorette”) states that last year about 28,000 people in the US lost their lives to guns.

Here we go again, I think. More half-assed information that is worse than no information at all. I have witnessed European media disseminating misleading information about the US for more than forty years. This time again, I have to intervene to help overseas of observers of the international scene who want to know about reality and who might happen to read this blog.

I can’t tell you how often I have witnessed the following: European commentators making sarcastic, superior comments about some American event or custom, or some American way of doing things and then, their society adopting uncritically the same American event, or custom, or way of doing things ten years later, or even later. Right now, for example, I would bet you anything that one of the novelties on French radio is 1990s American popular music. That would be especially true on the channel that calls itself without batting an eye-lash, “France culture.”

The tendency of Europeans to copycat the United States is so pronounced that it even affects social pathologies, the last thing you should want to imitate. Accordingly, it seems that the French expression for “serial killer” is: “serial killer.” N.S. ! (Would I make this up?)

So back to guns in America. The French anchorette was just about right about the number of Americans who died of gunshot last year. It’s a little less than 3/30,000 American overall. What the anchorette did not say, quite possibly because she did not know, possibly because she was not curious enough to find out, possibly because she did not really read her source, what she did not say is that 2/3 of these deaths, two thirds, were self-inflicted deaths, suicides, in other words. Only 1/3 were killed by others using a gun or guns. The Frenchanchorette was exaggerating an already pretty dismal situation. Gun homicides by 100,000 people are more than sixteen times higher in the US than in France or in Denmark. The Danish homicide by gun death rate, in turn, appears to be five times higher than that of Romania. Keep that piece of trivia in mind; it may come in handy. (All figures from Wikipedia.) Do I think there is something fishy in the last comparison? You bet! Do you think gun control advocates go to the bottom of it when they observe such suspicious numbers? To ask the question is to answer it.

The European media I know that report on the US tend to be like the Frenchanchorette cited above. They are generally ill-informed, narrow-minded, and willfully ignorant, in addition to malevolent. I am sure there are others that are knowledgeable, open-minded, and benevolent. I just have not come across them often. Perhaps it’s my sampling method that’s at fault. Whatever the case may be, I will make it my job to help those everywhere who are perplexed, understandably, by the US guns situation. Below are basic relevant facts with some opinions attached. I try to differentiate clearly opinions from facts.

The right for citizens to have their own weapons is guaranteed by the US Constitution through its Second Amendment, adopted in 1791. This second amendment has been subjected to attacks from that date and ceaselessly so. The Supreme Court affirmed twice in recent years that the right to bear (carry) arms guaranteed by the Second Amendment belongs to individual citizens. Period. This may come as a surprise to non-Americans. It’s not my opinion, It’s a fact that’s easily verifiable. This may be hard to believe, as seen from afar because a sizable portion of American public opinion keeps arguing against the right to bear arms as if it were not an individual right. It’s more or less the same portion of American public opinion that would like the US to become Denmark. Those are well-meaning people who never ask themselves if Americans would have the ability to become Danes. They take for granted that they would become good Danes if they wanted to. Myself, I think not. Thank you for asking.

Constitutionality matters to Americans. We believe we are a nation of laws. There is not much wiggle space about the lawfulness of a society: It’s lawful – with some accidental departures that must be loudly denounced – or it’s not lawful. Accordingly, we believe further that we face constantly a slippery-slope situation: Start cutting corners with parts of the US Constitution and soon, you will be living in a lawless society A desire for strict respect of the constitution may be the only attitude shared by large numbers of Americans. This strict respect does allow for authoritative interpretation by the few legitimate authorities, the Supreme Court, mostly. There are also prescribed ways for the American electorate to change the Constitution. If you don’t like some feature of the Constitution, I say, just change it. After all, it was modified 27 times since 1789, including 11 times in the twentieth century. Modifying the US Constitution is intendedly difficult but not impossible.

If you demand deep changes to the constitutionally guaranteed rights but you are not willing to change the constitution, shut the hell up! If you don’t like this statement, I think you are a fascist, or a crypto-fascist, or a fascist who has not yet realized he is a fascist (I know many of the latter, among political “liberals,” from my long sojourn in Academe.) It would be hard to overstate the depth of this feeling among ordinary Americans. If I, for example, knew someone who did not share this view of the importance of the US Constitution, and if there were a way to expel him from the country, and if the decision were mine, I would be glad to throw him out personally. (Don’t worry, it’s not constitutionally possible to do so.)

Partisan liberal commentators in the media and elsewhere systematically spread falsehoods about current conditions. A favorite is demanding a ban on “automatic weapons” and on “assault weapons.” Assault weapons that are not automatic are not assault weapons so, the second proscription reduces to the first. It turns out that automatic weapons have been prohibited since the late twenties. Asking for their banning is not mere ignorance; it’s deliberately misleading. (It seems to me that if you are going to write anything about regulating or banning any firearms, you owe it to your audience to inform yourself about basic terms. In such charged debates, there is no such thing as innocent ignorance. If I said “welfare cheats” to mean “welfare recipients,” I would be guilty of something other than innocent ignorance.)

It’s interesting to argue about the relationship – if any – between the prevalence of guns in any society and the frequency of homicide and that same society. (I will do some of this myself below.) However, as far as American society is concerned, it’s largely a dead issue. The horse left that barn a long time ago. The reason is that there are about three hundred million privately owned firearms in the US.

That’s as many guns in the US as inhabitants. My own household is typical in this respect, I think. There are two of us. We own two long guns. In addition, and because I am a nice guy at bottom, I keep a CO2 handgun near me at all times. I am a nice guy because the CO2 gun probably wouldn’t kill anyone but it would hurt like hell at close range.

Now, think of the chaos that would ensue if the government tried to disarm all citizens. Think of the practical difficulties involved. Of course, many, like me, would insist that everyone be disarmed. I am not afraid of a knife fight except against someone who holds a six-shooter pointed at me.

American gun laws seem complicated because they are. The reason is that gun regulation is mostly a state function, a state prerogative rather than depending on federal legislation. States vary widely in the degree to which they restrict the exercise of their citizens’ federal Second Amendment. What is perfectly legal on one side of a state boundary may be prohibited one foot away. Firearms restrictions are not even easy to know. Local authorities, such as cities, often add their own (more or less constitutional) restrictions. So, I have been wondering whether it’s legal in my left-liberal city of Santa Cruz to walk around with a rifle slung across my back. I have not been able to get a clear opinion in five-six years. I suspect the only way to find out its to try it. I am not willing to risk arrest to find out. It makes me bitter than I have no practical way of finding the extent of local restrictions on the exercise of my constitutional right. This bitterness must feed an undercurrent of offensive defensiveness against anyone who says anything in favor of gun control in general. It creates a mood, a negative mood. It’s a burden of proof issue. I think that gun control advocates who are not badly deluded tend to be morally dishonest. They pretty much have to give me some sign that they are not dishonest before I will listen to them.

It’s difficult for others, for Danes, for example, to understand that uses of firearms to which they might not really object are much alive, much current in much of the US, rather than historical curiosities. There are millions of deer in the US (not counting Alaska) against, say twenty or thirty in Denmark, (all in zoos or escaped from zoos). American deer are so plentiful that they kill a significant number of Americans each year, about 200, and that they are involved in hundreds of thousands of vehicle collisions. It’s obvious that, with such bountifulness, some deer will and ought to end up on people’s dinner tables. You need rifles to kill deer. In addition millions of Americans eat rabbits, hares, partridges, quails, ducks, geese, and even squirrels. (Compare with the seven Danish rabbits all of which know exactly when the hunting season opens and that cross into Germany when the time comes.) For all these varieties of small game animals to end in the pot, millions of shotguns are required.

Besides, in the US as in Europe, there are few farmers and ranchers left and noxious animals increase in number accordingly. There are many more coyotes in the US, for example, than there were one hundred years ago, posing danger to cattle and sheep. There are now even super-coyote, large versions of the animal, in the East where there used to be no coyotes at all. Animals that threaten livestock are kept in check partly with poison, partly with firearms. Many people, including me, favor the second method as more precise than poison. In recent years, populations of mountain lions (cougars) and of bears have also increased and spread. In a famous California ski resort I used to know well, black bears are a danger to school children because they are so numerous and because they hibernate under vacation cabins. This induces ordinary people, including housewives, to arm themselves, of course. (What would you do if you were afraid a bear was going to eat your child?)

Violent crime – including crime involving firearms – has been in decline in the US for thirty years. Yet, many Americans, I think most Americans, don’t know this fact or they don’t believe it. The aging of the American population taking place at the same time and the ever-greater reach of raw, alarming news contribute to make the population feel vulnerable in spite of the objective facts on the ground. Since police efficacy has not progressed in unison with this feeling of insecurity, the tendency to want to protect oneself may grow although it shouldn’t.

A disproportionate number of guns deaths and a disproportionate number of gun homicide is associated with young men who are members of racial minorities. Thus, there were 500 public shootings in Chicago in the year 2012. I would be glad to bet anyone – without looking- that 400 of those or more involved both black killers and black victims. It goes without saying that the population of Chicago is not 4/5 black, and neither is the population of young men, specifically. In my corner of the US, the America-born children of law-abiding Mexican immigrants routinely shoot one another in the street in broad daylight.

Political correctness in the United States is now so extensive and so deeply entrenched that the paragraph above embodies a nearly forbidden subject. There are very few public figures willing to state the obvious: The primary cause of death among young black men is young black men. Since this kind of gun killing is often at the center of homicide maps, it’s become difficult to discuss the general topic of guns and homicides even in a general way. There is always the fear that the ugly face of the truth will show up even in such a general discussion. The current domination of the American media by candy-assed liberals does not help. (Lexicographic note for speakers of English as a second language: “candy-assed” means what you guessed it means.)

The relationship between the frequency of gun ownership, on the one hand, and the frequency of homicide on the other is not as straightforward as simple-minded comments by simple-minded Europeans would have it. They usually base their reasoning (such as it is) on cross-country comparisons. Such comparisons are pretty much hopeless. As I pointed out earlier, Danes are fifteen times less likely to die from being shot by another person than are Americans. But Danes are probably as many times less likely to write a good popular song than are Americans. And Danes are about one hundred times less likely than the French to prepare a single good meal in a lifetime. (My authority on this is the celebrated all-Danish movie: “Babette’s Feast.”) Plus, there is a good evidence that Kenyans, on the average, run much faster than Indians. In fact, it’s not absurd to imagine that keeping age and sex constant all Kenyans run faster than all Indians. And I would swear that Indians from Mumbai are several times more patient in traffic jams than are New Yorkers (personal observation). And then, of course, there is the mysterious low rate of gun homicides in Romania and in Azerbaijan, and in Mauritius, all countries that, on paper, make ordinary law-abiding Danes look like maniac killers.

Each country is different. Each country is a product of its own idiosyncratic history. Among the many factors that make countries different from one another, there are some that affect the propensity to use guns with criminal intent. Most strikingly, most obviously, different national cultures are differently open to central government interventions in daily life. I often cite Finland in my writings as a virtuous country. This does not mean that Americans should pattern behavior after Finnish behavior. Few Americans would be able to become Finns if they tried, if they wanted to. (They don’t want to, by and large.) The Finnish government is downright intrusive by American standards. I think that each country has its own more or less distantly gun-related history that impedes meaningful international comparisons.

A strong argument with face-validity can be made about how widespread gun possession may limit the frequency of gun homicide. It’s in two related but factually separate parts. First, a would-be killer may be intimidated from acting out by the fear that he will himself be gunned down. Second a gun wielding murderer who is not so intimidated my be stopped in action by armed people present on the scene. The largest modern mass murder comes to mind. It took place in a country with severe gun laws. Norway, in the summer of 2011. That massacre took place over/ more than three hours. No one who has been around armed peaceful citizens believes the number would have been anywhere so high as 77 in a place like, say, Texas. There, ten or more good ole boys and girls would have taken potshots at the killer and a lucky shot would have brought him down or even simply distracted him enough to save some lives.

A reasonable person who cares about freedom but who also cares about safety for himself and for his fellow citizens is left with two kinds of systematic inferences. The first category is inferences from comparisons between entities that are more historically homogenous than nations but where gun control measures differ significantly. The fifty American states provide such a natural laboratories. (There may be others such as the Swiss cantons. I would welcome any information about those.)

As far as I know at the time of this writing, US states with the most restrictive gun laws, such as California and New York do not stand out for being comparatively free from gun homicide. That’s as far as I know, I am open to good information contrary to this statement. “Good information” may, in this case, conform to standards less stringent that the usual double-blind refereed article in a scholarly journal.

The second source of inferences is “before and after” comparisons of the same entity posing essentially those two questions: When gun control tightens, when gun ownership becomes more restricted in law, does the frequency of homicide decline? When guns become more abundant and when gun control relaxes, does the frequency of homicide increase?

As far as I know, as of this writing, states that tighten gun control measures do not see a significant decrease in gun homicides. Here again, I am open to learning.

As an intellectually honest person who loves both liberty and security, given the absence of clear-cut systematic evidence, I am forced to make up my mind on the basis of anecdotal evidence. There are three anecdotal items that currently contribute to making up my mind against general gun control.

First, in the UK, where gun control is powerful and effective, most burglaries take place with residents in the home. Across the US, where all states have less stringent gun control than the UK, few burglaries take place when residents are present. It seems to me that the burglars’ fear of being gunned down by a resident must play a role in this striking disparity. (This, notwithstanding my warning against cross-national comparisons.)

Second, the last few gun massacres in the US were enacted with legal weapons, some of which had slid from their legal owners to parties that were not legally entitled to possess them. This observation is an argument for a total ban on firearms as it is an illustration of the difficulties involved in enforcing gun laws, it seems to me.

Third, almost all recent mass massacres in the US took place in zones that could reasonably be expected to be gun-free. An elementary school in Connecticut is a case in point. The relevant authorities in such schools tend to be silly do-gooders who intuit that areas occupied by children are by nature innocent spaces (That’s an opinion.) Another recent gun massacre took place in a movie theater the owner of which had pointedly designated as “gun-free.” As I noted in a previous blog (“Guns,” posted December 17th 2012), we are still awaiting a mass shooting in a firearms trade-show. (That’s like a flea-market where non-professionals sell arms to one another and trade with one another.) Firearms trade-shows must boast of the highest concentrations of guns on earth, of course. Even armies typically have a lower firearm concentration. (The Fort Hood massacre of 2009 took place in an Army base where most military personnel had been pointedly disarmed to limit the risk of accidental shooting.)

These observations suggest to me that, other things being equal, criminal shooters would usually rather not face guns themselves. In spite of the real exception of so-called “suicides by cop,” even mass murderers who end up killing themselves prefer not be interrupted by others with guns. I think the weight of the evidence is that the possible presence of guns in unknown numbers and of unknown nature is a form of dissuasion against criminal gun users. This is, in my book, a powerful argument against most arguments that would rely on massacres of innocent to demand most forms of additional gun control.

The price one pays for relying – as I do – on anecdotal evidence is that one’s convictions must be fragile. It would take no more than one single good study to force me to revise my position and, per chance, to obligates me to a u-turn on gun ownership. A u-turn would force me to confront my abhorrence of despotism with my desire for safety from madmen and from evil people.

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